A Yash Raj Films (YRF) protege and veteran, Maneesh Sharma remains a curious example of an almost-there director. His career has been a mixed bag so far. His films – five so far – have hit all corners of the quality spectrum: Great, good, middling, misfire, disappointing. There are moments of unwavering skill – like the background score elevating a first kiss, heartbreak in a mirror, a tearful fan mutating into a stan, a couple eloping separately from their own wedding. But there are also elements of conformist style: A rooftop chase in Dubrovnik, a corny rom-com reckoning, a lethargic spy, a misplaced national anthem, a 27-liplocks gimmick. At his best, he’s a storyteller and studio film-maker rolled into one, where both identities aren’t jostling with each other for space.
But with Tiger 3 (2023), his first directorial in seven years, it’s safe to say that the balance is off. A full decade has passed since we’ve seen the best of Maneesh Sharma. Maybe it’s the start of a second coming, or maybe he’s doing the Aditya Chopra thing of becoming a producer who started off as a pathbreaking director. Either way, he has a way with worlds – and it would be Bollywood sacrilege to sacrifice that voice at the altar of franchise fame.
On that cheerful note, here are Sharma’s movies ranked in descending order, from best to worst.
Almost a decade before Made In Heaven, this OG Delhi wedding-planner story ushered in a new era of mainstream Hindi cinema. The signature gloss of YRF was put to good use in a narrative that organically married art with business (or “binness”), storytelling with production value, and middle-Indian hustle with urban decadence. Maneesh Sharma’s lovely debut revised the entrepreneurial soul of Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year (2009) into a romantic comedy between an ambitious young woman and a drifter who comes of age. But there was more to that iconic Bittoo-Shruti partnership than meets the eye. No ‘fixing’ or healing of a hero happens here, because at most points, Shruti is the one who feels like the hero with a mind-heart problem. A star was born in Ranveer Singh, and his lover-bro chemistry with Anushka Sharma laid the foundation for a slate of lesser pretenders that never reclaimed the social freshness of this film. It’s not a cliche to say that a director’s first is often their most fearless film – one can detect Sharma’s desire to renovate a genre, his feel for background activity, and his ability to stage the chaos of an everyman environment. Many expected a sequel to this sleeper hit, but to his credit, Sharma seemed to recognize how to quit while they were ahead (and that a Bittoo-Shruti marriage would’ve been a stretch). Until, of course, he couldn’t resist a spiritual spin-off in Ladies vs Ricky Bahl.
I will remember Shuddh Desi Romance for many reasons. It featured one of Sushant Singh Rajput’s better performances, where his Shah Rukh Khan-inspired twitches shaped our perception of the film. It had Parineeti Chopra at her most inventive, back when she was still in her golden phase, reimagining the language of a conventional heroine. It repackaged Dil Toh Pagal Hai (1997) in a more contemporary and restless world. It had a catchy soundtrack, and a setting (Jaipur) that for once prioritized the complexities of a people over the exoticism of a place. Most of all, it featured Jaideep Sahni’s writing; he hasn’t written a film since. A Jaideep Sahni script is – or was – a mighty beast. It reinvented templates without letting the audience know they’re being reinvented. Which is why it took a good director (Shimit Amin and Ram Gopal Varma filmed two scripts each) to pull off this heist. With this film, Maneesh Sharma, too, found that sweet spot between serving viewers new wine in old bottles and old wine in new bottles. It’s a love triangle that tapped into the commitment anxiety and conflicted agency of a young generation. All the good-looking protagonists are flawed to the point of being unlikable. Every trope is subverted: The man actually ends up with the proverbial ‘one that got away’ (or ‘manic pixie’) after breaking the heart of the ‘third wheel’ not once but twice – and yet, it’s not clear if we’re rooting for the romance or the tragedy of it all. The film’s Happily Ever After hid a sense of melancholy within. There were seeds of the Sharma-produced Meri Pyaari Bindu (2017), a film that incidentally made a sad ending look like a Happily Never After.
Every now and then, there comes a film that – for better or worse – feels like the turning point of a legacy. You can pinpoint the exact moment something shifted. For instance, the tanking of Jagga Jasoos (2017) turned Ranbir Kapoor onto a safer path; the heartbreak – the creative disillusionment – was palpable. Ditto for Shah Rukh Khan and Fan, a film that might eventually be hailed as his most ambitious performance. Even the design was prescient: The double role – of a Bollywood celebrity and his doppelganger stalker – milked his own duality, pitting the late-career superstar against the early-innings dreamer (with the superstar surviving the scuffle). But the same heartbreak also holds true for Maneesh Sharma, the director, who went on a directing hiatus and producing spree after its failure. You could also sense this duality tearing the film apart. The delightful first half – rooted in a middle-class fan’s life in Delhi – showcased Sharma’s dexterity as a director: Setting, texture, humour, chemistry, small-world stakes. But the bizarre second half – which suddenly scaled up from a parasocial thriller to a globe-trotting chase – revealed the producer in Sharma. One identity overwhelmed the other, and the result was a movie that snatched economic defeat from the jaws of artistic victory.
It’s hard to look at Maneesh Sharma’s second film as its own entity. The rom-com released exactly a year after his barnstorming debut, Band Baaja Baaraat, with the same lead pair, writer and (an attempt at) a memorable kissing scene. The con-artist premise – a pre-dating-app and sanskari version of the Tinder Swindler – was neither here nor there: A cultural upgrade of Bachna Ae Haseeno (2008) and a narrative downgrade of Lootera (2013) at once. Capitalizing on success is not unusual, but Ladies vs Ricky Bahl looked like the sort of hype-dash that elicited one reaction: Too Soon. (To be fair, it wasn’t an Aap Mujhe Achche Lagne Lage-level follow-up to Kaho Naa..Pyaar Hai (2000), but the risk was there). The film did, however, do two things in the larger context of Hindi cinema. One, it worked as a bonus audition tape for New Kid On the Block, Ranveer Singh, demonstrating his range for future star-making turns. And two – and more importantly – Parineeti Chopra. Her seamless debut as West Delhi brat Dimple Chaddha was the beginning of a career that promised the arrival of the next Alia Bhatt before Alia Bhatt. That arc never panned out, which is why this film remains a nostalgic reminder of Chopra’s unvarnished talent.
Arguably the most dispensable installment of the YRF Spy Universe (so far), Tiger 3 is many things: A Salman Khan staycation, a Diwali release, a Katrina Kaif actioner, a Shah Rukh Khan teaser, an expensive lecture to Pakistan, an Emraan Hashmi ode, an endless travel vlog. But the one thing it is not, is a Maneesh Sharma film. It might be his first directorial since Fan (2016), but there’s nothing about this generic globe-trotter that alludes to his influence. If anything, it’s the sort of movie that looks more produced than directed. Most mainstream film-makers – except Kabir Khan and, to an extent, Ali Abbas Zafar – become invisible when helming a Salman Khan starrer. And most film-makers (except post-Bang Bang Siddharth Anand) become invisible when helming big-budget entertainers. Sharma doubles that invisibility with Tiger 3, camouflaging his voice into a franchise that now looks like a lazy transition shot between Pathaan (2023) and War (2019). That said, perhaps box-office success is the vindication that Sharma needs to kickstart his second coming. Needless to mention, this is the “disappointing” section in his 13-year-old filmography.