Shah Rukh Khan's Pathaan, Salman Khan's Tiger, Hrithik Roshan's Kabir: YRF spy-verse and the burden of superstardom
To establish a multiverse of super-spies, YRF’s big challenge would be to rid the films in question of starry image trap.
Salman Khan as Tiger practically drops from the sky to bail out Shah Rukh Khan’s Pathaan during a spectacular action set-piece, and fans can’t get enough. The highlight scene in SRK’s new starrer Pathaan ends with a disclosure from Tiger that literally brings the house down: He’ll be back in some time for a major mission, Tiger tells Pathaan, and he’ll need Pathaan’s help then. The obvious reference is to Salman Khan’s yet-untitled upcoming Tiger 3, and the promise of SRK’s character Pathaan featuring in that film is exciting enough for fans of both superstars.
There’s more in SRK’s new film that suggests Yash Raj Films are clearly opening up the scope for a Bollywood multiverse of spy thrillers. There is mention more than once of Hrithik Roshan’s agent Kabir from the banner’s 2019 blockbuster War. Ashutosh Rana, who played the RAW handler Colonel Luthra in War, returns to reprise his desi Nick Fury avatar in Pathaan. Katrina Kaif’s Zoya from the Tiger series crops up in a conversation, too.
A spy-verse’ flaunting the Bollywood cream — with space to add many more characters and, in turn, more saleable stars — would seem like a lucrative idea for YRF, and in sync with the global fad of combining two or more films or film franchises to form a fictional cinematic universe. A common ‘Thanos’ for all these Bollywood superheroes in a pop patriotic setup would invariably be the subject of terrorism, which always provides reason to engage in VFX-rich action gala and never fails to heighten fan frenzy if marketed the right way. The box office run of these films has so far been good for YRF. Salman Khan’s first Tiger adventure Ek Tha Tiger, released in 2012, collected over Rs 334 crore globally according to the trade website Bollywood Hungama, and ended up biggest Hindi hit of the year. The film’s sequel Tiger Zinda Hai raked in over Rs 564 crore worldwide in 2017. The Hrithik Roshan-starrer War was the biggest Bollywood film of 2019 with a global intake of Rs 475.5 crore. Pathaan, after opening with a haul of over Rs 50 crore on a non-festive, mid-week day one, is predicted to touch the Rs 200crore-mark in its opening weekend, at the time of writing.
That’s well-begun for YRF’s spy-verse, but the real challenge would start now. In Bollywood, where screen image towers over all, it could become difficult sustaining a cutting-edge spy thriller multiverse starring male superstars whose priorities will always be sticking to the safety zone of what sells. Every one of our top stars tends to play out the same tricks film after film, year after year for decades, invariably falling into the trap of repeating what worked once.
Amusingly, therefore, an actor’s body of work, seen in retrospect over a period of time, starts appearing like a franchise in itself, of similar roles. One could argue Shah Rukh Khan has radically moved over to a mass-oriented turf with Pathaan, an over-the-top extravaganza loaded with played-to-gallery violence and drama. Look closely, though, and the actor is only essaying an amped-up version of his signature screen persona as Pathaan. Most of the popular antics and expressions that made him a superstar have cleverly been written into the film. Given the film’s phenomenal opening figures, it seems to be working in his first mass market espionage adventure. Can such a departure from set image work for the superstar every time?
The truth is Bollywood’s deshbhakt secret agents— whether it is Pathaan, Tiger or Kabir — has to be written in a way they fit the respective superstar’s style and image. Salman Khan’s Tiger, for example, is wholly created to accommodate the actor’s trademark deadpan screen disposition just as Hrithik’s superspy Kabir has to be a dashing machoman who can dance, like almost all his other roles. Writers at YRF might well run out inspiration for fresh ideas after the first few films of the spy-verse.
Then there’s the problem of content, too. Screenplays for spy sagas in Bollywood are almost invariably centred on a couple of themes —cross-border terror infiltrating from Pakistan and a sinister plot to wreak havoc on our country. While these themes never fail to interest fans, they don’t work anymore unless given an original twist. Pathaan actually banks on both these themes, to weave a threadbare storyline that stays predictable despite the narrative’s rapid pace. The fact is the film has garnered hype not because of a clever story but because SRK makes a comeback in a lavish action package.
The fact is our spy flicks have started looking the same, too. In the case of Pathaan, the obvious reason could be it is directed by War helmer Siddharth Anand. But then, War, too, looked like sundry Hollywood espionage thrillers. The treatment an average Bollywood spy film gets is an overdose of elements bearing influence of Mission: Impossible and the James Bond films, with Jason Bourne basics thrown in.
For YRF, the plus point is Bollywood fans have been opening up to the multiverse concept over the years ever since the Hollywood comic-verse, particularly MCU, found mass market here in dubbed languages. The spy-verse as a box office experimentation would appear to be well-timed for as of now fans are primed for such crossover franchising. Over the past years we have had Rohit Shetty setting the tone with his cop-verse hits. Ajay Devgn’s Singham films were followed by Ranveer Singh in and as Simmba, and the two actors played out their roles as cameos in the Akshay Kumar-starrer Sooryavanshi. Shetty has indicated such cross-franchising will be a regular feature for his cop hero films. Last year’s biggest news in Bollywood was the launch of Karan Johar’s‘ Astraverse’ with Brahmastra. Elsewhere, Dinesh Vijan initiated a horror-comedy franchising effort after Stree, with Roohi and Bhediya. While Rohit Shetty has struck gold each time so far, the box office outcome for the others has been mixed.If YRF are to establish their spy-verse, their stakes would seem much higher given the massive hype their superstar secret agents command.
Vinayak Chakravorty is a critic, columnist, and film journalist based in Delhi-NCR.
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