By Bollywood standards, a dark and realistic look at the Mumbai underworld through the battle between a powerful don and his vengeful former sidekick, "Company" manages to cater to Hindi cinema norms while feeding the viewer something a little different. Powered by a quietly crazed performance from Ajay Devgan, and complemented by a strong debut from young actor Vivek Oberoi (who's since gone on to star in "Road" and "Saathiya"), pic drew plaudits from Indian critics on release last April and certainly ranks as one of Bollywood's best of 2002. Further fest slots, plus sales to specialized webs, should spread the "Company" word.

By Bollywood standards, a dark and realistic look at the Mumbai underworld through the battle between a powerful don and his vengeful former sidekick, “Company” manages to cater to Hindi cinema norms while feeding the viewer something a little different. Powered by a quietly crazed performance from Ajay Devgan, and complemented by a strong debut from young actor Vivek Oberoi (who’s since gone on to star in “Road” and “Saathiya”), pic drew plaudits from Indian critics on release last April and certainly ranks as one of Bollywood’s best of 2002. Further fest slots, plus sales to specialized webs, should spread the “Company” word.

Movie’s theme (outlined in the punchy, news-style prologue) is that the underworld is run along corporate lines like any other business; the only difference is that, once in, you can’t leave. Journeyman helmer Ram Gopal Varma previously dealt with such denizens in 1998 Hindi hit “Satya,” but here he’s more interested in the rules and philosophy of society’s dark side than pure action. Though hardly new to world cinema, “Company” is a first for Bollywood in its scope and ambition.

Recruited by Malik (Devgan), a senior member of the Aslam Ali gang, eager-to-please Chandu (Oberoi) soon wins the older man’s trust as the mob expands its operations in Mumbai. When Chandu saves Malik’s life from a gunman on the set of a film the gang has an interest in – pic is up-front about mob connections with the movie industry, as well as with politicos – the bond between the two is sealed, to the growing dislike of Malik’s longtime sidekick, Yadav (Ganesh Yadav).

Hoping to get some dirt on Malik that will build a case against him, a cop, Srinivasan (Mohanlal), tries to beat a confession out of the arrested gunman; however, Malik has already taken his revenge by killing the gunman’s family. Tipped off by a police mole that Srinivasan is hot on his tail, Malik scoots off to Hong Kong, along with his moll, Saroja (Manisha Koirala), Chandu, and Chandu’s wife, Kannu (Antara Mali).

Running his operation from H.K., Malik quickly becomes a powerful figure, with legal entities as well as his protection biz. However, when Chandu expedites a contract from an Indian politician to kill a rival but demurs — against Malik’s express wishes — from killing the victim’s children as well, the two fall out.

After a bumpy start, with some rough pacing and a couple of over-edited nightclub numbers by singers Urmila Matondkar and Isha Koppikar, pic grows during its first part into a convincingly claustrophobic portrait of mob life, maintaining the mood even after its shift to Hong Kong. Intermission arrives at a pregnant point in the drama, as Chandu, tipped off by Saroja that Malik is now after him, phones from the airport to tell him that his days as a crime lord are over.

Opening with a panorama of Mumbai overlaid with a crescendo of ringing cell phones, as Malik desperately tries to find out where Chandu is hiding, Part Two plays like one long climax, driven by Sandeep Chowta’s dark, relentless score. Notably, there are also no musical interludes; in fact, Varma originally intended the whole picture to be song-free.

When Malik finally traces Chandu to his hideout in Nairobi, Kenya, and sends in a hit squad, Chandu (in a gritty rooftop chase) narrowly escapes with his life. Both sides, from their separate bases overseas, then trigger an escalating gang war in Mumbai, with complex and bloody consequences.

Devgan unquestionably steals the show as the calmly psychotic Malik, all dead, beady eyes and a code of conduct that admits no exceptions. Unsmiling, and with mop hair and designer stubble, Oberoi makes a strong impression as the young company man who turns against him – not because he sees the light between good and bad, but simply to teach his onetime boss a lesson in kind. In retrospect, Oberoi’s perf is even more striking given his fresh-faced romantic lead in “Saathiya,” opposite Rani Mukherjee.

Strong raft of supports is led by Koirala – a Bollywood actress who can really act – as Malik’s tough moll, and Keralan star Mohanlal as the cop who just won’t give up. Mali is fine as Chandu’s wife and veteran Seema Biswas brings some needed compassion to the role of Chandu’s mom.

Technically, film is fine, with a slightly rough edge, which fits the subject. As well as locations in Hong Kong and Kenya, some scenes were also lensed in Switzerland.

Company

India

Production

A Varma Corp. production. (International sales: Eros Multimedia, London.) Produced by Boney Kapoor, Ashwini Dutt, Ram Gopal Varma. Executive producer, Som Shekar. Directed by Ram Gopal Varma. Screenplay, Jaideep Sahni.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Hemant Chaturvedi; editor, Chandan Arora; music, Sandeep Chowta; songs, Nitin Raikwar, Taabish Romani, Jaideep Sahni; choreography, Ganesh Hegde; art director, R. Verman; costume designer, Shahid Amir, Manish Malhotra, Ashley Rebello; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS Digital), Dwarak Warrier, G. Hari; action coordinator, Allan Amin. Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (Forum), Feb. 9, 2003. Running time: 155 min. (I: 95 min.; II: 60 min.).

With

Ajay Devgan, Vivek Oberoi, Manisha Koirala, Mohanlal, Antara Mali, Seema Biswas, Aakash Khurana, Ganesh Yadav, Rajpal Yadav, Vijay Raaz, Isha Koppikar, Urmila Matondkar. (Hindi dialogue)

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