Everything you think you know about Bollywood—if you are unaware of Ram Gopal Varma—is wrong. In an industry best known for its song-and-dance extravaganzas Varma has become Bollywood’s biggest director with crime flicks and horror movies devoid of flashy production numbers. Bollywood movies exist to package their megastars and films can take years to complete, depending on the workload of the title celebrity. Varma either directs or produces three or more movies per year and if no big stars are available he takes second-tier talent, actors from the Telugu industry (a Southern Indian film-production nexus known for its grittiness and economy), or a fresh face plucked off the streets. More often than not he gets a career-making performance out of them; even today, character actor Manoj Bajpai is known as Bhiku Mhatre, the volcanic gangster from Varma’s Satya (98). Yet while Varma’s one of Bollywood’s most successful name-brand directors, he’s not even from Bollywood, which, don’t forget, is just the largest of the country’s seven centers of film production. For 10 years Bollywood has depended on its Southern sisters for fresh talent and Varma has been its most lucrative import.

Varma claims that everything a film director needs to know can be learned in 24 hours, and he proved his point at age 28 with his first movie, Shiva (90). A civil-engineering student turned video-store owner, Varma pitched his tale of a college kid who’s a street fighting prodigy to Telugu actor, Nagarjuna, who agreed to produce and star. At the time, action in Telugu movies mostly featured the hero shaking his fist in the vicinity of the bad guy’s chin with a hearty “thwock!” dubbed on the soundtrack. Unsuspecting audiences were stunned by the savage beat down in the movie’s opening scene and a main character whose weapon of choice was a brutal head butt. Shiva was a monster hit.

His second film was the Telugu horror movie, Raat (91), an Exorcist-flavored possession shocker was a flop—it was all buildup and no payoff. His third was the action comedy Kshana Kshanam, (91). Made with skill and served with a smile, the film is a pleasure from its opening bank-robbery setpiece to a finale featuring a fight on top of a speeding train smashing its way through a shantytown. But his Telugu fare wasn’t burning up the box office, and critics were beginning to carp, claiming he was a one-hit wonder. Then came his first true Bollywood film, Rangeela (95), a standard “three-stars-above-the-title” love triangle that hit big, broke him into the Hindi industry, introduced Mumbai to music director A.R. Rahman, and made a star out of its leading lady, Urmila Matondkar.

Rangeela’s story doesn’t stand out but its style sizzles—audiences gobbled up Varma’s sophisticated visual storytelling and Rahman’s propulsive beats. Urmila’s pneumatic curves didn’t hurt either, and her swivel-licious performance put her stalled career back in gear. The film was top quality but nonetheless a conventional Hindi movie—and Varma’s best films come out of friction with, not adherence to, Bollywood conventions. The family unit is sacrosanct in Bollywood, and almost all its films are about reuniting families and affirming family values. An orphan in Bollywood is either a mutilated freak or a lost child whose family is waiting in the next reel for a reunion. In Rangeela, Urmila’s mother remarks, “Most orphans go berserk without their parents.” Satya (98), Varma’s next big success, would provide exactly the kind of crazed orphan Bollywood mothers fear.

A long, dark Steadicam trawl through the heart of Mumbai’s darkness, Satya starred a minor league Telugu actor named Chakravarthi as Satya, a rootless orphaned adult with dead eyes and a scraggly beard who moves to Mumbai, gets framed, and is thrown into prison in the opening scenes. There he meets Bhiku Mhatre (Manoj Bajpai), a loving father and mercurial gang leader who’s destined to become an enduring Bollywood icon on the scale of Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle. The two fight, bond, and when they get out of prison, Satya becomes Bhiku’s right-hand man.

In Satya, as in Company (02) and Sarkar (05), the two other movies that would form Varma’s career-defining crime trilogy, cops and criminals are nothing more than rival gangs, and beneath the thin veneer of everyday life lurks the seething corruption that makes the world go round. In an early scene, Satya’s torture of a rival gang member is interrupted when he spots the object of his affections, Vidya (Urmila Matondkar), out the window. He races outside, flirts with her, comes back inside, gets razzed by his pals, and then they kill their victim under the camera’s nonjudgmental gaze. Varma’s criminals are just ordinary people trying to make a living: in Satya they are the underclass, in Company they’re middle-class merchants, and in Sarkar they’re from the upper classes. Their gangs are simply extended families that kill people. And they even celebrate marriages together—the ultimate Bollywood bonding ritual.

