The many heads of Ra.One
There’s no doubt the film will make money. But there is something bigger at stake – brand SRK
On a summer day in 2006, Shah Rukh Khan and director Anubhav Sinha are driving around Los Angeles. Among other things, they are discussing a sweet and simple father-son story, but with a twist. Suddenly, SRK breaks into a smile. “That’s it! I can see it! The film is done, ready for release!” Sinha looks at him incredulously. SRK continues, a mad glint in his eyes, “Not only has it been released, picture superhit hai!”
Five years on, that story is one of the most ambitious, expensive and perhaps technologically complex Hindi films ever. And the success of producer-actor SRK’s Ra.One is a national debate.
“It is an enormous challenge for Shah Rukh.” says Karan Johar, perhaps SRK’s closest friend. “Not as an actor - because he has always pushed that envelope - but as a producer. Most importantly, it challenges Shah Rukh Khan, the star.”
How big is the film, really?
Ra.One has taken in at least Rs 150 crore in making (excluding promotions), though no one - neither SRK’s Red Chillies nor Eros - are willing to validate the numbers. Its nearest contender is Rajinikant’s Robot, which was made on a similar budget.
Ra.One’s crew has some 5,000 members, says director Sinha; from India, Italy and the US. The Director of Photography is Nicola Pecorini of Loathing in Las Vegas fame. The film is edited by Academy-award winner Martin Walsh (Chicago).
The film was shot in Goa, London and Mumbai in three phases. Early this year, SRK decided to convert the film into 3D, pushing up the budget.
Resul Pookutty was roped in to enhance the sound effects, and SRK took it upon himself to upgrade the sound system in select multiplexes across India. In an earlier interview to Mirror, Pookutty explained, “You see, RA.One is not just a movie experience… It requires a very unconventional sound and visual quality for which we’re installing the required equipment.”
The marketing budget for the film is said to be Rs 40 crore, which includes Rs 15 crore for online promotions - both said to be firsts for Indian cinema. Rs 14 crore has reportedly been earmarked for promotion on news channels a fortnight before release.
African-American R&B star Akon’s Chammak Challo in its six variations has been sitting pretty on the charts. In Delhi, Formula One icon Michael Schumacher will drive, a car bearing the film’s logo. Global pop phenomenon Lady Gaga may endorse the film at an after party hosted by SRK’s co-star Arjun Rampal.
And, there is also Rajinikant playing Rajnikant in a cameo. Mind it.
It’s my film, make it large
So how did the father-son story turn into what Johar says can “rewrite the textbook of computer graphics in Indian cinema”? At what point did the film start to challenge Shah Rukh Khan, the star?
Director Sinha says the biggest challenge was that he had no readymade comic-book superhero in G.One, SRK’s character. So, says Sinha, he and SRK spent months going through video clips, digital art portals and comic books. “SRK was very clued into this world,” says Sinha. “I picked up a lot of things in the process.”
It soon became apparent, says the director, that the battle between G.One and superbaddie Ra.One deserved epic treatment. The budget was revised; post-production became the focus. In the ensuing months, Sinha says he “remained underground”, immersed in the VFX studio “only to emerge occasionally and panic-striken”.
SRK, meanwhile, was managing Kolkata Knight Riders, getting booed at D Y Patil, battling a bad knee problem, getting less than glowing certificates from old friends, and embroiled in a stand-off with a political party over his Twitter remarks.
In between trickled reports of Ra.One’s ‘borrowed’ ideas, ‘runaway’ budget, post-production ‘niggles’ and box-office crystal-gazing.
There was something else too. Dabanng, Ready and Bodyguard, made on fractions of Ra.One’s budget, had smashed box-office records. The Baadshah was no longer up against himself, he was also up against his fiercest rival.
“Post Dabanng, Singham, Bodyguard, that have marked a return of the action hero, there is a lot of pressure on SRK to deliver,” says trade expert Amod Mehra. “While Ra.One’s music is doing great, and the promos look very promising, there could be an issue with the young audience responding to a 40-plus actor as a superhero.”
Mehra is quick to add that Ra.One will comfortably recover its costs in the opening weekend. But that doesn’t matter in no-losses-anymore Bollywood. Ra.One is more about brand Shah Rukh Khan.
Riding on brand SRK
Sinha, director of Dus who faces his biggest test as director with Ra.One, is worried. “There have been some serious investments in the film,” he says. “I want all the investors to make good on what they have put in.”
