Shahrukh Summer: Ra.One, Shahrukh’s Attempt at a Summer Blockbuster

I like this movie. It’s fun, it’s light-hearted, and yes there are some bits that just don’t work, but overall I like watching it.

Shahrukh set out to make a modern blockbuster with this movie. Not because it has a superhero, or at least not just because it is a superhero. Shahrukh marketed the heck out of it, tie ins with McDonalds and video game companies and comic book companies. He sold off so many pieces of licensing that the film was well into the black before it even released. And then it released and the actual film couldn’t live up to the marketing.

Image result for ra.one poster

Now, in America, we are used to the movies not living up to the marketing. It’s a delightful surprise when the big film of the summer is as good as all the Happy Meal toys and posters made it out to be. Heck, we are even used to the video games based on the movie sometimes being better than the movie itself. But this was the first Indian film developed that way, with a central idea built more for toys and games than the film itself. It flopped, and despite the success of all the other elements, it is still remembered as a flop. And that’s a good thing! At least, I think so. That the actual content is still king over the ancillary products.

Now, why did it flop? Or, “flop”. It was one of the many SRK films that set box office records overseas but was a disappointment at home. Still made loads of money, just not as much as expected. Anyway, why was that? Sorry, I don’t have a good answer.

Maybe it just tried too hard? Wanted to be too many things to too many people? Put in a lot of stuff to try to appeal to south India, and used Akon to appeal to the international audience, plus Shahrukh and Arjun Rampal and Kareena Kapoor for the usual Hindi film audience, and all the special effects that were supposed to make it a massive blockbuster even in non-traditional Indian audience markets.

But when you get out of the moment in time when the film released, away from all the promotions, able to ignore the little bits that were thrown in to try to appeal to the audience, it’s a really fun movie! Not a great movie, still has loads of flaws, but fun!

Just to run down what makes it fun, I can start with the plot. It’s silly and unbelievable, but has the degree of internal logic required for a superhero film. And the emotional relationships have some real resonance, and surprising layers. Performances are a similar balance of silly and serious. Kareena does a great job with the serious moments, and an okay job with the slapstick. Shahrukh nails both elements. Arjun is just serious straight through, so not as much to do. The rest of the cast is a nice mix, either all serious or all comic. And of course, the songs are great. Although that is also kind of a negative, in the middle of the semi-serious parts of the plot, we still have super fun songs. It works for me, I like the light touch of mixing in the songs with the serious, and I can handle the whiplash of going between the two. But I can see why it wouldn’t work for others.

And then there are the special effects. The problem with special effects is, if they are bad it can ruin the movie. But if they are good it doesn’t save the movie. And these are very very good. So good you don’t even notice them. Kind of the problem right there, instead of having jaw dropping moments of “oh wow, I can’t believe they did that!”, it’s just “yeah, so, I’m paying attention to the plot and the characters and not noticing the special effects because they are so seamless”. Ra.One was a tremendous accomplishment for an Indian VFX studio, and no one noticed.

I can’t answer fully why it was a flop, but part of the reason it flopped is because it flopped. This movie is set up to be the first part of a series, it’s the kind of film you watch over and over again so you can try to predict what will happen in the next parts. And when it failed the first weekend and it was clear that a part 2 and part 3 were unlikely to happen, that just magnified the issue. The movie ends on a cliffhanger in many ways, including the relationships between the characters, and that never-to-be-resolved cliffhanger retroactively damages the enjoyment of the rest of the film.

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The simple Superhero plot of this is pretty dumb. A video game villain escapes from the game, and to defeat him the video game hero also escapes. There is a global chase and finally the hero defeats the villain by killing both of them.

But then, Superhero plots are always kind of dumb. Teenage boy gets bitten by spider. Alien grows up stronger than humans. Rich man pretends to be bat. It’s not about the Superhero part of their life, it’s about the other parts, the internal angst that drove them towards heroism and relationships that sustain them through the battle. And it is about the greater metaphor, the simple idea that the audience can relate to and let them believe in this silly silly world.

Superman is an allegory for refugees. Batman is an allegory for PTSD. Spider-man is an allegory for puberty. And Ra.One is about family and loss.

Maybe it didn’t work because it is about a very limited idea of family? Our central family has only three people, Shahrukh and his wife Kareena and their son Armaan Varma. We never meet aunts, uncles, cousins, even grandparents are invisible. This is a family dealing with a loss and then a replacement, but only a tiny tiny family.

It’s even tinier because it is global. Armaan and Kareena and Shahrukh have friends in London, and they have friends in India. But they don’t have anyone who crosses that border with them, only those three people know their whole life and whole world.

The central idea of the film is that Shahrukh dies, but then comes back (kind of) as the superhero robot G.One. Kareena and Armaan have to deal with the idea of their husband and father being back but not really. G.One seems to care for Armaan, and he has all the knowledge Shahrukh used to have including his corny jokes and sayings. He also seems to care for Kareena, and looks just like the husband she just lost, and perhaps feels something physical for her as well, in his robot body.

