Yash Raj Films turns 50: A look at anti-heroes who made villainy fashionable, from SRK in Darr to Hrithik Roshan in War
From Shah Rukh Khan's twisted stalker in Darr to the swashbuckling bad guys of the Dhoom franchise, Yash Raj Films has given us some memorable anti-heroes.
Yash Raj Films, founded by late filmmaker Yash Chopra, is currently in its 50th year. The production house, popularly known for its romantic dramas and colourful palette, has experimented with its offerings over the years, particularly when Aditya Chopra took over. From stylised action dramas to films set in small-town India, YRF has brought many a flavour to the big screen. Through a series of throwbacks, we will celebrate the legacy of the production house across the year.
Had coronavirus not played spoilsport, YRF would have released five films this year, including Karan Malhotra's dacoit drama Shamshera, starring Ranbir Kapoor in the titular role. It would have been fascinating to see Kapoor play a grey character, that too as a daku, a popular Indian antagonist figure.
But as Abhishek Chaubey's Sonchiriya reiterated last year, a dacoit can be presented in the light of an anti-hero, rather than a full-blown villain, if he is as steeped in introspection as in dacoity. It is difficult to predict whether Shamshera would traverse a similar ravine, but assuming it does, Kapoor's character could be yet another addition to the indelibly memorable army of YRF's anti-heroes.
We adjust our rear-view mirrors, and look at some of these anti-heroes who made villainy fashionable.
Possessed by obsession
The first significant anti-hero arrived 23 years into the inception of YRF, with Yash Chopra's 1993 psychological romantic thriller Darr. After a number of ace actors turned down the role of Rahul, including most famously Aamir Khan, Shah Rukh Khan stepped in to play a stalker who chases a woman he claims to be in love with, Kiran (Juhi Chawla), who is the wife of Sunil (Sunny Deol).
It is difficult to imagine how Yash Chopra, the master of swashbucklers, could create such a dark, twisted character in Rahul. And how SRK, who would eventually make a career out of playing a swaggering romantic, could stare at Kiran with chilling redness in the same eyes which would invite the heroine with just a glimpse in subsequent films.
But Yash Chopra diluted the inherent darkness of a stalker movie with his Alps and Kashmir-set renditions of romantic songs. 'Jaadu Teri Nazar' and 'Tu Mere Saamne' were figments of Rahul's rosy imagination, in which he was seen romancing Kiran in all Yash Chopra glory. But even in his pristine romantic tracks, Yash Chopra kept the distinction between the hero and the villain clear through Rahul's gaze. The way he touched, or even looked at, Kiran would indicate how his is a dangerous unrequited love (?).
Despite such markers, SRK was lauded widely for his unhinged performance, much to the disappointment of Deol, who felt he got the shorter end of the stick despite being the 'hero'. Those were the times when the treatment of an anti-hero was more ambiguous. But SRK channeled an uninhibited streak that made the audience feel bad for his character when he is killed in the climax.
SRK claimed he could play the negative characters as convincingly as the romantic ones because he had a keen eye for obsession. Another YRF film that bears testimony to his rationale is Maneesh Sharma's 2016 action thriller Fan. SRK played a double role here, and both his characters were unabashedly obsessed. Gaurav Chandna was a young Delhi man, obsessively in awe of Aryan Khanna, a self-made star, a filmy version of SRK's real-life self, who moved to Mumbai from Delhi, and worked his way up to superstardom.
Gaurav's initial obsession was in the capacity of a fan. When Aryan did not take too kindly to his stalking, Gaurav became obsessed with a singular goal — to make Aryan say sorry to him. The star, who never approved of Gaurav's obsession, revealed himself to be similarly possessed with his ego. The film turned into a cat-and-mouse chase between the star and the fan, fueled by their respective delusions and agendas without blinkers.
In a telling scene, Aryan's manager Sunaina (Sayani Gupta) suggested he apologise to Gaurav because "wo pagal hai" (he is mad), to which the star responded out of spite, "Aur main? Main pagal nahi hun?" (What about me? Am I not mad?).
Before Fan, Sharma tried his hand at yet another anti-hero in the 2011 heist film-cum-romantic comedy Ladies Vs Ricky Bahl. Ranveer Singh, as a playboy-conman, carried on his mighty shoulders a character that aimed for the same coolth that spawned YRF's maiden super-successful franchise Dhoom.
Something shifted in YRF in the early 2000s when Aditya Chopra gained more control in the company founded by his father. Not only the language and textures of romantic films changed, but also there were new genres being injected into the banner's unrivaled-yet-homogeneous filmography.
With Sanjay Gadhvi's 2004 blockbuster Dhoom came YRF's first full-throttle action thriller. What looked like an urban cop drama on the face of it, Dhoom grew synonymous with its bad guys, who were cool not by imposition but through the superstar treatment and top-notch writing they received. When John Abraham's Kabir took off his helmet after a 'bike robbery' in Mumbai, a new-age villain was born. He was as swift and snazzy as his Suzuki Hayabusa. The motive behind his robbery transcended money, and he was too cool to be obsessed. He was just playing the game because he was a playa by choice.
