Sunday ReRun: Ra.One, a Big Fun Silly Movie

Oops! I accidentally double-scheduled reviews for today, Dhanak and Ra.One. There could not be two more different movies!

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.

16 thoughts on “Sunday ReRun: Ra.One, a Big Fun Silly Movie

  1. I always thought that ShahRukh could have done like he once said: If you fall, dust your knees and try again…but I understood that this is also a question of money…and of emotional recuperating.
    I still would like a sequel…

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    • Here’s the challenge: What would the title be? “Ra.Two” would be obvious, but that only works if they bring Arjun’s character back, plus you lose the pun of Ra.One=Raavan. G.Two? Like “Jeetu”?

      On Sun, Nov 3, 2019 at 12:38 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • In college I briefly dated a British man named G2, I’m not sure how it was really spelled, but he simply wrote G2 on his e-mails. I asked about the strings on his wrist and learned about Rakhi, knowledge that was very helpful when I first watched Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi.

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  2. I always felt that this failed because it came at a point where ShahRukh’s star had risen so high, the expectations of the film were so big, that there was a collective feeling it was time to take him down. I don’t know if that is part of the Indian psyche but somehow it was a given that this was going to be a mega-hit and rejecting it was a show of defiance.

    I didn’t feel the criticism at the time was valid. The plot wasn’t any more silly than any other film and as you said, the songs were good, Chamak Challo was a huge hit, and the vfx was fantastic.

    The only question mark for me was who was the audience. Even though ShahRukh had said he was making it for his son, he really needed audiences across the board to make it the success he was hoping for, and the sleazy humour did not sit comfortably with that.

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  3. I always thought it odd that SRK described the plot as a father and son story, when the father ended up dead early into the film. To me it was a son with a robot that looks like his dad story, I have a hard time equating robots with fathers. I also felt like Kareena had better chemistry with the robot SRK rather than her flesh husband (who seemed mostly to annoy her), and that left me with a confused icky feeling. I enjoyed the action, and I love the songs, but I don’t really enjoy the movie, and my kids don’t either. They prefer the Dons, Happy New Year, and the 4 year old is in love with the child Anjali in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. I don’t let them play video games, perhaps that is part of our disconnect to Ra One. But they do like superhero movies. The whole family adored Black Panther. Perhaps the focus on the singular small family, really was just too small. Those three people, the video games, they weren’t part of our world, we couldn’t connect. Wakonda was a big world, you could see yourself in it somewhere, but Ra One was exclusive, if you weren’t the son, if you weren’t the wife, if you weren’t a robot, where were you?

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    • Maybe it was a story of a son missing his father? Shahrukh says it was a film for his son, but maybe it was a film for himself, what he would have liked to have happened after his father died?

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      • That would make sense. A common parental flaw is to say we are doing things for our kids when it is really about ourselves. And the movie so very much revolved around grief. When I think of it with SRK being in the son’s role, being annoyed with his father and then so sad once he is gone, well it adds a whole other dimension.

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  4. Finally saw this! I’m really glad I watched it with my kids, that definitely added to the experience. Have to say I’m very surprised this flopped. It has its derivative elements (like most superhero stories), but it’s well executed, it has heart, the way they connect the plot to every day technology like networks and videogames is clever, and I feel like SRK did what he set out to do in creating a uniquely Indian superhero – the use of mythology, the proverb that solves the puzzle of the final confrontation, those elements were creative.

    My kids laughed a lot. The fight scene at the airport was a winner, and the booger scene. They were in stiches for several minutes over the “power yoga” scene. They dug the action, all the chases and the exploding cars. And the videogame set up/plot structure definitely worked for them. They’re basically the perfect demographic. On the other hand, I got the train chase in a tux as my special treat, and plenty of shirtless Arjun Rampal. Nice spectacle all around.

    The one part that felt totally off to me was the Rajnikanth cameo. I get why they put him in but it made no sense. A few of the Chinese jokes with Tom Wu’s character also made me wince. (And why did they name a Chinese character Akaashi?) Those moments, and Shekhar’s curly wig, are the only bits I’d get rid of if I had movie-fixing superpowers.

    It was interesting watching this right after the interview Claudia posted from a couple years before Ra.One came out, and the Yale speech from the year after. Shah Rukh talks about Aryan in both, and you get glimpses of the same kind of father/son friction I see in my house and that I imagine is common to a lot of families. It’s this feeling for the father that he wants to teach his son all the stuff he knows and loves, he wants to be cool and for his son to look up to him, and meanwhile the son is going through this period where nothing the father does is cool, and he’s pushing back on every attempt at guidance. I really do see this as a movie Shah Rukh made for his son, coming out of that moment. First, because the sensibility seems perfectly pitched to boys of a certain age (the humor, the tech, the cars, the videogame battles – with a kid who can do cool martial arts moves and is the best player if all). It’s like that moment in the movie when Shekhar is so pleased to have made a game his son likes – the thought came to me in that scene, oh, he’s trying to write that moment into real life. And then there’s the central message: a dad trying to convince his son to choose the good, human, compassionate way in life over the cheap thrills of being a bad guy; a dad who comes back as the kind of cool videogame superhero his son always seemed to want, but who turns out to not be as good as the dorky real dad he turned away from.

