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Some stories are surely best narrated backwards. Like my conversation with Bollywood’s hit machine Rohit Shetty. I wrap it up by casually asking him about his next film with Shahrukh Khan and, probably, Kajol: “Will it be a comic romance like Chennai Express, or are you going to try out something new with the two?” Rohit promptly bursts into laughter. “Are you joking? How can I ever think of doing anything ‘different’?” That last line is his good-humoured, self-deprecating dig at a key thread of our exchange—the danger of getting trapped within one’s own trademark cinema. Rohit is boxed in such a cinematic pigeonhole, but willingly, even joyously.
First things first: Rohit is Bollywood’s director no. 1, leagues ahead of his immediate competitor (see box). “Not only is he a most prolific filmmaker but consistently successful and has been able to bridge the masses-multiplex divide, especially with his comedies,” says Delhi distributor Sanjay Mehta. “He knows the audience’s pulse, can judge them well,” says actor Dayanand Shetty, the popular Daya of TV serial CID, who plays a key role in Rohit’s latest blockbuster, Singham Returns. Significantly, Rohit is a star unto himself, one who can pull in the audience by virtue of his directorial name alone, not of the star faces who populate his films. “Through Golmaal, Singham and Chennai Express he has created three big franchises. People have also been seeing him on TV reality shows like Comedy Circus and Khatron Ke Khiladi,” says Shailesh Kapoor, CEO, Ormax Media, a media monitoring agency. And he has no qualms about sticking to a fixed formula that’s behind his mammoth success. He knows the expectations of his loyal audience, has never gone askew on them, nor does he want to. “When the audience thinks of a Rohit Shetty film, they fantasise about blown cars, large-scale action, drama and dialoguebaazi,” he says. And he will never disappoint them.
It’s a formula thrashed by critics as ‘mindless entertainment’, one whose only logic is to deliver Rs 100 crore at the box office. Rohit, however, is unruffled; he is aware of and impossibly comfortable within these creative limits. What he does stress on is the mathematics and method behind the supposed madness. “I have a brand of cinema associated with me which may seem frivolous, which you may dismiss as a commercial potboiler but a lot of hard work goes into its making,” he says. So a whole year went into designing the action of Singham Returns. It was prompted by the fact that the predecessor, Singham, had spawned similar action-dialoguebaazi films. “We had to craft a fresh film with the same central character for the same audience. So I took up contemporary issues from TV news but gave them a commercial wrap. I decided to get more real with action—to closely approximate how shootouts would look in a city like Mumbai,” Rohit says. But the product couldn’t be made as totally raw, dark and bare. Or else Rohit’s audience would have felt rather cheated.
The film has worked, logging in Rs 100 crore in five days; it took the best opening ever for a Hindi film with Rs 32.09 crore on the first day. Despite delivering such astounding numbers it’s still not time for Rohit to take off for a vacation. Much of his time is going into further honing that Shetty formula. These days, it’s all about watching the movie, in different theatres with different audiences, to figure out what worked and what did not for the benefit of the next venture.
There are rules which Rohit never transgresses. The comedies eschew vulgarity—whether skin show or double entendre. The action flicks are always sanitised of grisliness and gore of the torn limbs variety. Those flying cars and shootouts play out more like animation than in-your-face ultraviolence. “In fact, we toned down the colour of blood in Singham Returns,” he claims. All because it’s not just the youth he seeks out with his movies, but the entire family, including women and kids. He knows they are the reason why there can be no Rohit Shetty film without cars smashed like accordions, or blown up in a hail of torn steel. “The kids love them and I can’t bear to disappoint them,” he says.
The son of Shetty, the famous bald villain and fightmaster of yesteryears, Rohit began his career when he was only 17, as an assistant in Kuku Kohli’s Phool Aur Kaante. He regards it as his biggest advantage. “I got trained through two eras of filmmaking, the ’90s—an era that reflects in the grammar of my movies, but couched in noughties technology,” Rohit points out. The biggest influence, however, has been his own father. “I was born to action,” he says. Being a Bollywood kid, he couldn’t imagine contemplating a different profession. “Other kids’ fathers go to office at 9 and come back in the evening. Ours go for shooting to the sets. Through our fathers we see life as an adventure, on a larger-than-life scale,” he says. For him, his father was not an ordinary man, but a superhero. He can sense his own son seeing a superhuman quality in him.
Like Superman, Rohit does his job on the sets, and then does a vanishing act by which he turns into his alter ego—a private family man, just like Clark Kent. Rohit doesn’t socialise and keeps away from parties. Not much is known about his personal life, except his tattoos and fascination for fast cars. And that his closest associate and a permanent fixture in every film is Ajay Devgan, son of another old fight-master, Veeru Devgan. He lets you in on a bit more. That he still tries to catch every Friday release. But if he misses out on a film, he waits till the original DVD is released. There have been separate sets of favourite films at different junctures in life. But Vijay Anand’s Jewel Thief and Johnny Mera Naam are perennial pets. Current darling, however, is Abhishek Verman’s Two States. “Even at 41 there’s lots to learn from the younger lot.”
So at 41, in a decade called the Teenies, is he the new-age Manmohan Desai, a title previously bestowed on David Dhawan in the ’90s? Kapoor thinks it’s still a little too early: “He will need to give another three-four hits. Desai is remembered because film after film, he created a unique grammar. We see no signature beyond flying cars in Rohit Shetty’s films yet.” Golmaal 4 and SRK’s next might get him that stamp of approval. Not that Rohit Shetty would care.