Varma’s Factory builds B.O. hits

Co. to release eight pix in '05; next year number to increase to 15

It a sprawling office in suburban Mumbai known as the Factory (fittingly, the place has an industrial feel with wood, stone and glass decor), sits a squat but well-built man who bristles with energy and ideas. Machine gun-toting bodyguards flank him. His cell phone beeps without pause. There are at least 30 to 40 messages daily from aspiring actors and technicians who hope he will play fairy godmother and transform their lives. His name is Ram Gopal Varma and he is Bollywood’s one-man studio.

Apart from being a critically acclaimed and commercially successful director, Varma, 43, is a prolific producer. His company, Varma Corp., will release eight films in ’05. Next year, he hopes to up that number to 15 and is targeting 35 releases for 2007.

“Entertainment is a product, not an art form,” Varma declares. “If you want more market share, you have to make more product.”

The rules at the Factory are simple. Directors pitch to a team of one — Varma. He also reserves final cut. There are no binding contracts on actors or technicians. So far 31 of Varma’s assistants have become directors and he plans to launch the careers of 15 more by June. The budgets of Varma’s films range from under $450,000 to over $2.3 million. The filmmaker recently entered into an agreement with the Percept Picture Co. to make “Ek” (One), an international espionage saga with a budget of $20 million.

Unlike the Bollywood studio model, at say Yash Raj Films, Factory movies don’t have feel-good family values, upper-class romance or melodious songs filmed in picturesque foreign locations. Varma’s oeuvre is largely grim. His best films — “Satya” (Truth, 1998), “Company” (2002) and “Sarkar” (Master, 2005) are bleak essays on power and corruption. The infamous Mumbai underworld has long been his inspiration.

Varma’s artistic philosophy is simple: “Men are about power,” he says, “and women are about sex.”

Varma’s proteges tend to follow his aesthetics. Whether they are making horror, action or underworld sagas, the palate is equally gray.

Critics accuse these tyro directors of being watered-down versions of Varma himself. Most of the Factory films not directed by the man tend to have short runs at the box office, but that doesn’t deter the filmmaker. Nor has the uneven success rate kept financiers at bay.

Varma’s production setups vary from project to project. He often goes into partnerships with other companies. Apart from Percept, Varma recently signed a 12-picture deal with Entertainment One, a Bollywood powerhouse with divisions in production, exhibition and distribution.

The company will fund 12 of Varma’s films, up to $1 million to $1.3 million each. Says Entertainment One’s Manmohan Shetty, “He is a very exciting filmmaker. Only one of 10 films is successful but we hope to increase that rate.”

A-list actors are equally eager to work with Varma. “His desire to do something different is very appealing,” says Amitabh Bachchan, who starred in “Sarkar.” “He doesn’t follow given norms or conventions.”

Varma isn’t content to just be Bollywood’s resident radical. He encourages others to follow in his footsteps. “I plan to spread like a virus,” he says.

With the Factory churning out films every month, Varma undoubtedly will.

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