There is a lot of tea in this film. One man slurps tea noisily from a saucer, one draws clumsy analogies about getting scalded, and teacups are offered and passed to friends and foes with the same sense of foreboding. Disappointingly, however, Subhash Nagre – the Balasaheb Thackeray stand-in we know from Sarkar (2005) and Sarkar Raj (2008) – uses a tea-bag. Surely a connoisseur could do better?
Perhaps not. It was with these very films that Ram Gopal Varma, one of India’s most thrilling filmmakers, began to lose his footing. The first Sarkar, while relatively effective and commercially successful, betrayed the onetime maverick’s sudden reliance on masala tropes and hyperventilating background score, taking Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather and making it cheesy and hagiographic. The orange pennants pointedly reflect the Shiv Sena, and these films could well have provided prickly commentary had they been less servile. The second film was tedious, and – made after a string of lacklustre duds – this third film is as pointless as can be.
Subhash Nagre is a lonely don. He’s lost sons Vishnu (Kay Kay Menon, a fine Sonny Corleone in the first film) and Shankar (Abhishek Bachchan, a scowling version of Michael), and all decent lines of dialogue. The writing is excruciating – this is a film where mothers of murdered politicians announce, with much import, that “This is a political murder” – and Amitabh Bachchan, who plays Nagre, is further handicapped by extreme grizzliness and long, seemingly mistimed pauses: Vijay Dinanath Chauhan by way of Atal Behari Vajpayee. Bachchan briefly transcends the material in a scene lamenting his helplessness, but the film doesn’t allow him to turn the rasping Nagre into a real character. It doesn’t help that he sits across from a stone bulldog and strokes his own knee.
Perhaps this is intentional. Sarkar 3 kicks off with a litany of disclaimers, possibly provoked by multiple lawsuits, and one of the first things we’re informed is that “any resemblance to reality is pure coincidence.” I kid you not. Jackie Shroff, god bless his soul, takes this line to heart. As a Dubai-based don called ‘Sir’ Michael Vallya, it is only in Shroff’s ludicrous appearances – wearing mirrored sunglasses as he cavorts around dogs and dolphins, accompanied by a barely dressed young lady who doesn’t seem to know what fish are – that this film comes close to being entertaining. It’s nonsense, of course, but at least the Shroff sequences appear aware. The rest is as moronic, but masquerades otherwise.
The second film left us with Aishwarya Rai in charge of the family, but, without a mention of the character, Sarkar 3 takes it from the top and starts riffing on The Godfather all over again: an unsavoury fellow offers an unsavoury deal to Sarkar, which he rebuffs, resulting in much bloodshed. Sarkar now has a grandson, Shivaji (played by Amit Sadh, trying atrociously to ape Bachchan), and he’s a handful. Sarkar had Shivaji’s father killed (Kay Kay was both Sonny and Fredo, honestly) and Shivaji’s girlfriend (Yami Gautam) shares similarly paternal anti-Sarkar baggage. The story is further cluttered by assorted henchmen and scumbags, politicians and opportunists, each involved in some childish stratagem, setting the stage for many a double-cross.
It isn’t all bad. There is a unique overhead shot of the Mumbai Metro, and one where the camera glides smoothly across a long dinner table as if to eavesdrop on a conversation. Manoj Bajpayee is in fine form, bringing an interesting sliminess to his movements. Finally, as an outsized photograph taking up much of Sarkar’s sitting room, Abhishek Bachchan delivers one of his best performances in a long while.
These tiny mercies are drowned out by Sarkar 3’s ear-ravaging background score, which bellows ‘Govinda Govinda Govinda’ so frequently it appears Mr Varma is intent on giving the dancing hero of the nineties an unforgiving case of the hiccups.
The plotting is oafish, the character motivations are boringly shallow, and there seems to have been a catastrophic misreading of what palace politics entail. Bajpayee, Bachchan and Ronit Roy are wasted, but have it better than the women. The great Rohini Hattangadi is given nothing to do and vanishes midway through, while Yami Gautam appears incredibly vacuous, the actress perhaps unaware what to do because she doesn’t usually get to stay alive and unharmed in her films.
I do hope this is the end of the Sarkar saga. We know Varma, with his incredible lack of self-importance and startling disregard for legacy, can make a sequel to anything. I wish merely for there to be some offers even he would refuse.