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Counter Culture

Behemoth studios in the era of pan-Indian films

Print edition : Aug 04, 2022 T+T-

Behemoth studios in the era of pan-Indian films

A scene from Shamshera, which promised a more tender film.

A scene from Shamshera, which promised a more tender film.

Yash Raj Films used to set trends, not follow them. Can it turn the tide?

Yash Raj Films is a mysterious bastion, a cult-like closet. It has a tightly-wound PR machinery, its own VFX studio, its own talent management division that produces a roster of actors it favours, nurtures, and, sometimes, blots out. Directors continue to work under the banner despite producing resounding failures for them—Shaad Ali’s Jhoom Barabar Jhoom (2007) and Kill Dil (2014), and Vijay Krishna Acharya’s Tashan (2008) and Thugs of Hindostan (2018); such is their faith that it is never their choice of director but their choice of film that is bad. Ali, for example, gave them Bunty Aur Babli (2005) and Acharya gave them Dhoom 3 (2013), both shattering successes for the studio. There is always hope. After Yash Raj Films’ Samrat Prithviraj (2022) flopped, Aditya Chopra, the head of the studio, called the director of the film, telling him to take some weeks off, rejuvenate, and get back to work on their next film together.

Yash Raj Films has complete legal ownership of the music of its films—a reason why A.R. Rahman will never compose music for a Yash Raj film, since he insists on having the rights to his music, as any artist in today’s crab-like cauldron should. They are notorious for getting videos pulled off YouTube if their music or visuals are referenced, even if it is cited appropriately by small-time content makers. Parody videos are swiftly taken down. A video essay with footage from a Yash Raj film is a Sisyphean task. In a noxious back-and-forth, the company refused permission in 2013 to the then-bubbling comedic collective All India Bakchod (AIB) to spoof their trailer. AIB came out wondering whether Bombay cinema had lost its sense of humour.

Obsessive invisibility

They don’t hold press screenings in advance of a film’s release; only a perfunctory preview on the morning of the day the film is sent out into the world. Aditya Chopra, famously, doesn’t give interviews or entertain parties or even allow himself and his family to be photographed; the joke runs that he might not even exist, given how he never appears except to write letters on Twitter—such as the one he wrote on the eve of his film Befikre’s (2016) shooting, mourning his father, celebrating a new journey in a different, more youthful direction. The irony is that perhaps he has hired a PR team just to keep him invisible in a world where visibility is inevitable and the job of the PR is to milk that visibility into currency, social or literal.

Of what use are such behemoth structures and studios?

A scene from the movie Samrat Prithviraj.
A scene from the movie Samrat Prithviraj.

I have been thinking about this question in the aftermath of Shamshera’s failure, Yash Raj Films’ fifth consecutive flop, and third high-profile tank at the box-office this year, after Jayeshbhai Jordaar and Samrat Prithviraj. All three films have one thing in common—they were not creating, but following trends. While Jayeshbhai Jordaar tried to rake into life the dying embers of the once-exciting male-centric tier-two social film—a trend which Yash Raj was at the forefront of with Dum Laga Ke Haisha (2015)— Samrat Prithviraj was very much treading the path of the Hindu historical. Shamshera, on the other hand, was trying to pay homage to a certain kind of late 1970s, early 1980s Bombay cinema while milking the testosterone-tormenting drama that has curried favour with what is called the “pan-Indian” audience with films like Baahubali (2015) , Pushpa (2021) , and KGF: Chapter 2 (2022).

The beginnings: Romance and family dramas

There was a time when Yash Raj Films was setting the trend, pushing a wave into motion as opposed to riding it as it was petering out into shards on the shore. The bubblegum romance and family dramas of Dharma Productions came from the tectonic shifting Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (1995), Aditya Chopra’s directorial debut . Realising the importance of the NRI as a paying audience, Yash Chopra set up distribution offices in London in 1997 and New York in 1998. Films were now made with a younger, English-educated or English-aspiring audience in mind. In the 2000s, they backed urban stories, of young people loving, stumbling, moving in together like Hum Tum (2004), Salaam Namaste (2005), and Bachna Ae Haseeno (2008). They were among the first to make a move towards digital and YouTube storytelling, without an infantilising, patronising thrust with Y-Films. Tier-two storytelling, small-town rowdyism, international spy thrillers were genres they rolled into action, sometimes as a momentary jerk like Ishaqzaade (2012), sometimes as a sustained franchise like Dhoom (2004) and Ek Tha Tiger (2012).

Aditya Chopra’s directorial debut Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge.
Aditya Chopra’s directorial debut Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge.

The studio seemed to be a space of producing novel, specific sub-genres, of producing cinema for the pulse of the nation, if not producing the pulse of the nation itself. Cinema has always been seen as a reflection of the woes and hopes of a generation—the optimism of the 1950s, the disillusionment of the 1970s, the Westward gazing 1990s. But cinema has ceded its influence, becoming one among the crisply-edited, attention-grabbing 15-second reels that spits you out just as rapidly as it sucked you in, and the eternally sputtering trending page of Twitter. If cinema has receded in impact, what can studios then do?

When Yash Chopra separated from his brother B.R. Chopra to start Yash Raj Films, the gossip columns of the 1970s were filled with the acrimony from the split. Cinematographer Kay Gee, editor Pran Mehra, lyricist Sahir Ludhianvi moved with him. Yash Chopra wanted to make a new kind of cinema, break free from the looming shadow of his brother. The first film he made under the banner, Daag, was a controversial film, ending with the hero marrying two women. Chopra’s films, even when they were not successful, were emotionally complicated, ingenious, rich, and glossy. “Film should produce an effect, cry for catharsis, to feel lighter, a relief,” he wrote.

