So often do cars explode in his films that the act of deciphering Rohit Shetty appears akin to taking a wrench to a Scorpio. It isn’t an entirely dissimilar process, considering that Shetty’s films — which are nothing but custom-made star-vehicles created to ferry them to higher towers of banknotes — aren’t known for their beauty, originality or their build quality, but they certainly get the job done. Whatever that means.
So, as his latest film Singham Returns turns out to be yet another smashing success story, shattering box office records while presenting policemen with a lurid version of whatever passes for pride, I have taken upon myself the thankless task of trying to understand the Rohit Shetty phenomenon. What explains this young director’s seemingly endless purple patch?
We begin with Hero Worship. Ours is a cinema founded on matinee idolatry, with actors turning into on-screen superheroes despite non-existent stories and scripts that get magically transformed into blockbuster hits. From Bachchan to Deol, we’ve seen our leading men throw a million punches in slow-motion and capelessly defeat the scourge of evil. We’re used to that. Shetty, however, takes this glorification to a different level. His films are built to soak us all in the forced coolth of the hero; they exist with the sole purpose of making him look, well, heroic.
The hero struts in slow motion, takes off his sunglasses (glasses are crucial to him and his films) in slow motion, thinks apparently in slow motion — because why would he need to be smart anyway? — and walks away from explosions in slow motion. Though crassly commercial, that is understandable: making the star look shinier, after all, is Michael Bay 101. Shoot him well, make him look tough, give him badass dialogues, and so forth.
Shetty’s obsession with his leading men, on the other hand, is fetishism of a whole other degree. The camera caresses his macho hero from every angle, zooming in lovingly onto their tight-fitting trousers and often exulting in the glint of their sun-kissed nipples. He shoots his heroes with the exploitative eye of objectification — the way a lecherous, canny photographer might focus on models cavorting during a swimwear shoot.
This brazen focus on sweaty testosterone might sound befuddling, but only till you walk into the frontbenches of a Salman Khan film and hear the audiences screech at the screen, willing the hero to rip off his shirt. That `kapde utaar!’ war cry they throw at the leading man is more unashamedly abusive than anything they dare say (aloud) about the Katrinas and Priyankas of the world. And, it is of this world that Rohit Shetty has crowned himself the king. So, while his heroines stay almost reverentially clothed, he doles out the half naked heroes his audience demands, and they lap it up consistently and unsurprisingly. Shetty has rather triumphantly found a market for Devgn porn.
He has also, almost single-handedly, brought tacky stunts back in a way one wouldn’t have thought possible in this day and age. His films groan under the weight of long action set-pieces, mostly ill-conceived and sloppily assembled, scenes in which cars arbitrarily levitate and explode without reason. Again, these are things that we see in dumb Hollywood action films as well — only there is (usually) some point to the mayhem there. Here it seems to exist merely because Shetty wants to hurl SUVs at each other and his budget lets him.
It isn’t that he can’t direct a good action scene — each of his films presents at least one or two well choreographed sequences, but he loves to overdo them. This maybe because he’s good at squeezing out the most bang for his buck. But purveyors of shlock have the tendency to go too far; like hacky magicians, they exhaust us with their plastic idiocy over and over again.
Then, there is another Shetty genius of a trick. He makes sure we don’t notice how awful things are by assaulting our eardrums. Sophisticated sound design is a crucial element in any action film — the menacing sound of boots on gravel, gradually emptying machine-gun canisters, a resonant punch to the gut, etc. Except in Shetty land, it’s all screaming and more screaming. Singham Returns might be the loudest Hindi film of all time, the sort of deafening atrocity that stops the audience from reacting or disliking or ignoring, just by numbing our brain cells with high decibel sound waves. Shetty has managed this in a way that would make even Ram Gopal Varma movies sound like a Vipassana session.
The movies get stupider, the money keeps rolling in, and we can all agree that our man is better than all the others who make execrable star-vehicles in this country. But, Shetty’s fetishising of his leading men also makes sure that if the enterprise were to tank some day, it’s the actor who’ll be blamed for not being man enough to shoulder the silliness. Shetty will then just hitch his wagon to a different superstar.