The YRF Spy Universe

The concept of the cinematic “universe” is not limited to the comic-book worlds created by Marvel and DC. Nor, indeed, is it limited to Hollywood. One of the most commercially successful such entities is hardly known in the West, despite being a product of the largest cinema industry in the world, as measured by the sheer number of movies produced a year. This is, of course, Bollywood. The series in question was created by Yash Raj Films, the YRF of its name, and the five films to date have grossed more than $400 million, the vast bulk in its home country. That may sound small beer – less than Barbie on its own. But the average cinema ticket in India is about $1.40, a tiny fraction of the $10.81 average cost in the United States. At wholly US prices, the YRF Spy Universe would have taken in over $3 billion.

It was not originally intended as such. When Ek Tha Tiger came out back in 2012, starring Salman Khan as the eponymous hero, it was a standalone entity. Successful, certainly, to the extent that five years later, Khan reprised his role as an agent of RAW, the Indian foreign intelligence service. The result was Tiger Zinda Hai, a story inspired by real-life events, the 2014 abduction of nurses by ISIS forces, and whose box-office revenue exceeded the original film by almost forty percent. Even when War came out in 2019, with Hrithik Roshan as rogue agent Major Kabir Dhaliwal, there was no overlap in characters to the pair of Tiger films. Though it’s fair to say it occupied similar genre territory: wheels began to spin at YRF…

Worth noting they weren’t the first Indian company to try this. For example, Rohit Shetty’s “cop universe”, linked by Ajay Devgn’s portrayal of DCP Bajirao Singham, began with 2011’s Singham. However, its revenue, individually and collectively, has been significantly surpassed by their espionage colleagues. The first rumblings from YRF came out late in 2020, as the studio prepped for Pathaan, starring Shah Rukh Khan. Sources at the time said, “Tiger would make a small appearance in Pathaan and vice-versa. This would make the audiences familiar about the YRF Spy Universe and that all these characters belong to the same world”.  Though it wasn’t until January 2023 that the concept was officially launched, retrofitting the previous three films into the universe.

The previous reports proved accurate, with Tiger having a small role in Pathaan, the film also bringing in the Colonel Sunil Luthra character from War. This well-received crossover was followed with the roles being reversed in Tiger 3, where Pathaan showed up to help rescue the hero there. Colonel Luthra appeared here too. It’s a trend which seems set to escalate going forward. Next year’s War 2, will see both Pathaan and Tiger show up alongside main character Kabir. Then, in 2026 we are scheduled to see Tiger vs. Pathaan, which I imagine is exactly what it sounds like: a full-blown face-off. If Western equivalents like Freddy vs. Jason are any guide, it will leave neither set of fans satisfied.

Beyond that, the eighth film is rumored to star Alia Bhatt, perhaps familiar from RRR as the franchise’s first female lead. It will be interesting to see how that goes down in India. Action heroines there tend to have been more support to the male heroes, outside of a few female cop movies. Given there’s a section of society in India which is… well, a bit touchy, in a way which makes the worst edges of Western fandom look like choir-boys, I’m sure they’ll love this. We’ll cross those burnings in effigy when we get to them.

Over the next week or so, I’ll be reviewing all five entries released so far. To be clear, what follows is from a Western perspective. I’ve seen enough Bollywood to be generally chill with the musical numbers, unless they are particularly notable, good or bad. However, I’m certain there is still stuff sailing over my head. For instance, in Ek Tha Tiger, the heroine says “Friends call me Zee,” to which the hero replies “My friends call me Doordarshan.” This is, according to subsequent dialogue, a really bad joke: subsequent Googling revealed both are Indian TV channels. I have no intention of doing research on every line like that, which I don’t understand. Deal with it.

Ek Tha Tiger (2012)

Rating: C

Dir:  Kabir Khan
Star: Salman Khan, Katrina Kaif, Ranvir Shorey, Girish Karnad

The YRF Spy Universe gets off to a rather dodgy start, with what’s less an action movie, than a romance interrupted by occasional stunts. It manages just about to skate by, largely on the strength of the stars’ charisma. However, there were definitely points where I wondered if there had been some terrible mistake and I was watching a mockbuster version, made by the Bollywood version of The Asylum. Possibly directed by Hindu Zack Snyder, going by the gratuitous slo-mo. The set-up is reasonable enough: Indian super-spy Avinash Singh Rathore (Khan), codename Tiger, is sent to Dublin to monitor Prof. Kidwai (Roshan Seth, a.k.a. “that guy from Temple of Doom“) and his development of anti-missile technology.

