Ahead of The Big Bull, evaluating Ajay Devgn's record as a producer, from Parched to Bhuj: The Pride of India
Suppressed under the weight of chest-thumping vanity projects like Shivaay, Singham 2, and Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior, there are also minor gems by Ajay Devgn Ffilms in Parched and Aapla Manus.
Back in 2016, two heavyweight, big-budget Bollywood films were slated for release on the sought-after Diwali weekend: Ajay Devgn’s home production Shivaay, starring himself as the lead, and Karan Johar’s Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, starring Ranbir Kapoor, Anushka Sharma, and Fawad Khan. Before the high-profile box office clash could play out, however, 17 Indian army personnel were killed in a militant attack at Uri, Jammu and Kashmir.
Three weeks before D-day, Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena declared that they would not allow the release of Ae Dil Hai Mushkil in the state, warning cinema owners their establishments would be vandalised if they did not toe the line. The issue, predictably, was the casting of Fawad Khan, a Pakistani national. It did not make much sense, but then faux-nationalistic jingoism seldom does. In any case, Johar buckled under the pressure almost immediately. He released a video on social media platforms, wherein he beseeched Thackeray and the audience to give Ae Dil Hai Mushkil a chance. A group of Bollywood producers even met Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh, assuring him that in the future, Pakistani actors would not be cast.
What did Devgn and wife Kajol do, meanwhile? In a cynical bid to capitalise on the heightened atmosphere, they began to amplify the ‘bona fide Indian’ (and also, Hindu) credentials of their film Shivaay on Twitter and in interviews. The message was along the lines of “support the film that has 100 percent Indian cast and crew”. But it went a little bit beyond the India-first shenanigans. In the film itself, Devgn plays the titular role, a Shiva-worshipping mountaineer. Since Devgn is a rudraksh-wearing Shaivite in real life, it was not difficult for Devgn and Kajol to dog-whistle Shivaay as the Hindu Indian (and therefore preferable, in the eyes of the bigot) counterpart to the Pakistani Muslim enterprise of Fawad Khan and Ae Dil Hai Mushkil. That Kajol, who had made several cameo appearances in Johar’s movies down the years, joined in on the dog-pile was a little surprising at first. But it does not take long for Bollywood loyalties to be realigned.
Devgn’s career as a producer has tended to revolve around vanity projects like Shivaay — whether it is the chest-thumping Marathi manoos cop in Singham Returns, the wildly Islamophobic historical drama Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior or presumably, the upcoming Bhuj: The Pride of India, another 'nationalist' project set around a chapter of the 1971 Indo-Pakistan war. The common thread that runs around these films is the signature combination of hyper-masculinity combined with Marathi/Hindu/Indian statist nationalism. There are also several ‘leave-your-brain-at-home’ comedies on the Devgn production roster, like Bol Bachchan and Total Dhamaal.
Devgn’s next big hope is Kookie Gulati’s The Big Bull, starring Abhishek Bachchan as a character based on the infamous Harshad Mehta, the stockbroker involved in some of India’s biggest financial crimes of the 1980s and 1990s, whose exploits indirectly led to a change in the Indian law. Gulati and Devgn have a tough act to follow, since Hansal Mehta’s SonyLIV show Scam 1992 was also based on the stockbroker’s life — and it was widely hailed as one of the best Indian web shows yet.
But The Big Bull could herald a new phase for Devgn as a producer, shades of which are not entirely unfamiliar to the audience.
The other Devgn
Since 2016, there has been a definite strain of Ajay Devgn productions that try to focus on storytelling basics and doing something off-the-beaten-track as far as Bollywood is concerned. The first of these was Leena Yadav’s Parched (2016), starring Radhika Apte, Tannishtha Chatterjee, and Surveen Chawla. This was the story of how three women living in a Rajasthani village negotiate the ubiquitous, patriarchal forces, and customs/traditions that stifle their lives. Parched received generally positive reviews across the spectrum.
In a rare moment for an Ajay Devgn production, it also earned plaudits from Western publications like The Hollywood Reporter and The New York Times. In the latter’s review, Glenn Kenny wrote: “Despite the appalling circumstances and events it depicts, the movie’s plain and unstinting affection for its lead characters gives Parched a frequently buoyant tone. Ms Yadav’s frames are always filled with bright colour, and the editing maintains an almost infectious rhythm as the characters move toward whatever self-determination they can find.”