Three days before the film’s music launch, he nervously asked T Series’s Bhushan Kumar, “Music chalegi na?” There was a pause on the other end of the line, before Kumar, who has bought the music rights for a reported Rs 15 crore, replied: “Are you crazy? This is a Shah Rukh Khan film, it is bound to work!”
Kumar admits that he is banking on brand SRK. “While Akon is a huge international star, for our market, he is just a value add,” says the music moghul.
Celeb management company Madison Mates’s CEO Darshana Bhalla is busy stitching up endorsement and marketing deals. “You cannot spend Rs 150 crore if you are not sure of your product,” Bhalla says. “This man understands his market. He knows women love it when he opens his arms, and if he is trying out a different genre, he knows what he is doing. We are banking on SRK.”
For Eros International, the film’s distributors, math is simple. “Contrary to market buzz, the film is reasonably budgeted and it has immense monetisation potential,” says CFO Kamal Jain. “Some 40 to 80 per cent of the cost will be recovered from the pre-licensed content - distributed across platforms such as cable, digital, home theatre, etc - before the film hits the theatre.”
But the box office matters, he admits: “It is important for Ra.One to do well for us to pull up the top line margins. After all, it is one of the most prestigious films in our stable. This is the first true superhero film; it stands on an Indian core - good songs, humour, family drama. It is an out and out commercial product. No one other than SRK can carry this off.”
SRK to the challenge
The man at the epicentre of expectation is pulling out all the stops. SRK’s calendar is choc-a-bloc with appearances, launches, events. “There are FMCG brands, consumer electronics, media, all keen to be a part of the film,” says Bhalla. It helps, of course, that SRK is the face of several such products already.
Ra.One’s music launch was streamed live on a video-sharing site for an undisclosed amount. The star-studded music launch’s telecast rights were sold to a TV channel for a reported Rs 10 crore. Satellite rights have reportedly been sold for Rs 35 crore. Distribution rights are said to have been sold for Rs 77 crore. An electronics giant has bought a Ra.One game for Rs 5 crore.
Cast away doubts about youngsters and a 40-plus superhero. The film will be an SRK affair.
“Without giving away too much of the film, I can tell you that it has everything - song, dance, romance and love well integrated with the technology,” says Johar, who once quipped on TV that he knew if he could show SRK crying he had a superhit film.
Bhalla echoes Johar: “It is a commercial film, with a very strong emotional quotient. He is still the saviour, the protector women fall in love with.”
That could also be a good thing for the NRI market, where SRK stands taller than his films. Even then, industry voices say brand SRK may not have the same negotiating power for Ra.One as compared to his other release, Don 2.
“Don 2 is a proven franchise,” says a marketing veteran who was involved with two high-end brand tie-ins for both the SRK films. “One is willing to pay three times more for an in-film placement on Don2 than Ra.One, because there is a certain kind of scepticism around the [desi sci-fi] genre. Ra.One’s destiny will be decided in exactly two days. The idea is to encash the pre-release buzz, get your money’s worth as an investor before the audience gets to the theatre.”
Pressure on SRK?
Sinha maintains his producer-actor has rarely showed the pressure on the sets. “He was always smiling, full of energy and extremely patient,” he says, adding, “The only time one saw him crumble was when his close friend Bobby Chawla slipped into coma.”
SRK’s tweets, however, imply a mind possessed by an idea - “music sitting…sound sitting & baby sitting. so much sitting & my feet r killing me. been woken up by kids before i could sleep.”
“@nittmish its a big responsibility… to bring new technology and new genre in bollywood. kuch naya nahi kiya ton kya kiya?kya jiya”
“so tired can’t even hit the bed…cant hit anything. i feel a farishta (angel) watches over my source of energy & resilience. Thanx Allah.”
“overworked. overeaten.overunderslept.overquestioned. over & out time. will try & sleep. hope it rains tomorrow to wash away remains of today.”
SRK’s friends say he thrives in chaos. “It has been his dream to make this kind of a film,” says Johar. “And he loves this frenetic pace, he thrives in this kind of pressure. If everything was organised and peaceful, he would not be able to function.”
Besides the desire to make money - perhaps the only star honest enough to admit to dancing at weddings to make moolah - SRK is driven by an intense desire to be liked, observes a senior film writer close to the star: “With Ra.One, he has set himself up for a different test - make a film that will appeal to your inner child. It is a tough thing to do. And no one quite knows what is going on inside his head at the moment.”
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