Leading Indian studio Yash Raj Films (YRF) has had a phenomenal 2023 with successes across theatrical films and streaming and is looking to build on it going forward.
After an indifferent 2022 where the Hindi-language Bollywood film industry was shaded by the mighty south Indian business, the box office roared back in January 2023 with YRF’s “Pathaan,” starring Shah Rukh Khan. The success of “Pathaan” began a stellar box office year for Bollywood and the film was surpassed only by “Jawan,” also starring Khan and distributed internationally by YRF.
YRF’s “Tiger 3,” released in November 2023, is the seventh biggest Indian box office hit of the year. On the streaming front, the studio’s streaming arm YRF Entertainment teamed with Netflix on documentary series “The Romantics” – celebrating the cultural legacy of founder Yash Chopra – and scripted show “The Railway Men,” revolving around the 1984 Bhopal Gas Tragedy. Bowing in February and November respectively, both series were global hits for Netflix.
“It’s been one of the best years in our 50-year history. And it’s happened because we put content to the fore of our business and strategic decisions,” YRF CEO Akshaye Widhani told Variety. “It just validates the fact that the hard work we put into choosing content, which pushes the envelope and creates disruption, has worked.”
“Shah Rukh Khan really kick started the year for the industry. And YRF and Shah Rukh Khan has been a partnership of great magnitude. And I’m glad that together we were able to start to turn the tide,” Widhani added.
As to why Bollywood audiences returned in droves to cinemas in 2023 after staying away in 2022, Widhani said that the audiences just needed the right content to come back to cinemas. “The content this year has been wider and much more appealing to audiences. We’ve seen that big films of big scale have brought a lot of hype and brought [audiences] back with a lot of fervor,” Widhani said. “As long as the story is appealing to people, they will come and reward creators in a big way. There are films that are made of smaller budgets that even do a certain box office that’s fantastic for that particular film. I believe all kinds and sizes of films are going to find that audience as long as the story and the content is compelling.”
Widhani added that part of the boom in theatrical business is explained by the addition of theatrical capacity with 250 multiplex screens added in 2023 and 250 more expected in 2024.
“Pathaan” and “Tiger 3” are part of YRF’s immensely popular spy universe, created by studio head Aditya Chopra. The five films so far in the universe have together grossed some $360 million globally, with the next one due being “War 2.” “YRF is a 100% made in India company and the spy universe is a testimony to that. You have to keep upping your game when it comes to making films for the audience. As long as you keep wowing them, and giving them something that they haven’t seen before, or they want to come to the cinema for, we will continue to find success,” Widhani said.
Outside of the spy universe, YRF is developing a slate of films across different genres. On the streaming front, “The Romantics” and “The Railway Men” are part of a partnership with Netflix that also includes films “Maharaj” and “Vijay 69” and series “The Mandala Murders.”
“Netflix’s content-first strategy is synergistic to YRF’s ethos. That is a great partnership that was meant to happen,” Widhani said.
Next up for YRF on the distribution front is “Dunki,” starring Shah Rukh Khan and directed by hitmaker Rajkumar Hirani. The film bows on Dec. 21, with “Salaar,” led by “Baahubali’ star Prabhas and directed by “K.G.F.” filmmaker Prashanth Neel, releasing one day later. As with “Pathaan,” the strategy is to give “Dunki” a 100-country release. “The plan with ‘Dunki’ is to go as wide as possible. Of course, with ‘Salaar’ there are some challenges, two big films releasing at the same time, but we’re very confident that we’ll be able to deliver for Shah Rukh as distribution partners,” Widhani said.
Looking forward, Widhani is bullish, saying that YRF will continue to back the theatrical experience and invest in the streaming ecosystem. “India is one of the fastest growing economies in the world. In fact, India is where the party is at and everybody wants to be on the guest list,” Widhani said.