Hindi Film 101: Red Chillies and a New Way of Reaching the Overseas Audience

This is fun! Kind of a “state of the studio” post, looking at where Red Chillies came from and where it is now, post the release of Badla.

In Karan’s memoir, he talks about taking over Dharma and trying to find his footing. He made two big mistakes early on, the first was giving Kal Ho Na Ho to someone else to direct, it turned into a power struggle on set because he wrote the script and had a vision for the film, and it was hard to step back and let someone else take the lead. And the second was going too far in the other direction, green-lighting Kaal, a film he had no interest in in a genre he didn’t like, instead of sticking with what he knew. The middle-way is best for studio health, films that the producer understands and knows what works, but doesn’t care about on a personal level.

And that is where Red Chillies, Shahrukh’s studio, has finally reached, with the two films Ittefaq and Badla. The earlier successful films had no particular pattern, or reliability, they were just films Shahrukh happened to be staring in. Main Hoon Na was the first big hit, Kaal was a Dharma co-production and a favor to a friend, Paheli was an interesting script that got critical acclaim, Om Shanti Om another hit, Billu Barbar a remake, My Name is Khan, Always Kabhi Kabhi was the first non-Shahrukh film but of the kind of young romance that Shahrukh might have played in, Ra.One the ambitious superhero film, Don 2, Student of the Year both co-productions, Chennai Express, Happy New Year, Dilwale all Shahrukh entertainers, Dear Zindagi a personal film with a strong director’s vision, Raees a gritty gangster drama, Jab Harry Met Sejal an intense romance, Ittefaq a twisted well-made thriller, Zero a romantic fable, and then Badla another twisted well-made thriller. If you look at that list, it is a combination of movies that Shahrukh made for/with friends, and movies that spoke to him as an actor. None of them spoke to him primarily as a producer. Until you get to the very end and look at Ittefaq and Badla.

As Karan pointed out, there is a difference between producing a film and making it yourself. Shahrukh was picking movies that worked for him as an actor, just as Karan started by producing the movies he wrote himself, but he has to learn to think differently and act differently as a producer. And he has to find movies that work for him still, but work as a producer instead of an actor. I’m assuming that Shahrukh is the guiding light of the studio, but you can also read “Shahrukh” as I use it here as “the assortment of close advisers and creative team around Shahrukh that guide his decisions”. Shahrukh the man, or Shahrukh the collective, has had a lot of experience in picking the films that work for him as a star. If we look at the history of Red Chillies, that was the strength for a long time. Dreamz Unlimited, the first studio, Shahrukh was trying to think big, different, and it didn’t work. Asoka was the kind of film he wanted to watch, but not the kind of film the audience wanted to watch him in. But starting with Main Hoon Na through Dilwale, the thinking changed, it was no longer “what kind of film can I make, that no one else would produce for me?”, it became “what film do I know will be a hit and I can snap up before someone else does and produce it myself?”

There is one exception to this pattern of course, Always Kabhi Kabhi, Red Chillies’ first attempt to make a movie without Shahrukh (or a Shahrukh friend co-producing, like Kaal). But, was it really “without Shahrukh”? It’s a young coming of age movie of the exact same kind he would make if he were still young enough. It’s the genre he made popular. And of course, he inserted himself into a song sequence. And the movie failed. People didn’t want a shahrukh-film-but-not-with-shahrukh. They wanted an actual Shahrukh movie, which is what Red Chillies made from then on.

But after Dilwale (which was a big hit, no matter what the poison press says about it, the numbers don’t lie), something went wrong. The compass needle pointing towards audience opinion started spinning because the reality was, audience opinion didn’t want any film Shahrukh was starring in at all, no matter the genre. He tried Raees, and Jab Harry Met Sejal, and Zero, three completely different films, and none of them worked. The previous production plan, find a movie that would work for Shahrukh and which he could do well, and success will follow, no longer worked.

The only full profitable Shahrukh film made by Red Chillies in the past couple years was Dear Zindagi. Which is not a “Shahrukh” movie at all. He did a wonderful job with his role, but it was a supporting role, and the film would have been of almost equal quality if his role was played by Irrfan Khan, Nawazuddin Shah, Rajkummar Rao, or any number of other skilled actors. And it was not promoted or sold as a “Shahrukh” film, it was sold as a high quality interesting original story with a solid cast and surprising twists.

