Masala is what makes Bollywood truly unique. Think A-list actors, flying cars, elaborate song sequences, seeti-maar dialogues and a ‘story’ that blends comedy, romance, drama and action in one neat 120-minute plus package. Masala is a genre unto itself; one that encourages the viewer to leave their brains at home. When done right, masala entertainers draw lakhs of people around the country and beyond to packed theatres. And, Rohit Shetty is the biggest masala director of our times.
After almost a decade of working as an assistant director (Phool Aur Kaante, Dil Kya Kare and Raju Chacha), the then 29-year-old Shetty made his directorial debut with Zameen (2003). The action-thriller, starring Ajay Devgn, Abhishek Bachchan and Bipasha Basu, is a rare misstep in a career that’s peppered with several highs. Golmaal: Fun Unlimited not just resuscitated Shetty’s career but also launched one of the most successful franchises in Bollywood. In the decades since, he’s delivered nine blockbusters and has been crowned the undisputed leader of the 100-crore club. Karan Johar calls him the ‘Masala Maestro’.
In keeping with the tradition of masala entertainers, his films are ‘clean’ and appeal to family audiences. In an interview to me around the release of Bol Bachchan (2012), Shetty said, “I make family films that you can see with your children and parents. This is why I don’t have item songs in my films. Or, in an action film like Singham, you won’t have seen a single drop of blood. Until families don’t come to watch a film, you can’t have a Rs 100-crore film.” That he knows the pulse of the people is what makes Shetty ‘critic-proof’. It wouldn’t be a stretch to think of him as a Manmohan Desai – Prakash Mehra hybrid of today.
Beyond making pots of money, Shetty’s films have come to serve another important function within the Bollywood ecosystem – establishing or reaffirming a ‘hero’s’ commercial credentials.
Unlike the ’70-80s where careers of leading men were singularly dependent on how much money their films made, their counterparts today are expected to find a balance between commercial fare and those that bring them critical acclaim. Every single actor Shetty has collaborated with has either been looking for a break from an otherwise serious image, or their careers desperately needed a shot in the arm.
Devgn has been Shetty’s most regular collaborator. When the duo reunited for Golmaal: Fun Unlimited, the actor had had a spate of films that turned out to be box office duds. Two National Awards in quick succession meant that the critics loved him and since his debut with Phool Aur Kaante, there had been no questions about Devgn’s box office clout. But Devgn needed a film or three that reminded the industry and his fans that he could still fill up theatres. Since 2006, the actor has starred in nine films directed by Shetty, of which only two – Sunday (2008) and All The Best: Fun Begins (2009) – were dubbed as ‘average’ earners. Apart from The Golmaal franchise, the duo have also created Bajirao Singham, an upright cop and dispenser of vigilante justice who is a part of Shetty’s ‘super cop universe’ that includes Simmba and this week’s release Sooryavanshi. But more on that later.
When Shah Rukh Khan and Rohit Shetty started talking about making a film together, it was meant to be a remake of the cult classic Angoor. But it turned out the maker didn’t think it was ‘big enough’ for them to collaborate on. So, we got Chennai Express (2013) instead. The film came at a time when the superstar, after decades of making everyone fall in love, was looking to branch out and try something different. The Don films (2006, 2011) were runaway successes but Ra.One (2011) hadn’t worked and Khan was back in the YashRaj fold making another romance – Jab Tak Hai Jaan (2012). Chennai Express was an homage to the Khan mythology, complete with a re-imagining of Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge’s iconic final scene, plus Shetty’s trademark gags and cars turning turtle in slo-mo. At the time, Khan had joked that the poster for his next film with Shetty would have him in his signature pose with arms wide open, with two cars flying in the background. The posters of Dilwale that released two years later didn’t take Khan’s suggestions and the film sank without a trace. Not that the two are connected but who knows! The failure of Dilwale though, was one of those rare anomalies in Shetty’s career and hasn’t stopped other actors signing a Rohit Shetty film as a (commercial) palate cleanser.
Ranveer Singh’s outing in and as Simmba (2018) was sandwiched between Padmaavat (2018) where he played the power-drunk and barbaric ruler Alauddin Khilji and Murad, the quiet and unassuming rapper who explodes when he is rapping in Gully Boy (2019). It was a part of Singh’s strategy to prove his versality with every film. “Early in my career, people thought of me as the guy from Band Baaja Baaraat, and that’s all I was about. Then I consciously chose to do Lootera to break that, and Ram Leela happened in the same year. That’s when people sat up and took notice because those are two really different characters, almost poles apart. The same thing happened in 2015 when I played Kabir in Dil Dhadakne Do and Bajirao Mastani in the same year, and that just took the notion a step further. And now, with Khilji and Simmba followed by Gully Boy, the chatter about the versatility aspect is louder than ever before. That’s what’s heartening and fulfilling for me,” he said to me in an interview post the release of Simmba.
And, that brings us to Akshay Kumar, whose Sooryavanshi is the first big film to hit theatres post the pandemic. The film is a part of the ‘cop universe’ that includes Singham and Simmba. His career spanning decades started with the Khiladi phase before he moved on to comedy at the dawn of the new millennium and then in 2013 he reinvented himself as the ‘every man’ who rose to meet all challenges that came his way. These films had some realism and lots of patriotism and that’s been the winning formula for almost a decade. But it doesn’t take an industry pundit to tell you that it’s all getting a little old and predictable for Kumar.
Sooryavanshi seems to be a return to his Khiladi days. And, if the film’s opening day collections are anything to go by, Shetty has facilitated another actor’s career pivot.