In the final minutes of Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year, released in 2009, one of the characters tells the antagonist, the latter played brilliantly by Manish Chaudhari, that his ways of business once changed the geography of the industry, but now his methods were primitive. The disgruntled antagonist then later on engages the protagonist, essayed by Ranbir Kapoor, in one of the most underrated performances of his career as the movie ends. That dialogue exchange between the two characters is better than most movies Yash Raj Films (YRF) group has produced since then.
The character from Rocket Singh, played by the late Major Bikramjeet Kanwarpal, another gifted supporting actor Bollywood lost in 2021, could have been telling the story of the YRF group and the releases they have had in the last few years.
Not even the late Yash Chopra, the group's founding chairman, would have imagined that the day would come when Sanjay Dutt, of all actors, would have to pen a pretentious note to accuse the audience to defend the failure of their big-budget release Shamshera. Dutt, playing the antagonist in the movie, stated that the film had received hate, the efforts behind it were not appreciated or understood and that someday, the movie would find its ground amongst the audience.
It is not uncommon for audiences to admire a movie long after its release. That is how satellite success comes to many movies. It happened to Amitabh Bachchan’s Sooryavansham, released in 1999. Lakshya, released in 2004, directed by Farhan Akhtar and starring Hrithik Roshan, did not open to the expected commercial success but is touted as one of the best war-movies ever made in India. R Madhavan’s Rehna Hai Terre Dil Mein from 2001 met the same fate. However, YRF films were not meant to rely on satellite or internet success, for the studio was known for its ‘Midas Touch’.
YRF, back in the day, was not the studio that merely delivered consecutive Box Office hits but one that made and saved careers, and took on subjects that were a societal taboo. Even today, the elder generation speaks fondly about some of their releases, including Kabhie Kabhie, Kaala Patthar, Silsila, and Chandni. The studio was not afraid of picking up difficult subjects, as evident from Anil Kapoor’s Lamhe, released in 1991. Even today, when the brilliance of Shah Rukh Khan is spoken on, the mention of Darr, released in 1993, is inevitable. The soundtracks from the YRF releases of the 1990s and 2000s are still highly sought after on Instagram reels.
For today’s generation, it was the 1990s when the YRF group found its footing. Shah Rukh Khan alone registered four successful films with the production house between 1993 and 2000. Across the decade, the group did not lose a single penny on any of the movies it produced, even the ones that underperformed. YRF peaked between 1995 and 2005 when they delivered consecutive hits with the industry's top actors. The phase began with Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge and ended with Bunty Aur Babli. The stories were crisp, the casting was perfect, the direction was flawless, the music was breezy, and most importantly, YRF had been able to make the difficult shift from the single-screen cinema to the multiplex.
And then came the downfall.
Post-2005, the movies that were able to register both critical and commercial success were Dhoom-2 in 2006, Chak De! India in 2007, New York in 2009, and Salman Khan’s Sultan in 2016. Most movies registered enough commercial success to be declared hits but were nowhere near the supremacy and accolades that the releases before 2005 garnered.
Instead, the audiences were acquainted with many abominations in the form of Ta Ra Rum Pum, Tashan, Aaja Nachle, Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi, Mere Brother Ki Dulhan, Pyaar Impossible, Lafangey Parindey, Shuddh Desi Romance, Daawat-e-Ishq, to name a few. Jhoom Barabar Jhoom, however, made all these flops appear Oscar-worthy. While some of these movies recovered the cost of their production, given the lack of OTT offerings and Hollywood hold in India, they ended up damaging the brand YRF.
Serious critical success was rare in the form of Titli, Aurangzeb, and Hichki, the only movies where the production house made an attempt to step outside its comfort zone in the last two decades.