Shahrukh became a star by offering the public something new, at first just a young energetic hero not afraid to take “different” roles, and then an icon for the new global Indian, quick witted and gender bending and cosmopolitan. He has always ruled most among the educated folks, and the diaspora, offering something fresh and exciting. But now he feels old. He is old, that is the reality, and his career is so long at this point that he can’t make himself fresh again. Besides, the audience has moved on. The kind of emotional powerful performance Shahrukh can offer now feels “old-fashioned” and dated. And so do the films that are built around that performance.

Obviously, I say all of this as a Shahrukh fan. But the reality is, his brand of cinema is no longer popular with the mass audience. And that’s okay, fashions change in film as much as in anything else. I do believe Shahrukh has the acting skill to play any role in any genre, but it is hard to promote a film and make the audience see that. They will always see the same old Shahrukh charm and smile and so on, and that kind of romance is no longer popular. So, as a producer, Shahrukh had to learn to think not about the kind of film he would like to see made in the world (like the Dreamz Unlimited flops). And now he had to learn not to think about the kind of film he would like to star in, that he could do well in, because those films don’t resonate with the audience any more (and that’s setting aside the whisper campaign against him I describe in my post here). Instead, he had to cut all personal interest out of his thoughts and merely turn it towards the people, the audience he has always best understood (young, and diaspora), and think about what THEY want. And then figure out, what could he understand and make well based on those desires.

Remember how this film was a hit, but still had a cloud of people saying that it was “just” a romance between Shahrukh and Alia?

And thus, Ittefaq and Badla. Ittefaq was definitely picked by Shahrukh as a personal person, not “Shahrukh” the collective of support staff. He was given the script as part of a narration hoping to cast him, and he passed as an actor but picked it up as a producer. This is a genre Shahrukh personally knows well and likes, he has said many times that his favorite author as a young man was James Hadley Chase. But it’s a genre he can’t really do himself as an actor, because it relies on the story being the star more than any one person. And Shahrukh, at this moment, is trapped in the position of being both too famous to disappear into a role, and not famous enough any more to lead a film based around himself. The “Shahrukh” audience, the group he knows best, now wants a film that he himself cannot make. What a quandary! The solution is just to accept that situation rather than fighting against it.

Reflects on Life in the comments described Badla as a film for “desi friends who love movies but dislike like Indian movies”. This is the same audience that 20 years ago made Shahrukh the king, the NRIs who felt turned off by the same old Amitabh action films but loved the sensitive free-thinking romances of Shahrukh. Shahrukh can still reach them, they still love him as a person, his TED talks and his interviews, he just has to accept that they don’t love him as a performer any more and figure out what he can give them instead.

So, let’s look at what Red Chillies is now, now that it has grown beyond just “the studio Shahrukh uses to produce the scripts for himself that are too good to give to another producer. There is Red Chillies VFX which continues to grow, especially the color division. That is far beyond anything Shahrukh at the moment, they are used by industries and films that have no connection even second hand with the Shahrukh brand, they are simply looking for the best workers for what they need. In this one area, Shahrukh has successfully managed a revenue stream totally independent of his own influence and stardom. The first two successful films Red Chillies produced beyond the Shahrukh brand, Ittefaq and Badla, are not quite divorced from Shahrukh himself yet, but they are getting there.

Ittefaq was hand picked by Shahrukh, and was launched by Shahrukh and his co-producer Karan. But there was no SRK cameo in the film, not even any involvement in the promotions beyond the music/poster launch. No interview burst, no TV ads with his voice over, nothing. And it was a nice tidy profitable hit in a very non-Shahrukh way. It didn’t release on a massive number of screens, and it didn’t break any box office records, but a lot of people saw it and enjoyed it and came back to see it again. And the same with Badla, this time Shahrukh released three videos of coordinated interviews with the star, but otherwise had no public involvement, does not appear in the film, is not on the posters, is nowhere. The film raises and falls on its own. And that is going to be the way forward if Red Chillies wants a profitable film division.

