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Ram Gopal Varma and Company: Indian Goodfellas 

Wednesday, Aug 16 2006
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For the American Cinematheque, which has found a large audience for “Asian extreme” action and horror films, the work of the energetic Indian action specialist Ram Gopal Varma seems a good fit. Varma has had major commercial hits at home, including the terrific Aamir Khan vehicle Rangeela (Colorful) in 1995. But these days, Varma is positioning himself as Mumbai’s answer to Hong Kong’s adventurous entrepreneur Johnny To, dividing his energies between the big-budget projects he directs and less expensive, shot-on-the-street genre films made by his former assistants. This two-day, four-film series kicks off with Varma’s brand-new remake of his 1990 debut movie, Shiva (which was not available for preview), but as a showcase for his older genre output, it is gapingly incomplete: The best of Varma’s gangster movies, the densely textured and genuinely innovative Satya (Truth) (1998), is most conspicuously MIA. Remaining as the series centerpiece is the fact-based Company (2002), a painstakingly crafted, but oddly chilly and uninvolving, near docudrama about a simmering conflict between a recessive Mumbai crime lord (Ajay Devgan) and his hand-picked top lieutenant (Vivek Oberoi). Meanwhile, the two films by Varma protégés are a mismatched set: Sriram Raghavan’s Ek Hasina Thi (There Was a Beautiful Girl) (2004) is a close remake of the Hollywood nonhit Double Jeopardy, notable only for an effective dark-side performance by heartthrob Saif Ali Khan (Kal Ho Naa Ho). The best of all the films by far, Shimit Amin’s exhilaratingly abrasive Ab Tak Chhappan (56 So Far) (2004), is a volatile urban-crime film rooted in the uniquely Indian phenomenon of the “encounter specialist,” a feral breed of cop whose tendency to shoot first and ask questions later is exploited by the brass in order to purge the overtaxed legal system of some especially obnoxious offenders. The jackrabbit pace of the picture seems to be a response to the high-strung performance of the great, snarly character actor Nana Patekar (Bluffmaster), who gets a Lee Marvin–style makeover as the hair-trigger vigilante. (American Cinematheque at the Egyptian; Fri.-Sat., Aug. 18-19, 7:30 p.m. each evening. www.americancinematheque.com)

­—David Chute

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