Crime pays, or does it?

Ram Gopal Varma’s Satya is a film that haunts me to this day; those who have seen it will probably understand why. The story, the background score, the ending; the film carries with it a tragic force that leaves you drained, angry, and sad; every time you watch it. Satya comes to Bombay, and he tries to make an honest living; all he gets in return, however, is harassment, not only from the goons, but also from the corrupt cops. And he becomes a criminal instead. The “system” (as they call it) fucks him. Like millions of ordinary people who get kicked around every day, he could have borne the insults and lived a life full of drudgery. But he doesn’t do that. He joins the underworld instead. Talent and intelligence that could have made the world a better place now joined the forces that make it worse. You could argue if that is really the case (making things worse) – corrupt and immoral builders, film producers, musicians and actors, and the occasional goon – people Satya targeted – are not role models of morality and “goodness”. But in a traditional sense, that is how I can put it.

Well, in the end Satya dies; he has to. Otherwise the balance will change – the bad would have defeated the good, again in the traditional sense; Morality cannot be redefined. The criminal is bad. Society is good. So the criminal has to die. That “society” is guilty of crimes bigger than those Satya ever committed is irrelevant. RGV deliberately went down the “crime does not pay” road. What if he had resisted that urge? If Satya had managed to run away to Dubai with his girl friend, and started a new life free of violence and mayhem, would the film still be a “satisfying” one? I hate to admit it, but the answer is no.

Anurag Kashyap writes in his blog that when RGV first planned the film, he wanted to place Howard Roark in the underworld – Manoj Bajpai was supposed to be Roark (I presume). But the lack of a proper script and other incidents colluded, and Roark did not make it into Satya. So we end up with Satya who carries around some of Roark’s characteristics (intelligence, indifference, atheism, lack of respect for authority and traditions) but none of his morality, and Mhatre who is not Roark at all. RGV writes in his blog that Satya’s character was never properly defined; the brief kept changing as the film was being shot. And that is why some scenes don’t suit Satya’s character; the one where Mhatre and his wife fight, while Satya looks on, for example. Whatever RGV’s original intentions were, Roark and the underworld don’t fit together. Roark’s morality won’t allow him to kill people, or threaten them, or rob from them; he definitely won’t make crime his “job”; he is a creative guy. Satya, on the other hand, indulges in what can best be described as destruction; he does not have a moral compass.

Why am I writing about a decade old film? Aravind Adiga has won the Man Booker Prize for his debut novel – “The White Tiger”. I have not read it yet. I probably will. For the first time, I might join the list of people who read books just because it won some prize or so that they can tell others that they are in tune with the rest of the world. I am kidding; I don’t do such stuff. Three weeks back, the Times of India carried an interview with the author where he talks about his book and its protagonist – Balram Halwai. In some ways, Balram is very similar to Satya. Adiga says-

Too many people in this country have no access to proper education, health care or employment opportunities. They share the same dreams that we do: of succeeding as entrepreneurs or businessmen, but they don’t get the same solid foundation that we do. For such poor people, there are only two real outlets for their entrepreneurial drive: crime or politics. Balram Halwai is one such man, and he (luckily for us) chooses only to become a criminal entrepreneur. Many others like him become political entrepreneurs and become far more dangerous.

The criminal entrepreneur. Satya. That’s why.

A New York Sun review of the book says-

“To break the law of the land — to turn bad news into good news — is the entrepreneur’s prerogative,” declares Balram, like some irrepressible, Ayn Rand-obsessed business guru. Joseph Schumpeter, the first economist to study entrepreneurship, famously popularized “creative destruction” as shorthand for the way innovation periodically kills off the business establishment and prepares the soil for new economic growth. But the term had its roots in Nietzsche. In “The White Tiger,” Mr. Adiga brilliantly invokes the original.

Satya and Balram (from the information available) are victims of Nietzschean morality – his destructive individualism and the philosophy of power. While trying to place Ayn Rand’s Roark in the underworld, RGV, the self-confessed Rand fan, managed to create a Nietzschean whim-worshiper; Adiga, I don’t know what he’s done, but the similarities surely arouse my curiosity.

