Shah Rukh Khan, Salman Khan, Ajay Devgn step up to deliver spectacles as Bollywood goes big in 2023

After a lackluster 2022, the Hindi film industry and its stars are aiming to headline big screen spectacles to dazzle the audience and get them to theatres.

Shah Rukh Khan, Salman Khan, Ajay Devgn step up to deliver spectacles as Bollywood goes big in 2023

The year 2022 will go down as a defining phase for the Hindi film industry, in which its most trusted movie stars fizzled out on the big screen. It wasn't the acclaim that eluded Bollywood--because even in a lackluster year, it managed to deliver critical darlings--but the box office glory which remained largely missing. According to multiple industry experts, basis the 2022 report card of Hindi film stars, the writing is on the wall: Go big or go home.

After the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, the Hindi film industry restarted its business on a smashing note with Rohit Shetty's Sooryavanshi last Diwali. Ironically, 2022 closed with another Shetty directorial, Ranveer Singh starrer Cirkus, which opened to disastrous numbers and is on its way to turn into a major box office dud.

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Between Sooryavanshi and Cirkus, Bollywood could only manage to deliver superhits like Alia Bhatt-Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Gangubai Kathiawadi, Anees Bazmee's comedy Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2, Ayan Mukerji-directed Brahmastra led by Ranbir Kapoor and Alia Bhatt, Vivek Agnihotri's The Kashmir Files and Ajay Devgn-starrer Drishyam 2.

A simple reading of what worked for Bollywood in 2022 gives an obvious answer: That the future for the industry and its movie stars is films riding on franchise or the promise of a big-screen experience.

Exhibitor Vishek Chauhan tells that stars like Salman Khan, Aamir Khan, Shah Rukh Khan, Ajay Devgn, Akshay Kumar and Hrithik Roshan now need to do "only branded entertainment and franchises."

"If they do originals, they need to amp up their stakes and go all out. Don't play safe. Invest heavy money, make it big and not like a small, calculated project. If you want to bring audience to theatres, dazzle them with scale. Even in Hollywood, Tom Cruise works big time in Mission Impossible and Top Gun, but his original films struggle.

"You can dabble in smaller films, even do an OTT project, but first they have to fire guns at box office. Theatrical entertainment, as of today, looks to be completely branded entertainment," he says.

A post shared by Shah Rukh Khan (URL)

A post shared by Shah Rukh Khan (URL)

Vishek believes the reliance on franchise cinema should be there "to revive the market", as the audience in 2022 has given a clear signal regarding what they want to see on the big screen.

In 2022, Aamir Khan retuned to the big screen with Laal Singh Chaddha, four years after his dud Thugs of Hindostan . To put things in perspective, the lifetime collection of Laal Singh Chaddha--a film which mostly received positive reviews--was slightly above the opening day of Thugs, a film which was panned on day one itself.

Hrithik Roshan's big screen outing Vikram Vedha, three years after his career's biggest hit War, also fizzled out at the box office despite wide-spread critical acclaim. Ajay Devgn, before he tasted success with a 200 crore plus Drishyam 2, had failed twice with Runway 34 and comedy Thank God.

Ranbir Kapoor, who had given a dud with Shamshera, delivered one of the biggest hits of the year with his fantasy epic spectacle Brahmastra. If Rohit Shetty has failed this year with an original comedy like Cirkus, he will revive himself with his next, Singham Again, the third installment of the super hit franchise.

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"Once the market is back to a great level, where there is a strong momentum with four-five blockbusters, then we can squeeze in an experiment, a small little film. But now, you have to do big films. Even in Hollywood, your big-ticket branded franchise entertainment is bringing in huge numbers, from Avatar, Marvel to Maverik. Nothing else," Vishek adds.

Shah Rukh Khan is the first star, who will arrive at the 2023 box office with his actioner Pathaan, part of Yash Raj Films' spy universe of Salman's Tiger and Hrithik's War franchise. Shah Rukh will follow with Jawan, his first collaboration with box office favourite Atlee, a filmmaker known for giving blockbusters in Tamil.

