In an article published recently in the entertainment section of a newspaper, it was alleged producer Aditya Chopra is very upset after the box office failures of Jayeshbhai Jordaar and Samrat Prithviraj (two films produced by Yashraj Films). According to the article’s writer Subhash Jha, sources at Yash Raj are looking to blame Akshay Kumar for Samrat Prithviraj’s failure. The source reportedly commented, “He wouldn’t listen. The film required a dedicated concentration. He wouldn’t even grow a real moustache, as he was doing other projects simultaneously… why couldn’t he have done just this one project, and given his best to it?”
While we will never really know whether Aditya Chopra is in fact furious, or if Akshay Kumar should be blamed, there definitely seems to be a churn happening with Hindi film audiences. Films headlined by A-list stars, that would have at least recovered their costs a few years ago, are now struggling to even break-even.
Gautam Jain of Ormax media said in an interview, “Post the pandemic, the metro multiplex audience is now clearly segregating films into two buckets: to be watched on the big screen and to be watched on any other screen. Since most Hindi films released to date apart from a Sooryavanshi, Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2 or Gangubai Kathiawadi fall under the second bucket, Hindi films have not set the box office on fire.”
This trend has affected not just Akshay but other A-list male actors as well. Ranveer Singh’s borderline manic energy levels during promotions couldn’t salvage the fortunes of Jayeshbhai Jordaar and 83. Shahid Kapoor’s Jersey made approximately Rs 27.9 crores, as per the last updated figures, Ajay Devgn’s Runway 34 fell short of breaking even by almost Rs 20 crores, and Heropanti 2, starring Tiger Shroff, didn’t reach even the halfway mark in terms of recovery. Samrat Prithviraj was made at an estimated budget of Rs 200-300 crores (depending on who you speak to), but as per reports, it has not even earned Rs 100 crores at the box office. Kangana Ranaut-fronted Dhaakad also did abysmally at the box office despite its big budget. Apart from the runaway success of The Kashmir Files, Gangubai Kathiawadi that made over 129 crores domestically, and more recently, Bhool Bhulaiyya 2 starring Kartik Aaryan, no other Hindi language film released this year has managed to make a mark.
The change in dynamic perhaps began when films starring actors like Rajkummar Rao, Ayushmaan Khurrana and Pankaj Tripathi started doing well at the box office. Real, feel-good, high-concept films almost became a sub-genre in Bollywood, and the dependence on the three Khans, one Devgn and one Kumar started diminishing over the years. A lot more diversity entered the business, and many women-centric films starring talented actors like Vidya Balan, Taapsee Pannu and Kangana Ranaut also did good business.
But the success of films like Pushpa and KGF 2 has opened up a fresh debate. In an effort to make more politically correct cinema or movies with a social message, did Bollywood filmmakers leave behind the ‘suspension of disbelief’ element that made our mainstream films special?
Talking about the success of KGF 2 and dubbed southern language films in general, actor Sanjay Dutt said in an interview, “I’m not saying that slice-of-life films or rom-coms are bad. But why have we forgotten our audience from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, and Rajasthan who make up a large section of our audience. Corporatization is good but that shouldn’t interfere with our taste in movies.” Expressing a contrary opinion, Karan Johar said in an interview with Film Companion, ”When I read the reviews of KGF, I’m like if we made this, we would be lynched. I loved it with all my heart. But what if we had made this? I think we are also not given lee way and we are trying to be somebody else.”
However, if you look closely, successful films also have another factor in common. The visible hard work of its stars and the crew. Audiences can often smell a half-baked effort from the trailer itself. No amount of sharp editing can disguise a weak/repetitive story or poor acting. Alia Bhatt’s sincerity and talent were evident as transformed herself into Gangubai. Allu Arjun transformed his appearance and surrendered completely to the dialoguebaazi and exaggerated mannerisms of his character. Ram Charan and Jr NTR danced, fought animated tigers, and performed the most visually spectacular stunts as they convinced us of their patriotism and valour in RRR.
Akshay Kumar in the meanwhile was the subject of memes which likened his look and dialogue delivery in Samrat Prithviraj to his comic character in Housefull 4. This perhaps sounded the death knell for the film even before its release. Not to mention just how much older he looked and actually is to Manushi Chhillar, who is playing his wife. Runway 34 had Ajay Devgn playing yet another stylish, brooding but controversial man and Tiger Shroff frankly needs to reinvent himself because there are just so many times his abs can pass off as acting talent.
Another possible reason for Bollywood films with A-list stars not faring well at the box office is because we no longer have to go to a movie hall to see them. Think about it. Till perhaps a decade ago or even lesser, we didn’t see or have access to a movie star’s life on a daily basis. We went to theatres to watch their films once or twice a year and we bought film magazines to read more about them. But with the explosion of social media and the blossoming of an omnipresent paparazzi who seem to follow celebrities everywhere from film parties to funerals, the exclusivity of a movie star is rapidly diminishing. That thrill of being able to see them on a movie screen after waiting for months has no longer really remained.
The pandemic combined with cutting-edge content on OTT platforms has also been a gamechanger. Maybe viewers realised that films like Minnal Murali or shows like Rocket Boys, Pataal Lok and Scam 1992 were immensely entertaining without the presence of a single ‘bankable’ star. The bar has been raised high on the parameters of quality and novelty, and if it is not reached, audiences won’t be making their way to theatres either.
Bollywood has enjoyed years of assumed superiority over regional language film industries. Though filmmakers like Mani Ratnam, Adoor Gopalakrishnan or actors like Rajinikanth, Mohanlal, and Kamal Hassan have enjoyed pan-Indian popularity and regard, it was always Bollywood giving southern artists a ‘chance’ at finding real stardom or success by being a part of a Hindi language film.
Perhaps the pandemic and an alteration in the manner content is consumed globally, has also blurred the lines between the cinema of different languages. We could finally be headed towards an Indian film industry where talented artists cross barriers of language to find unifying narratives that can appeal to a majority of viewers. Five years from now, pan-Indian films may be the primary way films are made, with smaller budget regional language films or Bollywood films that will continue to have their own market.
Either way, an audience with a more varied, demanding and hopefully refined palette can only mean better films for all of us to see. There are many big budget films lined up for release this year and next, and hopefully audiences will give their favourite stars another chance and make their way back to cinema theatres and queues for popcorn.