Varma has garnered the National Film Award for scripting the political crime drama, Shool (1999). In 2004, He was featured in the BBC World series Bollywood Bosses. In 2006, Grady Hendrix of Film Comment, published by the Film Society of Lincoln Center, New York City cited Varma as "Bombay’s Most Successful Maverick" for his works on experimental films.
Varma is known for presenting the Indian Political Trilogy, and the Indian Gangster Trilogy, film critic Rajeev Masand has labeled the series as one of the "most influential movies of Hindi cinema. The first installment of the trilogy, Satya, was also listed in CNN-IBN's 100 greatest Indian films of all time.
Starting his career as a civil engineer, he made an entry into Telugu cinema, with the path-breaking crime thriller, Siva (1989) screened at the 13th International Film Festival of India, and has garnered Varma, the state Nandi Awards for Best direction, Best first film of a director, and the Filmfare Award for Best Film – Telugu. Subsequently, the film was included in CNN-IBN's list of 100 greatest Indian films of all time.
In an interview to Tehelka, Varma talked about his relationship with his parents and the reasons behind his decision to become a filmmaker.
From my parents' perspective, I looked like a useless bum. It was the truth. I had no objective. I was just fascinated by people, so I used to study their behaviour. I was most fascinated by the bullies in my classroom. They were like gangsters for me. They had the guts to push around people, do things I couldn't— perhaps did not even want to do myself. But I'd want a friend like that (laughs). I used to adulate them like heroes. That was my first touch with anti-socialism. Over a period of time, I developed a low-angle fascination for larger than life people. I was always a loner – not because I was unhappy, but because I live away from myself, not just others. I like to study myself – the way I am walking, talking, behaving. My constant obsession with studying myself and other people is perhaps the primary motivation for me to be a filmmaker.
Varma completed BE in Civil engineering from V.R. Siddhartha Engineering College, Vijayawada. Even during this period, Varma remained a film buff, through his uncle. Varma would skip classes often and watch films instead. He would watch the same film repeatedly "just to watch certain scenes which interested him." According to him, that is how he learned film direction.
After a brief stint as a site engineer for Krishna Oberoi hotel in Hyderabad, he put his dreams on the back burner and decided to go to Nigeria to make some money. It was at this moment that he visited a video rental library in Hyderabad. He loved the idea and decided to start one of his own at Ameerpet in Hyderabad, through which he slowly developed connections with the film world. Without being successful as a fourth assistant director in B. Gopal's film Collector Gari Abbai, Varma directly ventured into film direction, with the 1989 Telugu film, Siva.
Rachel Dwyer, a reader in world cinema at the University of London-Department of South Asia, marked Varma's Satya as an experiment with a new genre, a variation of film noir that has been called Mumbai Noir, of which Varma is the acknowledged master. In 2010, Varma received critical acclaim at the Fribourg International Film Festival, Switzerland; a retrospective of his filmography, highlighting Mumbai Noir was staged by film critic Edouard Waintrop, a delegate in the Directors' Fortnight of the Cannes Film Festival. Satya and Company, in particular, were cited by British director Danny Boyle as influences on his Academy Award-winning film Slumdog Millionaire (2008), for their "slick, often mesmerizing portrayals of the Mumbai underworld", their display of "brutality and urban violence", and their gritty realism.
In 2005, Varma directed the Godfatheresque-Sarkar, another super-hit thriller inspired by the life of Bal Thackeray and North Indian politics, which was screened to special mention at the New York Asian Film Festival, along with its sequel Sarkar Raj, which premiered at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival and the 9th IIFA World Premiere-Bangkok, and was archived at the Academy of Motion Pictures library. In 2013, he directed a docudrama, The Attacks of 26/11, showcased to critical acclaim at the Berlin International Film Festival, in the Panorama as well as the Competition section, and was premièred at Films Division of India. The film received highly positive reviews, with critics praising Varma's narrative of assistant commissioner N. R. Mahale, and the discrepancies associated with Mahale's interaction with Ajmal Kasab on anti terrorism.
Varma's first runaway hit in Hindi cinema was Shiva (1990), the remake of his 1989 film Siva. Varma introduced the steadicam to Indian cinema with Siva. Later, He garnered attention in Bollywood with the romantic comedy film, Rangeela (1995) starring Aamir Khan. The film won seven Filmfare Awards. Rangeela was later remade in hollywood as Win a Date with Tad Hamilton!.
He then directed Satya (1998), which won six Filmfare Awards, including the Critics Award for Best Film, In 2005, Indiatimes Movies included Satya in its list of 25 Must See Bollywood Movies. Satya was show cased among the Indian panorama section, at the 1998 International Film Festival of India, Varma received the Bimal Roy memorial award for best direction for this film. In the same year, he co-produced Dil Se.., directed by Mani Ratnam, screened at the 1999 Berlin Film Festival, and won the Netpac Award, as well as two National Film Awards and six Filmfare Awards. Satya, together with his 2002 film Company (which he directed, won three IIFA Awards, seven Filmfare Awards, and a Bollywood Movie Award for best direction, and was premiered at the 2004 Austin Film Festival) and the 2005 film D (which he produced), were also featured in the Fribourg International Film Festival, and the New York Asian Film Festival.
