In recent years, critics have been unkind to Shahrukh Khan, and even more unkind to his movies. “Chennai Express“, “Happy New Year“, and “Dilwale” were all top-five earners, cashing in heavily on all the typical Shahrukh Khan tricks that made fans love him in earlier years. However, total earnings fell as steadily as did the opinions of movie reviewers across the country.
“Chennai Express” was seen by many critics as an over-bloated masala film in an age when masala films should be a thing of the past. Most of India disagreed, of course, and made the film the third highest-grossing of 2013 with a whopping total of Rs. 227.13 crore!
When “Happy New Year” came in 2014, there was more criticism about being over-bloated and over-hyped. Unlike “Chennai Express”, however, “HNY” was also criticized for being loud, boring, un-funny, and just plain bad. Some saw it as a collection of dance scenes, Shah’s abs, fight scenes, Shah’s abs, cheap jokes, strained industry references, Sonu’s abs, and a ditsy girl…with a shameless play on patriotism, and Shah’s abs. At their kindest, critics pointed out that there was absolutely nothing new to be seen in this latest film. Once again, however, the public disagreed. Or did they? With a lifetime collection of Rs. 203 crore, it earned less than “Chennai Express”.
In 2015, Shahrukh’s box office mojo took another hit with “Dilwale”. Criticized yet again for being nothing new, and criticized even further for trying to recapture bygone days, “Dilwale” was only the fifth highest-grossing film of the year. With just Rs 148.72 crore; earning more than 50 crore less than “Happy New Year”! At this point, it seemed that Shah recognized he had fallen into a rut. The standard tricks weren’t working anymore. It was time to change. Unfortunately, his experimental 2016 film, “Fan“, backfired horribly. Though Shah’s performance was often complimented, the movie itself suffered significant writing issues. “Fan” barely made the top ten list at number nine, and didn’t even cross 100 crore.
Now that it’s 2017, Shah seems to have come to understand that getting back to basics may be the answer. Instead of bloated, over-the-top, sensational, flash-bang movies…and instead of shaky, experimental films…maybe he should come down to Earth. “Raees“, his first film of 2017, seems to have done the trick. Here at the beginning of July, it’s currently the highest-grossing Bollywood film of the year. With Rs. 137.51 crore in total collections, it has also improved on the collections of “Fan”. For the first time since 2013, the line on the chart tracking his box office earnings went up instead of down. But only improved on “Fan”. Shah still has a long way to go to climb back up to the heights from which he had fallen.
Looking forward, Sharukh’s second 2017 project will be yet another down-to-earth film. “Jab Harry Met Sejal” promises to be a an extension of the romance-but-not-really role he tried in his secondary-role performance for the 2016 film, “Dear Zindagi“. In that film, his character was the major male figure in the life of the heroine, but not her romantic interest. “Jab Harry Met Sejal” will allow Shah to do what he does best. He will be the charming hero, while at the same time respecting the fact that he is getting just a bit too old to play the young lover. Shah’s box office recovery will depend on how well written this movie will be and how well it conveys a character driven story without sensationalism or flash-and-dazzle.
Though Salman Khan has been flying high at the top of the box office with movies in the number one and number two spots since 2014, he just may be experiencing the same kind of rut that eventually led to a crash for Shahrukh. Like Shahrukh, critics have not been kind to Salman. For his 2014 film, “Jai Ho“, Hindustan Times reviewer, Anupama Chopra wrote, “Is ‘Jai Ho’ even a film?” Shubhra Gupta of The Indian Express was a little less kind when she wrote “‘Jai Ho’ is little more than a damp squib.” Fans seemed to agree. “Jai Ho” earned only Rs. 116 crore and was only number 6 in the top ten list. But “Jai Ho” was only one of two films Salman released that year. The other, “Kick“, earned over 200 crore and was the second highest-grossing.
These two films, however, came at the very end of a string of action films that started with “Wanted” in 2009. “Dabangg“, “Bodyguard“, “Ready“, “Ek Tha Tiger“, and “Dabangg 2” were number one or number two of their respective years, making the Salman Khan action film guaranteed gold. When 2014 saw these action films failing with both critics and the box office, Salman opted to put down his fists and go for a change. He elected to return to the sweet Prem-style character of his pre-action days.
