[Warning: This review contains spoilers.]
James Joyce once famously dismissed Proust's writing as "still life", and it is hard not to think of the same term when coming to grips with director Ram Gopal Varma's Sarkar films, which are remarkable in their naked desire to incarnate a cinema of the pure image. The "moving" aspect is downplayed beyond belief, and one is left with something in between the painted portrait and the motion picture. The result is (as I noted years ago with respect to Sarkar) above all an exercise in iconography, in an ideology that has "Bachchan" as its only thought. It is an unusual propaganda exercise -- unusual because it seeks to exalt no particular ideology, but simply Bachchans-qua-Bachchans, and hence does not "point" to anything outside the film in the way that political propaganda would; indeed rather than focus the audience on the off-screen genealogical link between the two Bachchans at the core of Sarkar, the film re-creates all symbolically potent genealogies within the film -- including, in the case of the sequel, Aishwariya Rai as well. The result was a film that was often deeply frustrating, devoid of drama, dynamism, subtlety, or even passable dialogues.
Sarkar Raj is ostensibly more of the same: the dialog remains atrocious (its emptiness revealed when Hassan Qazi (Govind Namdeo) tells his fellow baddies he has a plan to take care of Shankar Nagre, the thorn in everyone's side. "What?!" they anxiously yell; after a long pause Qazi says "Abhi poori tarah se aaya nahin" -- you can't make this up), the narrative just as turgid, the characterization just as basic, and the politics just as stupid. And yet, through it all, Varma has managed to make a sequel significantly better than its predecessor -- that is to say more meaningful. He has done it because the film's meaning lies not in what it has to say about the politics of this or that, but in what it has to say about the law of the father.
Shepperd executive Anita Rajan (Aishwariya Rai), daughter of a sleazy corporate tycoon (Victor Banerjee) wants to make a power plant in Maharashtra's Thakrewadi -- which brings her to the Nagre doorstep, as it seems to be conceded by all that the plant cannot be built absent the seal of approval of Sarkar Subhash Nagre (Amitabh Bachchan) or his son Shankar (Abhishek Bachchan). The elder Nagre is hostile to the project when Anita explains it to him, but as her traitorous business partner Hassan Qazi later notes, Shankar didn't say a word during her presentation to the Nagres. Anita doesn't get the significance, but we of course do: for in the world of Sarkar, power is characterized by slowness, and by silence (the talkers are ridiculous, such as Selvar Mani in the first film or Deputy Chief Minister Kanga (Sayaji Shinde) here. Shankar Nagre, that is to say, is smitten by the project, and convinces his father to go along with it in a dazzlingly shot scene that separates us from the Nagres by a glass table, and pays homage to the famous Bachchan-Prem Chopra confrontation in Kaala Patthar while going one better -- unlike in the 1978 classic, the camera, and hence our glass-filtered perspective, keeps shifting, driving home the point that there is no Prem Chopra-type baddie in the frame here. From there the action shifts to rural Maharashtra (though even I could make out enough Telugu signs to give any bona fide Thackeray a heart attack), where we are introduced to Subhash Nagre's mentor Raoji (Dilip Prabhavalkar) and his firebrand grandson Somji (Raj Shringarpure), who is determined to stop the power plant at all costs. Shankar ultimately brings Somji around after rescuing him from a kidnappers' lair (in a fine action sequence involving two great masala props, fire and darkness; and the choice of weapon for Shankar -- a shovel -- is nothing short of inspired, as Varma makes him seem like a mythical creature, but not so much larger-than-life as other-than-human) and salvages the project. Or so he thinks: by film's end he is dead, his murder bringing Anita and Subhash Nagre together to ensure his dream of a power plant in rural Maharashtra is completed.
The above sounds like the premise of a really fantastic kinetic film -- but this is Varma, and so much of the above plot is in a sense simply beside the point: major events are simply announced by the film's protagonists (as opposed to depicted), and even when the film turns into a whodunnit towards the end there is no element of detection -- Subhas Nagre simply announces what he has deduced about Shankar's murder. And while it might seem unfair to expect from Varma what he clearly isn't inclined to give us -- dynamism -- it isn't untoward to expect him to justify his efforts with material that is compelling. At the level of narrative and dialogue, Varma clearly disappoints. But where he scores, where he is most cinematic, is in driving home the darkness that underlies the dynastic paradigm. And he is most cinematic here because he doesn't preach: he simply shows us.
Varma does so by means of an inversion: in Sarkar it is Shankar who, by the end of the film, will carry on the work of his father. In Sarkar Raj it's upside down, with Subhash Nagre and Anita carrying on Shankar's work. This might seem backwards, except for the fact that, as Varma has had his characters say on multiple occasions over the two films, "Sarkar" isn't a man but a way of thinking. And with the clan (now incorporating Anita) focused on getting the power plant built in Maharashtra by film's end, it is clear that Shankar's way of thinking has prevailed (Subhash is never on board with the idea, and is swept away by his son's enthusiasm, which is not quite the same thing as being persuaded). The project the Nagre clan is dedicated to is now Shankar's dream.
