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Friday flashback: When Rohit Shetty used the 'patriotic' card to make his entry in Hindi cinema

As his latest entertainer Simmba hits the theatres, we look back at the director's debut 15 years ago with Zameen (2003), a film that lacked many of the present-day Rohit Shetty trademarks.

Keyur Seta

Rohit Shetty is today synonymous with larger-than-life multi-starrer entertainers with grand locations, colourful costumes, outlandish action and slapstick comedy.

The filmmaker has earned this reputation on the back of a number of hits like the Golmaal franchise, All The Best (2009), Singham (2011), Bol Bachchan (2012), Singham 2 (2015), and so on.

However, his directorial debut 15 years ago was nothing like these films.

The early 2000s saw a glut of action-packed patriotic sagas with jingoistic Pakistan-bashing dialogues. Sunny Deol was the poster boy of this brand of cinema. It started with his blockbuster Gadar: Ek Prem Katha (2001) and was followed by films like Indian (2001), Maa Tujhe Salaam (2002) and The Hero: Love Story Of A Spy (2003).

A few other filmmakers, as is the industry's wont, performed what is best described in Hindi as ‘Behti Ganga mein haath dhona’, or going with the flow, making films of a similar nature. One of these was Shetty’s debut Zameen, produced by NR Pachisia.

Starring Ajay Devgn, Abhishek Bachchan, Bipasha Basu and Amrita Arora, the film was about a group of Pakistan-based terrorists who hijack an airplane and threaten to kill the passengers if the Indian government does not release terrorist Baba Zaheer (Mukesh Tiwari), who is in prison. 

Devgn played a soldier with the typical name of Colonel Ranvir Singh Ranawat. Col Ranawat takes it upon himself to rescue the passengers and give a fitting reply to the terrorists. With some hesitation, he ropes in ACP Jaideep Rai aka ‘Jai’ (Bachchan) for the mission. He has his doubts about Jai since the latter had developed cold feet in the past during a less dangerous mission. No prizes for guessing how the film ends.

Zameen had none of the characteristics by which a Rohit Shetty film is recognized today. In fact, it was in a different zone. Though the film was entertaining, it was far more serious. The film dealt with a serious incident that threatened the lives of more than 100 passengers. There was also a subplot about the games politicians play, something Shetty has avoided ever since.

The film certainly had action, but the fights and stunts did not fall in the ‘fun’ category. They were more realistic, at least by Shetty's current standards. 

More importantly, Zameen had a number of emotional scenes. The melodrama was at its height when Pankaj Dheer’s character urges everyone to believe that Islam doesn’t support terrorism.

Zameen also featured an unabashed 'item' number, 'Dilli Ki Sardi', which became quite popular. Interestingly, Shetty has never felt the need for a similar song-and-dance number ever after.

Despite following the formula of the day, Zameen did only average business at the box office. Shetty has never made another film on a 'serious' subject or 'current' topic. He followed up with Golmaal: Fun Unlimited (2006) three years later, a madcap comedy starring Devgn, Arshad Warsi, Sharman Joshi, Tusshar Kapoor, Paresh Rawal, Sushmita Mukherjee and Rimi Sen.

His next, Sunday (2008), did not work at the box office, but Golmaal Returns (2008), which was released the same year, was a resounding success.

With the second Golmaal also clicking with audiences, Shetty now saw himself mainly as a crowd pleaser. He followed up with a series of entertainers in All The Best: Fun Begins (2009), Golmaal 3 (2010), Singham (2011), Bol Bachchan (2012), Chennai Express (2013), Singham Returns (2014), Dilwale (2015) and Golmaal Again (2017).

All these films had different storylines, but they had the typical Rohit Shetty elements — big stars, grand scale, colourful visuals, gravity-defying action, witty dialogues and PJs, slo-mo shots and car stunts.

The last point has become synonymous with Shetty. His films feel incomplete without a dramatic car chase or stunt. In fact, it won’t be wrong to say that cars have become characters in his film. He uses them not only in action scenes, but also during romantic and funny moments. 

The emergence of social media saw innumerable posts and memes on Shetty’s obsession with cars. People made good-natured digs about this even in stand-up comedy shows.

Either because of this or to avoid becoming predictable, the filmmaker did not include car stunts in Golmaal Again. There was just one scene in which a car falls from a cliff, and even that was an important part of the story. It is said that his latest offering Simmba also has limited use of car stunts. 

Coming to the genre of Shetty's films after Zameen, it could be argued that Singham and Singham Returns had serious plots. But these two films were also marinated in a strong portion of masala and were larger-than-life entertainers with even the villains displaying a dash of humour.

As is evident from the trailers, Shetty has stuck with what works for him in Simmba, starring Ranveer Singh and Sara Ali Khan. It is a no-brainer that the filmmaker is in no hurry to return to his Zameen ways.