Even as Bollywood is shaking off the infamy of the garish, mindless blockbusters of the 1980s and ’90s, and embracing content-driven cinema with the zeal of a reunion of long-lost brothers, Rohit Shetty is flying the flag for the event movie.
This article is from the December 2015 MW issue.
It’s hard to know what to make of Rohit Shetty. One assumes that since he appears to have found the recipe for success, he’s content with repackaging it and sitting back as the cash registers ring. He is indeed of the old school that believes the opening weekend is sacrosanct and that cinema is about scale and spectacle. His expansive office in the Bollywood hub of Andheri is a mix of contractions — and quite unlike his formulaic films. While on the one hand, there are expected floor-to-ceiling posters of his films, there is also a football pitch on the terrace. Shetty’s cabin is a revelation. It includes a stack of books, which he says he has read; a collection of hot toys (Transformers, Batmobiles); and a framed, signed letter from Shah Rukh Khan. But, there’s also a sign that says, ‘Fast cars are my only vice.’
“It’s true,” he confirms. “They are my only vice. I have about seven or eight.” If fast cars are his passion, blowing up cars in his films is his trademark. You wonder, doesn’t he tire of replicating the same idea? How many destroyed cars will be enough to make him stop? “I will keep blowing up cars till such time as the kids love it. I make films for them. On Facebook, you keep reading, ‘Don’t grow up,’ ‘Don’t let the child in you die,’ and so on. But, who is working on that? Everyone is busy creating an image. I know kids, including my son and his friends, love all this. When we were shooting Dilwale in Bulgaria, a group of local schoolkids who were close to our location saw our car skidding and they clapped and cheered.”
Shetty has worked more than once with stars Ajay Devgn and Shah Rukh Khan. It’s yet another element in this hit formula — familiarity and star power. Here’s a man who knows his audience, and does not feel the need to reinvent the wheel. Well, certainly not as long as the audience is lapping up slapstick humour, long action scenes, men and cars flying in the air and over-painted canvasses. Shetty does all this unapologetically.
Shetty’s first film as director in 2003, Zameen, did tepid business but he found his groove with the juvenile comedy genre, starting with Golmaal. Singham gave him the opportunity to play with the action genre; and with his two Shah Rukh Khan films, Chennai Express and Dilwale, he blends both genres. “Looking back on the last 12 years, I can say that I have adapted something. I can’t say it’s a formula, or that I really know what is going to work, but I feel this is my audience and they want to see this kind of cinema. I cater to them. I want to make films. I am happy shooting films. I am happy releasing a film and, of course, I am happy when the film does well. I am not into changing the world or changing cinema — I just want people to be happy.”
Going by his no flop-streak, he certainly knows what his audience wants. Today, filmgoers choose the film as much for its stars — Devgn, Khan or Kajol — as for the Rohit Shetty brand. “My saying that would be quite arrogant. It would be filmy for me to say I know the formula. But, I feel that I know my audience’s emotions. It’s the aunties, mummies, dadas and dadis, and I don’t want them to be uncomfortable in the cinema hall during any scene, and that works for me.”
One might think that a creative person would tire of the formula and be drawn towards experimenting with something different, even if modestly so. Not Shetty. “I don’t want to prove a point. I need a good story to tell. Nor do I want to make a film on a Rs 100 crore budget, which doesn’t do well and then say, ‘It’s my kind of cinema.’ Someone’s money is on the line; someone may have sold his house or may become bankrupt.” Just as much as he is the darling of the matinee show mummies and the children who prefer Fast and Furious and James Bond to Toy Story or Minions, Shetty has also had a tenuous relationship with film critics. Popular opinion and the box office collections of his blockbusters are discordant with the paltry star ratings that accompany his films.
“I have no anger against a segment that does not like my cinema. I respect their choice,” he says. “But, that segment is quite small, by the grace of god. I would love it if everyone loves my films. Anyone not liking your work affects you, because a lot of hard work goes into making cars fly and creating the action. The sad part is that in our country, hard work and commercial cinema do not get acknowledged. The difference is that my audience is not on Twitter. I should start requesting all mummies, aunties, dadas and dadis to please get on Facebook and Twitter. There are a huge number of people who watch and love my cinema, but they are not on social media.”
Even as he awaits the release of his next big budget, multi-starrer Dilwale, shot in Bulgaria, Iceland, Goa and other places, Shetty admits he does feel the pressure that comes on the back of a no-flop streak. “Yes, I do feel it, because the stakes are so high now. People will come because it is a Shah Rukh-Kajol film, but also for a Rohit Shetty film.”
Besides being a writer, director and producer, Shetty had a successful stint as host of the reality TV show Khatron Ke Khiladi, which augmented his brand value and street recognition. While his next film project is the remake of Ram Lakhan, he is also slated to remake the 1982 film Angoor with Shah Rukh, who once said, “If I give Rohit Angoor, he will make a watermelon out of it,” referring to the film-maker’s penchant for scale. “I feel cinema is 70mm. I grew up on Sholay, Yaadon Ki Baaraat and Amar Akbar Anthony. I believe cinema should be larger than life. Luckily, few people are making that kind of cinema now, so there’s little competition. Even internationally, Birdman may have won the Oscar, but you would be waiting for an Avengers or a Fast and Furious. That’s the way it is.”
His team has strict instructions not to share film reviews with him and that none of the post-release advertising for his films carry critics’ ratings. His team and him are the biggest evaluators of their work. “After a film releases, we become harsher than the critics. For instance, Singham Returns is Ajay’s biggest hit and my second biggest hit, but still we felt the villain’s character did not work. I think Golmaal Returns is the most atrocious film I have made, even though it was a big hit,” he says with surprising candour.
On the homestretch to the release of Dilwale, does he worry about the film’s success? “I will feel sad if it doesn’t work, but I will start working again. I am a fighter. Imagine you have to take all the thrashing your film gets on release, then you have to fight all that and prove your point. One has to be so positive. I wish the critics would love at least one of my films. Maybe if they came with a different mindset then they might like it. When you enter a south Indian restaurant, you don’t ask for pasta, do you?”
Clearly affected by the non-believers, Shetty adds, “Whether I make a big canvas film or Meghna [Gulzar] makes Talvar or Zoya [Akhtar] makes a Dil Dhadakne Do, we all wake up early in the morning, and we all slog to make a good film. I only have an issue with some of the younger critics. I don’t like their language. A lot of hard work goes into making a film. So, in your review say the direction is not good, the dialogue is not good, the screenplay is not good, but I don’t like it when they make us feel like jokers or buffoons. Anyway, now half the critics want to become directors, or they are writing scripts, or they have become directors who are not making good films.”
As for the stars, Shetty said they come prepared for the brickbats that are par for the course with his films. Not that is seems to matter much. With his hit record, with a string of actors and producers gagging to work with him, Shetty proves that one size does not fit all. And, if you have found the formula that reaches the right audience — and a vast one at that — then why fix what isn’t broken?