Sons of Bollywood

Is the Shah Rukh Khan-Ajay Devgn rift for real or just a publicity stunt?
Rivalry
CASE OF COLD VIBES Shah Rukh Khan and Ajay Devgn have never worked together in a film

Diwali fireworks have begun early in the Khan and Devgn households this year. Ajay Devgn’s Son of Sardaar, co-produced by Ajay Devgn Ffilms (ADF), and Shah Rukh Khan’s Jab Tak Hai Jaan, produced by Yash Raj Films (YRF) and directed by the late Yash Chopra, are both slated for a Diwali release on 13 November 2012. Both stars have gone on record saying they have no mutual enmity and this is just a fight between two production houses. But theories abound of the two middle-aged stars preferring to kiss a frog than shake hands with each other. That the producers of SoS had filed a complaint on 18 October—three days before Chopra’s death—with the Competition Commission of India (CCI) about YRF, the makers of JTHJ, has only sent rumour mills working overtime.

Is there a bigger, personal war being fought here?

On the face of it, not really. Speaking to the media on his 47th birthday, Shah Rukh Khan said he was thankful he was not directly involved in the legal tussle between producers of the two films. Referring to the allegation of Ajay Devgn’s production house that YRF had used its market dominance—by bundling its earlier release Ek Tha Tiger with JTHJ—to obtain disproportionate screen space for JTHJ at the cost of SoS, Shah Rukh Khan said, “I was reading all about it today. But there are enough screens in the country. The notice is a legal matter and thankfully my production house is not involved in making the film.” He categorically added: “But I hope they resolve all the problems quickly and both the films do well at the box office. I have no problem with anyone.”

THE GENESIS

A common friend of the two stars remembers seeing them recently at Karan Johar’s 40th birthday party. “They were very cordial and greeted each other,” she says, “It’s not like they had a long conversation, but if there is any fight, it was not evident then. But then they are two big stars and are aware that at a KJo party the media is out in full force and there are so many other industrywallas, so they will not air their differences unless they want to make them public.”

Devgn himself has said he does not understand why the media is hyping the release of the films as a personal fight between two stars when there is no such thing. “Shah Rukh Khan and Ajay Devgn as actors are not involved here,” he told NDTV recently, “Ajay Devgn as a producer is doing whatever he is doing with another production house. Honestly, it is not about SRK and myself. The media is making it sound like we have a fight. It has never been like that. It is not about two actors at all, and I hope and pray both films do well.”

This is not the first time Devgn has taken the trouble to explain that he is not at war with SRK. When the Devgn-starrer Halla Bol released in 2008, it kicked up a storm with one scene in which a ‘Khan’ is mocked for dancing at the wedding of a character named IN Mittal. A few years earlier, SRK had danced at the wedding of steel magnate LN Mittal’s daughter. “I don’t feel that we have hurt anyone’s sentiments through this film… It is only the media that has told people that Aamir Khan and Shah Rukh Khan are annoyed with me. The two actors have never conveyed this to me,” Devgn was quoted as saying in a newspaper then.

But common sense suggests that what Devgn says in public about Shah Rukh Khan and vice-versa has to be taken with a pinch of salt. They are just being diplomatic. The truth is a star would want a rival’s film to flop, especially one released at the same time as his. This was evident in 2007 when the release of Ranbir Kapoor’s debut Saawariya clashed with SRK’s Om Shanti Om. Khan had said, in Bollywoodesque mock aggression, that he would “destroy” Saawariya, no less.

A well-known film industry person has a bold theory about the prime cause of the tension in the Shah Rukh Khan-Ajay Devgn relationship. By this narrative, Ajay and Kajol started dating in 1995 during the making of their film, Hulchul, followed soon by Gundaraj (neither film did well at the box office). Their romance blossomed. But Kajol’s first film with Shah Rukh, Baazigar, had been a huge hit just two years earlier. The two were paired again in Karan Arjun, which too was a hit, and then they appeared in the record-smashing Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (1995). This run of success established them as Hindi cinema’s best on-screen couple of the times, and the world of Page 3 started talking more about their ‘chemistry’ than the Ajay-Kajol romance. Then SRK-Kajol went on to do Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998), which was again a success. Kajol did work on some films with Devgn just before and after their 1999 marriage—such as Dil Kya Kare (1999) and Raju Chacha (2000). These did not do well at all commercially. But in 2001, she and SRK again conquered the box office with Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham. All this, according to a source, was rather difficult for Devgn to deal with.

Says an industry veteran who has worked in the post-production teams of both Devgn and SRK films: “They have never quite seen eye to eye. It started at the time Ajay was dating Kajol while she was doing many films with SRK and their ‘chemistry’ was being spoken about everywhere. Also, they never moved in the same circles or did similar films.”

Nevertheless, Kajol did well to separate her professional life from her personal. There was never any gossip of a romance between her and Shah Rukh. She had been dating Devgn, and SRK was married to his pre-stardom sweetheart Gauri, as he still is. Says a source who claims to be impartial: “Whether they like each other or not, it did not stop Kajol from continuing to work with SRK. Even after Halla Bol, Kajol and SRK worked together in My Name is Khan (2010). Obviously, Ajay has been supportive of her. If there was such a big fight between him and SRK, would Kajol have gone against her husband?”

