So here’s the skinny. Ramgopal Varma used to be respected filmmaker whose movies invariably released with huge anticipation. Much of the frenzy had to do with some stellar works Varma made earlier (Satya, Raat, Company, Sarkar). Having nearly unlimited resources and access to the best and brightest talent, alas, has not recently translated into entertaining movies from Varma. A case in point, Varma’s disjointed, political-criminal nexus-spanning and confusing Department is nothing short of a train wreck with no passengers.
What appears as a hastily devised plot features Nilesh Girkar’s story and screenplay that teeter-totters between extremes. There are numerous plot elements. There is the mafia using bribery and extortion to infiltrate Mumbai police. There is Inspector Bhosle (Dutt) on the verge of cracking a bent column within the department with the help of dedicated underling Inspector Shivnarayan (Dagubatti). There is a know-it-all politician (Bachchan) who may be pulling the strings behind the scenes. Not a single plot element touches on anything that Varma has not previously triangulated on in Satya, Sarkar, Rakht Charitra or Company.
At the other extreme, there are some unintentionally unsettling camera angles. There are extended portions of Department that appear as if there is no cameraman behind the lens.
The actors walk in and out in front of the camera. This resulted in spell-binding results for Varma previously. Varma’s Raat set a new standard of the Hindi supernatural thriller that employed a convincing ankle-level perspective of a sinister, unseen entity crossing a street at twilight to haunt an otherwise bland neighborhood.
No such luck here. At best, some scenes convey a POV of a grainy, hand-held secret cam used to nab swindlers red-handed at their own game. At worst, and most of Department falls in this category, these scenes impart an AWOL film-making crew demonstrating a third-rate attempt at recreating the vertigo-inducing camera angles that made Hollywood entry The Blair Witch Project an international phenomenon.
Bachchan’s megastar rep is in no small part due to his uncanny onscreen ability to react to something, anything. In Sholay, there was the criminal past, a taboo-defying attraction to a young widow and a dastardly villain. In Deewar, there was the scourge of poverty and low-status family history. In Trishul, there was the burden of illegitimate birth and Agneepath and Aaj Ka Arjun both had the standby land grabbing robber baron to fend off.
Department is an uphill battle for Bachchan’s character. Bachchan’s unscrupulous, fat-cat politician has nothing left to conquer. He can spout off the exact price of his next political vote which, incidentally, is permanently out for bidding by corrupt captains of free enterprise. Having attained this hollow crown, Bachchan’s character is reduced to a one-dimensional, dhoti-wearing, overpriced goon that is only a shadow of the extraordinary histrionics Bachchan is capable of. Dutt’s half-hearted, uncharacteristically pudgy and smug police chief is no help.
Loud, contrived and anemic, Department limps through an unmitigated, drawn out, two-hours-too-long and downward spiraling battle between Varma’s ego versus creativity.
Sadly, the ego out-muscles any shred of creativity. Despite taking directorial credits, there is zippo evidence that the former-great filmmaker Varma we remember appeared even anywhere near the making of Department. The missing director report that has been in the making for some time can now be filed with the entertainment gods. The gods are not happy.
Globe trekker, aesthete, photographer, ski bum, film buff, and commentator Aniruddh Chawda writes from Milwaukee.