Ram Gopal Varma (RGV) is like marmite! You will either love it, or hate it! But he is also a maverick who seldom cares about box office collections, or sticking to formula filmmaking and makes the films he wants to make. For many this has resulted in his films being part of their ‘all time favorite film lists’. So which category will Department fall into? Will you love it? Or will you hate it?
The man who has excelled with directing underworld and gangster films (Satya, Company) now brings you Department, starring Amitabh Bachchan, Sanjay Dutt and Rana Daggubati in principle roles. The whole genre by nature is limiting and can be one dimensional, even in Hollywood only once in a while does a really good gangster film come along. So my expectations are limited from the outset and the benchmark for me is RGV’s own films of the same genre.
What I do want to focus on for this review in particular is the filmmaking process behind Department. This is the bit most of the other reviews have ignored, but which makes Department an interesting proposition. We quoted RGV on Bollyspice earlier this week saying “It has been shot in multiple formats with 5D, 7D, Lumix, Gopro Sony Nx5 and 60D….I haven’t used any lighting while shooting Department…It was shot in 80 days, by six 20-year-old still photography and visual effects students who had never set their foot inside a movie set.” This is the yardstick by which I will review Department, from a point of view that encompasses the new techniques and cameras he used to present his story and characters.
Firstly a quick outline of the story and the various aspects of the film. Government creates a special Department within the Mumbai police force that is empowered to go beyond the law to eliminate members of the underworld. However internal corruption, vested interests and double crossings all mean that it will not be an easy task.
Performances – Rarely does someone come in with a storming or alternative performance in the underworld genre, examples being Manoj Bajipai in Satya, or Vivek Oberoi in Company. Although much was written about Amitabh Bachchan using his Vijay Deenath Chauhan voice in Department, owing to a cold initially, sadly his role or performance is nothing of the sort. Instead there were shades of his Gabbar Singh from RGV’s Aag and the look reminds you of Sarkar! Sanjay Dutt has played a role of a cop umpteen times and again as the role is nothing special or different, he cakewalks through. Much has been written about Rana Duggubati and his performance being a great leap for his career. Although he performed well, the same performance could have easily been given by a number of actors, for example Randeep Hooda.
Script – Conceptually the idea was sound and has been done many times in Hollywood also. In fact Gangster Squad, releasing later this year has a similar premise and stars a number of top actors. However, the screenplay, characterisations, twists and turns do absolutely no justice to the concept. Not only that, a number of unwarranted songs and a surprisingly short running time, actually ruin the proceedings further. Instead all we are subjected to is one fight scene after another and a few dialogue heavy confrontations between the key protagonists.
Directing – RGV has been one of the pioneers of the underworld genre, delivering some great stories and extracting some fine performances, but this is one film he added no value to. It is just a standard affair and although one can appreciate the attraction of taking great shots, one can also ask why such an accomplished director needs to experiment on such a large canvas, with big stars, without delivering a solid product at the same time? Department could have easily been given completely to the 20 year old students he mentioned, to film under RVG’s guidance. At least that would have allowed some excuses for the end result!
Editing – RGV films are known for their slick editing and again the film is kept short. However, the use of multiple cameras, camera angles and cut-aways, meant the dialogue from a number of scenes were out of sync. There is also an overuse of many of the varied camera angles, which did not really need to be there, including a number of scenes that simply could have been done away with.
Now coming back to the filmmaking process, as RGV mentioned the film was shot using a number of Digital SLRs. These are off the shelf cameras freely available to buy for upwards of £500/$790/43,000INR and use the high definition (HD) recording function feature of the camera. The thing which is important are that these cameras and indirectly this film, show us the art of the possible, encouraging any amateur filmmaker to dream and make films on a budget. It further eliminates the often expensive shoot set ups, removing the need for expensive lighting, sound and tracking equipment.
Of course script is always key, as is how well edited and acted the film is, in order to make it connect with the viewer. If you had that covered, then Department shows us the willingness of accomplished actors to work with innovative filmmaking styles and what you could potentially achieve with a limited budget and handheld cameras. RGV has always delivered some amazing camera angles, shot compositions and framing, but without that forming part of the narrative or contributing to it, it all becomes redundant.
Sadly this is the case with Department, although RGV impresses with his use of cameras and shot compositions, the script hampers everything and ends up offering nothing new and is cliched in parts. What I would like to see is other filmmakers take up this method of filmmaking, but armed with more novel scripts. If you are a RGV fan, a fan of underworld films and an avid filmmaker then do check Department out, but be warned that it is not a patch on any of his earlier works. Otherwise you can give it a miss.