Oh boy, a fun one! I love this movie, I don’t care if you judge me.
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.
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.