Is Shahrukh really “back” as G.One? How are they connected? Does Kareena love G.One as her husband, or just as someone who is similar to her husband? Armaan embraces G.One as the return of his father, a way of working through his guilt and feeling of in completion after his father’s death, does his feelings for G.One somehow make G.One into his father?

These aren’t superhero plot points, these are grief plot points. What if you had another chance with the person you lost? A chance at a clean slate, to be better and do better? Armaan leaps at it, because he feels he failed his father, was angry and bratty during their last time together. But Kareena isn’t sure, she clings to her memories of the person she lost, she would rather live in memory than risk starting fresh because their life together was so perfect.

The simple superhero plotline is resolved cleanly in this one film, story starts with the escape of Ra.One from the video game, then G.One appears to save the day, Ra.One and G.One both grow in powers, and finally they battle and G.One defeats Ra.One and dies in the process.

But the emotional storyline is not resolved at all. G.One starts as an odd toy for Armaan, then becomes a friend, and slowly grows to be something more like a father. But before Armaan can explore his feelings, divide his relationship with his father from his relationship with G.One, G.One dies.

The Kareena storyline is even more unfinished. She is torn between her memories of her husband who she loved, and this new person in her life. With the added complication of the new person being a robot who looks like her husband used to look and sometimes acts like him too. Can G.One even feel emotions? The movie seems to be hinting that he can, but that isn’t resolved either.

These are purposefully unresolved emotions. The film ends on a cliffhanger, G.One resurrected and then cut to black. In a sequel (which we will never get), perhaps Kareena and G.One talk through their relationship and find a way to understand each other’s emotions. Perhaps G.One helps Armaan grieve his father and understand that he is really gone. And then yes, there would also be some kind of big stupid superhero plot, but it is the grief and love and all the rest of it that will keep you coming back, will make you feel like this could be a story about you.

17 thoughts on “Shahrukh Summer: Ra.One, Shahrukh’s Attempt at a Summer Blockbuster

  1. What happened in Ra.one is a consistent problem with SRK and RCE. In trying to please so many different groups of people, they end up making a mishmash and pleasing nobody completely. Ra.One had to have kid-pleasing ingredients because without kids, a superhero movie wouldn’t succeed. Then you need to add some romance for the women, some songs and dancing for the general BW audience. To try to appeal to the South, you make the main character South Indian, and then SRK’s own personal interest in VFX combined with foreign locations and international talent like Akon to appeal to the audience outside India. Nobody gets everything they want so everyone is a little displeased instead of bringing everyone under the umbrella.

    The same mess happened in Zero. Right now, the trend is small town and rural stories so we get Meerut for a part of the movie, a terrible rural-type song with Salman to appeal to front benchers and tier 2 and tier 3 cities, the item song for the young male audience, the woman in a wheelchair for critics, the romance for the women, the VFX for SRK himself and the abrupt shift to the US for SRK’s traditional international audience. Nothing seems to fit and everyone is left confused and unfulfilled.

    Whenever RCE does these dream projects, they end up being really expensive so they get scared and throw in everything but the kitchen sink to manufacture a hit. Ironically, that’s the biggest reason why it fails. It needs to be a little more organic than something that looks like it came from an MBA class.

    Liked by 1 person

    • When I was writing this review and started thinking about my big take away from the movie, it was the little family relationship, Kareena and Armaan and Shahrukh/G.One. If that had been the focus, maybe it would have worked.

      That’s what the Krrrish movies do so well, right? It’s a superhero, but really it’s about the family relationships. If Ra.One had been set in Bombay and cut the south India stuff and the international stuff and just been about a father who dies and his son who makes a superhero that looks like him, that could have worked, right?

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      • What struck me how silly it was that they were making an Indian superhero but didn’t have any amazing visuals related to India. That’s what Batman and Spiderman do so well with NY. Why not have G.One shown standing on the Gateway of India or jumping onto the Taj Mahal or something like that. Those kind of shots would be iconic.

        The other thing is that superheros have to be beyond just the family. You have to save the world in some way. They could have used the first movie to make a superhero origins story and I think that’s what they tried but it didn’t work out perfectly. It didn’t have a proper backstory and Ra.one as the villain didn’t seem strong enough. The video game thing is also where they lost a lot of people because it’s just something that’s not well understood by most people. I remember Tron released around that time and it was a big flop in HW too. The video game thing is still a niche even though so many more people are playing games. It still doesn’t resonate with the general audience.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Oh, that is a great idea! You are right, they should have done that, some iconic Indian image of a super hero. It’s all CGI anyway, it’s not like they would have needed permission to film.

          I think if they had gotten their trilogy, the first one would introduce is to this hero and his world, the second would bring in a Bigger Bad, and the third would resolve things somehow. Just the first all by itself hardly feels worth it though.

          Good point about video game issue. In this case, it feels like playing the games is almost a bigger problem. The whole concept was poorly thought out, we didn’t get a sense of what made their video game special, and the idea of the full body fight play is just stupid. So it turns off people who play video games because it makes no sense, and people who don’t because they don’t understand video games.