Was RGV confused? I don’t know. But the fact is, Nietzsche did seem to have some influence on Rand (read the preface to The Fountainhead), and Professor Lester Hunt says that The Fountainhead is heavily influenced by Nietzsche – Thus Spoke Howard Roark, he writes. Rand, on her part, has heavily criticized the Nietzschean brand of individualism, his “mysticism” and “irrationality”; he is fascinated with power and doesn’t care who gets hurt in the process; he blabbers about eternal recurrence. But the fact is, Randian ethical egoism (rational self-interest), her placing the individual on a pedestal, and her definition of morality do seem to be influenced in part by Nietzsche – Nietzsche was an individualist; he identified two different kinds of morality – the master morality that emerged from nobility (virtue), and the slave morality that is the opposite of master morality (“Master and slave morality”). Rand’s virtues are those that relate to master morality. That Hitler quoted Nietzsche selectively, and that Whittaker Chambers trashed Rand’s magnum opus Atlas Shrugged and wrote – “From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding: ‘To a gas chamber — go!'” (a reference to Nazi fascism – the weak should be put to death; something that Rand never advocated) also points towards such commonalities. Well I am digressing, and probably going beyond what I have read about Nietzsche. Hunt maintains a page on Rand where you can read more about this.

As for Adiga’s book, maybe I read too much into it (I tend to do that) – criminals are not some new phenomenon – but then again, maybe I don’t.

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  • Abhishek  On October 16, 2008 at 5:10 am

    Great post.

    Satya had a similar effect on me when I saw it. Its unfortunate to see the extent to which RGV has gone downhill since then.

    As for morality and philosophy, do read Nozick’s “Anarchy, State and Utopia” if you haven’t. As a libertarian theory of morality and justice, I find it far more satisfying, realistic and accomplished than other works on moral and political philosophy I have read, including those by Rothbard and Rand.

  • Aristotle The Geek  On October 16, 2008 at 10:15 am

    RGV’s is a sad case; but I have not given up on him, yet.

    Robert Nozick and his book, I have heard of; its on the list of books I plan to read. Brand Blanshard and his “Reason and Analysis” too is on the same list.

  • K. M.  On October 16, 2008 at 11:35 pm

    If individualism is the only thing common between Nietzsche and Rand (I haven’t read Nietzsche, so I don’t know for sure), the commonality is merely incidental.
    In a similar vein, libertarianism is primarily a political label as against Objectivism.
    So I am a little peeved why you say that Nietzsche had some influence on Rand (despite her denial) and why you consider yourself as a libertarian. Is there any significant part of Objectivism with which you disagree?

  • Abhishek  On October 17, 2008 at 1:02 am

    @ K.M.

    I certainly cannot speak for Aristotle, but as for my own opinions on libertarianism vs objectivism, you might find this old post of mine interesting.

  • Aristotle The Geek  On October 17, 2008 at 3:30 am

    Individualism, taken by itself, is a broad term because it means egoism – concern with oneself. The term does indicate how that concern manifests itself. Rand put a severe restriction on it – the concern has to be rational; it cannot run wild; something that Galt’s pledge – “I swear–by my life and my love of it–that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.” – is a good example of, as it is against both sacrifice of the self to the other, and the sacrifice of the other to the self.

    Nietzschean individualism on the other hand is unbridled self-centeredness; the survival of the fittest – evolution as the basis of morality to that extent; the subjugation of reason to will. And a descent into mysticism, at its extreme. Nietzsche damns altruism, democracy (nose-counting), pity, sacrifice – ideas that the weak consider moral. He praises strength, intelligence, bravery, nobility, pride – ideas that the strong (the virtuous) consider to be moral. He thought of a better kind of man – the superman – one who would have all the virtues of master morality. But then he loses it and descends into a nightmare world of mysticism and eternal recurrence.

