When Rohit Shetty steps on the set of any of his movies, he rips off (or, perhaps, more gently removes) his day clothes and slips on his Superman cape. We aren’t saying this. He does. Before you peg him as “typically Bollywood arrogant”, listen to why he likens himself to the original superhero. Shetty, 40, isn’t in this for his 15 minutes of fame. “I don’t react to anything—success or criticism. I’ve trained myself over the years to have zero reactions,” he says.
He comes, does his bit and goes back to his own world. At the end of every day, the saviour of the box office goes home as Clark Kent.
Censured by critics and devoured by middle-class audiences quite unfailingly for a decade, Shetty is B-town’s most sought-after director today with A-list producers and actors vying to work with him. According to Forbes India estimates, he is the highest paid as well.
Following the record-breaking success of Chennai Express, a film that gave a fresh lease of life to actor Shah Rukh Khan’s career, Shetty has retired to the solitude of his plush office in suburban Mumbai to get on with his tenth film in as many years. You start anew with every film, he says. Only three months after delivering his seventh successive hit, the workaholic Shetty is browsing through the 150th draft of his next project Singham 2.
For a man whose films are ostentatious, there’s a certain understated air about his personality. He’s usually unfazed by bouquets and brickbats and this is sometimes misconstrued as arrogance. He doesn’t read newspapers. He doesn’t keep track of his films’ earnings. He doesn’t tune into speculations. He doesn’t attend parties or premieres. “I don’t focus my energy on these things because in our business you will always be remembered by the last Friday,” says Shetty who has few interests beyond films (he likes his sports cars and flashy tattoos).
Despite his matter-of-fact attitude, he savours special calls like the one he received from Rajinikanth after Singham. “I couldn’t believe it. He said he loved my film. It was one of the high points of my career,” says Shetty.
It is a career that is dotted with several highs. The only filmmaker, since Manmohan Desai in the ’70s-80s, to give seven mammoth hits in a row, Shetty is now synonymous with box-office glory. Touted as the “president of the Rs 100-crore club” and a director who is “critic-proof”, Shetty attributes his success to his instincts about the audience.
He has an ear to the ground and is acquainted with the trials and tribulations of lower-middle-class families and their desire for “a few good laughs” and nothing more. “We’re not Hollywood; travel 100 kilometres from Mumbai and the audience is not the same,” he says. “My critics go to Starbucks, read the news, interact with like-minded people and think that is the end of India. They do have a taste and a sensibility but the world is not them. The world is my audience.”
Shetty’s early life is inseparable from what he is today, and the connection that he stitches with the audience is a result of that.
Son of legendary fight master and villain MB Shetty (popularly known as Fighter Shetty), he decided very early that he would join the film industry “to be like my father”. But calamity struck when he was 11; his father died, leaving behind a family of four. With no money for rent, the Shettys moved to the far-northern suburb of Dahisar (“almost a village then”) to live with Rohit’s grandmother. His mother took up work as a junior artiste at Natraj Studios in Andheri (the film hub) while Shetty boarded a Virar local every morning to get to his school (St Mary’s High) in Santa Cruz. Later, when they moved to Malad, he would walk two hours to Natraj when he ran out of conveyance money.
“It was a culture shock because when I was born we had everything. My father was the biggest and the most popular action director of that time,” Shetty says. “We had seen the glamour, glory and money. And then everything just vanished.”
When he was in the tenth standard, he started working as an assistant director with Kuku Kohli who was making Phool Aur Kaante
. That was 1991 and he was 16. “I quit studies because we didn’t have money for my college fees,” he says. Does he regret that decision? “I wouldn’t encourage that. Education is very important. When I see films like Rang De Basanti
or 3 Idiots
, I feel I am not educated enough and will never be able to make such films,” he says wistfully.
With Phool Aur Kaante
began his enduring association with Ajay Devgn who was making his debut in the film. “Ajay and I gelled very well. We had a father connection. His father [Veeru Devgan] and mine were friends. He too was the son of an action director,” says Shetty.
Devgn remembers Shetty as “one of the most hard-working boys” he had ever met. “I saw a lot of promise in him. I had immense faith in him that the day he gets a chance, he will make a good film,” he told Forbes India
in an email.
On the sets of Phool Aur Kaante
, Shetty came under the tutelage of Veeru Devgan who was choreographing the stunts in the film. “I learnt many techniques from him which we use today. Veeruji
used to tell me, ‘It’s in your blood’. That’s how the journey began,” he says.
At the turn of the millennium, Ajay Devgn launched his production company with mega-flops like Dil Kya Kare
and Raju Chacha
. Shetty served as assistant director for both films. Raju Chacha
was a big budget film and incurred a huge loss. “Ajay had to shut down his company for two years. He wanted to pay off everyone first,” says Shetty. “But then we said we’ll do another film which I’ll direct. And that’s how we wrote Zameen
[Shetty’s directorial debut].”****Zameen
(2003), conceived in the backdrop of the hijack of a Kandahar-bound Indian Airlines flight, took two years in the making. “There were too many hassles with the production. We had accidents on set. We didn’t even have the budget to hire a Boeing,” says Shetty. Zameen bombed at the box office and it took Shetty nearly eight months to realise that. “In those days you didn’t come to know about the fate of a film on the opening day itself. And I was young and not well-connected enough.”