Hrithik Roshan followed up as the anti-hero Aryan Singh aka Mr A in Gadhvi's 2006 hit Dhoom 2. Here, he was a lone wolf unlike the leader of a bike pack in the prequel. He got "the songs and the girl". Sundari (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan) was a far more worthy followup to Sheena (Esha Deol) in Dhoom. The love story was the focal point in Dhoom 2. Though that canonised the two baddies to some extent, their suaveness was only accentuated by the star-crossed romance.
However, Aamir Khan failed to strike the right note as the anti-hero in Vijay Krishna Acharya's 2013 money-spinner Dhoom 3. The film was lapped up by the audience but Aamir brought a lot of his indispensable heroism with him. The weapon of choice for his character Sahir Iqbal Khan (like bikes for Kabir, and disguise for Aryan) was his secret twin brother Samar, which gave the police the false impression of his omnipresence. But with a backstory that justified their villainy, Aamir's twin characters were reduced to heroes in a franchise that has celebrated its villains.
Spy gone rogue
On paper, Aamir had a far more cryptic character in Acharya's 2018 period action adventure Thugs of Hindostan. He played Firangi, a British empathiser who is serving as a spy among the threat force, led by Azaad (Amitabh Bachchan). But everyone knows how that film sank like a ship that never sailed.
The spy has also been a recurrent figure in the YRF filmography. It is not always awarded the superstar treatment but comes across as immensely relatable because of the human conflict involved. Take, for example, Kabir Khan's 2009 spy thriller New York. The spy here was actually Neil Nitin Mukesh's Omar Aijaz, who is recruited by FBI agent Roshan (Irrfan Khan) to keep an eye on the former's college friend Sam (Abraham), a suspected terrorist in the US. Tables turn when Maya, Sam's wife and Omar's love interest, reveals herself to be a co-conspirator with Sam. Propelled by deeply felt performances, New York was a thorough human story, unlike the filmmaker's next directorial.
Kabir Khan's 2012 romantic action thriller Ek Tha Tiger was designed as a snazzy fast-paced thriller, but not without a strong undercurrent of romantic rebellion. RAW agent Tiger (Salman Khan) and ISI agent Zoya (Katrina Kaif) turn on their respective agencies to elope with each other. In the eyes of the law, they may be first-rate criminals but their romance brought together the two warring agencies in an effort to kill the two traitors. Their anti-heroism eventually paid great dividends, without any intention on their part. But the sequel, Ali Abbas Zafar's 2018 blockbuster Tiger Zinda Hai, turned them into heroes again, pitted against Islamic terrorists.
In a more recent YRF spy thriller War, Hrithik Roshan's RAW agent Kabir went rogue in order to avenge the corrupt political forces of his country. In the process, he has to combat his protege Khalid (Tiger Shroff) as well before he realises that the latter is actually a spy in disguise. Notwithstanding the absurd, forced twists in the narrative, director Siddharth Anand gave both the actors a chance to flex their muscle as anti-heroes.
A YRF thriller more on the lines of New York, and less Rambo-esque, was Kunal Kohli's 2006 romantic thriller Fanaa. Like Ek Tha Tiger, this film also had romance come in the way of a spy's patriotic mission but it was a far more grounded affair. Rehan (Aamir), a Kashmiri terrorist, masquerading as a Delhi tour guide, falls in love with a blind woman Zuni (Kajol), while concealing his identity and true motive. Here, Aamir struck the right balance between taking himself too seriously (Dhoom 3) and not taking himself seriously at all (Thugs of Hindostan), and exposed the sheer ache of being torn between his mission and the desire to relinquish it for a better life.
Chor machaye shor
In the latest YRF film, Gopi Puthran's cop thriller Mardaani 2 last year, Rani Mukerji's character Shivani Shivaji Roy explains to her subordinates the motive behind the antagonist Sunny's (Vishal Jethwa) crimes. "He is the new-age villain. He wants to be famous."
Several films of the production house hovered around this ideology, when people from small towns or the lower middle class turn to crime, both petty and major, to make a name for themselves. The riches are a byproduct but the primary motive is becoming (in)famous. Parmeet Sethi's 2010 heist comedy Badmaash Company, Zafar's 2014 action thriller Gunday, and Shaad Ali's 2014 action comedy Kill Dil were some attempts at striking this idea, but none of them is even remotely as successful as Ali's 2005 crime comedy Bunty Aur Babli.
Rani Mukerji and Abhishek Bachchan patted each other on back and exchanged mischievous grins while reading about the "karname" of a couple named Bunty aur Babli. Both of them smiled at their realisation that their only claim to fame was their ability to rob. It still gives one a sense of overdue accomplishment despite the glaring knowledge that the achievement can land them in jail for good.
This year would have also seen the sequel of Bunty Aur Babli, as Rani and Saif Ali Khan (who replaces Abhishek) would have returned to the screens 15 years later, only to remind the audience of the several anti-heroes who made all the right noises.
For more from our series YRF at 50, click here.
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