The thing is, the audience doesn’t want star films at all. They want good films. And for some parts of the audience, the multiplex and diaspora audience, “good films” means it cannot have a star in it at all. Putting a Khan on the poster will turn them away, not attract them. And if you are looking for a film that can survive without a star, and all the glamour and songs and recognizable character types and even emotions and relationship drama that comes with a star, then there are only two genres possible, “thriller” or “patriotic”. Either of them will bring you in for the story, not the spectacle.

Akshay Kumar has survived mostly by hitting that “patriotic” button. No, not films about how wonderful Canada is, patriotic for India of all things. Weird, I know, for a Canadian to make films about another country, but people do strange things. Aamir has started hitting that too, with a little dusting of “these are important social issues” on top. Even Salman has fallen victim to that, movies like Tiger Zinda Hai and now Bharat. But Shahrukh can’t do patriotism, not like that, not the “India is the best let’s talk about facts and figures and details” kind of patriotism instead of “emotional bond to the country” kind of patriotism. He can’t do it as a star, and he can’t even do it as a producer, if Red Chillies were to try to release a patriotic movie, it would become all about Shahrukh and not the film itself. And so he has found the one other genre that will work, intelligent complex well-made thrillers. You can watch them without caring about the characters, without recognizing the actors, without waiting for the song to start or the big action scene, without any of the trappings of traditional “Masala” that turn off large parts of the audience.

At this point, as Ittefaq and Badla have both done well and Shahrukh has gotten minimal critiques for his mild promotional appearances, I would understand if Shahrukh decides to just stop acting for a while. His production company will do better with out him and, at the moment, he might do better as a public figure if he lays low. I’ll miss him, but the funny thing is, watching Badla, I still kind of felt like I was watching a Shahrukh film. Because it was so smart, so clever, so comfortable internationally and yet still desi. It was a purer expression of what draws me to Shahrukh the person, and how Shahrukh the person presents himself to the world, than any of the actual films he has been in recently. It felt more like his TED talks, his Davos interviews, than it did the emotion driven “Shahrukh” we see on screen in films. And so I am eagerly looking forward to Shahrukh announcing his next film, whatever it is, whether he is producing or starring.

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20 thoughts on “Hindi Film 101: Red Chillies and a New Way of Reaching the Overseas Audience

  1. Hmmm. I so hate to say it but you are completely right. I hate that no one or at least not enough “ones” want to see him star in a film. I loved JHMS and genuinely think it was a good film. I only didn’t like the ending. (should have ended at the hotel when he finds her). And I think most of Zero was excellent. But that being said, I’m obviously not the majority. I think he is going to do a netflix seriel where he can have a small role but not be a lightening rod.

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    • Now that Red Chillies film division is on the way to being as successful as their other areas, SRK can just switch to being more of a corporate face if he wants, introduce the new products and stay behind the scenes. The way he hasn’t announced his next film, and took sort of an executive fatherly interest in Badla, feels like it could be his new path. Businessman first, artist second.

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  2. The next Red Chillies productions are the Bard of Blood series (starring Emraan Hashmi) for Netflix and a police drama called Class of 83, also for Netflix.

    The problem the movies starring SRK are having is simply that he’s choosing subjects that the mass audience does not like. A dwarf with an unlikeable personality who goes to space was just too bizarre and out there. Would not have worked no matter who it starred. Even huge SRK fans themselves were baffled.

    I’ve seen several interviews during Zero times when he basically said that he is bored and tired of routine and template films and has no desire to do them anymore. Unfortunately there is a limit to what the audience accepts. Look at Salman – he basically makes the same masala film again and again with minor changes. Akshay sticks to desh bhakti. Aamir seems confused himself and has settled for a boring remake. Thugs itself was a boring version of Pirates. It is his go to strategy when he wants a big movie. He did the same way back during Ghajini (Memento) too.

