Drawing inspiration from franchises like James Bond and Mission: Impossible and obviously the trendsetting Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), YRF Films successfully made the leap from Bollywood romances to big-budget action thrillers with its monumental YRF Spy Universe. This is not India’s first and only cinematic universe, considering that Rohit Shetty had already set up his over-the-top Cop Universe with Singham and Simmba. The Tamil film industry is also not far behind with director Lokesh Kanagaraj setting up his Lokesh Cinematic Universe (LCU) with Kaithi and Vikram.
But when it comes to box-office returns and sheer star power, YRF Spy Universe seems unbeatable at the moment. With the production and story most laid out by YRF supremo Aditya Chopra and roping in Bollywood’s most venerated personalities like Shah Rukh Khan and Salman Khan, the franchise is Indian cinema’s most successful franchise at the moment. The year 2023 proved to be a watershed moment in this regard, witnessing the releases of Pathaan and Tiger 3 (both of which also made MCU-style cameos more mainstream in Bollywood). With five successful hits in its roster and upcoming titles like War 2 and Tiger vs Pathaan, the YRF Spy Universe definitely knows no stopping.
Mainstream Bollywood was in a lull after the pandemic when it came to action movies. Shah Rukh Khan, who usually had a reputation as a romantic hero, sought to create a new star persona as an action hero. He comfortably embraced the titular character, an ex-RAW (Research and Analysis Wing) agent who is tasked with preventing a global terrorist conspiracy. His frequent co-star Deepika Padukone played a Pakistani secret agent, who came off as a refreshing and more contemporary take on female agents in Indian action flicks. Breaking out as the villain in Dhom, John Abraham also got back to his villainous roots to play a rogue mercenary in Pathaan.
Even when Pathaan gets unbelievably over-the-top, the star power of SRK is enough to justify the theatrics (much like how action audiences dare not question the physics of Fast & Furious movies anymore). The cherry on the top was obviously Salman Khan’s unexpected cameo as Pathaan’s fellow RAW agent Tiger. All in all, Pathaan was a perfectly packaged thriller that balanced high-stakes action with some delightfully formulaic Bollywood heroism that the audiences had been craving for quite some time.
Billed as a one-on-one duel between Hrithik Roshan and Tiger Shroff, War was an unexpected hit for YRF. While the Tiger movies already constituted a franchise, it was War that opened up the possibilities for a shared universe. From an exciting plane heist that seems to be inspired by Point Break to a face mask technology clearly inspired by the Mission: Impossible movies, War did have a touch of Hollywood action to it.
But this Western influence didn’t get too derivative and instead helped in modernising the average Bollywood action thriller. Instead of Roshan or Shroff being reduced to one-man armies, War highlighted how even gifted secret agents like them need strategy, weaponry, and a good support team to rely on. Both heroes have proven their physical agility before and War set up the stage for them to display some impressive and highly realistic stunt choreography. Sanchit Balhara and Ankit Balhara’s rousing neo-Western background score only enhances the viewing experience further.
The film that started the YRF Spy Universe in the first place, Ek Tha Tiger was released at a time when Salman Khan was doing everything (fighting, dancing, romancing) in potboiler dramas, most of which didn’t really fare well with the critics. But the Kabir Khan-directed Ek Tha Tiger marked a new chapter in his career as for once, Khan seemed to play a relatively believable action hero. His character Tiger interestingly represents the duality of an undercover agent, as he is conflicted between his duties as a RAW agent and leading a normal life every now and then.
Katrina Kaif was also well-suited as the co-lead Zoya, an agent for the Pakistani secret service ISI. But when Zoya and Tiger discover a conspiracy together, they not only join forces but also fall in love. The result is not just an adrenaline-fuelled action journey but also a moving love story that transcends borders. To satisfy the mainstream Bollywood necessities, the movie was also balanced with popular dance numbers like Mashallah and Banjaara along with a tragic romantic ballad like Saiyaara.
The highly-anticipated sequel to Ek Tha Tiger, this Salman Khan-Katrina Kaif reunion carried the emotional weight of its predecessor while doubling on the action pieces. Having gone into voluntary exile in the previous film, Tiger Zinda Hai finds Khan’s Tiger and Kaif’s Zoya coming out of hiding as they team up to rescue a group of nurses held hostage by terrorists in Iraq. The espionage within the plot is less complicated this time, but the big-budget action is good enough to hook audiences.
Even if the violent chaos can be too loud or unbelievable for some audiences, Tiger Zinda Hai still has a positive message underlying its straightforward plot. With Tiger and Zoya closer than ever now, the Ali Abbas Zaffar directorial venture calls for unity between India and Pakistan, two neighbouring countries that always seem to be in conflict with each other but that can hopefully come together like Tiger and Zoya one day.
As is the case with the Tiger movies, Tiger 3 amped up its action like never before. Emraan Hashmi entered the YRF Spy Universe as a vengeance-seeking terrorist with Tiger and Zoya teaming up yet again for a third adventure. The international conspiracy at the heart of the story this time is much more complicated and there are genuine attempts for freshness to the usual Spy Universe formula, but it was the pacing that troubled some critics and audiences.
Regardless, everything seems worth it with that one spectacular prison break sequence where Pathaan comes to Tiger’s rescue. It’s not every day that the two titans of Bollywood, Shah Rukh Khan and Salman Khan, unite for a crossover that’s on the level of a superhero team-up. One can only wonder about the reactions that their face-off will garner now, considering YRF Films is actively working on a project titled Tiger vs Pathaan.