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Shah Rukh Khan: The Baazigar Behind Bollywood’s Resurrection

After lacklustre years, the overwhelming success of Pathaan and Jawan this year has given hope to other Bollywood movies waiting in the aisles of benefitting from a rub-off effect of King Khan’s Midas touch

As Pathaan opened to packed theatres, the scene where Salman Khan makes a surprise cameo appearance was the one that got the maximum claps, whistles and cheers in theatres. Shah Rukh Khan, playing a RAW agent, asks Salman, “Main bhi kabhi kabhi sochta hoon, 30 saal ho gaye hai. Ab humein chhod dena chahiye. (‘Sometimes I feel it has been 30 years, now we should retire’).” “Par humari jagah lega kaun? (‘But who will take our place?’),” replies Salman, to which they sagely conclude, “Humein hi karna padega. Baccho pe nahi chhod sakte (‘We will have to do it. We cannot leave it on these kids’).”

While Salman’s other outings before Tiger 3 were duds at the box office, Pathaan’s dialogue succinctly sums up why King Khan makes it to our list of changemakers. The galaxy of Bollywood stars could not do what this 50-something star managed to: draw cine-goers back to the theatre. And, Bollywood cannot thank him enough.

While Pathaan is as masala-driven as any Bollywood potboiler can be, Jawan stands out with its strong anti-establishment storyline. It is a deeply political film packaged inside an over-the-top song-and-dance and action veneer. It is a storyline that Bollywood has safely stayed away from since 2014.

It took the King to lead the charge.

Bollywood’s Second Coming

Ormax Media’s Sizing The Cinema: 2023 report states that India’s once-vibrant film industry lost around 2.4 crore audience to the pandemic when theatres were mostly closed throughout 2020 and parts of 2021. Around 12.2 crore people watched at least one film in a theatre between January and December 2022, while for the same period in 2019, the figure stood at 14.6 crore.

It did not help that 2021 saw a string of uninspiring releases, including Bunty Aur Babli 2 and Radhe. Things took a slight turn for the better the following year as Brahmastra, The Kashmir Files and Gangubai Kathiawadi released.

“All-India visitor count in 2022 stood at 89.2 crore, the lowest in more than a decade, excluding the pandemic years of 2020 and 2021, when theatres were shut for the most part,” the report states.

Enter 2023, Pathaan and Jawan’s resounding success erased memories of the insipid times of the past couple of years. According to Sacnilk, which provides box office collection for Indian movies, Pathaan’s worldwide collection in its ninth week, after it was released on January 25 this year, stood at Rs 1,055 crore, of which India’s gross collection stood at Rs 657.5 crore.

The Atlee-directed Jawan hit theatres on September 7. Sacnilk estimates that the movie earned Rs 1,160 crore through worldwide collections, of which Rs 760 crore was the gross collection from India alone.

Viva La Bollywood

The back-to-back successes gave Bollywood its much-needed second wind, especially as a narrative started gaining ground post-pandemic that it was losing out to south Indian cinema and OTTs. This came after Kantara, RRR and Pushpa were warmly received by cine-goers, even in the hinterlands of northern India, where only Bollywood ruled earlier.

But SRK’s latest movies changed this script and resuscitated theatrical distribution. “Superstardom comes with its cycle of time where the actor has a string of blockbusters followed by flops in a decade. But the smarter actors use this downtime for introspection, which often makes them humble,” explains Tushar Dhingra, co-founder and CEO of Dhishoom Cinemas while talking about SRK’s bounce back.

He adds that the new-age audience seeks value and entertainment while choosing between venturing out to theatres for watching a movie or waiting for it to release on OTT platforms. It is not an either-or situation for cinema goers. “What else explains Oppenheimer’s Rs 100-crore business in India?” he asks.

Pathaan and Jawaan ticked all the right boxes and drew the crowds out of their homes, despite controversies surrounding both films. While eulogies are now being dedicated to SRK, it was not so long ago that everyone from media to social media had written him off.

“Sadly, people and media started believing about the cyclical good and bad times as if it lasts forever. That is not the reality. Good actors with good films and mature filmmakers will always survive through these cycles,” says director and producer Subhash Ghai, who cast SRK in Trimurti and Pardes years ago.

Dhishoom Chinema’s Dhingra points out that SRK’s naysayers were too premature in writing him off. “Jawan and Pathaan were not only about SRK; they both had great stories combined with the star’s charisma, which gave it the fuel to succeed,” he says.

Not many would agree with Dhingra. In many ways, Jawan and Pathaan are the sort of offerings that prompted many to write off Bollywood. It depends heavily on the pull of the hero; the plot is unbelievable in most parts. It is over the top and predictable.

So, while experts figure theories behind the success of the two films, they have established SRK’s power at the box office in a way that even his younger days did not. After all, his biggest hits of the 1990s, like Darr, DDLJ and Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, had much more than just SRK making them blockbusters.

Producers and theatre owners are just happy that SRK has brought audiences back to theatres. Pathaan and Jawan are amongst the top-grossing films at PVR INOX, while pre-pandemic Baahubali 2 held that honour. “SRK’s enduring popularity and star power have played a pivotal role in rejuvenating interest in Bollywood films,” Sanjeev Bijli, executive director of PVR INOX, says.

Bijli feels that SRK’s journey from #BoycottBollywood to the resounding success of Pathaan and Jawan has significantly reshaped the narrative of the Indian film industry.

OTT: Cinema’s bête noire?

The rise of OTT platforms has indeed altered the entertainment industry landscape, offering a new channel for content consumption.  

Despite the abundance of entertainment options available on OTT devices, the love for cinema remains strong in India. A survey conducted by BookMyShow across 650 towns and cities reveals that nine out of 10 individuals prefer going to the movies over other out-of-home activities, such as shopping, live gigs and adventure outings. Remarkably, 98% respondents believe that the authentic cinematic experience is best enjoyed on the big screen.

Right now, a lot of anticipation and hype surrounds SRK’s upcoming movie Dunki. Industry experts believe that with SRK’s back-to-back hits, other movies like Tiger 3, Animal and Sam Bahadur have a better chance of succeeding.

A rising tide, they say, lifts all boats. SRK is that tide that has raised the metier for all other Bollywood movies. Like King Khan said in Om Shanti Om, “Picture abhi baaki hai, mere dost (‘The film is not yet over, my friend’).”