His decision seemed to pay off. In 2015, “Bajrangi Bhaijaan” and “Prem Ratan Dhan Payo” occupied the number one and number two spots at the top of the top-ten list. This was a feat he’d also accomplished with action films in 2011 and 2012. Both films featured a more gentle Salman who was innocent, with a character voice that was child-like. Critics loved “Bajrangi Bhaijaan”; praising Salman for putting away the shirt-ripping, wise-cracking characters for something with more substance. They were not as kind, however, regarding “Prem Ratan Dhan Payo”. Most found it difficult to choke down the shameless opulence and unrealistic morality. Many felt this kind of movie to be a thing of the past, during a time when movie-goers were less sophisticated.
However, like he’d done when action films seemed to pay off, Salman soldiered on and elected to give the audiences more of the same. In 2016, “Sultan” became his third commercial success in a row that featured him as a simple character with a child-like voice. Once again, it seemed to work. “Sultan” became Salman’s third film to cross 300 crore, and it was the second highest-grossing film on the year. He also found himself praised once again by critics who applauded the substance of his performance.
But maybe modern audiences are more sophisticated. Whereas the action film ride lasted for eight movies, it seems like a fourth film featuring an innocent adult with a child-like voice was one too many, too soon.
Salman went from golden boy to black sheep in the span of one year. Though he found himself applauded as an actor for “Sultan”, he was harshly criticized for his performance in “Tubelight”. It has just a one-star rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The Hollywood Reporter kindly described Salman’s performance as “weak“, while the headline of the review written by Namrata Joshi for The Hindu read “Salman Khan is a Liability in this Bland Film“. Granted, this movie had a lot of problems that had nothing to do with Salman’s performance. Not even his fans felt the movie was worth sitting through to enjoy their hero. It’s opening weekend alone was what allowed this film to cross 100 crore, but word of mouth spread quickly. As a result, “Tubelight” has gone the way of “Jai Ho”; earning just about the same.
The question remains, however…will “Tubelight” be the exception, or the trend? In 2014, “Jai Ho” may have flopped, but “Kick” was a success. Salman has another film up his sleeve for 2017, and this time – as if sensing the new direction was failing – it is a return to action. “Tiger Zinda Hai”, will seek to repair some of the damage. It will be a sequel to the number-one hit film of 2012, “Ek Tha Tiger”, and like the title suggests, it will seek to show the movie going public that the tiger – as well as Salman himself – is still alive.
Salman has also announced “Dabangg 3”; another attempt to recapture the success of his action years by making sequels to his successful films. But action had failed him once before. Will more action really be the answer? Will Salman find himself criticized for attempting to ride the coat tails of previous successes instead of offering anything new? Will these new films even be any good? Or will he find himself floundering at the box office, grasping at past successes in an attempt to stay successful? Will Salman be able to find a way forward that will allow him to remain a top leading actor? Or will he resign himself to being cast as father to the new crowd?
We almost hold our collective breath when this conversation turns to Aamir Khan. Of the three, Aamir is the only one that seems to remain unaffected by these troubles. With the exception of “Talaash” in 2012 and “Dhobi Ghat” in 2010, every big-budget Aamir film since 2008 has been the highest-grossing of the year. Each has also set new benchmarks and in turn has become the highest-grossing Bollywood film in history. The line on his chart goes up, up, and up. But the only problem with reaching the highest heights is that there’s nowhere to go but back down. There has to be a point at which it at least levels out, and that point may be coming. Never criticized for his acting abilities, Aamir does occasionally film a project that just doesn’t catch on with audiences or break records. Coming up this year, Aamir will play a comedic supporting role in another socially relevant film that elevates a strong woman with big dreams. But before you start thinking that Aamir might get caught in a rut, for 2018, he will be starring for the first time along with the legendary Amitabh Bachchan for a film about mob life before Indian independence.