In 2018, Devgn produced Helicopter Eela, an offbeat dramedy starring Kajol as a single mother who attends her son’s college in order to complete her education. The film was co-written by Ship of Theseus director Anand Gandhi, and based on a Gujarati play he had written. Helicopter Eela had its moments (Kajol showing off her comedic chops in a few laugh-out-loud moments) but ultimately, the screenplay lost steam in the second half. Even so, it was a sign that Ajay Devgn FFilms (the extra ‘F’ to compensate for the missing ‘a’ in ‘Devgn’, no doubt) was looking beyond things like salability and mass appeal and focusing on telling a good story first and foremost.
2018 was also the year when Devgn’s first forays outside of Bollywood took place. Marathi film Aapla Manus (2018) starred Nana Patekar in a double role, and was, just like Helicopter Eela, based on a theatrical production, the Marathi-language play Katkon Trikon by Vivek Bele. Patekar played the dual roles of Aaba Gokhale, an old man living with his son and daughter-in-law, and Inspector Maruti Nagargoje, the cop investigating what appears to be a suicide attempt on Gokhale’s part. Some of the melodrama in this film reminded me of the saccharine, moralising Amitabh Bachchan drama Baghban. Even so, the film was a critical and commercial success, and was hailed as one of Patekar’s finest performances, alongside Natasamrata, another 2018 Marathi production.
Perhaps it was the success of Aapla Manus that convinced Devgn to look at other, non-Bollywood territories across India. Soon enough, the Punjabi remake of Singham was released in August 2019, starring Parmish Verma as DCP Dilsher, the Singham analogue. It is not beyond the realm of reason to see local iterations of Singham turning up across India, wherever movies are made. Especially since the so-called ‘Rohit Shetty Cop Universe’ is only expanding, with the Akshay Kumar-starrer Sooryavanshi releasing later this year.
The Big Bull and a strategy for the future
As mentioned earlier, The Big Bull has a tough act to follow after the success of Scam 1992. Devgn, of course, is no stranger to this precise sequence of events — multiple biopics about the same person, released in quick succession. After all, back when Devgn played the titular role in Raj Kumar Santoshi’s The Legend of Bhagat Singh (2002), there was not one but two other Bhagat Singh biopics competing for the audience’s attention. Sonu Sood and Bobby Deol were both starring in Bhagat Singh films of their own, and both of these were released in the same month (Deol’s on the same day). Eventually, of course, this meant that all three films had a below-par performance at the box office.
Things are a little different in the streaming era but arguably, they are even more cut-throat. Scam 1992 remains one of the most-streamed titles in India, largely owing to its overwhelmingly positive word-of-mouth feedback (and for the average viewer, word-of-mouth still holds precedence over any number of algorithmic suggestions). The Big Bull has its task cut out, and then some.
Moving forward, Devgn can do worse than to look at the production careers of a couple of his colleagues. Aamir Khan, for example, produced the surprise hit Secret Superstar in 2017. This film was a near-perfect example of how the presence of major stars can be used strategically in both the film itself, and more importantly, the film promotions. Khan had a fairly small role in the movie but he never let that slip during the promotional phase. And he has always been one of India’s most media-savvy producers anyway. Remember how he expertly milked the controversy around the song 'Bhaag DK Bose' from Delhi Belly? The song ran into trouble because of the “obscene” double entendre in the lyrics. It seemed Khan was ubiquitous in those days, singing the song at press conferences and panel debates on news channels, never failing to see the funny side.
That a small, predominantly English-language film became one of the success stories of the year was because of more than the quality of the final product — it was also a successful, canny Bollywood operator using the perfect media storm to his advantage.
But really, the perfect role model for Devgn is someone like Anushka Sharma, who I believe has the most stellar production career among contemporary Bollywood stars. Look at her track record: it is well nigh impeccable. She has produced four films till date: NH10 (2015), Phillauri (2017), Pari (2018), and Bulbbul (2020). Each of the films is different from the other, and yet, the latter three have a certain thematic consistency: in an earlier article, I had called them Sharma’s ‘fairytale’ trilogy, for they try to (with varying degrees of success) subvert fairytale tropes along gendered lines. I found all of these films very impressive indeed. And to top it off, Sharma also produced Paatal Lok, the Amazon Prime Video India Original show that regularly features on ‘Best Indian streaming shows’ lists, and for good reason.
Devgn, too, must think about the kind of stories he wants to bring to Indian screens. From the money brought in by films of the Singham kind, he should try and fund ventures like Parched. After all, there is more than one way to build a legacy.
The Big Bull starts streaming on Disney+ Hotstar Multiplex from 8 April.
All images from YouTube.
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