Going ‘off’-track: When the best directors veered off their groove    

Vijay Sethupati in Merry Christmas. The film has not done well, but retains Sriram Raghavan’s touch. Photo: Universal Communications

When I had met Yash Chopra for an exhaustive interview, he had told me that he had compromised on his subject when he chose to make Vijay (1988) as a then-trendy story with action mixed with emotions. “I was depressed after its failure, and passing by the city at night, and told myself that I was not going to do this anymore. I was going to go back to my forte—romance—and soon, Chandni was born!” he confided.

Many a director has thus veered off their own métiers either out of commercial compulsions or the need to try something different. But very few succeeded. Hrishikesh Mukherjee made a fairly tangy sex comedy (!) way back in 1972 in Sabse Bada Sukh and tried out a classy whodunit in Buddha Mil Gaya a year earlier, but faced public brickbats and rejection respectively.

Raj Kapoor and Guru Dutt went into self-indulgent as well as self-pitying modes in Mera Naam Joker and Kagaz Ke Phool respectively, and though they made what are considered classics in hindsight, they were panned at that time, and there is a school that considers the former as a “faulty” film.

On the other hand, a formula filmmaker like Nasir Husain got accolades when he made his only socially-relevant film, Baharon Ke Sapne. Though widely believed to be a flop, it actually did average business and was only seemed to be a failure compared to the great business most of his other films did. Shakti Samanta changed lanes from crime thrillers with Aradhana and was highly applauded and largely made socials since. But few others triumphed when they changed tracks.

Of late, the most promising directors in the millennium have all had their “off” moments with films that are exceptions to the “rule” of their special abilities. And for me, the qualitative downslide matters more than the b-o. picture, though in one case, there was a box-office calamity, not a climb-down in caliber. Here’s looking at them.

Rajkumar Hirani’s films from Munna Bhai MBBS to Sanju had an ascending box-office graph. Photo: Publicity Photo

Rajkumar Hirani / Dunki

Dunki simply did not have the class (or mass!) appeal of Hirani’s earlier films Munna Bhai MBBS, Lage Raho Munna Bhai, 3 Idiots, PK and Sanju. The film may have worked better overseas but the Indian b-o. has not been up to Hirani standards. The earlier films had an ascending graph as far as public endorsement was concerned. More relevant: Dunki got a fair share of negative reviews and feedback from audience. And for Hirani, mixed reviews had never happened before!

Sriram Raghavan has excelled in thrillers. Photo: Universal Communications

Sriram Raghavan / Agent Vinod (2012)

Merry Christmas has not worked, just as Sriram’s debut film two decades ago, Ek Hasina Thi. But it still retains Sriram’s magical thriller touch that was also clear in his first film, which, perhaps, was ahead of its time. His second film, Johnyy Gaddaar (2007) was a near-masterpiece that too would have probably done good business a decade later. Sriram found a box-office connect only with Badlapur (2015) and AndhaDhun (2018).

But his biggest film, Agent Vinod (2012) was the one that was totally out of his groove. A complete compromise in sensibilities, it was co-produced by Saif Ali Khan, his first hero, who had been impressed by Ek Hasina Thi. Clearly, mainstream action with a good chunk of illogic and formula entertainment wasn’t the director’s cup of beverage!

Neeraj Pandey’s hit web series, the Special Ops franchise, followed the same pattern as his only flop film, Aiyaary, proving that his content was correct, but not the big-screen medium, for such a story. Photo: Neeraj Pandey

Neeraj Pandey / Aiyaary

Now here was a case similar to Kagaz Ke Phool: it was the long length and experimental (as admitted by the director) format that did Aiyaary in at the b-o window. Many loved the film, including leading lady Rakul Preet Singh’s army officer dad, and I even watched the patriotic espionage thriller twice in the theatre. Neeraj’s other films were magical at the box-office, and though he had aced the thriller genre with A Wednesday!, his smash debut, Special 26 and Baby, he had triumphed also with the sports biopic, M.S. Dhoni: The Untold Story.

The conclusive proof that the medium, rather than the content, was “off” in the case of Aiyaary was, however, demonstrated by the fact that Neeraj’s subsequent web series—Special Ops and Special Ops 1.5—were hugely loved with similar detailed narration. Undaunted, the versatile Neeraj is now experimenting with a musical love story transcending eras—Auron Mein Kahan Dum Tha.

Rohit Shetty has had an incredible connect with the audience. Photo: Publicity Photo

Rohit Shetty / Cirkus

The man has an incredible record, cum thrillers or comedies, for over two decades now. Rohit’s least-successful films are Sunday (2008), a lackadaisical thriller, and Dilwale (2015), in which his heart was not there finally, as per his own confession later. His debut film, Zameen (2003), however, later proved a whopping success on TV even as it did not do well when released.

But the true-blue disappointment from him was in Cirkus (2022), a rather banal reworking of A Comedy of Errors. The situations and levels of humor were pathetic for a filmmaker who was known for uproarious comedy in the Golmaal franchise, All The Best and Bol Bachchan. Rohit has manfully admitted that he went wrong.

Except for Agent Vinod, all of Nitesh Tiwari’s directorials have been milestones in Hindi cinema. Photo: Nitesh Tiwari

Nitesh Tiwari / Bhoothnath Returns

Clearly, market compulsions were at work in Bhoothnath Returns, an otherwise well-made and quirky drama. Firstly, the concept of the importance of voting was something that should not have been the core point of a children’s film, as kids are not eligible for voting. The film had all the standards plus-points of Nitesh Tiwari’s movies intact but additionally went wayward in the last half hour because of the focus on elections and everything related to them.

This intrepid, sensitive and versatile director has otherwise never gone wrong, right from his debut with Chillar Party (2011) to Dangal, Chhichhore and now Bawaal. Nitesh’s forte lies in excellence in whichever genre he chooses and his ability to make a strong comment on various aspects of society though realistic entertainment.



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