The year was 2013. Films like Wanted, Ek Tha Tiger and Dabangg in the preceding years had resuscitated Salman Khan’s career. And he had Jai Ho ready for release, with Kick and Prem Ratan Dhan Payo on the floors, when during an interview with the PTI the actor said, "This space (masala films) will die totally. I think this was a beautiful format where we had films like Wanted, Dabangg etc."
"Now everybody has overdone it so much that it might die away. These kinds of films are popular but the creativity is becoming less… It seems the same stuff is happening. I don’t know which genre will click now. The whole thing where one person beating up 50 people and them flying around will remain as this is part of our cinema. But there is a reason why and how he is beating (sic)."
The actor, who has spent 30-plus years in front of the camera and has come to embody everything that’s masala or filmy in Bollywood, was predicting the death of the OTT genre. This was, of course, pre-pandemic when watching a movie in a theatre was an experience.
I’ve seen fans demanding an encore of 'Character Dheela' during a screening of Ready at Chandan Theatre in Mumbai and strait-laced Goan aunties attempting to match his hook step in the aisles of INOX Panjim as 'Hud Hud Dabangg' played on the big screen.
His appeal clearly cuts across generations and his films are critic-proof. But as we head towards what could be a third year of living with the pandemic, the question remains – are Salman Khan films pandemic-proof?
The evidence, for now, points to the answer being an overwhelming ‘no’.
Salman has had two releases this year, starting with Radhe: Your Most Wanted Bhai. The makers of the film opted for a hybrid release model where it screened in theatres around the country and international territories like Middle East, Australia-New Zealand and Europe, while also simultaneously premiering on streaming pay-per-view (PPV) service ZEEPlex and four DTH networks – Tata Sky, D2H, Dish and Airtel.
Essentially, fans could see Salman and his co-stars Disha Patani, Randeep Hooda, and Jackie Shroff at their nearest theatre, on a handheld device, or in their living rooms.
While it was a courageous move by the producers, the problem was that Radhe didn’t have many takers and quite possibly proved to be a loss-making deal for Zee Studio that reportedly paid about Rs 230 crore to acquire the film.
Zee said that the film garnered 4.2 million views across online and DTH platforms on the film’s opening day and that the unprecedented traffic temporarily brought down their servers that day. There were estimates that the film made Rs 100 crores on opening day but the claim was grossly inaccurate as trade analyst Komal Nahta explained in a video on his YouTube channel.
“Zee had also allowed new subscribers to watch the film without purchasing a ticket, which means that in this 4.2 million figure, there are people who haven't actually bought a ticket for Radhe,” he said in Hindi, adding, “Industry standards dictate that with every ticket sold, four-five family members watch the film, so only one-fourth of the 4.2 million are actual tickets sold.”
Theatrically, Radhe made about $1.875 million over its first weekend overseas. In contrast, Salman’s 2019 films Dabangg 3 and Bharat earned $4 million and $6.25 million respectively on their release days alone. The final twist of the knife is that Radhe has found a place in many ‘Worst Film of 2021’ lists.
And, then there was Antim: The Final Truth, an adaptation of the Marathi film Mulshi Pattern, that was mounted as a star vehicle for Salman’s brother-in-law Aayush Sharma. Salman was meant to have an extended cameo in the film but last minute additions meant the actor had more screen time resulting in something that’s in between a special appearance and out-and-out-Salman-film. The film ended its four week run in the theatres with Rs 39.06 crores.
A lot has already been written and said about how the pandemic has changed our viewing habits. Even as theatres around the country are still waiting for that one Bollywood film that will signal a return to ‘normalcy’, it’s Spiderman: No Way Home that’s ruling the Indian box office. The film has already crossed the Rs 150 crore mark on 25 December.
While there has been public posturing about the box office earnings of the Hindi films released in the last two months, there’s also been a lot of private conversations within the industry about what would bring back the audience to theatres in droves.
Should they be making more of the Salman’s brand of films where the focus is more on the star than the story being told? Or has the audience now developed a greater appetite for films younger stars like Ayushmann Khurrana are helming – the kind that’s more than five blockbuster songs, great locations and designer outfits?
This isn’t a new conundrum for Bollywood. It’s one that comes up every time there’s a new medium that challenges or changes the way the behemoth that is Bollywood functions.
This happened when VHS and piracy threatened the theatrical business and then again, when single screens turned into multiplexes. What’s different this time, though, is that Bollywood is rattled by threats on multiple fronts.
There’s OTT that’s reminded the desi audience that it is possible to be entertained without having to put your brain aside. And, of course, the pandemic that continues unabated making viewers afraid to return to theatres.
Salman turns 56 today and his fellow superstars – Aamir Khan, Shah Rukh Khan and Akshay Kumar – are in the same age bracket where they are romancing heroines half their age. This, again, is nothing new. In the late 90s, Amitabh Bachchan, who was in his 50s, was also at the fag-end of his career as a ‘hero’.
While films like Bade Miyan Chote Miyan worked at the box office, films like Lal Baadshah and Hindustan Ki Kasam sank. It took a fresh perspective to completely overhaul Bachchan’s career in the early 2000s which has meant that he continues to entertain us two decades later. Maybe this is what Bollywood needs once again – a fresh set of eyes not only to examine the kind of stories they are telling but also the careers of stars who ensure bums on seats in theatres.