The occasion was the press show of Laaga Chunari Mein Daag. For once, we reviewers had shown up ahead of time (the publicity agent had warned us to be punctual). The guards at the gate looked us up and down and let us in, but then halted us a few metres past the entrance. We didn’t have clearance to proceed. After a few awkward moments, we were led to the foyer of the building that houses the preview theatre, but were not allowed to go further. The head of publicity for the studio imperiously dismissed protests that we had deadlines to meet. We were finally let in.
Cinema vérité? Yash Raj Films tackles the ‘real’ subject of terrorism with glossy stars.
Laaga turned out to be only the latest in a long line of stinkers that the studio had been releasing into the air. Since we had made it past the gate with our most potent weapon of mass destruction— our brains—intact, we let fly.
Yash Raj Films (YRF) hasn’t relaxed its security drill, but a few cracks have appeared in the facade in recent months. The studio finally has friendly publicity officials in place, and it seems to be willing to concede some ground to the same media that had marvelled at its thumping box office successes a few years ago. YRF is also probably hoping that the paying public that had rewarded its film-making adventures in the past would return, erasing memories of such films as Jhoom Barabar Jhoom, Neil ’n’ Nikki, Thoda Pyar Thoda Magic and Tashan. YRF’s latest release New York may even give detractors of the studio’s superficial romances and unfeeling dramas something to think about. New York, directed by Kabir Khan (Kabul Express), is an attempt to find an Indian side to an American problem. It’s about three Indian students in New York on 11 September 2001. One of them is arrested and tortured in the post-9/11 crackdown because he’s a Muslim, and their friendship is severely tested. It’s, like, a serious movie.
New York will probably be touted as proof of its producer’s boldness in experimenting with unusual subjects. My own expectations are a bit low because of the cast involved (John Abraham, Katrina Kaif, Neil Nitin Mukesh, thespians all) and a nagging irritation about the choice of subject. How far do you need to go to find Muslims being subjected to systemic abuse? How about Surat? Or Srinagar?
New York’s release doesn’t come at an easy time for YRF, one of the most mythologized banners in Bollywood. The company has suffered a loss of face and shrinking bank balances over the last two years, which is all the more shocking when you consider its string of successes between 2004 and 2006. Until its movies began to tank in 2007, starting with Ta Ra Rum Pum, YRF had the recipe for success down pat. Pick a safe subject that will appeal to Indians both resident and non-resident. If the subject is risky, soften the blow. Take Fanaa (2006), in which Kajol’s good Kashmiri Muslim balances out Aamir Khan’s home-grown jihadi. Run through the list of genres (drama, romance, rom-com, action, animation). Cast bankable stars, ensure glossy production values and winning soundtracks, shoot at good-looking locations. Control the media exposure to and coverage of the film. Rinse and repeat.
Films such as Aaja Nachle and Thoda Pyar Thoda Magic (Neil ’n’ Nikki is another story altogether) weren’t terribly offensive. But they were unusually boring. The average YRF film is synthetic and airless, and seems to be part of an ongoing experiment to understand the ways of the box office. The entertaining Dhoom had dollops of spontaneity. Its sequel was much more calculated but still made more money than the first one because all the planets were perfectly aligned. But it’s hard to maintain this level of planning and precision.
One of the studio’s most enduring films isn’t its recent hit Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi, but Chak De! India. The movie threw a few surprises the audience’s way (Shah Rukh Khan cast against type, no heroine to wrap his arms around, hockey). Director Shimit Amin went beyond the insistent patriotism in Jaideep Sahni’s screenplay and gave us that rare YRF product—a film that is passionate, vivid and respects the audience’s capability to handle unpredictability.
New York released on Friday.