    The problem with interpreting Nietzsche (my only exposure to him is through the extensive commentary by Frederick Copleston – it is good – and through the briefer one by Will Durant), as Copleston puts it is that Nietzsche went through many phases – what he praised in one phase, he trashed in the other – masks, he called them. “There remains no ‘real thought’ of Nietzsche which is statable in terms of definite philosophical theories,” Copleston says. Nietzsche was exposed to Schopenhauer – the philosopher of pessimism – but couldn’t swallow such a dark view of life. He goes back to the Greeks and sees that they were not exactly optimistic people – they knew that life was not a bed of roses – much worse, actually. Durant writes-

    When Midas asked Silenus what fate is best for a man, Silenus answered:”Pitiful race of a day, children of accidents and sorrow, why do you force me to say what were better left unheard! The best of all is unobtainable—not to be born, to be nothing. The second best is to die early.”

    The Greeks considered pessimism to be a sign of decay and optimism a sign of superficiality. They chose “tragic optimism” instead. In this Nietzsche sees the contrast between Dionysus and Apollo – instinct and intellect – chorus and dialogue. The Greeks managed to defeat pessimism through art – “what they did was to transmute the world and human life through the medium of art.” The Dionysian way of doing it was an unbridled one; the Apollonian way was more restrained. And Nietzsche exalted Dionysus at the expense of Apollo, he knew perfectly well what he was advocating – instinct over intellect; naked realism over romantic realism; Greek tragedy over Greek mythology. This is what he wrote in The Birth of Tragedy which was all about aesthetics – nothing more.

    Rand, however, attacks him in the Return of the Primitive in the chapter Apollo and Dionysus, mentioning this very interpretation, and says – “Those who at a superficial reading, take Nietzsche to be an advocate of individualism, please note.” I suspect she read his works on morality first, and only later read his work on aesthetics.

    Nietzsche works on morality include Beyond Good and Evil, The Genealogy of Morals and his magnum opus, Thus Spake Zarathustra. Beyond Good and Evil is where he talks about master-morality and slave-morality, and Rand refers to this book in the preface to The Fountainhead (first time in the 25th anniversary edition, I think). In The Genealogy of Morals, he expands the discussion on morality and “makes use of the concept of resentment”-

    The higher type of man creates his own values out of the abundance of his life and strength. The meek and powerless, however, fear the strong and powerful, and they attempt to curb and tame them by asserting as absolute the values of the herd.
    What we see, therefore, in the history of morals is the conflict of two moral attitudes or outlooks. From a point of view of the higher man, there can in a sense be coexistence if the herd, incapable of anything higher, was content to keep its values to itself. But, of course, it is not content to do this. It endeavors to impose its own values universally. And according to Nietzsche it succeeded in doing this, at least in the West, in Christianity. He does not indeed deny all value in Christian morality. He admits, for instance, that it has contributed to the refinement of man. At the same time he sees in it an expression of the resentment which is characteristic of the herd-instinct or slave-morality. And the same resentment is attributed to the democratic and socialist movements which Nietzsche interprets as derivatives of Christianity.

    Here onwards its all about superman, power and mysticism.

    Where is the inspiration? Was Rand influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche?

    Rand’s early thinking was clearly influenced by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who is most famous for his idea of the “superman” who is “beyond good and evil.” Signs of his influence can be found in the first editions of her novels We the Living and Anthem. (She later revised both books, including revision or elimination of the most obviously Nietzschean passages.) Her journal entries for this period mention and quote Nietzsche in a number of places.

    and A Renaissance in Rand Scholarship

    The single most striking aspect of the early Journals is Rand’s flirtation with Nietzsche. The extent of Nietzsche’s impact on Rand is one of the most contentiously debated issues among scholars. A comparative analysis of the 1936 and 1959 editions of We the Living shows some editing of the more Nietzschean passages. Such changes are also on display in the 50th anniversary edition of Anthem (1995a), which is, by far, the most useful of the special volumes issued by the Estate. It provides an appendix that shows us Rand’s line-changes, sometimes illegibly, on the original 1938 English edition. The first American edition, published in 1946, has some key differences with this earlier version. Though much bitterness toward the collective remains, Rand omits some of the angrier formulations. It is unfortunate that the 60th anniversary edition of We the Living (1995c) did not have a corresponding facsimile of the highly inaccessible 1936 version. We can only hope that the Estate will commit itself to publishing the unedited original at some future date for the benefit of scholars.

