There are as many films as there are filmmakers. But there are certain films only certain studios can make. It’s like there’s a hallmark imprint on the reel: you don’t really have to see it to know it. Yashraj Films is Bollywood’s holy grail, and has been for years. The respect people within the industry have for the late Yash Chopra, his genial ways, and his great large-hearted Punjabi bonhomie is the stuff of legend, and much of that affection has been parlayed into what the studio is now, run by his excessively media-shy son Aditya Chopra, and a crack team of writers and editors and technicians.
There’s a story I remember from way back about Yashraj, before it turned into a corporate entity and YRF. The owner of a landmark Delhi theatre (which doesn’t exist anymore) was chatting with me over a greasy Nirula’s burger and fountain soda while we waited for the Friday film to start. It was a Yashraj film, and the foyer was spilling over with first-day-first-show punters. The young owner and his father were exceedingly pleased at the crush (which had come after a couple of board exams and World Cup-induced fallow months), but unsurprised: Yashji ki film hai, log toh aaiyenge bhar bhar ke, they said. When he calls and says, yaar film aa rahi hai, we don’t ask any questions, we just give him what he wants.
The near-reverence of that statement from hard-nosed, canny businessmen was down to the fact that Yashraj consistently made films that guaranteed box-office success. Twenty five weeks (or a silver jubilee) was normal; a golden jubilee (50) weeks, was entirely possible. With Yash Chopra in the saddle, the film industry’s top stars vying to get into his films, solid storytelling and wonderful music — there was no stopping a YRF film.
It is still a studio with mighty heft. Insiders are in awe of how efficiently it is run, and how it is the “only one that pays people on time”. Over the years, I have heard this from many people. But Yashraj is no longer a place where great new stories are being told. It has become a project churner. Which would be fine if the projects were saying things that we want to hear. But that’s no longer the case. The last couple of years have been a downward slide where perhaps the commerce is right, but creativity is down to zero.
Look at their last film. If Yash Chopra had been around, no film coming out on his watch would have been called Bewakoofiyaan, because he would have known, like all veterans did, that a title of the film has power.
And it goes sliding into the film. A director whose first film had spark. A likeable male lead. A fashionista female lead. And a bankable senior actor, an old Yashraj favourite. In a romantic comedy set in Delhi, about pretty young people going through hard times, emerging into the light. How wrong can you go with that?
As it turns out, there is not one single true moment in that unfortunately named film. It’s all a series of constructed scenes and sequences, a combination of subtly wrong and overdone notes. Those who have seen Delhi sarkari houses will know that the-about-to-retire Rishi Kapoor’s residence, for example, is not quite right. Nor is his office. Ayushmann Khurrana doesn’t get a chance to add in any nuance to his performance, and the pretty, impeccably-turned-out Sonam Kapoor is incapable of one. The story is half-baked, and there is no zest in its telling.
Just before this one, there was another rehash of several old blockbusters (an unlovely trait has been a consistent feature in the recent Yashraj films). Gunday was a high-decibel mish-mash of Sholay, Deewar, Kala Pathar and various other ’70s films and their remakes. If you didn’t know, Gunday could well have been a Subhash Ghai or a Prakash Mehra product, which was all right for its times, but a total misfit now, especially because it doesn’t do nostalgia knowingly and in a self-aware fashion. To make a film just to rake it in is not a bad thing at all, but if you are Yashraj, then you need to be distinctive. Or do you not?
Is the golden period of the studio over? Is it going to be just this now: a place where scions of popular yesteryear actors will be mixed and matched in scripts that nod feebly to keeping up with the times with a bit of spit and polish, dent and paint?
Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year (2009) was the last YRF film that the studio can justifiably be proud of. Its spectacular box-office failure seems to have singed it badly enough to get all the way back into a corner where everything is safe and dull. De-risking ventures for a healthy bottomline is one thing. But leaching everything you do of sparkle and novelty?
That cannot be the way forward for any studio, let alone YRF, whose legacy is something to celebrate. For them and for us.