Unbeatable Yash

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Yashraj Films netted Rs 150-crore plus, more than half of what all A-list Bollywood films made in 2004, thanks to Aditya Chopra's commercially-safe instincts.

A still from the film `Kisna'.
A still from the film `Kisna'.

Shubhra Gupta

Can filmmakers ever be good businessmen? Every time a celebrated director, or a star gets into the business of movies, hawk eyes are trained on him, all the way through the filming, till when the movie is out awaiting public verdict.

From first box-office accounts, Kisna, Subhash Ghai's paean to nationalism and to the dancing skills of his latest discovery, has failed to excite popular imagination or garner critical acclaim. Set in the 1940s, the story of a `warrior-poet', and his conflict with `karma' and `dharma', was meant to resurrect Ghai's sagging reputation as a director. The last time he was welcomed with full houses and a long run in theatres was with Pardes in the early 1990s.

In the last decade, the self-anointed showman stretched beyond pure direction to production and distribution. He invited such diverse filmmakers as David Dhawan and Abbas-Mustan, among others, to make movies for Mukta Arts, his production company. He also decided to distribute the movies himself, on the lines of Yashraj Films, which exercises complete creative and financial control over its productions.

"Now everyone wants to be a Ram Gopal Varma," said an old-time distributor on the eve of Kisna's release, "but you can only do one thing well... you can either set yourself up as a corporation and become a money man, or you can get down to the ground and focus on direction". He was referring to Varma's vaunted assembly-line production, which is called The Factory, cocking a snook at disbelievers to the Ramu credo.

Like in all other professions, it is easy to gather innumerable naysayers the minute you pile up failures. Varma's track record in the past year-and-a-half, post his very successful Bhoot has been rocky (Gayab, Vaastushastra, among others). Insiders point out that till the time Varma was concentrating on direction, he was getting two out of four right; now he is just handing out films to anyone who can sell him an idea.

The joke is that even a paanwala can walk into the Varma Factory, and if he manages to climb the ladder of assistants to presiding deity Ramu, he can get to direct a movie. But even his detractors admit that Varma's series of experiments good, bad or indifferent is, at the very least, trying to make a dent in the stronghold of the formula film. Trouble starts when someone like Ghai, who makes the same kinds of movies (spectacular scenery, winsome heroines, and speeches filled with patriotic flourishes), tries to become a Varma-like entity. Unable to think out of the box, he looks to fatten his bottomline with the movies he backs (Dhawan's Ek Aur Ek Gyarah, Abbas Mustan's Aitraaz), leaving him with no time to focus on his own movies.

After Pardes, he made Taal, which brought Aishwarya Rai further into mainstream focus. Despite a commercially weak hero, Akshaye Khanna, the movie was a hit. His heroine was presented well, his set-pieces were fabulous, and A.R. Rahman's music can still be heard on radio and television.

Then came Yaadein, in which he tried doing a father-daughter story set in London, singing praises of India and Indian culture as usual, and found the audience voting with its feet. By that time, trends were changing, and the demand for something novel was gaining ground fast. Yaadein reduced then super-star Hrithik to a tepid supporting role, and gave the fading Jackie Shroff too much space; the movie flopped, despite its music.

Kisna has neither a strong script nor music that will last. Leading man Vivek Oberoi has had a bad year, with his much-hyped Kyun Ho Gaya Na, which paired him with real-life heartthrob Aishwarya, tanking. Antonia Bernath and Isha Sharvani, the Kisna girls, have nothing much to do other than look pretty. With his latest, Ghai affirms what the industry has been openly saying about him after the Yaadein debacle... that he has lost his uncanny ability to feel the pulse of the audience and give them what they want; and that he should stick to doing what he knows best, if he wants to regain lost glory.

Old-style director Yash Chopra who has managed to keep up with the times thanks to Aditya, his 30-something, extremely media-shy son, has to take the doubtful credit for so many directors making the mistake of expanding their skill-base. Last week, at the Screen awards, the three 2004 Yashraj productions (Hum Tum, Dhoom and Veer-Zaara) zoomed away with more than 10 awards. People like Ghai forget that this production house is blessed with the commercially-safe instincts of Aditya Chopra. All creative carping is swept aside by an industry that worships only profit. And at Rs 150-crore plus, more than half of what all of A-list Bollywood films made last year, Yashraj Films is currently being envied and emulated.

What Aditya did with Dhoom and Hum Tum was to keep the reins of creative control with himself, something his directors, the unknown Sanjay Gadhvi, and Kunal Kohli, with one failed film behind him, were quite happy with. Both directors, fully aware of the prestigious banner, were more than amenable to being `guided' (Aditya's vision and flourishes are strongly imprinted in both the movies). Ghai, on the other hand, can't quite tell veterans Dhawan and Abbas-Mustan what to do. Like him, they will make the movies they have always made.

Looking at the trends of how financing and movie-making have gone last year, a clear lesson emerges for all wannabe production czars. It is not enough to have the money to finance movies, and act as benevolent godfather to aspiring directors. You have to have a strong sense of the contemporary, of what the youth that final arbiter of all taste wants, and the ideas that can successfully go from the drawing board to the screen.

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(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated January 28, 2005)
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