    The Journals helps us to consider more formally whether or not Rand underwent a veritable “Nietzschean phase,” as the late Ronald Merrill (1991) suggested. In a final book review before his untimely death, Merrill (1997) argues that the Journals bear out his contention of a “strong Nietzschean element in Rand’s early work.” David Kelley (1998) claims, however, that the book “does not shed further light” on this issue, since Rand never seems to accept any “aristocratic political philosophy, where some men have the right forcibly to command others” (8). For Kelley, the early Rand is at her most Nietzschean when she celebrates “energy, will” and the “rage to live” (9). Yet, there are several passages that suggest precisely an elitist command to obey. At one point, in The Skyscraper, those workers who refuse to labor on a sabotaged, unsafe building site are ordered to do so by the protagonist at the point of a gun (Rand 1997, 12).

    In his Foreword, Peikoff focuses important attention on Rand’s “organic development” as a writer (vii). He recognizes that the early notes reveal a Nietzschean-subjectivist hue, insofar as Rand denounces the masses and calls for their domination by “innately great” heroes. For Peikoff, all of these ideological “droplets . . . evaporate without residue . . .” But even in The Fountainhead, Nietzsche’s voice can be heard, loudly at times, on every subject from morality to laughter (187).(5) Rand once toyed with the idea of opening every section of this novel with passages from Nietzsche’s work (219). A close reading of the Journals shows that Rand internalized Nietzsche in such a way that one might detect his influence in aspects of all her published fiction.

    I don’t think there is anything wrong in saying that she was influenced by Nietzsche. I am not saying she picked up her entire ethics from him, because it is so apparent from her writings that that is not the case. But the concept of a superman, the definition of what virtue really is – from Nietzsche’s master-slave identification, the idea of man as Nietzsche presented him to be when he descended into poetry, I don’t think these can be ignored.

    Yes. Rand did say her and Nietzsche’s philosophy are opposites. But would you then say the same thing about Aristotle – as far as I know, Rand only adopted Aristotelian metaphysics and epistemology; she didn’t adopt his ethics and politics wholesale (Aristotle preferred rule by aristocracy; I am not sure about his ethics). And she praises Thomas Aquinas – a Christian who tried to prove the existence of God – only because of his revival of Aristotelianism. I think acknowledging Nietzschean influence – whatever the quantum – does not reduce Rand’s stature or the importance of her works.

    I last read The Fountainhead 4-5 years ago, and I did not know much about Nietzsche then. I suspect that if I read it again now, Professor Hunt might just be right. If you haven’t read his essay, do read it. He does not treat Rand with disdain, like most “philosophers” and “professors of philosophy” tend to do.

    Libertarianism vs. Objectivism, I will write about in my next comment.

  • Aristotle The Geek  On October 17, 2008 at 5:09 am

    I think I mentioned it on your blog – Rand, I lost touch with, after my first couple of years. Her ideas have always been at the back of my mind, but I didn’t go beyond her three novels and one or two of her non-fiction books. Its recently that I began rediscovering her.

    Objectivism, for me, is four things-
    * metaphysics = objective reality
    * epistemology = reason
    * ethics = rational self-interest
    * politics = capitalism

    Its aesthetics, I am not too sure of – romantic realism is a nice sounding phrase – depicting man as he ought to be but not disconnected from reality – but I don’t know what it means in an “exact” sense. I bought a copy of Rand’s Romantic Manifesto sometime back. Hopefully, reading that should clear things up a bit. I recently commented on a blog where the fellow, after reading AS and TF, assumed he was an Objectivist, and went on a strange tangent about whether it is right for an Objectivist to depict superheroes and vampires, etc. etc. That’s the problem.

    Rand’s metaphysics and epistemology, I have never had any doubts about. Her ethics and politics, I have my doubts.

    About her ethics, its not the self-interest which is the problem – I am a hardcore individualist – its the thin line which differentiates rational from the non-rational. If you remember, I had a major confusion regarding morality at gunpoint. That’s cleared up, but I suspect a few areas remain and those will only iron out over time.