Shankar's murder shouldn't come as a total surprise, given the succession of "heroes" who meet sudden ends in Varma's gangster films: Satya belonged to Bhiku Mhatre (Manoj Bajpai), suddenly felled, and avenged by the taciturn title character (played by Chakravarthy); Company of course had Malik (Ajay Devgan), and while he isn't redeemed he is (as Shankar Nagre is) survived by an older man and a friend. But what is new about Sarkar Raj in Varma's oeuvre follows from the fact that the Nagres are the most overtly politically charged of Varma's gangland figures (they even have their own banners and insignia) -- they are explicitly in the realm of politics, and thus are the only "gangsters" in Varma's films to bequeath "projects" to posterity. I used "they" although the project is of course Shankar's, who educates his father and leaves him to continue the legacy -- aptly, the most shocking moment in the film for me was when Shankar casually refers to himself and his father as "neta". One would be hard pressed to imagine anyone in the first Sarkar using that term (indeed in that film Shankar is defending his father from Katrina Kaif's accusation that he is a mere gangster).
The link between legacy and death reveals Sarkar Raj to be a darker film than its predecessor, and nowhere more so than in the aftermath of Subhash Nagre's monologue before the photograph of his dead son. He coolly sits at his desk (re-occupies, one catches oneself thinking, now that his son is dead) and orders his wife to summon his grandson. This is stunning, and tells us that when Subhash tells Shankar's photo that had he known the price his son would pay for his actions he would have done things differently, he is lying -- to himself, and to his son. For he is willing to put yet another Nagre in the firing line, despite knowing (indeed because of) the fate that has befallen Shankar. The law of the father is implacable in this film, and demands the blood of its own -- precisely why Shankar looks a bit angry when he tells his father that he doesn't regret killing Vishnu, and Subhash Nagre shouldn't either. Shankar might not always get the politics and dangers of the situation he finds himself in, but he always knows the score within the family. And the score is that the father must have his legacy, no matter the cost -- the only way to win is to overturn the game by dying first, making a survivor of one's father and placing him under a permanent debt. The trope is an old one (Shakti opens with it, as does Kranti), but nowhere in Hindi cinema is it presented so explicitly as in Sarkar Raj. Varma's world is a lot bleaker here than in Sarkar: in Sarkar Raj, sons are cursed by virtue of being sons -- as long as they live they must carry on the father's work, and the only way to get the father to bow to a new dispensation is to die. That is, to be transformed into spirit as it were.
Which is as good a segue as any into the performances, inseparable from the film given the extent to which this film is about its cast (to the exclusion of all else), and in a way few films are: this cannot be Abhishek Bachchan's best performance -- the role lacks the human interest that Mani Rathnam seems to breathe into his Abhishek roles -- but it is his most serene, bordering almost on the mystical. Sarkar is more "soch" than man, the Chief Minister said in the first film, and Abhishek here represents that existential calm better than anyone else in either film (almost; Rasheed (Zakir Husain) in the first film deserves a special nod on that front), his more forceful father included (it is this unflappable equanimity, at least as long as anyone isn't hearkening to Deewar and calling his father a chor, that makes Shankar seem like a much darker figure than anyone else in the film) -- the sort of calm that reminds one of the old joke about the six year old boy whose parents took him to a doctor because they were concerned that their son hadn't started talking yet; when the doctor examined the boy, found nothing wrong, and asked him "Well young man, why don't you talk?!", the boy replied "What's there to talk about?". The same cannot be said of Amitabh Bachchan, whose Subhash Nagre doesn't have a mystical bone in his body, and is a far less complicated character -- his legendary authority is apparent here too, and he is most compelling when he gives free rein to his mean streak after Shankar's death (perhaps to tide over his feelings of guilt -- as the film's denouement makes clear, it is Subhash Nagre's miscalculation and naivete that have led to his son's death), but while the charisma is undimmed, much nuance has been sacrificed. Aishwariya Rai is effective in her part, which is principally that of an observer -- her character has its own shades of grey, as she is both unsettled by and enamored of Shankar's criminality (she herself has father issues, which might serve the cinematic function of hinting at and paralleling Shankar's own repressed issues with patriarchy, elsewhere suggested only in Shankar's impatience with the sort of traditional rituals his father accepts as natural), but ultimately the film isn't about her, although it would be poorer without her. Shringarpure deserves a special moment: his Somji knows only one gear, but what an entertaining cracker of a gear it is! The other villains are pathetic and banal, and one waits in vain for anyone to equal Zakir Husain's menace in the first film (perhaps because Shankar seems to have leeched some of his old enemy's qualities into himself). But little lingers here beyond the two Bachchans, exactly as Varma intended, and if one had to choose this reviewer would have to pick the younger Bachchan's more insinuating air over his father's more obvious turn as the most memorable performance of the film. Ultimately, that father-son agon (somewhat more difficult and unconventional here than in the first film), virtual inasmuch as its highlights occur when each is not with the other on screen, is perhaps more memorable than any single performance, and goes a long way toward making this film significantly more compelling than its predecessor.