An aesthetic of beauty

Silsila: The swirling logic of a manicured film.
Silsila: The swirling logic of a manicured film.

Along with his studio, he tremored into existence the aesthetic of champagne beauty. “Yash would sacrifice anything for beauty,” a close associate told author Rachel Dwyer for her book on the director. He could even, sometimes, sacrifice the story itself. Films of his that are celebrated today like Silsila (1981), Lamhe (1991), and Dil Toh Pagal Hai (1997) were panned either critically or commercially because the audience and the critics did not know how to react to the swirling logic of his manicured films. It was easy to ask—are these films just about beauty? The same, I wager, will be the fate of Yash Chopra’s swansong, the swooning, epic, if narratively distended Jab Tak Hai Jaan (2012). Panned when it came out, though respectfully, given the director passed away before the film’s release, the film was cresting the wave of recasting its hero Shah Rukh Khan as not just romantically swooning, but sexually attractive too.

There were always periods when the studio system was threatened. Post World War II, for example, studios fell like unsuspecting dominos due to expenses and the independent producer and the audience pulling-star whose popularity was aided by trade weeklies and film publications produced a new kind of film, one that needn’t be tethered to the reputation of a studio. But, eventually, the studio system was necessary given not just the need for a behemoth producing multiple stories simultaneously, borrowing money against future profits, but also because of the speculative nature of cinema, which can turn, over one Friday release, from a house of cards to a crashed pile on the floor.

Thugs of Hindostan, directed by Vijay Krishna Acharya and produced by Yash Raj Films.
Thugs of Hindostan, directed by Vijay Krishna Acharya and produced by Yash Raj Films.

The studio system also reached beyond the financial necessities. Professor Ravi Vasudevan notes how the cine-ecology was always considered a family unit, where “memories of Prabhat and Bombay Talkies as households in which a benevolent paternal regard of employees was of foremost importance carved out a social legitimacy for its production system”. So, when people, in the 1940s, walked out of Bombay Talkies to make another studio Filmistan, it was an en-mass shift of directors, writers, musicians, and lyricists. Studios became camps, clumps of familial ties. Yash Raj Films has tried to hone a similar banyan tree-like affection, even as it threw a step-fatherly treatment towards some films—like the ingenious Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar which it dumped in theatres without any marketing or support, making just over 50 lakhs against a budget of over 20 crores.

The promise of Shamshera

When the Shamshera teaser came out, there were two contrasting opinions. One was the groan, slotting it into the genre of masculine storytelling. The other, more forgiving reaction was produced by fixating on a shot from the teaser—that of Ranbir Kapoor’s back as he languorously walks ahead, his toes pointed to the ground as though mid-ballet, his arms in a yawn, letting go of a piece of fluttering cloth. There was something here—a promise of a more tender film, one where its protagonist was lithe, not buff, even as it, largely, would toe the line of the gruff, economical genre. There was a halo of hope around director Karan Malhotra, whose remake of Agneepath in 2012 was not just a signpost for how remakes could sometimes overpower the source material, but also stand on its own as a piece of cinema that is dramatic, nostalgic, even if heavy-handed. If he could rethink a cult film successfully, he could certainly realign a genre?

There is something old school about Shamshera, like how in Ganga Jamuna Saraswati (1988), Amitabh Bachchan’s comeback vehicle, it was the cobra who came to his character’s rescue, how in Coolie (1983) , it was the falcon who was central to Bachchan’s character, here we have crows, the bird that ceremonially connects Hindus to their ancestors, connecting the son to the father in this film, an avian protective bracelet that is spun from one generation to the next.

Everyone wants a Baahubali.
Everyone wants a Baahubali.

This father-son storyline, where Ranbir plays both a wronged father and avenging son, comes on the heels of Baahubali which had a similar cascading generational storyline that was held by Prabhas. Baahubali moved something in Bombay cinema. Producers were finally willing to have their heroes in dhotis after watching that film’s roaring blaze of success. It bolstered both the mythical man and the historic man as genres worth throwing money at. And that is the thing about totemic films. They have such a strong gravitational pull, nothing can resist its moneyed charm. Everyone wants a Baahubali. Netflix even spun it into a web series and recognising how badly it was shaping, scrapped it into oblivion. It is blinding, this kind of success.

Spectacle as the central part of a cinema

Directors like Karan Malhotra, now unsure of the power of their human drama, have succumbed to the braggartly logic of a Baahubali to add spectacle as an integral, central part of their cinema. So when lovers meet, the drumming hearts aren’t enough, we need a whirlpool of desert sand. To escape a prison-like city, the hero climbs the highest point and dives into a glittering well, to the lowest, to find a crack in the foundation that leads to a nearby river so he can wriggle out, mobilise an army, and storm the prison. It is so dependent on producing a spectacle, it forgets that spectacle is merely a cinematic filigree, it needs the base of rooted, rousing drama to emphasise itself to gild. Awe can never be the only thing a movie demands from its spectator.

Studios seemed to be the ones with both the money and the gumption to squander that money on reckless, exciting ideas, underwritten by the success of “formulas”. But when the formulas fail, the fear is, first, what happens to the reckless, exciting ideas, and, next, will the studio always be thumbed under the pressure and prestige of templated storytelling? These questions linger as Yash Raj enters a new year with prestige projects— Tiger 3 with Salman Khan and Pathan with Shah Rukh Khan. They need a hit that will grease their wheels. We need a film that will move ours. The question is, can we get both?