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Shah Rukh Khan, Katrina Kaif and Yash Chopra can't get it wrong. Not on Diwali day. Jab Tak Hai Jaan (JTHJ), Chopra's last directorial venture, which releases tomorrow, will be a blockbuster. That, says every trade analyst, is a given.
What isn't is the future of Yash Raj Films (YRF). Chopra died just three weeks before the release of JTHJ. "As far as the business is concerned, it will not be affected. The loss is of a brand, of the face of YRF," says Siddharth Jain, chief executive officer, iRock Films. "It (the company) won't just break because he (Chopra) is not there. The family was working closely," says one media mogul, close to the Chopras.
YRF's future matters not just because it is one of the top five studios in the Rs 14,000-crore film industry but because it is a brand name, a la DreamWorks or Pixar. The average film goer buys into a YRF film because it promises a certain kind of experience.
"Adi (Aditya Chopra, Yash's son) is in full control," says Jain. He is right. For more than a decade now, Chopra had not been active on the business side of things. "Yashji played the role of a mentor, a bouncing board, a guide. Over the last several years, Adi and the team have successfully driven and grown the studio and shall continue to do so in line with Yashji's vision," says Rafiq Gangjee, vice-president, marketing and communications, YRF.
Jain reckons that for the next 18 months, cash flow is not a problem because YRF has three big films, one with each of the Khans. Earlier this year came the profitable Ek Tha Tiger with Salman, now JTHJ and then there is Dhoom 3 with Aamir. Rajeev Masand, entertainment editor, CNN-IBN, agrees; "YRF sustains its own films and has rarely looked elsewhere for money. They don't pay sky-high prices for stars, they price their films well and they negotiate hard with the theatres."
However, the questions Chopra's death raises, say industry insiders, have to do with YRF's insularity, not its business.
From Yash Raj Films to YRF Studios
Much of the credit for converting a one-man production house into a studio a la Eros or UTV goes to Aditya. Soon after he debuted as a director in 1995 with the award-winning Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, Aditya took over the reins of the studio his father set up in 1970. The talented senior Chopra had made some of Indian cinema's biggest films - Waqt, Deewar, Kabhie Kabhie and Daag.
Aditya set up distribution offices abroad, took charge of domestic distribution, set up a music studio, a home entertainment division and studio facilities. In short, he made all the moves that would ensure YRF cut costs and captured the full value of its films. He nurtured a battery of writers and directors such as Jaideep Sahni, Shimit Amin and Habib Faisal among many others. Under Aditya, YRF scaled up from one film in two years to three-five films a year.
Soon, it was rocking. A 2004 survey by Hollywood Reporter listed the company as the number one distribution firm in India and the 27th in the world. At one point in 2006, every private equity investor looking at media wanted to pick up a stake. In an interview then, Chopra told this reporter he did not see the need for funds. One banker reckons that nobody has ever had a look at YRF's books.
That brings us to the more problematic part of YRF post Chopra.
The invisible Aditya Chopra
Its insularity and the extreme reticence of the man who runs YRF could cause problems which the company has not dealt with before. The face off with the release of Ajay Devgn's Son of Sardar and JTHJ is a good example. Earlier, such a scrap would have been settled behind closed doors, thanks to Chopra's goodwill. Aditya, however, is so reticent that he does not even attend parties thrown by his own team. He has given a handful of interviews and is rarely photographed. The joke in the industry is 'Does he exist?'
You could argue that this shouldn't matter, as long as he runs a good ship. But in an industry dominated by brand names and what they mean, a question many will soon be asking is "Who is the face of Yashraj Films?"