It is rare for two different films in two different languages with the same name to enjoy a cult status for different reasons.
Till a seething and simmering Sathyaa arrived in January 1988, Tamil cinema had hardly encountered the angst of unemployed youth being cunningly co-opted by the venality of politics.
Till a gritty and nerveless Satya arrived in July 1998, the henchmen of the underworld were cardboard caricatures in Hindi movies.
On the face of it, Kamal Haasan's (directed by Suresh Krissna) Sathyaa and Ram Gopal Varma's Satya have very little connection. It could, however, be argued that the former is the spiritual precursor of the latter.
But there may be nothing uncanny about this seemingly tenuous connection.
For, Ram Gopal Varma's directorial debut venture Shiva (1989) in Telugu was said to have been inspired by the Hindi film Arjun (1985), whose Tamil remake is of course Sathyaa.
If Sathyaa was about educated youngsters from the middle-class and lower middle-class, Satya deals with callow men from the lower class with not much schooling.
Both Sathyaa and Satya are essentially about how the entrenched political system connives the vulnerable youth and their unquiet about their future into street violence from which there is no redemption. The two flicks showed violence and gore in ways that were not seen before in Indian screens before them.
In both the movies, the titular hero being bearded can be no coincidence. It is the gristling facial hair of defiance against a system that doesn't value sincere guys with legitimate dreams for their future.
Their names Sathyaa or stand for the same sentiments: Loyalty and truth. Both are trusting and trustworthy, and eventually that leads to their downfall.
Study In Contrast, Too
If you will allow a certain indulgence in reading, the way the two names are spelt is in itself revealing of their inner personality: Sathyaa, with its double vowel in the end, brings a more in-your-face righteousness.
Sathyaa is short for Sathyamoorthy, a name that is almost a title redolent of justice and honour.
Satya, on the other hand, is taciturn, both in words and emotions. His name is no contraction, it is minimalist befitting a lone wolf who has no back story of a family or anything.
There is an element of caste and class too here in the difference of their personalities and spelling.
The two films also hold a truthful mirror to the weltanschauung to the decades they belong to — the late 1980s and late 1990s India respectively.
Sathyaa's world, despite the underlying crackling desire to break free, is still conservative, where smoking itself is done from behind small shops of the middle-class locality. One side character has liquor inside his shop after lowering the shutter.
But by the 1990s, economic globalisation had liberated India, and in Satya even drinking is fun and not done behind the curtains.
The women are less coy, and are not afraid to let slip an expletive or slap their men. But make no mistake about it, despite the songs and dances, the two films drip with the so-called alpha male spirit.
Sathyaa retains his morality all through and his violence is for safe-guarding the family, friends and for the goodness of the society. He becomes an unwitting pawn in high stakes political chess.
Satya draws blood more in self-preservation and vengeful attacks. It is a world where if you don't draw the sword first, you won't survive the night.
The preponderance of guns and more blood in Satya is also reflective of India where riots, terrorist explosions and bloodshed had become more notorious. The tone of the politicians are also interesting.
In Sathyaa, even if they are venal and vile, they are sweet-talking and outwardly suave. In the time of Satya, they become more crude and coarse, both in language and its tone.
The first time Sathyaa gets into a fight is also quite revealing. He is standing with his friends in the queue at the ration shop and sees a helpless man being beaten up by a bunch of goons.
Unable to stand the atrocity committed on a lowly streetside fruit-seller, Sathyaa, first bites his lips underneath the bushy moustache, but soon breaks free from the queue and attacks the malcontents black and blue.
Sathyaa even snatches a knife from the nearby vegetable shopkeeper, but is overpowered by his own friends who try to cool and drum sense into him.
Satya is threatened at knife-point by a lackey of a local dada. But he is unfazed, and in a quick sleight of hand uses the knife of his attacker to cut his face in a signal show of blood-thirsty bravura.
Satya's ways suggest that he is not new to violence. But it is just that we don't know his past. Revealing, nobody tries to pacify Satya as everyone kind of staggers back, and he walks away.
The Before And After Of Sathyaa And Satya
Sathyaa till the end never crosses over to the dark side, as it were. His inner dignity and honour is intact.
In the climax, he sits unbowed, with a fight scar right between his eyebrows looking like the third eye, a nominal Shiva, the destroyer of the evil forces.
No such vindication for Satya as he lies in a pool of blood after taking in the bullets of the police.
Till Sathyaa, films of unemployed youths in Tamil were sentimental and maudlin. Movies like Varumaiyin Neram Sivappu (1980), Nizhalgal (1980) and Palaivana Solai (1981) dealt with from an emotional, conformist angle. In Sathyaa, it all kind of spilled over, giving it a moral force like never seen before.
Movies on underworld gangsters in Hindi prior to Satya, the ones like Don (1978) and Parinda (1989) had a glamour feel and more about the men who become the don, as it were.
Satya was all about the lowly lackeys who carry out the orders from the top, the men whose death and destruction are merely a footnote in the story of gang wars.
After Sathyaa and Satya, films of their genre have not been the same. That is the hallmark of good cinema.
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