Except, once he arrives, there’s precious little monitoring, or spy work of any kind. Instead, Tiger spends his time making puppy-eyes at the Professor’s housekeeper, Zoya (Kaif). You’d think his long-suffering handler, Gopi (Shorey), or the head of intelligence agency RAW, Ajit Shenoy (Karnad), might point this out, but no… Instead, we get what feels like an hour of goopy, unconvincing rom-com. This reaches its depths with a horrific musical number, apparently entitled “All the Irish stereotypes, begorrah!”, featuring everything from pipers through hurling to those giant leprechaun hats. As a Celt, I’ve never felt so culturally appropriated. The romance is mercifully, if temporarily, derailed when Tiger discovers that Zoya is a Pakistani spy, and supposedly shoots her, in line with protocol. It’s hardly convincing, so barely a spoiler to say: she’s not dead.

They are reunited at a conference in Istanbul, and elope, to the irritation of both their respective employers. That’s perhaps the biggest problem here: the lack of a well-defined adversary. I mean, you can certainly see why Shenoy might be a bit upset, his top agent vanishing with an enemy honey-trap. Eventually, the pair are tracked down in Cuba – and refreshingly, the production genuinely filmed there, rather than using Puerto Rico or wherever as a stand-in. Things pick up several notches thereafter, with a well-staged and extended foot chase through the streets and over the roof-tops of Havana, that give both Khan and Kaif the ability to do more than stare longingly at each other. There’s also stuff involving an aircraft, which I can’t even.

It’s a fortunate recovery, as otherwise I’d be having second thoughts about writing up the Spy Universe. Had this been the first entry I saw, it could have been one and done. Fortunately, I know there’s better to come, leaning more into the action elements. That kept me going through a middle section which was like being force-fed giant marshmallows in content. Khan’s self-effacing approach helped as well, because he’s likeable, rather than coming over as a superman. The title translates as “Once There Was a Tiger,” but only intermittently does it feel like you are watching a dangerous predator. This big cat seemed a bit too fond of belly-rubs and scrunches behind the ears.

Tiger Zinda Hai (2017)

Rating: B

Dir: Ali Abbas Zafar
Star: Salman Khan, Katrina Kaif, Sajjad Delafrooz, Paresh Rawal 

This is a sequel to Ek Tha Tiger, which I hadn’t seen at the time of writing. I doubt it makes a lot of difference, to be honest, since the basics here are fairly simple. Indian intelligence agent Avinash Singh Rathore (Khan), known as “Tiger”, has dropped off the grid, and is considered dead by all but a few. He’s now living in Austria with his wife, former Pakistani intelligence agent Zoya (Kaif) and their young son. However, his country needs him after ISIS take over the Iraqi city of Ikrit, including its hospital where 25 Indian nurses work. With America threatening an air-strike due to the presence of ISIS leader Abu Usman (Delafrooz), Tiger has only a few days to form a team, get into the hospital and rescue the hostages.

Yeah, it’s quite straightforward, and that’s kinda refreshing in a world full of tortured anti-heroes. Tiger is unflinchingly patriotic, loyal to a fault, and a perfect husband and father. The first scene we see him, he obeys his son’s request not to kill the wolves which attack them on an Austrian mountain. I can now cross “putting a wolf in a sleeper hold” off my movie Bingo card. It’s all very well-calculated to bring a Bollywood audience to their feet, though I’m not sure Tiger really needed to take his shirt off for the film’s climax (top). Interestingly though, it’s not as overtly jingoistic as some of the Chinese action films I’ve watched. Loving your country here, doesn’t mean hating others.

In particular, this ends up being a joint mission between the Indian agency, RAW (a name which confused me for obvious reasons!) , and their Pakistani counterparts, the ISI, because there are also fifteen Pakistani nurses present. Given the long-simmering tensions between the two countries, it feels like a brave approach. Tiger straightforwardly promotes the collaboration, the two sides finding common ground in their mission, and hatred of ISIS. Of course, his marriage to Zoya is also a nod to this, and she doesn’t just sit back and let him do all the hostage-saving. She ends up kicking no small amount of fundamentalist arse herself, in order to obtain the plans of the hospital for her hubby, then also staging a crucial diversion.

