Satta: The Game of Power  
Producer: Metalight Productions
Director: Madhur Bhandarkar
Starring: Raveena Tandon, Atul Kulkarni, Samir Dharmadhikari
Music: Raju Singh
Lyrics: Javed Akhtar

Genre: Political Drama
Recommended Audience: Parental Guidance
Released on: February 07, 2003
Approximate Running Time: 3 hrs.
Reviewed by: Suraj Das
Reviewer's Rating: 9 out of 10

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Minutes into Madhur Bhandarkar´s second feature, you realize you are about to witness an example of the brand of distinctive and inspired cinema that is seldom seen on today’s quality-parched Hindi film landscape.

The picture begins on what seems like a typical note, with the female lead marrying the man of her dreams, but never once do you experience that all too familiar sense of déjà vu; that sheepish feeling that the shots unfolding on screen were recycled from some trend-setting blockbuster in the recent past. Bhandarkar’s “game of power” is anything but conformist cinema; he is one of the rare Indian film makers who is bold enough to bypass even the most core “Bollywood” conventions to remain true to his own cinematic vision. And the results are nothing short of delightful!

In fact, it’s rather difficult to isolate exactly which factor pushes Bhandarkar’s refreshing film over the edge and makes it one of the best Hindi films in recent times.

To begin with, Satta’s plot is well written and saturated with the kind of genuine conviction and insight we are rarely treated to in contemporary Hindi films. In what begins like an adaptation of the yesteryear classic “Aandhi” (Gulzar) and the later “Godmother,” (Vinay Shukla) Satta deals with the tumultuous life of a woman who is catapulted by circumstances into a career in politics.

But Bhandarkar’s film is a genuine adaptation; unlike with most Indian “adaptations,” that shamelessly replicate and cannibalize their sources of “inspiration,” the minds behind Satta have actually constructively and actively worked with the plots of their sources. Bhandarkar has done much more than re-tell a story with new performers assaying the roles from the original film. Instead, he has pulled the comfortable cushion of gloss and Hindi-film convention from underneath his sources and forced his story into the real-life, contemporary world of macro-politics. And as a finishing touch, he has added the dash of austerity and grit to Satta’s world that characterized the murky red-light districts from Chandini Bar. The result is an almost thoroughly original film as involving and realistic as Ram Gopal Verma’s “Company,” and as haunting as the original “Aandhi.”

The film begins by introducing the protagonist, Anuradha Sehgal (Raveena Tandon) - a middle class woman bent on defying her destiny and rising in wealth and prominence. Working at a public relations firm, she meets Vivek Chauhan (Samir Dharmadhikari) - the young heir of one of the most prominent political family-machines in Mumbai. Perhaps due to genuine affection, perhaps due to a latent burning ambition, Anuradha marries Vivek. Shortly after marriage, however, Vivek is implicated and found guilty of murder and sentenced to years behind bars. In the confusion that follows Anuradha, under the wing of political advisor Yeshwant (Atul Kulkarni), takes over the political career of her imprisoned husband.

Even the most intricately crafted narratives could come off as uninteresting if they weren’t corroborated with strong characterization. And this is perhaps where Satta excels the most. It is likely that Bhandarkar took the criticisms of the flat characters in Chandini Bar to heart. Almost all of Satta’s characters are as real as the coarse landscape on which they are imposed. Every character has a mind of his of her own, everyone has personal goals and practical ambitions, and there are very few characters of the stereotypical, unflinchingly upright mould that we have come to expect from our films. It is unquestionably difficult to keep three-dimensional characters constant enough to make them manageably predictable and endearing within the short timeframe of a film’s duration – but Satta manages to do so exceptionally well.

The writing behind the central role in the film merits special mention. Anuradha’s rise to grace and subsequent fall from the same is superbly crafted, and unfolds on screen in a fashion akin to classical tragedy. In many ways, Anuradha is a brilliantly written tragic heroine characterized by fiery dedication to her own definition of greatness and a fatal flaw that costs her the very achievements she so willfully struggles for. Fiercely determined but unflinchingly devoted to her own sense of middle class morality, Anuradha is easily one the best written female characters to have ever graced the Hindi screen.

Even yet, despite the quality of the plot and characterization, it’s possible that the filmmaking itself is the reason for Satta’s greatness. Satta’s celluloid world moves at its own unrelenting pace, hurtling restlessly towards the fate that awaits protagonist Anuradha Sehgal. The sublime direction never lets up its unyielding pace, the editing is both masterfully effective and aesthetically inspiring, and the musical score is deftly transposed on the simplistic, stark visuals of the film. The atmosphere achieved by some of the shots in this film is truly noteworthy; Bhandarkar’s sparing use of lightning, for example, makes his sets as dark as the undertone of the film.

And all of this is topped off with performances that can only be described as outstanding. Bhandarkar has acquired a reputation for extracting great work from his performers, and the work in this film can only confirm that record. It’s no wonder top-notch performers are willing to go out of their way to sign his upcoming directorial ventures.

In interviews asking about her role in this film, lead Raveena Tandon has often refused to divulge much information and opted to let her talent speak for itself. And it does just that in one of the best performances from any actress in years. Simply stated, Raveena is beautiful as Anuradha. She relates a whole gamut of emotions almost flawlessly, and comes off as a complete natural in nearly every frame of the film in which she appears. Even her body language and mannerisms are spot-on accurate without looking rehearsed. Raveena gets completely under the skin of her character, and after work of arguable merit in films such as Daman and Agni Varsha, she has finally taken to a substantial role and done wonders with it. Brilliantly understated at times, perfectly outspoken at others, vulnerable and broken, powerful and arrogant – her Anuradha is a real pleasure to watch. The long-fabled actress of substance in Raveena Tandon has finally arrived. Having seen her potential tapped in this film, one truly hopes that she will continue working in such films after receiving the acclaim she so rightfully deserves for her work here.

Stage actor Atul Kulkarni matches Ms. Tandon step for step. His surprising role here is extremely well-acted, and after superlative turns in great films like Hey! Ram, Kulkarni continues to solidify his reputation as an incredibly gifted actor. The balance he achieves between mysteriousness and familiarity as Anuradha’s mentor is truly a feat to behold. His restrained, understated work here is one his richest performances for the Hindi screen yet, and it’s easily leagues ahead of what some of the most seasoned mainstream commercial actors could have achieved given the same role.

Supporting actors are strong all around. Samir Dharmadhikari is confident in his debut. His role is relatively minor, but he makes a fairly strong account of himself. Vallabh Vyas as Anuradha’s father-in-law Mahendra Chauhan is full of sincerity, and manages to stand out amongst the gamut of great performers.

Flaws undoubtedly exist, but only add up to a short laundry list of minor complaints in an otherwise solid film. Bhandarkar’s script becomes quite complicated and a bit drawn out by the time the climax rolls around, and its resolution requires a degree of disbelief on the part of audiences. The director and production designer’s thrifty use of color walks a thin line between artistic and monotony. And Bhandarkar’s use of the handheld camera may add a sense of urgency to his film, but it also creates an aura of inexperience and comes off as gimmicky and unneeded in parts.

It is quite obvious from the overall quality of this work that Bhandarkar had a real cinematic vision when he set out to make this film; he had a genuine desire to tell a story and realize an idea. And the result of his efforts is a work of art that will thoroughly satisfy one an all who are involved; the director, the producers, the artists, the critics, and the audiences. Satta is a must watch, standout film close to brilliance - and is definitively one of the best films we have seen in recent times.