    SRK has an excellent relationship with Netflix and they would kill to have him doing something for them. I genuinely think he should do a movie or series for Netflix for his next project. It takes the box office pressure off and Netflix has a LOT of money they will throw if someone like him is willing to star in something for them. He can make the weirdest, quirkiest, non-template thing he wants to make. The stranger and crazier, the better. There would not need to be any compromises and worries about making sure an 8 year Mumbai kid and 80 year old village grandma can watch the same thing. Film it both in Hindi and English and you open up a whole other audience who might be willing to watch it without subtitles being a turnoff. Promote it as a big debut all over the world and if the product is good, he would no longer even have to rely on the traditional Bollywood audience.

    FWIW, Akshay is doing a series for Prime. Not that I have any hopes whatsoever from it. He makes absolutely mediocre work and barely spends more than 2-3 months on his quickies. Reminds me of the highway robbery he did when the corporates first came to BW. Akshay was at the forefront of charging huge fees for trash and ran them out of town.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I forgot about Bard of Blood! Fits in the same template, Shahrukh-the-producer understands and likes the genre, he read the book series first and found the idea. Plus, it’s a good fit for the kind of audience he wants to go after, intelligent international book reading types. And he is putting in smart high quality content in it, casting Emraan as the lead, not a massive star power person, but very talented and experienced. Similar to casting Amitabh and Taapsee in Badla, or Akshaye in Ittefaq.

      I’d love to see Shahrukh in a Netflix series and I’ve been saying for years “it’s not going to happen, it’s not going to happen”. But with Zero flopping, and him holding off on announcing his next film, maybe it is actually happening now.

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  3. You mentioned the whisper campaigns so I thought I would mention this. Modi has pulled a truly Machiavellian move yesterday by tagging some celebrities and asking them to join him in getting people to vote. Technically, it is a get out of the vote campaign and yet if celebrities reply to him, it ends up looking like support for him or the BJP. This can then be used in ads and speeches by lower tier politicians as well. It puts the celebs between a rock and a hard place because if they *don’t* reply, they also set themselves up for abuse from the BJP IT cell or genuine fans of the party.

    If I’m not wrong, SRK is the only celebrity who has pointedly NOT replied to Modi’s tweet even after being tagged by him. He has been on twitter after that Modi tweet and posted other things.

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    • And this is why Red Chillies can’t jump on the patriotism bandwagon. I would love to see them do something like a spy thriller or an inspiring political series, but anything like that would just turn into a story about SRK instead of about the film. Ittefaq and Badla and Bard of Blood are safe, they will stay about the movie and not about Shahrukh because there is no opening to make them about Shahrukh.

      I suppose for the same reasons, they shouldn’t make a movie about surrogate children or heritage houses in Bombay or anything else that is part of the Shahrukh star “brand”, because then Shahrukh will overshadow the product.

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  4. I would actually love to see SRK in a buddy/bromance movie. Some of my favorite ‘heroines’ from hs movies (the ones that generate the biggest *squinch* factor for me and my daughters) are the best buddy sidekick relationships. Pappu from OSO, Bobby from RNBDJ, Billu the Barber, and of course, Ranveer Singh 🤗 I’d even love to see an SRK/Karan/Farah buddy movie. Something witty, silly, maybe even a bit too honest, with no male/female romantic love story. I think that’s what I loved best about his Zindage character; someone who cares enough to listen and respond without worrying about all the sexual/romantic crap. I think that would get people my age (48) back in to see him in droves. Seriously, SRK and Ranveer almost have better chemistry together than Deepika has with either of them. 😘

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    • I was also thinking about Dear Zindagi with this post, it isn’t actually a thriller, but it unfolded like one, introducing multiple characters and the setting and drawing you in with the “mystery” of Alia’s psyche. And because it was thriller-style but still telling an emotional story, SRK worked well within it, was able to play an intelligent sensitive supporting role without overshadowing the film or feeling out of synch with the message. I feel the same way about his cameos in Luck By Chance and Love Breakups Zindagi. If someone could figure out how to make him play a wise guiding figure in a really good romance, he would be perfect. Really, what he played in Mohabattein, but better.

      On Thu, Mar 14, 2019 at 3:34 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  5. Hmm, lots to think about. It’s a solid analysis, but I think you may be underestimating the power of that whisper–or in the case of social media, shouting–campaign. People’s choices, including where they spend their entertainment money, are affected by wanting to fit in, by wanting to avoid disapproval from friends/family/co-workers, and by impulse–which is swayed by whatever bits of information and emotion are at top of mind–like a negative tweet or two from influencers.

