King of spices: The Rohit Shetty paradox
His films serve up masala and thrills, hyper-masculinity and problematic politics. Crores pour in, but the mix is off-balance, says Anupama Chopra.
Last week, on the fifth day after its release, Sooryavanshi crossed the ₹100-crore mark, becoming the first Hindi film to enter that coveted club since Tanhaji in January 2020.
Sooryavanshi is director Rohit Shetty’s 14th film. Of these, nine have made more than ₹100 crore, and three — Simmba (2018), Golmaal Again!!! (2017) and Chennai Express (2013) — have made more than ₹200 crore. Rohit is the closest thing Bollywood has to guaranteed success. Thanks to him, after an 18-month Covid-induced crisis, the Bollywood megahit is back. I saw a Twitter hashtag that said #ShettyIsOurSaviour.
I have a contentious relationship with Rohit Shetty’s cinema. He is one of the few practitioners of the art of the masala movie. Today, the grammar and tone of Hindi cinema veers toward the more naturalistic. Characters and speech are more life-like, and grandiose villains are rare. But Rohit approaches masala filmmaking with precision, commitment and sincerity. His aim is to deliver a very specific kind of cinematic high to his audiences.
One of his signature moves, for instance, is the hero’s entry. Each one is carefully choreographed, down to the actor’s walk and the low-angle camera that makes his leading men look even more towering. Rohit showcases his male leads with the love and passion with which Yash Chopra presented his heroines.
The cop universe that Rohit has created is a celebration of hyper-masculinity. Singham (Ajay Devgn), Simmba (Ranveer Singh) and Sooryavanshi (Akshay Kumar) are all upright, courageous saviours. Sooryavanshi risks his son’s life to protect the city from terrorists.
The women in Rohit’s films are inevitably afterthoughts. Even a star as big as Katrina Kaif is reduced to decoration in Sooryavanshi. The highlight of her role is the item number Tip Tip Barsa Pani, in which she dances feverishly in the rain, draped in a silver sari.
The politics are even more problematic. These films gleefully celebrate encounter killings. All three cop characters are trigger-happy and ready to murder if they decide that is how justice is best served. In Simmba, the cop creates an elaborate ruse to shoot two rapist brothers while they are in jail. Sooryavanshi ends with the three men (Kumar, Devgn and Ranveer Singh) gunning down terrorists who have already been captured. The heroes then walk away in slow motion, triumphant.
Rohit’s films are blunt-edged instruments in which men in uniform can do no wrong.
And yet the power of these films is undeniable. Like many of the people in the theatre, I too cheered when Singham made his entry in Sooryavanshi, and laughed at Ranveer’s antics as Simmba. Rohit has an instinctive flair for delivering a good time. My biggest grouse with Sooryavanshi was that the ride wasn’t thrilling enough.
I admire Rohit’s journey. He started out as an assistant director in 1994 and has forged his own path to stardom. I also admire his work ethic. The credit in his films always reads “Rohit Shetty and Team”. And neither Rohit nor his crew is deluded about what they are creating.
In interviews, he has told me about analysing the failure of Dilwale (Shah Rukh Khan, Kajol; 2015). He said, “We had a board meeting on what went wrong and what should not happen again.” He has described Golmaal Returns (2008) as a “horrible film”. The honesty is refreshing.
Most of all, I admire Rohit’s commitment to pleasing his audience. He told me frankly once: “I know you will never give me more than two stars but I don’t care because you are not my audience.” Rohit’s connect with viewers is formidable but he doesn’t take them for granted. Rohit Shetty and Team are constantly striving to construct a rewarding movie experience.
My hope is that the storytelling will also become more progressive. Rohit has talked about creating a female cop film. I look forward to that.