The period between 2003 and 2006, when Shetty managed to turn the tide with comic caper Golmaal, was tumultuous. He says, “I started working on a script. No actors wanted to work with me. Production houses didn’t want to sign me.” But he never gave up. “I had to make another film. That’s the only thing I knew.”Golmaal
(2006) was a series of happy “accidents”. Filmmaker and theatre personality Neeraj Vora narrated a play (Aflatoon
) to Shetty one afternoon. It was a superhit play from the ’80s about four guys living in a shanty who would go on to take refuge in a blind couple’s house. “I went to Ajay and said I wanted to make this into a film,” says Shetty. Devgn liked the idea. Around the same time a new production company—Shree Ashtavinayak Cine Vision, owned by Dhilin Mehta—appeared on the block and signed Rohit Shetty and Imtiaz Ali for its launch projects.
Shetty chuckles, “I still don’t know why they signed two flop directors. Imtiaz had made Socha Na Tha which tanked. And I had made Zameen. The whole industry was laughing at Ashtavinayak. But Ajay convinced them about Golmaal
.” Devgn says, “When we heard the script of Golmaal, we all freaked out and said, let’s go ahead with this! That’s where the journey with comedy started.”Golmaal
reinvigorated Shetty’s career and was the first instalment of what would become a hugely successful franchise that cemented his reputation as the king of slapstick comedy. The humour in his films was harmless and clean, which family audiences could enjoy. He was strictly mainstream, aligned to the “safe genre” of comedy.
was followed by Golmaal Returns
(2008)—which Shetty calls his “most mediocre work till date”—All the Best: Fun Begins
(2009) and Golmaal
3 (2010) which catapulted him to the coveted Rs 100-crore club. With soaring success came equal-part fanfare and flak. While audiences lapped up his films, critics dismissed them as “insufferable” and “more than nonsensical”. The hackneyed phrase "mindless entertainment" came to define his oeuvre. Shetty says, “When you have given a hit, people want to work with you. But critics still pan you. They don’t realise if you get into an Udupi restaurant, you won’t get pasta there.”
Filmmaker-screenwriter and critic Khalid Mohamed observes, “Commercial cinema has no style as such. In Shetty’s films one thing isn’t related to the other. Anything can happen anytime and that, in effect, is his style.”
Shetty considers Golmaal 3 a landmark in his career. “Comedy was always a safe genre. But we took it to a different level in Golmaal 3
and made it a saleable business. Shah Rukh called to say he loved the film and we should work together,” he says. Khan later called Shetty “a brand” and considered himself “fortunate” to have worked with him in Chennai Express.
It was while working on Bol Bachchan
that Shetty realised he was sliding into a comfort zone. He was now a household face courtesy his stint as a television judge and he felt more responsible towards his audience. “The kind of love I got from people for Golmaal 3
made me wonder if I was taking them for granted by only giving them comedy,” he says.
While waiting for his Bol Bachchan crew one afternoon, he ended up watching a Tamil film (Singam
), whose DVD was given to him by one of the producers, Reliance Entertainment. Shetty’s eyes lit up— he wanted to remake it into a Hindi action film. “Watching Singam was another accident like Neeraj Vora coming to me with Aflatoon
,” he says. Singam
had to be massively tailored for the north Indian audience because Shetty “thought the second-half was very loud”. His trusted associate Ajay Devgn came on board and Reliance Entertainment, which was struggling after twin disasters Kites
, agreed to produce the film despite initial reservations. Singham
(2011) stormed the box office and went on to garner stupendous satellite ratings. The director of Singam
, Hari, congratulated Shetty on the successful remake. The film was screened for CRPF and CISF forces across the country. The then Mumbai Police Commissioner Arup Patnaik thanked Shetty for the film. “People love you for Golmaal
but they respect you for Singham
,” says Shetty.
With Bol Bachchan
(2012), Shetty accomplished his lifelong dream of working with cine legend Amitabh Bachchan, albeit only in an item number. “Shooting a song with Mr Bachchan was one of the best days of my life. And the biggest compliment I got was when he called me to his van and said, ‘Let’s do more work together’,” says Shetty.
“Shetty’s films are very entertaining,” Bachchan told Forbes India in a chat. “They're good fun.” But he also says that comparisons with Manmohan Desai, who had a string of superhits with Bachchan, “are odious”. “It takes credit away from what Rohit Shetty has achieved and what he [Desai] achieved in the past,” he says. ****
After seven hits including four Rs 100-crore grossers, Shetty has become an institution of sorts. Veteran filmmaker Shyam Benegal observes in a Khalid Mohamed documentary that “Shetty has his own school of filmmaking”.
What distinguishes Shetty from his new-wave contemporaries is his disdain for nuance and a disregard for critical appreciation. He has his finger on the pulse of his audience and the astounding success of his films hasn’t gone to his head. Shetty succeeds because he doesn’t try to prove a point, says Devgn. “He makes films for audiences [and] not to prove a point that he is a great director or he is trying to make a great film,” he says.
Nor is he affected by what the fraternity perceives him to be. “Negative reactions are always within the industry… with trade pundits, analysts, critics, but never with the audience. If you don’t fall into that vicious trap, you’ll be successful. And that is what I have done,” Shetty says.
He knows that nobody can go on making hit films—what goes up, comes down. “I have given seven blockbusters but I started with a flop. So it doesn’t bother me anymore,” he says.
(This story appears in the 27 December, 2013 issue of Forbes India. You can buy our tablet version from Magzter.com. To visit our Archives, click here.)