Varma has a Lubitsch touch with violence that keeps Satya and Company from getting bogged down in sin. An imprisoned Bhiku Mhatre is told by his lawyer, Mule (Makrand Deshpande, giving a performance worthy of Dennis Hopper) that he’ll have to remain in jail for three weeks while his case is prepared. Cut to a terrified witness on the stand, face freshly bruised, recanting his testimony. In Company the comedy has curdled into irony but it informs the entire film, from a gangster manically debating under his breath the pros and cons of killing someone before blowing the poor sap away, to a portrait of movie industry professionals as simpering invertebrates who insist to hardened criminals that their latest picture, “is not a love story . . . but a love saga.”

All three movies portray the film industry as a personal playpen for Mafia dons, reaffirming the popular perception that Bollywood is run by gangsters. In Company, Chandu (Vivek Oberoi) is a hot-blooded ghetto thug who becomes the right-hand man of Mallik, an international crime lord played by Ajay Devgan, who could be a grown-up Satya, beard shaved, eyes dead, with no family except for his band of thugs. Mallik and Chandu fall out in a farcical misunderstanding that leads to a gang war, and Varma has repeatedly denied that the film bears any relation to the falling out between real-world gangster, Dawood Ibrahim, and his lieutenant, Chhota Rajan. His protests are somewhat undermined by the fact that the film’s 2005 prequel to Company was called D, as in D-Company, the name of Dawood’s actual gang.

Satya and Company both end with their surrogate families destroyed and the last survivor isolated in a cell—a fate worse than death for a Hindi film hero. But Varma’s movies don’t have room for heroism. The India he maps in his crime trilogy is a corrupt landscape in which politicians, thugs, movie producers, and police officers consolidate their power by any means necessary, and innocent bystanders are either pawns or collateral damage. Varma came out and said what Indians were really thinking and audiences were electrified—all three movies were hits.

Of the three, Sarkar was the disappointment; its plot is deliberately lifted from The Godfather, and its ending reaffirms the importance of family rather than challenging that idea. Varma’s sense of humor is completely absent and the visuals are portentous and doomed rather than light and nerve-jangling. Powerfully acted by the father-son team of Amitabh and Abhishek Bachchan it nonetheless feels embalmed.

Varma’s narratives often follow the trajectory of his career: a loner with nothing to lose enters an unfamiliar subculture and carves out a niche through sheer force of will. By the time of Sarkar, Varma’s success had freed him from genre restrictions and Bollywood’s biggest stars were lining up to work with him, but the results were his least interesting movies to date. The by-the-numbers ghost flick, Bhoot (03), was a hit that induced heart attacks in Indian audience members, but boredom in Western viewers. And his musical version of Ayn Rand’s The FountainheadI, Naach (04), with dance standing in for architecture, is all snarling attitude and empty platitudes.

However, when Varma leaves the director’s chair and acts as a producer, his funny, light, and slightly evil touch returns. In 2004 he produced two taut, actor-centered movies: Urmila Matondkar was a woman scorned in Ek Hasina Thi, and Nana Patekar was a hitman for the police department in Ab Tak Chhappan. Trimmed of fat, both movies sport razor-sharp scripts, and rocket-propelled narratives. Varma’s fingerprints are all over every frame.

While he may have left the Bollywood blueprint behind in his quest for more “serious” subjects, Varma’s most radical movie is his most formulaic: Mast (99) is a subversion of Bollywood, disguised as a typical masala. Kittu, a student in Pune, is obsessed with film star Mallika (Urmila Matondkar), despite the best efforts of his long-suffering girlfriend (Antara Mali in her first major role), and his disapproving dad (who calls his son “mad” for his movie passion, an incident Varma claims is autobiographical). Kittu stalks Mallika in Mumbai and discovers that the inaccessible star is actually a prisoner of her whip-wielding uncle. He helps her escape and she winds up living in his closet back in Pune. Many musical moments later we get a climax in which Kittu confesses his love to her. Cut to Antara Mali watching the sumptuous wedding between stalker and Stepford star on television. “I could never compete with Mallika,” she moans, and the movie ends on a queasy note.

It’s an act of cinematic judo to turn the weight of received Bollywood wisdom—follow your dreams, marriage is important, love conquers all—against itself. The film flopped, but it’s an impressive reminder that Varma is a director whose strongest movies come out of his conflict with the Bollywood system, not his total rejection of it.