    Agreed it’s a shame we never got a sequel. I liked the kid actor, it would have been fun to see him mature and grapple with some of the relationship questions you raise.

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    • So glad you watched this with your sons! I feel like they are the perfect audience. I have to say, watching it with a bunch of young women, those scenes tend to inspire a lot of eye rolling and fastforwarding, it would be nice to watch them with people who actually LIKE that sort of humor!

      With Rajinikanth, he had a massive record breaking hit movie in which he played a robot just a year earlier, so I think it was partly a Rajini cameo, and partly a “yeah yeah we know there was this other movie, we aren’t running away from that” moment.

      On Sun, Nov 3, 2019 at 10:57 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • It was, imo, a clear tribute to Rajinikanth (and maybe also a wink to the director Shankar who had asked ShahRukh – in 2007 – to star in the movie)
        It didn’t bother me at all…I just smiled about this ‘touch of ShahRukh’.

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    • One little point – the film didn’t flop. It did well at the box office, 208 cr according to some sources, and was a ‘super hit’. It just didn’t do as well as anticipated, which was to break records.

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      • So funny how the expectations versus result turn into this terrible cycle.

        Someone on twitter just linked me a brief quote about how southern big hero movies consistantly break records, and also lose money. They make a massive profit in the first few days, but then in the quest for box office records, they keep running far too long and the cost of paying for theater space and so on ends up steering them into a loss.

        On Mon, Nov 4, 2019 at 2:57 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  5. As I know through Anonymous writing about ShahRukh’s interaction with fans during the fan-celebration, Aryan told his father to make a movie for him to show him why poeple love him so much.
    That immediately made me think that he had liked the movie and that indeed Ra,One was what ShahRukh had claimed: a father/son movie. What you write, Emily, does support this idea.
    I doubt that there is a big commercial movie that is flawless in e v e r y thing, but, imo, Ra.One showed very much the love the father had for his son still keeping to be the guide/teacher for life he would have liked to be.
    ShahRukh never ceases to name his father a failure who taught him nevertheless – in hindsight – many very valuable things. So, I would second also the thoughts, that the movie was a hommage to his father (which would make sense).

    Now, to the sequel. It still could happen and the title could very well be G.One as he is the one whose heart survived. But I think, the plot may be an issue at this time. It would be possible to make G.One a robot that gets more and more human in his emotions – good and not so nice ones, as he had absorbed Ra.One at the end of the battle. Although – from the viewpoint of the game – there are some things, that doesn’t make sense, I find the survival of the good h.a.r.t exactly what reflects ShahRukh’s viewpoint: there is hope…and the good will survive at the end.
    This is still valuable.
    If he makes a sequel now, the kid protagonist could be a younger brother to the son, like AbRam is to Aryan (Kareena has married again but may have died later), the son could be a guiding figure and either, the robot gets resurrected or the h.a.r.t gets implanted in a living person (ShahRukh) giving that person special powers.

    The VFX of Ra.One got praise also in India, and even a National Award.

    Liked by 1 person

    • An afterthought to the movie ShahRukh could make for AbRam…
      He had told that he would like to do a movie like Benigni did with “Life is beautiful”… So what about putting a father and his young son into a life-threatening situation where the father hides the real danger behind plays and humour and does everything to keep his son (and maybe other kids) alive or spared from being deported…
      Maybe he tried to show his kid the location where he has grown up in Pakistan and through unfortunate circumstances gets into a camp and has no papers to identify himself. It could be a Pakistani camp or an Indian camp…anyways, there is the danger that the kids get seperated and transported elsewhere (for not so good things…maybe a gang in the camp that works with officials to sell the kids or to make them work wherever). So ShahRukh works something out how to make the kids either hiding or so important for the entertainment (like a theatre group) of the bad people. In addition, he tries to get the message of his whereabouts to his wife which indeed succeeds…so we get also the plot of what his wife is doing to get both out of the camp (which officials deny that it even exists). So, media/journalists etc. comes into the plot.
      I would like, that in this movies, there are all kind of good and bad people coming from every side (Pakistan/India) and every religion and every caste, poor and rich, famous and ‘nobodys’…and that it is humanity that makes people survive.

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