It all resonated well with the intended audience: at one point, the trailer was the most-watched preview ever on YouTube, surpassing The Force Awakens. Easy to see why, since this is a well-crafted and fun piece of entertainment. It’s not quite as spectacularly berserk as RRR, though there are still a few “I’m so sure” moments, not least one involving a car stunt. ISIS also can’t shoot for shit, to an almost comedic degree. I can’t say it mattered too much, fitting in with the general throwback feel, and the requisite musical numbers are mostly worked in subtly too. It does not feel 160 minutes long, certainly, with my attention sustained throughout, not least by Khan’s forceful screen presence.

War (2019)

Rating: B-

Dir: Siddharth Anand
Star: Hrithik Roshan, Tiger Shroff, Ashutosh Rana, Vaani Kapoor

Well, there’s certainly a lot of… stuff taking place here. It begins with top RAW agent Major Kabir Dhaliwal (Roshan) going rogue, and killing his handler. Dispatched to stop Kabir is his colleague Captain Khalid Rahmani (Shroff), who has a lot of history with the fugitive. Khalid’s soldier father was a traitor, whom his mother turned in, and was subsequently shot by Kabir. Khalid has been trying to prove himself ever since – not least to Kabir. To be honest, their relationship sometimes feels a bit homoerotic: they spend more time gazing into each other’s eyes, than is normal for partners in action movies. This gayness is enhanced by Khalid occasionally looking like a  Bollywood version of George Michael. 

Otherwise, there’s a lot of back and forth in the time-line, so pay attention. We eventually find out Kabir was obsessed with the capture of terrorist mastermind Rizwan Ilyasi. A previous attempt to capture Rizwan failed due to a mole in Kabir’s team, and that may not be the only person whose loyalties are suspect. So is Kabir’s apparent rogue behaviour what it seems, or is there something more complex at play? Given this runs 156 minutes, you can probably figure out the answer to that. It also involves a hard drive, missiles, a beautiful informant (Kapoor) and her young daughter, multiple instances of plastic surgery, and a great deal of globe-trotting, with scenes shot in Portugal, Italy, Finland, Sweden, Switzerland, Georgia and Australia.

It does feel overfilled and is likely a case where less would be more. Seven minutes could be saved by cutting the pair of musical numbers, which feel awkwardly spliced in, add nothing, and are instantly forgettable. On the plus side, the action is generally effective and well-handled. The producers brought in overseas help, including Paul Jennings, who said that what he loved about working in Bollywood is, “You can do things which push the boundaries of believability right to the edge.” No kidding. Right from the first time we see Khalid, an extended “one-shot” (quotes used advisedly, I suspect), this skates on the edge of “I’m so sure…”. It is probably fractionally more restrained than Fast X. However, its lunacy is played just as straight-faced.

We suffer something of an awkward shift in viewpoint, in that you start off with Khalid looking like the main character, only to switch to Kabir in the second half. The reason eventually becomes clear, and you might actually get there ahead of the film: there are enough clues scattered, you could put the pieces together. It all build towards a missile cruiser in the middle of the Arctic ice, from where hero and villain whizz off in sports cars (!), for a chase across the ice that suddenly becomes a Finnish forest (!!), before crashing into a church (!!!) or something, where they have their final brawl. How you react to that sentence, likely determines whether or not you’ll enjoy this slab of bombastic Bollywood.

Pathaan (2023)

Rating: C+

Star: Siddharth Anand
Dir: Shah Rukh Khan, Deepika Padukone, John Abraham, Dimple Kapadia

After three films which had operated largely independently (Anupriya Goenka appeared in Tiger Zinda Hai and War, but playing different characters), this is where the YRF Spy Universe truly began to come together. We got the return of Colonel Sunil Luthra from War, but most importantly, Salman Khan’s Tiger character had a supporting role here. It firmly put him in the same world as the hero, Pathaan, played by Shah Rukh Khan (no relation to Salman, though coincidentally, both were also born in 1965). The results of this synergy were a runaway hit, more than doubling the take of War. As at the end of 2023, it had recorded the sixth-biggest gross of all-time by an Indian film.

RAW agent Pathaan creates a covert unit, J.O.C.R. (Joint Operations and Covert Research), along with his commanding agent Major Nandini Grewal (the charmingly-named Kapadia). The aim is to use agents whom RAW have had to let go, for example due to injury, but whom Pathaan and Grewal feel still have something to offer the country. The group’s first mission is to stop a mercenary terrorist group called Outfit X, hired by a rogue Pakistani general to carry out attacks against India. Turns out, Outfit X is run by Jim (Abraham), a former RAW agent who went rogue after the government refused to ransom his kidnapped wife. Also part of Outfit X is undercover Pakistani agent – or is she? – Dr. Rubina “Rubai” Mohsin (Padukone).

