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.
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.