However, the decline from the top was such that if the top twenty-five movies of the 2010s were to be put on a list, the mention of YRF would be absent. During the entire decade, they could not deliver one memorable social drama, rom-com, action movie, or period drama. They could not even produce one cult hit for the multiplex audience that could rival the admiration Veer-Zaara or Chak De received. Even Shah Rukh Khan’s Fan, released in 2016, could not arrest the brand’s slow but steady downfall.
Only two actors have been tremendously bankable for the YRF group in the last fifteen-odd years. Hrithik Roshan’s Dhoom-2, while resembling an outdoor modelling assignment and not an action movie, has its share of loyal fans. However, the same franchise has been derailed by the infamous Vijay Krishna Acharya, who directed Tashan, Dhoom-3, and Thugs of Hindostan. The man could be seen as being single-handedly responsible for downgrading the Yash Raj brand more than any other individual, actor or director in the last ten years.
The second actor is Salman Khan, whose loyalty to the Tiger franchise has paid off well. Even though the story in both the movies, Ek Tha Tiger and Tiger Zinda Hai, is beyond the realms of logic and intelligence, the actor’s fan following has pushed the YRF group to create a franchise around it, similar to what Rohit Shetty is doing with his cop-universe.
Released recently, Hrithik Roshan’s War is the third film in the franchise, and three more films are already under production at some stage, one each with Salman, Shah Rukh, and Hrithik. For the YRF group, the franchise is their gateway to a grand comeback in their 50th year. Thus, a lot rides on YRF’s next few releases.
The group’s bankability and legacy sustains its clout amongst the distributors, thus guaranteeing it a certain number of screens before each release, but the viewers’ loyalty is waning away. One of the highlights of the YRF movies used to be the music, but that is long gone. The one notable exception from the previous decade includes Dum Laga Ke Haisha when it comes to music.
Their movies are now plagued with forgettable acting, music, and screenplays. Many movies' subject choices are commendable, but their handling is sloppy. In the era of OTT cinema, the group hasn’t really graduated from the feel-good filmmaking experience. For most cinephiles, YRF movies lack intensity.
Another unexplained aspect dragging down the brand is the lazy direction that has become a routine. In the 2000s, YRF did deliver flops like Salaam Namaste, Neil ‘n’ Nikki, and Thoda Pyaar Thoda Magic, but all these movies had respectable direction sense. Compare it to what Dhoom-3, Thugs of Hindostan, and Samrat Prithiviraj were like.
Akshay Kumar’s rare outing with YRF was a cringefest and compared to Jodha Akbar, released seventeen years ago, was an amateur attempt at creating a period drama. From action to music to characterisation, YRF’s much-awaited period drama was a disaster of epic proportions. Aamir Khan’s Dhoom-3 was so bad that it killed the franchise at a time when Hollywood studios were building theirs. Aamir's unapologetic shameless rip-off of Captain Jack Sparrow in Thugs of Hindostan deserves an article by itself.
YRF has lost its way when it comes to big-budget releases. The problem for them is not the cash registers but the supremacy they were once proud of. Rival studios, especially Excel Entertainment and Dharma Productions, have moved far ahead in their choice of subjects, handling of big-budget releases, and even OTT penetration. YRF, for reasons best known to them, are still clinging to the formulas that became obsolete a decade ago.
Sanjay Dutt might want to blame the audience, but his portrayal as an antagonist, a decade ago, in Dharma Productions’ Agneepath, with the Shamshera director, is remembered even today. Thus, best for the actor to introspect as to what went wrong, though an honest viewing of the trailer itself would reveal enough for the actor.
Back in the day, there were rumours that Yash Chopra was furious after witnessing the feedback to Tashan, and he wanted to take back control of the business from his son Aditya Chopra. While there is no way to confirm the tale, one does wonder, what would be his reaction to Samrat Prithviraj and Shamshera, or even Thugs of Hindostan and Bunty and Babli-2 that have added to the series of consecutive epic disasters from one of Bollywood’s most renowned production houses of the past.
Tushar is a senior-sub-editor at Swarajya. He tweets at @Tushar15_
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