In 1991, Varma experimented with the supernatural thriller, Raat, and the 1992 Neo-noir, crime film Drohi, and gained positive reviews from critics. During the years between his trilogy, from Satya in 1998 to D in 2005, Varma implemented different film genres in his craft. In 1999, he directed Kaun, a suspense thriller set entirely in one house and featuring only three actors, and Mast, a subversion of Hindi cinema's masala genre. In 2000, he directed Jungle, set entirely in a jungle, for which he was nominated for the Star Screen Award for Best Director. In 2003 he directed another supernatural thriller Bhoot on the lines of his earlier hit Raat. Bhoot became a major hit at the box office, and Varma was nominated for the Filmfare Best Director Award for the film.
Bhoot was followed by even more horror movies, including hit films such as Darna Mana Hai (2003), Darna Zaroori Hai (2006), and Phoonk (2008), gaining Varma the status of ster of the Indian horror genre. Other experimental productions of Varma include Ek Hasina Thi (2003), a psychological thriller, and Ab Tak Chhappan (2004), a film about an inspector in the Mumbai Encounter Squad noted for having killed 56 people in encounters. In 2006, he re-made a new installment of Shiva, which was screened at the New York Asian Film Festival, where in a retrospective featuring Varma's experimental hits such as Company, Ek Hasina Thi, Ab Tak Chhappan, Sarkar, Contract, and Shabri was staged. Shabri was also screened at The Rome International Film Festival. 2010 film on media, Rann was screened at Toronto International Film Festival. A two-part bilingual Parallel cinema Rakta Charitra (2010), on the theme of South Indian politics, was based on the life of Paritala Ravindra, and Maddela Cheruvu Suri; the film received praise from critics.
Varma started his career in the Telugu film industry as an assistant director on the sets of films such as Collector Gari Abbai and Rao Gari Illu. His father Krishnam Raju Varma, was a sound recordist at the Annapurna Studios. Varma met Nagarjuna Akkineni at the studios, and narrated a scene to the actor which impressed him. The result of their collaboration was a film on the criminalisation of student politics – Siva. It was a commercially successful film that gave Varma an opportunity to demonstrate his technical expertise and story telling skills.
Kshana Kshanam with Venkatesh, Gaayam with Jagapathi Babu and Anaganaga Oka Roju with J.D. Chakravarthy were successful, Govinda Govinda with Nagarjuna proved to be a moderate success at the box office. During this period, Varma produced films such as Money and Money Money. Other box office hits by Varma in Telugu include Gulabi (1995); Madhyanam Hathya (2004); Rakta Charitra (2010); Dongala Mutha (2011); Rowdy(2014); Ice Cream(2014);and Anukshanam (2014), a slasher film. Varma introduced online auction based film distribution model for this venture, and tasted success.
Varma's notable mainstream works in Hindi cinema include Daud (1997) and Darling (2007). Bollywood film makers such as Anurag Kashyap, Madhur Bhandarkar, Puri Jagannadh, E. Nivas, Prawaal Raman, Krishna Vamsi, Vishram Sawant, and Hansal Mehta assisted Varma, before venturing into direction. In 1993, he scripted the Tamil thriller Thiruda Thiruda, screened at Toronto International Film Festival. In 2015, Varma was fined for Rs 10 Lakhs, for an alleged copyright violation with the film Aag (2007). He made his directorial debut in Kannada cinema with the thriller Killing Veerappan.
Ram Gopal Varma made his début in Television through a Talk Show titled Ramuism. The show is being aired on Tollywood channel since September 2014. The show is noted for its fresh and witty appeal. The show focuses on Varma's Point of View on social issues such as Education, Religion, Mythology, Children, Crime, Death, Anger, Godmen, Woman, Philosophy, Cinema etc. The show is hosted by Swapna, the managing editor of Sakshi TV.
Varma wrote an autobiography titled Na Ishtam, which discusses his life experiences and philosophy. 'Naa Ishtam' was released in December 2010 at Taj Banjara, Hyderabad. Sirasri, poet, lyricist and writer wrote a biographical book on the interactions he had with Ram Gopal Varma with the title Vodka With Varma. Director Puri Jagannath launched the book in December 2012.
In November 2015, Varma published his book "Guns and Thighs:The Story of My Life" which discusses a wide range of subjects, from the influences and circumstances that drew him to cinematic techniques, his successful and unsuccessful films, his Bollywood idols, his relationship with the media and the controversies dogging him, his philosophy of life, and Indian cinema. On this occasion, Varma said "I dedicated my book to Ayn Rand, Bruce Lee, Urmila Matondkar, Amitabh Bachchan, Tori Black and a few gangsters."
Varma has garnered the National Film Award, the Bimal Roy Memorial National Award, seven state Nandi Awards, two Bollywood Filmfare Awards, and five Bollywood Movie Awards.