Around this time 23 years ago, a film called Roop Ki Rani Choron Ka Raja (1993) was released after being in production for over half a decade. Within days of hitting the screen, it held the unique distinction of being both India’s most costly Hindi film ever made, and one of the biggest unmitigated flops of all-time.
While most professions celebrate the ambition to succeed, film-making would be the only trade in the world where an ambition designed to fail is also applauded. Besides being a great study of the sheer audacity and madness that often fuels Hindi films, Roop Ki Rani Choron Ka Raja (RKRCKR) also offers insight into how the ambition to make something ‘bigger than the biggest’ took a beating in popular Hindi cinema.
While the popular perception is that the failure of RKRCKR, made on a budget of Rs. 10 Cr., killed the genre of big-budget extravaganzas, the truth is that this colossal failure only confirmed a phenomenon that was first noticed a couple of years before it’s release.
Two years before RKRCKR released, the failure of Shashi Kapoor’s costume drama Ajooba (1991), which had a budget of nearly 8 Cr., had made it clear that ill-executed fantasy and the dependency on stars (the film featured Amitabh Bachchan as a masked super-hero along with Rishi Kapoor, Dimple Kapadia, and Shammi Kapoor) wasn’t going to work with the audience.
The 1990s had begun with the success of films such as Dil (1990), Ghayal (1990), and Aashiqui (1990) that had more than established the importance of music, new kind of stars and, at the very least, an execution that would help the narrative rise above the formulaic. RKRCKR was planned with the idea of recreating the magic of Mr. India (1987) and the presence of the same lead pair, Anil Kapoor and Sridevi, the same director, Shekhar Kapur, the same music directors, Laxmikant-Pyarelal, the same cinematographer, Baba Azmi, and the same writer, well, at least one-half as Javed Akhtar had professionally parted ways with Salim Khan — was seen as a sure shot way to rekindle the same.
The film was launched amidst great fanfare in 1988, but numerous delays saw Kapur leave the project midway. His one-time assistant, on both Masoom as well as Mr. India, Satish Kaushik, then took over the film. Even with Kaushik’s previous credits, which included writing the dialogues for the cult classic Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron (1983), there’s a world of a difference between Kapur and Kaushik as options for directors. What’s interesting is that Kapur’s departure didn’t change anything. Although it’s not clear how much of the film was shot while Kapur was behind the camera, Kaushik was given the same freedom.
Even the inordinate delays — some of which were caused by producer Boney Kapoor making a concession for Sridevi, who was working on Yash Chopra’s Chandni (1989) at the same time — the crew re-shooting outdated scenes didn’t force a re-look at the financials. By the time the film released, its budget had nearly surpassed 10 Cr. when the average cost of a film at the time was around 1-1.5 Cr.
The lavish sets stood for months, even years on a few occasions, increasing the cost of the production, but in all of this no one bothered to take a good long look at the department that housed the biggest problem. The film’s plot was always wafer-thin – and even though the extravagant sets, the stylized set-pieces along with some very well-executed action sequences (like the one where Anil Kapoor robs a moving train after landing on it from a helicopter) could have hidden the story’s inherent flaws, Akhtar’s screenplay simply couldn’t rise above the trappings.
At the time it was being made, the film was being seen as a hybrid of Jewel Thief (1967) and Johny Mera Naam (1970) along with some inspiration from the Goldie Hawn-George Segal starrer Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox (1976) as well as Sidney Sheldon’s If Tomorrow Comes (1986). In addition, the shadow of Akhtar’s own Haath Ki Safai (1974) loomed large over the execution, but in the end, everything about the film seemed familiar. The film’s predictability factor was at an all-time high throughout the screen time and the make-changes-as-it-goes-along element didn’t help.
RCRCKR's financial failure might not be comparable to Michael Cimino epic Western Heaven’s Gate (1980), which collected $3.5 million on a budget of $44 million and nearly bankrupted its studio, United Artists, but the changes that followed can be seen in the light as a Heaven’s Gate.
Would the film have met the same fate if Shekhar Kapur had been the director? Perhaps the ramifications of the failure would have been more. Intriguingly enough, Satish Kaushik directing RKRCKR would perhaps be a rare instance in the history of cinema, where one of the most expensive films was helmed by a debutant director. Kaushik’s disaster resulted in Hindi cinema saying no to big budget releases for nearly a decade.
The debacle of the Ajay Devgn produced Raju Chacha (2000), which incidentally was also directed by a debutant director, Anil Devgan, at a cost Rs. 25 Cr. once again raised the question of unbridled ambition. Had Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Devdas (2002), which was made on a budget of approximately Rs. 50 Cr, not been a resounding success, epic productions would have once again taken a backseat.
Today, spending Rs. 80-100 Cr. on an A-List film isn’t shocking and neither, at times, is the failure of such productions. The manner in which Bombay Velvet (2015) managed a take home return of just Rs. 10 Cr. on a rumored Rs. 120 Cr. plus budget doesn’t even sound shocking anymore. Take for instance a Rockstar (2011) earning Rs. 62 cr. on an 80 Cr. budget, a Ra.One (2011) making Rs. 120 cr. on a whopping Rs. 180 cr., a Kites (2010) Rs. 50 cr. collection against a budget of Rs. 70 cr., Besharam (2013) making a lifetime collection of Rs. 59 cr., on over Rs. 80 cr. budget, Mausam (2011) collecting Rs. 70 Cr against Rs. 75 cr., are prime examples of ambition overriding everything.
One could then ask what’s the difference between hits and flops like Love Story 2050 (2008) or Blue (2009) that made 12 cr. on 60 cr. plus budget and 54 cr. on a 100 cr. respectively?
The year that Roop Ki Rani Choron Ka Raja released was also the same that saw the release of Baazigar (1993), Darr (1993), Aankhen (1993), Damini (1993), Hum Hai Rahi Pyar Ke (1993) and although these might be hardcore popular fare, they nonetheless managed to stand apart.
Film-making wouldn’t be half as alluring a prospect as it is if the concept of succeeding against odds didn’t exist. The odds against RKRCKR hitting the bulls-eye were so high that had it succeeded, it would have become a go-to formula and somewhere its success would have been far more detrimental for Hindi cinema than its failure.
For one, it would have acted like a shot in the arm for the old school that simply refused to read the writing on the wall and continued to believe that in flashy locales and costumes along with a few songs and a couple of good action sequences type nikal jayegi (it’ll go through) attitude.