There is a point there. But there is no doubt that the competition between Devgn and Shah Rukh is intense. One story goes that when Devgn found out that SRK was the only guest Karan Johar had invited solo on Koffee with Karan, he made sure he was the second person to be invited solo on the TV show. Says a youngster who was part of the show’s backstage team, “The joke going around was that KJo’s friend Kajol called him up and made sure Ajay was the only guest for the show. If you had seen it, it was apparent that Karan was a bit daunted by Devgn’s reputation of flying off the handle. There were no trademark KJo jibes during the show, and no uncomfortable questions asked. And while Ajay was asked about his views on every other hero and peer, including Salman and Saif, SRK’s name was kept out.”

ALTERNATIVE APPEALS

Shah Rukh Khan and Ajay Devgn’s careers have been a study in contrast. As actors, both started and evolved in different ways. They even began at two extremes. SRK was an anti-hero before DDLJ shot him up the romance chart. Devgn was an action hero.

The articulate and witty SRK who claimed to read Dostoyevsky, among other authors, had a relatively urbane fan following. Ajay appealed to sons of the soil. He was like Bahadur, the Indrajal Comics character. With time, though, their careers slowly started converging, at least in terms of the kind of cinema they attempted (if not success). SRK moved rapidly from his Darr, Baazigar and Anjaam days, graduating to romantic leads in Dil Toh Pagal Hai, Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge and Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, before moving on to more complicated and mature roles in Devdas, Veer-Zaara, Swades, Chak De! India and My Name is Khan. He has even tried humour in films like Ra.One, but his goofy sense of humour does not seem to work in India.

Devgn, four years younger, earned early fame with films such as Kanoon, Haqeeqat, Jung, Vijaypath and Diljale. Though not good-looking in the conventional sense, Devgn had a quiet masculinity that worked for him. But in recent years, Devgn too has taken on comic roles (the Golmaal franchise, Halla Bol and Atithi Tum Kab Jaoge) and complex characters (The Legend of Bhagat Singh, Omkara and Singham). Gone are the longish hair, stubble and mismatched clothes of his earlier films. Today’s Devgn is somewhat more sophisticated. The slight frown and half-smile he now sports has him smoulder in a way rather different from the manic show of angst he was once noted for.

Somehow, the two have never done a film together, despite each having worked with several other actors. Devgn has worked with both Salman Khan (Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, London Dreams) and Aamir Khan (Ishq) in his over two-decade-long career, but never with Shah Rukh Khan.

Devgn has a habit of calling a spade a spade, a virtue that does not always endear him to some of his co-stars. On Koffee with Karan, he took digs at almost everyone, including his friend Salman (when KJo asked him what he was likely to find in Khan’s bedroom, he said “dumb bell(e)s”). He did not spare Ranbir Kapoor, Mahesh Bhatt and Saif Ali Khan either. And when Johar asked him why some of his co-stars did not like him, he replied, “I can’t be that honest.”

SHADOW FISTFEST

Shah Rukh Khan and Ajay Devgn may have avoided working together in a movie, but now they are releasing their big-budget films at the same time. That SRK & Co are not ready to take ADF’s legal manoeuvre lying down is amply evident. After all, big box-office money is at stake this Diwali. A day after ADF slapped YRF with its charges, the latter issued a statement of defence: ‘All exhibitors, when approached by us earlier this year for booking their theatres, were happy to play out Yashji’s movie considering their long-standing emotional relationship and goodwill with YRF for over 40 years. A Yash Chopra/Shah Rukh Khan movie, coming after a gap of eight long years, did not need any coercion for contractual screening.’

ADF’s lawyers hit back with a counter statement: ‘A producer cannot be allowed to enter a tie-in arrangement which adversely affects competition.’

For the record, several months ago, YRF had struck a tie-in deal with exhibitors that it does not deny. Under this two-in-one deal, the studio offered exhibitors its Independence Day release directed by Kabir Khan, the Salman Khan starrer Ek Tha Tiger, bundled with Yash Chopra’s yet-untitled SRK starrer (since named Jab Tak Hai Jaan) as a Diwali release on the condition that the latter be given at least a two-week run of four daily shows. Multiplexes can run multiple films, but, by ADF’s charges, single-screen exhibitors had their pick of Diwali screenings pre-determined for them by this deal. ADF has argued that such a deal violates India’s Competition Act, 2002, and that ‘YRF is trying to hide behind its dominant position in the film market’.

The CCI, however, has dismissed ADF’s complaint on lack of ‘merit’. ADF has made noises about contesting it, so this may not be the last one hears of it.

Is this a genuine conflict over a point of competition law? Or just an open-and-shut case of pre-release gimmickry by which both these big-budget films can gain a bigger box-office draw?

Controversy often generates enough noise in the media to assure such embattled films bigger than usual openings. Clearly, JTHJ is not short of publicity, given the boost that Yash Chopra’s death has assured it. That this is SRK’s first Chopra-directed film since Veer-Zaara (2004) has been tomtommed all over the media. “So,” says a Bollywood source, “to shift some eyeballs to the SoS camp, ADF may have resorted to sending its legal notice as much as a warning to YRF as to ensure that [popular] interest in SoS is kept alive and it does not fall behind.”

With both JTHJ and SoS set to hit movie screens on the same day to cash in on an extended weekend, trade analysts expect both to do very well.

KAJOL’S SCREEN TEST

Whether she likes it or not, it was inevitable that Kajol’s name would be dragged into the controversy. But she cannot hope to stay entirely aloof. She will have to take another tough call the day the two films open.

YRF has planned a tribute to Yash Chopra with a presentation of all the leading ladies of YRF films over the ages. That includes Kajol, who will have to share a stage with SRK even as hubby Ajay Devgn growls at the studio’s power. As this war of words rages on, all eyes will be on her.