Shah Rukh Khan’s ‘Pathaan’: Yash Raj Films CEO Analyzes Film’s Success, Expansion of Spy Universe, China Distribution (EXCLUSIVE)

Yash Raj Films’ “Pathaan” is the biggest Indian hit of the year so far grossing $130 million. The studio’s Akshaye Widhani also served as a co-producer on the film.

Part of the release strategy around “Pathaan” was keeping Shah Rukh Khan away from the film’s promotions, creating curiosity around the superstar’s comeback film, the first time he’d headlined a project since 2018’s “Zero.”

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“There was a lot of excitement and hunger to see India’s biggest movie star on screen after four years. We wanted to preserve that. So when we got into a room with him to talk about marketing the film, we all felt what if we went with a different strategy this time, which is less is more. So we hold back Shah Rukh, not have him seen pre-release, not have him interact with anybody pre-release,” Widhani told Variety. “But once the the film is out, then we come out into the media. That was a conscious decision and one that paid off well, because the whole excitement to go watch him on screen became even more, and the hunger increased when you didn’t see him. And it worked well for us.”

Also part of the strategy was to give the film a 100-country release, making it one of the widest openings for a Bollywood film. There are now plans to release the film across China, Japan and Latin America.

“‘Pathaan’ has given us an opportunity to take our films to a wider base, to go into non-traditional markets. And we definitely don’t want to lose that steam,” Widhani said. “When you get something right, you want to maximize on it.”

The studio has “Sui Dhaaga: Made in India” releasing in China on March 31. Widhani is bullish about the studio’s prospects in the China market and says that with the success of “Hichki,” which grossed some $17 million (RMB120 million) in the Middle Kingdom, its star Rani Mukerji has “tremendous equity” in the country. “Mardaani 2” would be the next of Mukerji’s films targeting a China release, Widhani said.

“From our markets, at least I think what they’re looking for are films that have the human connect – high on drama, on content and a family story. So let’s see,” Widhani said.

Widhani is a Yash Raj veteran, having served there for 18 years. A graduate of the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University, he joined the studio at the age of 22 as a studio manager, in charge of setting up operations for YRF Studios, in 2005. Thereafter, he worked his way up the ranks and took on leadership roles in corporate finance, strategy and operations. He was senior VP, finance and business affairs and head of operations, YRF Studios, before being elevated to CEO, Yash Raj Films.

Also starring Deepika Padukone and John Abraham, and directed by Siddharth Anand, “Pathaan” is part of producer Aditya Chopra’s spy universe, which also includes the Tiger franchise, starring Salman Khan and Katrina Kaif, and “War,” starring Hrithik Roshan and Tiger Shroff. The next film in the spy universe, “Tiger 3,” is due a release in November, over the Diwali festival holiday frame.

“The spy universe is going to play a big role in our future theatrical slate. And this ties into what ‘Pathaan’ taught us, where experiences need to be larger than life, I have to offer you something that you want to come to the big screen for. So we want to definitely build on that momentum. And hopefully, we’ll take this franchise and this IP to higher scales,” Widhani said.

“We’re still going to look for those hidden gems, which are scripts that are high on content that we believe still have theatrical equity. I’m very heartened to see the business of ‘Mrs. Chatterjee vs. Norway,’ it’s shown us again that you make a good film and good content wants to be consumed, no matter the medium. So people are willing to come to the cinema not only for the big screen spectacles, but even for high content films,” Widhani added. “I would say 50% of our theatrical slate would be the spy universe, big screen spectacles, and 50% of it would be high concept, high on content films.”

The studio’s first foray into streaming content, “The Railway Men,” is almost ready. Many more are in development with at least two more shows being planned for the next three years. The studio is adopting a licensing model where it will greenlight and produce shows and then look for streaming partners. Netflix’s “The Romantics,” which looked at the films of Yash Raj Films founder Yash Chopra and his legacy, was a hit for the service. Widhani does not rule out delving into other facets of the studio’s history for future shows.

“Pathaan” arrived as a much needed respite for Yash Raj Films after a difficult 2022 where its marquee films “Jayeshbhai Jordaar,” starring Ranveer Singh, “Samrat Prithviraj,” starring Akshay Kumar and “Shamshera,” starring Ranbir Kapoor all underperformed at the box office.

“2022 was tough. It was one of YRF’s toughest years. A lot of the content that released in 2022 was designed pre-pandemic. We were able to design a film like ‘Pathaan,’ which was actually the result of Adi [Aditya Chopra] realizing during the pandemic that our audience tastes have evolved. And today what I believe the Indian film industry needs more of is just good content. A star and a good story go hand in hand – it’s not either or, it’s both together. So, the winning combination now has to be a good film with a great actor. It will just do wonders,” Widhani said.

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