Saif Ali Khan’s turn as a ghostbuster in Bhoot Police is among the many risks that the Bollywood A-lister has taken throughout his career. But what about the other purported superstars? How have they coped with the rapidly changing cinemascape?
"Six years from now, when people stop thinking about you, you're a f*ck-up. And you'll realise it yourself, but by then you've lost yourself," Shah Rukh Khan was quoted as saying in 1991, by Kaveree Bamzai in her book The Three Khans: And the Emergence of New India. The actor spoke of battling insecurities surrounding success at a time when he was still a fresh-faced actor, waiting with bated breath to announce his arrival in showbiz.
However, longevity and relevance are issues that superstars are faced with when they cross the 50-year-old threshold. Especially now, when repeating content ad nauseum is no longer the winning formula. A quick glance at this year’s paltry list of releases demonstrates the same. Salman Khan, arguably one of the most commercially viable superstars of the decade, has had only one release this year, Radhe: Your Most Wanted Bhai. Critical reviews of the film were largely unfavourable, but audience reviews were equally negative. When Radhe premiered on Zee Plex in India in May this year, it was dubbed as the worst-rated Salman Khan ever, with a rating of 1.9.
Although Salman Khan’s recent movies, including Race 3 (2018), Bharat (2019) and Dabangg 3 (2019), have been criticised for encashing Khan’s action-hero image to dole out one formula film after another, their theatrical businesses ensured the actor’s relevance was undebated. Race 3 minted Rs 1.79 billion at the domestic box office. Dabangg 3 was the lowest-earning film from the franchise, collecting Rs 173.94 crore at the end of its run. On the other hand, Bharat earned a whopping Rs 42.30 crore on its opening day, making it the highest-earning opener in Khan’s career.
Radhe does not have such figures to boot. Which brings us to question whether the theatrical shutdown and the subsequent rise of streaming platforms have indeed changed the definition of superstardom as we know it?
It appears so, it seems. If recent reports are to be believed, Salman Khan is shelving his next tentpole Kabhi Eid Kabhi Diwali. According to sources, the reason behind the film getting canned is the unfavourable responses to Radhe. Shah Rukh Khan had taken a similar step after the box office failure of Zero. The actor stepped down from the Rakesh Sharma biopic Saare Jahan Se Achha, with reports stating the failure of Zero had forced the actor to recalibrate.
Numbers and ratings may not be the accurate representation of an actor’s appeal to his fans. But stardom itself has witnessed a rapid shift in its definition with the advent of the internet and social media. The fanfare once enjoyed by the likes of Dev Anand, Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar and later by Rajesh Khanna and Amitabh Bachchan, was based on their on-screen images and lack of access to their persons. The three Khans of Bollywood – Salman, Shah Rukh and Aamir, along with Akshay Kumar, have ruled the roost for over four decades now. Some crests and troughs aside, the actors have sustained their larger-than-life image in our collective consciousness. As recent as 2015, Salman Khan’s Bajrangi Bhaijaan became the third highest-grossing Bollywood film globally, with an astronomical Rs 969.06 crores in its kitty.
But romantic heroes in Bollywood are college-goers. They are young and prance around university corridors as they flail their limbs in utter delight as violins play in the background. But the actors playing these parts were, unfortunately, much older. Their faces had the wisdom and world-weariness of age, thus, when Shah Rukh Khan breaks into an impromptu dancing gig with Katrina Kaif in Ishq Shava (Jab Tak Hai Jaan, 2012), you can’t help but wonder about the actor’s flexibility at 47.
What you perhaps can’t get around is the blatant non-acknowledgement of the age difference between Kaif and Khan’s characters. Later films, like Jab Harry Met Sejal (2017), or Raees (2017), have self-awaredly referenced Khan’s age, taking snide jabs at the fact that he is not suitable to be a romantic hero anymore. Nonetheless, the films have been criticised for their lazy execution and perhaps not giving the actor enough meat to chew on.
Aamir Khan’s trajectory has been a little different from his peers. The actor came to be known as the risk-taking perfectionist fairly early in his career, signing films like Lagaan (2001) and Mangal Pandey (2005). But he was also perhaps the first actor who played father to two adult women in Dangal (2016). With a paunch, grey hair and beard, Khan stripped off all vanity as a disciplinarian father of two female wrestling heavyweights.Saif Ali Khan’s plunge into playing a father figure came in 2020, with Jawaani Jaaneman. Although the film didn’t quite make a mark, Saif’s comfort with playing his age was recognised, and praised.
The arrival of the streaming services, coupled with the enforced quarantining, was the death knell for superstar worship. Exposure to global content meant viewers were no longer satisfied with formulaic films- they were now open to different kinds of stories in different formats.
Further, Radhe’s OTT release might deter producers from debuting potential money-spinners on the platforms. The producers of Sooryavanshi insist on premiering the Akshay Kumar-starrer once the theatres reopen in full capacity. Perhaps a theatrical release offers the security of investment returns with faces of bankable leading men plastered on billboards and marquees.
Like celebrity culture, superstardom itself has metamorphosed in the past five years. But the Khans, Kumars and the Devgn have always known how to ride the tide to retain ample audience interest. Salman, Shah Rukh and Akshay have also dabbled in TV for a significant period in their career, at a time when television was still considered ‘low art.’ While Salman and Akshay have routinely returned to their hosting gig with Bigg Boss and Khatron Ke Khiladi, respectively, Shah Rukh stepped back from hosting after the ratings for both Kaun Banega Crorepati and Kya Aap Panchvi Paas Se Tez Hain dipped considerably during its run.
It is only a matter of time, then, these superstars beyond 50 rise to the occasion to reinvent themselves and their craft, with a combination of marketing strategies, diverse content and refusal to take audience adulation for granted.