Guns and Frames: the rise of a revolutionary filmmaker

Ram graduated with a degree in Civil Engineering from V.R. Siddhartha Engineering College in Vijayawada in Andhra Pradesh in the early 1980s. Little did he know that his experiences in college would later help him make a film that will put him on the map. The film, path-breaking by every measure, soon attained cult status and became subject to analytical dissection by aspiring filmmakers over the years. Elevating the status of the Telugu film industry thereafter, the film opened in 1989 to wide critical acclaim and commercial success getting a 100 day run in 22 centres and 175 day run in five centres. It won the Best Film at the Filmfare awards and the Nandi award for Best Director and Best Debut Film and was the only Telugu film to be screened at the International Film Festival of India in 1990. Boasting an ensemble cast of Telugu veteran actors in the background and budding actors in the foreground and an expert crew that included Thotta Tharani and Ilaiyaraaja, it was no surprise when the film was included in CNN’s 100 Greatest Indian Films of All Time.  And the filmmaker who had arrived in glorious style, went on to make more gritty and phenomenal films that shook the Indian film industry.

The film – Shiva. The filmmaker – Ram Gopal Varma.

It did help that RGV’s father, Penmatsa Krishnamraju was a sound recordist at Annapurna Studios (founded by Akkineni Nageswara Rao, father of Nagarjuna Akkineni who plays the lead of Shiva). From running a video rental shop to later being dissatisfied that there is no solid learning being a fourth assistant director, the gutsy RGV decided to jump into direction directly. Interestingly, beyond RGV’s passion and intensity, what clinched the deal for RGV with Nagarjuna was their mutual love for astronomy. It was a breakthrough film in Nagarjuna ‘s career and he would also later go on to marry the female lead Amala. Technically, Shiva set the path for Nagarjuna Akkineni’s career and life.

Shiva is often credited for introducing the steadicam (which RGV was fascinated by after reading in the magazine American Cinematographer) and hitherto unknown sound recording techniques. The sound design, lighting and shots of Shiva were trend setting and still serve as inspiration to many film students. In spite of the cinematographer’s apprehension, RGV was keen on using the steadicam after learning that it was available in Madras for four years and was already obsolete. This decision later paved the way for realistically filmed chases with POV sequences. After the film’s release, ten more steadicams were imported into India. Such was the influence.

The infamous cycle-chain fight sequence that made J.D. Chakravarthy famous (who later went on to play the lead of RGV’s cult gangster film Satya) has interesting origins. RGV, unsure about the feasibility of such a stunt had really tried to yank a cycle chain and failed to do so. Against his apprehension, he retained the sequence assuming nobody would have tried it in real life. Later when the shot became viral and many fans succeeded in replicating the stunt in real life, RGV was amused that this is how imagination can help overcome the limitations of reality. Like how we keep souvenirs of our past that played a pivotal role in our life, J.D. still proudly possesses the original cycle-chain used in the film.

When initial test screenings failed to interest distributors attributing to excessive violence and the raw presentation, the post-production atmosphere became more and more tense.  It was due to the absence of background score and sound design, reasoned RGV but in vain. It was Nagarjuna alone who stood by him like a rock during that period, states RGV. Later when Ilaiyaraaja was composing the score for a fight sequence happening in a college, RGV was surprised at the use of strings and questioned the same. Raja answered that they are students who came there to study but instead are fighting which made him sad.

The film’s main antagonist Raghuvaran, who was asked to underplay his performance, reportedly studied the Mumbai underworld criminals for twenty days. Unlike popular perception that RGV’s expertise in bringing to life the world of gangsters must be from his underworld contacts (which still can’t be ruled out completely) , his real learning as he says was more from his own life. RGV’s fascination with anti-socialism started early in his life when he admired the school bullies and how they controlled the people and the environment.  Many still argue that the brush between students, gangsters and politics has never been better portrayed than in Shiva. The ingenuity of RGV lies in his understanding of human nature, says Brahmaji who played a henchman in the film. This best sums up the filmmaker that is Ram Gopal Varma.


Written by Nirmal Henry.

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