2005's Sarkar proved a surprisingly successful transposition of The Godfather to contemporary India, benefitting from the casting of a supremely grave Amitabh Bachchan in the title role. The sequel Sarkar Raj, compressing elements of Godfathers II and III into a pacy two hours, recalls mobster-turned-political fixer Sarkar (Bachchan) and his son/moderate right-hand man Shankar (Abhishek Bachchan, Amitabh's real-life offspring) so as to pit them against a succession of new pretenders to the throne. Among them, believe it or not, is Aishwarya Rai (a.k.a. Mrs. Abhishek; it really is a family affair) as the CEO of an energy corporation bidding to build India's largest power plant - a project that will, like the Three Gorges Dam in China, displace thousands of villagers - in the exact spot where Sarkar himself grew up. Ever the idealist, Shankar sees the project as an opportunity to effectuate lasting, positive change in the region, but soon finds his principles under threat from corporate profit motives on one side and an organised grassroots resistance on the other.
Again, a good deal of pleasure for Western viewers will come from spotting those elements writer Prashant Pandey and director Ram Gopal Varda have borrowed from Coppola: the handsome, low-lit interiors and monochromatic tailoring, the brooding atmosphere - still unusual for Hindi film - in which violence forever lurks just around the next corner. (As in The Godfather, a car bomb will put paid to one of the key female characters.) Yet the references to Gandhi and Bhagat Singh establish the film as somewhat more culturally specific: a disquisition on the forces at work within the modern motherland - a frequent refrain in the score suggests these to be "negotiation, bribe, punishment, spying" - and those political, moral and spiritual vacuums that the less than reputable have sought to fill. (As Sarkar puts it: "To kill is a crime; to kill at the right time is politics.") It can feel a touch lightweight when set against its source - the 12 certificate's rather a giveaway - but the narrative heads in a direction all its own come the final half-hour, in advance of what seems likely to be a third (and final?) instalment. Bachchan father and son make the most of a thoughtful, well-characterised script, and Rai - her L'Oreal locks tied back in a power ponytail - proves much better than you might expect as a hard-nosed businesswoman.
Sarkar Raj is available on DVD through Eros; Sarkar 3 opens in cinemas nationwide on May 12.