    About her politics, laissez faire, I have always defended strongly. But I have an inherent dislike for government. And although I do talk about a limited government, I don’t know how its going to function without turning into a monster. At the same time, anarchy is a strange concept – absence of rule of law – not something that appeals to me. I suspect though that the libertarian definition (some schools) of anarchy is not that. When asked about how government financing will work in an Objectivist society, Rand simply says its a complex matter that is in the realm of the philosophy of law. She’s right there; but then where is this philosophy? No one seems to have thought about it, except in short bursts.

    Then there is this problem of concrete methods, though that is probably common to all philosophies. Putting it into practice – not in a personal sense; but in a political one. I am a cynic, and given the current state of mankind, where even the literate behave in the most idiotic manner, I don’t believe that any political philosophy that advocates a non-statist government will ever see the light of day.

    Libertarianism – Rand and some Objectivists sure have strange ideas about. Its hardly one single movement that can be blasted without considering what it refers to. Maybe those libertarians that don’t advocate outright nonsense should find a new name for their ideology, but that is a mere technicality. I identify myself as a libertarian purely as a matter of convenience.

    Rand said that those that don’t agree with her philosophy should give her credit for those ideas they do agree with, and then call themselves anything but Objectivists. Unless I make up my mind about the nature of government and the extent of applicability of law, I don’t think I will adopt the label. Another problem is the fight between the two groups that claim to represent Objectivism – ARI and Kelley’s organization, I forget its name. It seems to have degenerated into some kind of cold war. ARI, I am not too happy about. They keep expelling people – Reisman (the man who wrote the treatise on Capitalism) for example – and laying strange accusations. It doesn’t provide any kind of comfort. Never heard the folks at the Mises Institute doing such things. I used the C word about the movement back in December. That’s what such actions feel like.

    The worst thing that can happen to an idea is its destruction not by people who are against it, but by those who are supposedly in its biggest supporters. I would hate to see Rand and Objectivism disappear from the scene because of ego clashes. Hope that doesn’t happen.

    I think I have clarified my position.

  • yet_another_hindu_infidel  On October 17, 2008 at 1:59 pm


    RGV is just another mahesh bhatt in disguise. watch godfather and you’ll know why. satya was truly original though. dark, mysterious and a sad/lonely character.

  • Aristotle The Geek  On October 17, 2008 at 2:57 pm

    If you are talking about Sarkar, then I understand what you mean. When RGV said that the film was inspired by The Godfather, he was referring to Puzo, but he credited Coppola instead; he’s written about it on his blog. The beauty of The Godfather (the film) is that its true to the book; that’s why every true interpretation of the book will seem like its been copied from Coppola’s film.

    I don’t blame Mahesh Bhatt for what he does – the autobiographical “art” films he made, everybody talked about, but no one bothered to see. The ripoffs and “soft porn” he produced, people rushed to see. Read The Fountainhead. Gail Wynand too does something similar – with newspapers; he gives people what they want.

    Rangeela, Satya, Kaun – these are my favorite Varma films; the others are ok; I haven’t watched anything he made after Sarkar.

  • you12  On October 17, 2008 at 3:44 pm

    RGV has more similiarities with Scorsese than with any other director. The hard street life, Disturbed central male characters,Mumbai as background etc. But I think he is yet to move on from Satya.

    But he is nowhere near Scorsese in terms techniques and overall quality. Understandable as he works in an industry where the most unwatchable movies make money.

    And why the Frock did he wanted to remake a perfect movie?

  • yet_another_hindu_infidel  On October 18, 2008 at 12:18 am

    you can find elements of the first godfather movie in satya too. every underworld movie after it, namely vastav, company, d company etc etc have scene to scene – frame to frame rip offs from the godfather movie. vastav was not a RGV movie but then you can get an idea about the originality of the bollywood gangster genre.

    what can i say about mahesh bhatt other than the fact that he and his entire bhatt camp owes this country a public apology. i hope they don’t return this time from filming in pakistan.

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