THESE are bad times for Bollywood. Two of the mighty Khans have delivered duds at the box office. Other stars are not doing too well either. The superheroes’ super-woes have triggered a super crisis.
Into its eighth month and with over 24 big-budget films having flopped, 2017 has so far been a disaster for the self-proclaimed “leader” of the Indian cinema. It is unclear if this Bollywood development will impact films in other languages, many of which are also not doing too well.
India churns out more than 1,200 full-length feature films annually. This year’s biggest blockbuster so far has been Bahubali 2: The Conclusion. Although multi-lingual, it is essentially a Telugu film. It has earned 50 billion rupees (RM3.34 billion) for the Hindi language version and 170 billion rupees for others — five times the huge sum it spent — in international market, creating an all-time record, according to Bollywood Box Office Collection Reviewz, a film trade website.
On top of the flop-heap is Tubelight. Produced and starred by Salman Khan, it cost billion-plus rupees to make. It has only managed to recover the cost.
Direction by a dependable Kabir Khan (Kabul Express and Bajrangi Bhaijaan) has not helped. Nor has the film’s contemporary message of peace and good-neighbourliness, amid the current standoff on India’s border with China. Salman has assured the film’s distributors that he would make good their losses estimated at 350 million rupees.
The latest to fall from public grace is Datuk Shahrukh Khan’s Jab Harry Met Sejal. It cost 800 million rupees, but has recovered 580 million rupees so far.
Produced by wife Gauri Khan, it is obviously SRK’s home production. Writer-director Imtiaz Ali had successfully paired SRK with Anushka Sharma twice in Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi (2008) and Jab Tak Hai Jaan (2012). But this time, the tourist-tourist guide romance, filmed in the scenic Prague, Amsterdam, Vienna, Lisbon and Budapest, has not helped. The film “is everything that is wrong with Bollywood”, ran a headline in Huffington Post India. It may have vanished from the cinema theatres by the time this is published.
Mercifully for him, the third of the Khan troika, Aamir, (discerning critics rate him above the other two) has escaped. He has not had a release since his Dangal, about women’s wrestling aspirations, hit the bull’s eye last year, earning 200 billion rupees, not only at home but also globally. This is Aamir’s repeat triumph after his PK became a rage in China, where love for Bollywood is reviving after so long.
Bollywood is in turmoil. Many, like director Rohit Shetty have rushed to the defence of Salman and SRK, insisting that “ups and downs are part of the film industry”. That is true. Also true is the diagnosis: bad writing and over-dependence on superstars. The twin issues have caused crises in the past as well.
But, this one is unprecedented because many big films with big stars have flopped. It calls into question the general strategy that a film with superstar(s) wooing comely, often much younger, heroine(s) on the screen, mounted on a lavish budget is a sure-shot to success.
Let’s face it, heroes in their 50s trying to pass off as 20 or 25-year-olds do not always sell.
Reliance on superstars who have traditionally delivered super-hits is becoming risky. Scripts are written to keep their image and career graph in mind rather than fitting these stars in great stories. Putting the cart before the horse can be self-defeating.
Film-making is always risky and adding to it in the recent times is huge spending, as much as a fifth of the budget that keeps escalating, on a film’s promotion. The hype makes these films dependent on the first two weeks’ run at the ticket windows to recover money.
Profits of SRK’s hit Raees shrunk badly after it splurged on promotion. His Ra.One (2011) was on billboards long after it had ceased exhibition. Among the flop-givers are Amitabh Bachchan (Sarkar 3) Hrithik Roshan (Mohenjo Daro), Saif Ali Khan/Shahid Kapoor/Kangana Ranaut (Rangoon), Vidya Balan (Begumjaan), Ranbir Kapoor/Katrina Kaif (Jagga Jasoos) and Sreedevi (Mom). The only exception is Akshay Kumar.
Film trade analyst Komal Nahta says: “Probably the filmmakers are under the impression that superstars can sell bad content, but it doesn’t work that way. The stardom of actors can work only up to a point, and after that, the content has to speak for itself. With both Tubelight and Jab Harry Met Sejal, the content was very poor.”
The content, if well written, shows. A bright instance this year is Hindi Medium, about struggle of parents to get their child admission to a good school. An off-beat topic, it touched many hearts for being close to reality and yet entertained. It’s a super-hit.
Lipstick Under My Burkha had censorship problems at home even as it won plaudits at film festivals abroad. It depicts lives of four women who defy male domination to quietly engage in their fantasies and freedom.
It has succeeded despite controversy over numerous cuts imposed by the conservative censors that found the film’s bold theme, “excessively woman oriented”. Both films, besides being well-written, directed and acted, point to the difference between the traditional mindset of the filmmakers and the changing film viewing pattern of the audiences, at least in urban India.
Bollywood is now pinning hopes on Toilet: Ek Prem Katha that tackles an unusual subject of each home having a toilet. A glaring social issue in India that Mahatma Gandhi championed a century ago, is now a nationwide campaign by Prime Minister Narendra Gandhi.
But, Bollywood is another name for risks and survival. Kabir Khan is to direct a film with three super-stars — Rajinikanth, SRK and, besides Prabhas, who played the Bahubali, Amitabh Bachchan.
Mahendra Ved, NST's New Delhi correspondent, is the president of the Commonwealth Journalists Association 2016-2018 and a consultant with Power Politics monthly magazine. He can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org