    So it may not be that some of the audiences who would have gone to see a Shah Rukh film in the past wouldn’t like a Shah Rukh film anymore–even a weird one like FAN or Zero. Rather, they’re not going to make the choice to buy a ticket to a theater. The impact on the bottom line is the same. I think “what the audience wants” is actually quite a malleable thing. So if I were Shah Rukh/Red Chillies, I’d be thinking about how to counter that whisper/shouting campaign through savvy PR. And in fact I’m sure they are.

    I hope that Shah Rukh the actor feels free to do exactly whatever the hell he pleases. He has earned it and as long as he’s up front with expectations of profitability with partners, then I don’t see a problem. I’m longing for Netflix too–if he likes Anglo thrillers, maybe an updated Alfred Hitchcock presents kind of limited series. He could be in one or two of them, or not, as he likes.

    And, of course, I light a candle once in a while for him to start narrating audio books, in any language, any genre. 🙂

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    • If that is the case, it must make it so much harder to discover “what people want”. You analyse the feedback and your own gut, decide that intimate romances are having a resurgence, make Jab Harry Met Sejal, and discover it flops for no logical reason. And eventually discover the only reason it is flopping is that people are being poisoned against the star, everything else in the film would work, except him. Even harder to accept this if you yourself are that star. And then you have to remove the Shahrukh factor, look at the skills you have and what the audience seems interested in if you weren’t acting in it, and provide that. And you can’t just make a “Shahrukh” movie without Shahrukh, that was Always Kabhi Kabhi and it didn’t work.

      I truly think that Shahrukh as a person understands and enjoys thrillers, but as an artist is more drawn to emotional roles. So if he wants to keep acting, for his own satisfaction and aware that the audience will not accept him any more, I want to see him doing (or continuing to do) emotional parts.

      Oh, and also to your point, do you think a Netflix show and the streaming format would help with that kind of impulse decisions driven by social media stuff? You can secretly watch your Shahrukh movie on Netflix and not have your friends and neighbors shame you for out of date taste or whatever in the theaters?

      On Fri, Mar 15, 2019 at 4:13 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • Agree with your second paragraph. But there must be emotional thrillers, right? I keep thinking of Hitchcock. Suspicion, To Catch a Thief, North by Northwest, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Rear Window, Vertigo (which I personally can’t stand but many think is Hitch’s best). I can see Shah Rukh being very Shah Rukh-y but doing great in those. Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart were Cary-y and Jimmy-y and did great. 🙂

        Re: Netflix or other streaming options being less driven by social approval/social media, to some extent I think so. And it also has to do with what we were talking about with Zero–despite great visuals for some people it might be more of a streaming movie. The expectations are not the same, and you have the option to rewind, rewatch, live with it a bit more.

        I think that fickleness is part of why Shah Rukh and other big stars always say they never really know why one movie works and another doesn’t. You can try to play the odds, but that’s it, I think? I couldn’t stomach the risk.

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        • I was just talking with someone at work about how odd it is that there is no Hindi movie out this weekend, and if I were a producer, I would release something this week. And she asked “do you really want to be a producer?” and I definitely do NOT! I want to be the person sitting in front of a computer going “why isn’t anyone releasing a movie this weekend? Such a missed opportunity!” Actually creating something and releasing it sounds very stressful and difficult, what with snarky know-it-all’s on the internet picking apart everything from your casting to your publicity to your release date. I would never want that!

          On Fri, Mar 15, 2019 at 4:58 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • It just occurred to me that the social approval thing is also why so many fans tweet at Shah Rukh, “please sir, make another hit, another Chak De, another Swades, on and on” the implied rest of the message is, “because I can’t be the fan of a loser, people will laugh.” Humans are weird.

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        • Yes! Why can’t you like something just because you like it? It’s no one else’s business but yours.

          On Fri, Mar 15, 2019 at 6:17 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  6. “Weird, I know, for a Canadian to make films about another country, but people do strange things.” What about the British Alia Bhakti starring in Hindi films?

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