Kingdom of Khans

Barring a few hiccups, the Khans have ruled the box office for over two decades. But is their run on the wane? Or, can they still rake in the moolah, wonders RAJIV VIJAYAKAR

Con Khan? Aamir Khan in ''Thugs Of Hindostan'.

It’s been a smooth and consistent journey for over 25 years. Aamir Khan began as a leading man in 1988 (after a stint as a child actor), Salman Khan
(after a second lead in the same year) in 1989, and Shah Rukh Khan in 1992 (after a successful stint on television). But now, is the era of the Khans, all of whom were born in 1965 (What a coincidence!), over?

Glories of the past

In the millennium, Aamir Khan starred in the first 100-crore grossing film, Ghajini (2008) and the first 200-crore film, 3 Idiots (2009). He also has the enviably consistent feat of starring in the first 250 crore film (Dhoom 3/2013), the first film to cross 300 crore (PK/2014) and the first 350-plus crore movie, his own production Dangal (2016).
Salman Khan, whose track-record at the box-office had been the least consistent among the three due to a flurry of reasons, led by his emotional nature, suddenly had a great resurgence from 2010 with Dabangg. Since then, every single film of his — super-hit, hit, success or even flop — has earned a minimum 100 crore net at the Indian box-office. Today, three of the seven films in the 300 crore club star the actor. And Hum Aapke Hain Koun... (1994) remains the topper of that decade, even ahead of Dilwale Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge. Salman has also given the biggest hits of 1989 (Maine Pyar Kiya), 1991 (Saajan), 1998 (a striking long cameo in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai), 1999 (Biwi No 1), 2005 (No Entry) and after his escalation to mega-star in 2010 (Dabangg), 2011 (Bodyguard), 2012 (Ek Tha Tiger), 2015 (Bajrangi Bhaijaan) and 2017 (Tiger Zinda Hai). This is a record not even matched by Amitabh Bachchan!

Shah Rukh Khan was considered the king of the box office and was termed the King Khan for his global clout. Apart from Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge and other blockbuster films like Karan Arjun and Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (both with Salman), Dil To Pagal Hai, Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham…, Chak De! India and Om Shanti Om (his home production), he had so many films that did average to poor business in India but scored high abroad (like Kal Ho Naa Ho, Main Hoon Na, Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna, Veer-Zaara and My Name Is Khan). Domestically, his last hit was as far back as in Chennai Express (2013). But overseas, SRK still leads over the other Khans, Akshay Kumar and Amitabh Bachchan.

Hero to Zero? Shah Rukh Khan in 'Zero'.
Hero to Zero? Shah Rukh Khan in 'Zero'.

Ominous signs in 2018

The perceived threat to the Khans is mainly, if not entirely, due to the fact that, in 2018, their films Thugs Of Hindostan, Race 3 and Zero have been massive croppers. And the anger of the audience is not directed just at these terribly-conceived films made by big-name filmmakers, but more at the Khans for agreeing to star in these disastrous movies, confident that their stardom will see these disasters through.

By a nasty (for them) coincidence, the year also happened to be a qualitative and commercial bonanza for Hindi cinema, with content-driven movies succeeding to varying extents from a female-oriented Raazi and Hichki to a superstar driven Raid and Pad-Man to a dubbed 2.0 to unique story-driven films like AndhaDhun102 Not Out (featuring two veteran heroes), Stree and Badhai Ho.

Of course, the mainstream blockbusters also made it big, but those were the exceptional entertainers made by master entertainers Sanjay Leela Bhansali (Padmaavat), Rajkumar Hirani (Sanju) and Rohit Shetty (Simmba). And the first two proved beyond doubt that the 300 crore club was not the exclusive property of the star but about a lethal audience connect. These three films also conclusively sent the message that the director mattered more than even the topmost star, an axiom also proved from the eras of the past superstars. The audience, normally concerned only with movies that are value-for-money irrespective of scale, stars and genre, thus took to all these movies like the proverbial fish to water.

Trade analyst Vinod Mirani says, “Today, audiences prefer stories to stars, and younger stars to older ones, if a choice has to be made. The older stars know that they have limited time left before they will have to shift to character roles.” Two points here: Salman Khan is still going strong, with plum assignments like Bharat, Dabangg 3 and Inshallah besides a couple more in planning stages.

And Aamir Khan, having quit the music baron Gulshan Kumar biopic Mogul and abandoned his version of Mahabharat, is now doing the official remake of the
Hollywood hit Forrest Gump. The other two superstars, Akshay Kumar, 51, and Ajay Devgn, 50, have been playing their cards smartly over the last few years. Also in the game for 25-plus years, they are balancing comedies (now proved to be their special forte) with substantial subjects, often biopics with social angles. Once in a while, they
also green-light action dramas. Their journey has been made easier with a far-better average of successes as they also do more than one film at a time.

“Doing multiple films always kept the older stars safe!” points out trade analyst Amod Mehra. “One film, at least, must click!” The only superstars who, as of now, seem rudderless are Shah Rukh Khan (and Hrithik Roshan, far younger to the 50-plus club). Zero has demoralised Shah Rukh to the extent that he has quit the Rakesh Sharma biopic and is said to be toying with the idea of a Madhur Bhandarkar (whose last tepid success was in 2008!) film. So will two minuses make a plus? Hrithik, also obsessed with “more global” cinema like Shah Rukh, has completed Super 30, but is no box office darling as of now.

Might is right. Salman Khan in 'Race 3'.
Might is right. Salman Khan in 'Race 3'.

Age vs youth

Aamir, in his Forrest Gump remake, Salman in Bharat (where he ages up to 70) and Inshallah (as a 40-plus businessman in love with a young Alia Bhatt), Ajay
Devgn as a 50-plus divorcee romancing a girl as young as his daughter, and Akshay Kumar (after his old stint in 2.0) playing an older man in Hera Pheri 3  — are all these safety outlets for remaining relevant for longer?

Vinod agrees, but Amod says, “Today, there are no stereotypes, so a star who is lucky to get a meaty but older character will grab the opportunity.” He adds that the era of superstardom is over. In short, what can be the greatest “asset” to the three Khans now is the fact that there is no one to take their place. A Ranveer Singh may be more versatile and mass-oriented and have the making of a star, a Varun Dhawan may be big on fans, but their charisma cannot match that of the Khans, at least so far, in the short span of their work. Ranbir Kapoor has always been considered a great actor rather than a star, while Tiger Shroff, Ayushmann Khurrana (who had two big hits in 2018), Rajkummar Rao and Vicky Kaushal (the hero of 2019’s highest grosser, URI: The Surgical Strikes), are obviously not even comparable.

And this element alone is the reason why, even if by default, the Khans still cannot be written off, and one hit each can turn their tide. All that has changed, perhaps, is that the filmgoers will not tolerate mediocrity from them, because big stars are now optional, not mandatory, for them to endorse a movie. And that is the biggest truth.

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