How to remake a classic

Conventional wisdom says you shouldn’t remake a beloved and iconic film, but Ram Gopal Varma isn’t one to listen to convention. Or wisdom, for that matter. In 2007, he committed the one and only cardinal sin no Indian director should ever commit: he remade Sholay, the best and most popular Indian movie of all time. His film wasn’t just a disaster, it’s widely considered to be the worst thing to come out of Indian cinema this century. For those unfamiliar with Sholay, let’s just say it’s like if somebody remade The Godfather. It would be unthinkable! Where would someone even get the nerve to do something like that? As it turns out, RGV actually did remake The Godfather, two years prior. The unthinkable part, however, wasn’t that he had the nerve to do it.

It was that he succeeded.

Sarkar opens with a written message from RGV where he calls it his homage to The Godfather, a film that influenced him the way it did so many other directors, but it was made without any sort of legal permission. That wouldn’t really be an issue were the similarities merely superficial, but it borrows its characters, themes and plot structure from Coppola without a single qualm. For all legal purposes, Sarkar is a rip-off. However, what separates it from the countless other illegal Indian remakes is the fact that it’s really, really good. Legality aside, it’s probably the ideal blueprint for how to remake a movie loved by so many.

The most literal translation of “Sarkar” is a person in a position of authority, like an overlord or a landlord, but in the context of the film, it refers to the idea or system of authority. The film is set against the backdrop of Indian politics, specifically in the state of Maharashtra and its capital, Mumbai. At the time, the city was heavily influenced by the Shiv Sena, a real life right-wing party led by Bal Thackeray and his sons. In the film, Amitabh Bachchan plays Subhash Nagre (the titular Sarkar), an influential figure in both politics and the criminal underworld who, like Thackeray, acted as a parallel government. He’s the film’s Vito Corleone, a silent, intimidating, yet at times warm patriarch who does favours for his people, although unlike Don Vito, he doesn’t ask for anything in return. His son Vishnu, played by Kay Kay Menon, is a hot-headed movie producer. He’s Sonny, but with Fredo’s lack of self-awareness. Nagre’s younger son Shankar (the film’s Michael) is played by Amitabh’s son Abhishek. A student and entrepreneur based in the United States, he’s as removed from the family “business” as possible, but all that begins to change once he and his girlfriend come home to visit.

There’s a Clemenza, a Sollozzo, a Luca Brasi, and everyone from Tom Hagen to McCluskey. Not because the film is trying to take shortcuts, but because it assumes the audience’s familiarity with the original text. In fact, a couple of important conversations take place without any audible dialogue! Sarkar is a film made specifically for people who have seen The Godfather, eliminating the need for excessive exposition and allowing for a condensed, mile-a-minute second half that plays out like a conspiracy thriller. Where The Turk Sollozzo had to explain the kind of illicit activities he was involved in, Rasheed from Dubai only needs to imply it for Nagre to understand. The initial establishing shots are almost disorienting, floating about the ornate Nagre residence on a fish-eye lens, but the actual character scenes are downright claustrophobic. You know exactly what’s on everyone’s mind if you’ve seen The Godfather, and Sarkar puts you face to face with those same thoughts and actions, now imbued with a heightened sense of anger and aggression, and it doesn’t let you escape.

Amitabh Bachchan is one of the finest actors in the world. He was known mostly for playing fiery young heroes in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and at the turn of the 21st century, he began playing older characters with gravitas. Here, he’s joined by a cast of equally fiery young thespians using him as a grounding point, all of whom embody the kind of male aggression found at every turn in the Indian system, save for his real life son Abhishek, who plays it calm and reserved. At this point in his career, Abhishek was yet to really prove himself. People didn’t consider him his own actor until Guru in 2007, but Sarkar was one of the films that paved the way. The performances in the film have no middle ground. Everyone’s either quiet and on the verge of exploding, or yelling full force. And while that adds a certain operatic quality to the whole thing, the kind that falls in line with its jarring use of music, it also lines up perfectly with what Indian politicians are actually like. Furthermore, Shankar’s (Abhishek’s) eventual transformation from outsider to leader comes in the form of an intense glare (you’ll know it when you see it!), the exact kind that Amitabh is known for. Abhishek goes from wearing light colours, to black like his father, because in this version of The Godfather, there are no shades of grey. There’s no nuance because it’s a nuance-free world, where you’re either on the fringes and your soul is pure, or you’re all-in the moment you decide to corrode your soul.

There’s a religious reverence for the position of Sarkar, so much so that his enemies seek a Swami’s guidance in order to defeat him. His advice? It isn’t the body of the Sarkar that needs to be destroyed, but the idea of him. Before any attempt on his life is made, the first step is to discredit him in the minds of the people. The religious connotation is matched by the film’s score, one evocative of Hindu chants and prayer rituals. It’s even accompanied by the repetition of “Govinda, Govinda,” a reference to Lord Vishnu, the protector. When Shankar finally takes up the responsibility of protecting his family and his people, his ascension (like Michael Corleone’s) is almost religious in nature. The first of his assassinations takes place in a temple, as his image fades in over a statue of a holy cow. What really punctuates his transformation however is his confrontation of the relgious Swami who begins quoting scripture at him, to which he replies “I’m an atheist” as he takes on the role of a God. He isn’t just ascending to the position of Sarkar. He’s bastardizng it.

Rather than a gradual descent, Shankar’s turn is sudden, but it’s dictated by a devastating decision that borrows from The Godfather Part II. The three hour runtime is condensed to a mere two, and the story takes place over the span of a few days. It’s a film that feels constantly on edge, with violence ready to erupt at every turn, which is pretty much what it feels like to be around people like Nagre. While its stylistically superior sequel Sarkar Raj only has passing similarities to the Godfather saga, RGV’s Sarkar remains the pinnacle of the Indian remake. It combines the worlds of American gangster cinema, real-life Indian politics and Bollywood nepotism to create not only a intense, enticing narrative, but several layers of meta-narrative as well: about cultural recontextualization and narrative expectations, about the conflation of crime and Indian politics, and about legacy within the film industry. As much as Amitabh is Bal Thackery, Amitabh is Amitabh. As much as it’s about crime, it’s about Bollywood. And as much as it’s about subtlety, it’s about that subtlety working in tandem with overtness, thanks to the audience’s innate understanding.

The film is available legally on YouTube, and while the subtitles are horribly literal, chances are the words won’t matter. Not if you’ve seen The Godfather.