In spy terms, this is very James Bond, and I’d say mid-eighties Bond at that, being particularly enthusiastic when it comes to racking up the air miles. For the locations here include (deep breath) India, Afghanistan, Spain, Dubai, Turkey, Italy, France, Russia and Siberia’s Lake Baikal. This aspect is fine. However, the execution in these settings, while sometimes spectacular in ambition, is not great quality. For example, there’s an extended chase through the streets of Dubai, which sees Pathaan and Jim fighting on top of a truck, and on a line between two helicopters. It’s never convincing. Now, by US standards, the budget was not huge – about $28 million. It’s still in the ten most expensive Hindi films ever. I was expecting better.

The best action is likely where Pathaan and Tiger team up to escape a train. The sequence ends in the kind of “I’m so sure” moment which only Bollywood would dare attempt. It’s glorious. But in general, it demonstrates this Khan is the lesser one in terms of screen charisma. The plot is nothing special either, with an extended heist sequence in Moscow that overstays its welcome. Although I appreciated both the way Jim is pretty smart, and the body-count among the good guys, which creates a sense of genuine danger. Another 007 similarity is the way it ends in the hero battling the bad guy, while there’s a countdown to destruction taking place in the background. Oh, yeah: and jet-packs. On the whole, while I was never bored, you’re probably better off watching an upper-tier Bond movie.

One footnote. As an example of the kind of shit Bollywood films have to face, some groups in India claimed that Pathaan “disrespects the saffron colour as Padukone features in a saffron bikini.” I’m not sure I could have even told you exactly what colour saffron was beforehand. But the locals in question seemed very upset about it, with the actors being burned in effigy. Somehow, complaints about The Sound of Freedom are kinda trivial in comparison…

Tiger 3 (2023)

Rating: B-

Dir: Maneesh Sharma
Star: Salman Khan, Katrina Kaif, Emraan Hashmi, Simran

The YRF Spy Universe continues to pick up momentum, like a snowball rolling downhill. Woe betide anyone dumb enough to get in the way of it. Though the receipts brought in by this were the lowest of the series since Ek Tha Tiger, back in 2012. Is the Bollywood audience suffering from the same kind of thing as we’re seeing with Marvel and DC? Time will tell, as we move further into the active phase of the YSF. The difference here is, I’d be hard-pressed to cite a drop in quality for any audience fatigue. This had the largest budget – albeit a modest by Hollywood standards $38 million – and it certainly appears to be up there on the screen. 

The enemy here is a rogue Pakistani agent, Aatish Rehman (Hashmi), who crossed swords with Tiger (Khan) and Zoya (Kaif) in Istanbul, back when they were working on opposite sides. The encounter left Rehman in jail for nine years; now he’s out, and holding one hell of a grudge. He takes steps to compel the couple to steal a briefcase containing missile launch codes. It’s all part of a plan to discredit Pakistan’s dovish Prime Minister so she the hawkish Rehman can replace her in a coup. The melodramatic elements – the reason for the villains enmity, and how he compels T&Z’s compliance – are awesome. It’s the kind of heightened, raw emotional content you rarely see in Western action movies, and a good example of why we watch Bollywood.

That said, I did think the first half was generally stronger, setting the elements up. We get some background on Zoya’s past, and a glorious action set-piece introducing Tiger, riding in to rescue a fellow agent from the Taliban. It’s totally over-cooked: again, why we’re here. Zoya also gets a towel-clad fight scene in a Turkish bath-house against a Chinese general (Michelle Lee). Shame they didn’t go full Eastern Promises… But the cracks eventually start to show. In particular, the inevitable guest appearance of Pathaan to rescue Tiger, payback for the converse scene in Pathaan,  left me increasingly convinced Shah Rukh Khan is just not a good actor. Or maybe I just hate his man-bun.

In the opposite way Tiger’s cameo elevated Pathaan, so his cameo drags down Tiger 3, albeit not helped by some disappointing CGI. Thereafter, the film sputters towards the finish line, and with a running-time of 156 minutes, it is a lot of sputtering. It ends in a siege of the Prime Minister’s compound, with Tiger, Zoya and agents from both India and Pakistan trying to keep the politician safe, while Rehman and his forces seek to capture her. This goes on. And on. And on. To the point I quite lost track of what the goal was for the parties involved, although this was somewhat vague to begin with. You can’t complain about the amount of action, for sure. It’s just that you may have no more adrenaline to give, by the time the credits roll.