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  2. I think Anonymous has captured perfectly wht goes wrong with the big SRK movies.The mishmash-especially when compared against his memorable movies like Swadesh,Chak De or Dear Zindagi.They are much more smaller,simpler and not trying to be a fit-all.Unlike a Salman movie which knows who its target audience is,an SRK movie is all over the place.
    If they were trying to appeal to the south indians with a noodles-with-curd & fake accent caricature,it shows how ignorant the team was.One of the most offensive,stereotypical portrayals of south indians.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, even I (a non-desi) could tell that south Indian stuff was completely tone-deaf. The Rajinikanth cameo was good I think, they could have just left it at that.

      On Tue, Jul 2, 2019 at 12:01 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  3. I agree with everything said so far. There is a set of movies, with unclear boundaries, that I think of as Shah Rukh’s boondoggles. PBDHH, Asoka (less so because it was someone else’s vision, but Shah Rukh gave it his all), Ra.One, and Zero. And what I love about them is that while they are all flawed, behind them and shining through them is Shah Rukh’s earnest, childlike heart.

    The worst thing for me in Ra.One was the truly horrible scene where Ra.One disguised as the other guy from the video game company slaughter’s the guy’s mom, a defenseless old lady. That scene could have been hinted at, should never have been shown with such detail and intensity in a movie aimed even partly at kids. Masala or no masala. The second worst thing is that bizarre fantasy of the son about his father. The whole thing just an excuse for cameos by Sanju and Priyanka? Did SRK fantasize like that about his dad? Does he think Aryan fantasizes about him like that? I mean, major ick factor.

    The third worst thing is much more minor–messing with my man’s hair and eye color. 🙂

    So, I have watched it twice, and probably won’t watch it again unless it’s my only option in a hotel room sometime. But there was a lot I enjoyed–as you say, the little family is at the heart of it, I enjoy Kareena and Shah Rukh together, the kid isn’t terrible, the songs are such fun, the fight and action scenes are entertaining, and Arjun makes a decent bad guy.

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    • The only complaint of yours that I can disagree with is the opening fantasy. I think it is supposed to be the son’s fantasy of himself, the Shahrukh “character” is called Lucifer, which is the son’s gaming name. So it’s kind of a clever opening of the idea of father’s and sons that will be in the rest of the movie. The son sees himself in the father (even if he isn’t willing to admit it), his Dad provides his template for what being a man looks like. So we have “real” Shahrukh, who is weird and embarrassing sometimes. And we have the son’s fantasy of what he will be like as a man, his father but better. And then we have Ra.One, Shahrukh’s fantasy of everything that is best in himself.

      On Wed, Jul 3, 2019 at 6:52 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • I think you mean that G.One is Shah Rukh’s fantasy of what is best in himself. Is that right?

        If the fantasy is meant to be the child’s fantasy of himself as Lucifer then that could have been made a bit clearer if it was not Shah Rukh enacting that fantasy. Also, Shah Rukh as the father character is not at all the “template of manhood” embodied in the fantasy.

        This sequence is to me all about Shah Rukh’s ego and shouts mid-life crisis. Luckily it is quite skip-able, and one doesn’t lose much from the story. 🙂

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        • Terrible execution of the idea, but I think I could see a way the multiple Shahrukh’s would work. The first child’s fantasy is everything he wants to be when he grows up/does not see in his father (dangerous, cool, confident, all of that). The long straight hair, for instance, is the exact opposite of Shahrukh’s “real” hair in the movie. He is also entirely selfish and rude, without the good traits of the “real” Shahrukh because his son does not appreciate that in his father.

          When G.One first appears, the son is drawn to the idea of him as his father reborn, but cooler and stronger and embraces him. Over time, he comes to appreciate the other aspects of his father’s personality that are within G.One and are less apparent. Little lectures about not smoking, the many many dopey Dad sayings, and so on. He reconciles the idea that his dorky Dad hid real heroism within him, and that his Hero Dad hides dorky Dad wisdom inside, that being a man is many things.

          On Wed, Jul 3, 2019 at 12:31 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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    • The fantasy sequence is something I refuse to ever watch again. It was that terrible. Why is he half naked? Why is PC dressed like that? Why is it so sexual? What little kid would dream something like this? It was complete cringe.

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      • It reminds me so much of the opening of Zero. Which at least made sense as the kind of fantasy the Bauua character would have. But I think both of them were an attempt to intrigue the audience in the first few minutes and draw us in with something exciting. Only, personally, I hated it! Just start the movie! I don’t need all the spectacle, it feels like they are trying too hard.

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        • The difference being with Bauua, the fantasy fit with his character and his relationship to the other characters, especially his dad. As Anonymous said, the overt sexuality of that fantasy does not at all match the kid’s character or even stage of development.

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          • Yeah, even the location is a bit odd, this misty swamp place with massive swords. Something more Tron-like could have set the stage better.

            On Wed, Jul 3, 2019 at 12:25 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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        • I think Freud would be too busy watching all the ten million “a boy’s best friend is his mother” movies. I read a great Freudian reading of Deewar in a journal once, it works really well.

          On Wed, Jul 3, 2019 at 12:24 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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