A filmmaker on the condition of anonymity shared with that it was about time Shah Rukh switched to movies that would "justify" his star pull. "There is no denying that he has had a bad last decade. He dabbled in comedies, action, romance and then did experiments like Fan and Zero, which to me would have worked in his favour if he had delivered three-four blockbusters.

"But in the absence of that and only experiments, even though daring for a star at that stage in his career, his flops looked massive. There was a constant chatter in the industry that a star like him should do big movies which can guarantee box office. If his line up indicates that, there is no cause to worry."

While Pathaan and Jawan are the obvious big-ticket movie outings, Shah Rukh also has a Dunki, filmmaker Rajkumar Hirani's next directorial. The film, expected to release in December 2023, is rumoured to be a comedy drama. It is the only non-event film choice of Shah Rukh's line-up and Vishek says, the film can actually be a "case study".

"Rajkumar Hirani has been the darling of urban audience, his films are intelligent and are drama heavy. At least right now, the situation isn't the same. To expect it to do crazy numbers like he had done pre-pandemic is unfair.

"The film will be a good test case. It can change of course, if Rajkumar Hirani mounts it on a big scale, if it is promoted like an unmissable original film, exactly the way Brahmastra did, then we shall see where it goes," Vishek adds.

If Shah Rukh is going full-proof big with his movies, so is Salman. The mass-favourite superstar would feature in the big scale comedy drama Kisi Ka Bhai Kisi Ki Jaan and will follow with his Diwali release, Tiger 3. Ajay will return in 2023 with his much-awaited sports drama Maidaan and Bholaa, remake of the Tamil hit Kaithi. Devgn is reportedly planning to turn Bholaa into a franchise.

A post shared by Ajay Devgn (URL)

A post shared by Ajay Devgn (URL)

Vishek says the shift in terms of the stars choosing only mega-scale films is because they know--and some have witnessed it firsthand after their films bombed in 2022--that the audience has become "discerning".

"Earlier they would watch an Ayushmann Khurrana film too, but today his theatrical standing has suffered. Not just him but Rajkummar Rao, Vicky Kaushal are also now not theatrical. The only way they can work theatrically is if they are also a part of a franchise. If Vicky does Uri 2, that's guaranteed opening. When Ayushmann will come with Dream Girl 2 and Rajkummar with Stree 2, they will give openings. But if they do an original, new film, that will be difficult.

"What Shah Rukh needs to do is dig into his filmography and pull-out franchises. After Pathaan, why not a Don? For Salman, why not a Dabangg after Tiger? It's high time that Hrithik got back to Krrish, or a War 2. That's the only way forward."

But Hindi movie stars' big outings won't be a cakewalk. Post pandemic, and especially after the success of South films like Pushpa, KGF: Chapter 2, RRR and Kantara, the audience is used to a certain level of "mass" films that Bollywood filmmakers have failed to offer.

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A trade source shares that the mass genre is where Bollywood needs to work the most if it wants to find success in it. "It is very simple; the definition of mass films is often misunderstood. You cannot take your audience for granted by giving trash in the name of mass. There is a reason why Shamshera, Heropanti 2, Satyameva Jayate 2 didn't work. These were just lazy, bad films. If the stars repeat the same mistake of signing anything random in the name of mass and spectacle, then the results won't be any different."

To put things in perspective, Bollywood had a steady stream of mass films throughout the 90s and mid-2000s which slowly started to fade and eventually got wiped out post 2010. Two Aamir Khan films, Vishek says, were instrumental in the rise of urban audience centric content.

"Dil Chahta Hai (2001) was an important film for Bollywood, for it showed the power of urban audience, where the niche audience flexed their muscles. Post that film, there was a flood of new age directors, all of a sudden, your cash cow, the masala films, your larger-than-life films and big comedies slowly started to fade.

"The frequency started to drop drastically. We eventually got our first urban blockbuster with 3 Idiots (2009), which actually had not worked at all in smaller towns, where it did marginal business. The film that did really well that year in these sectors was Salman's Wanted."

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Bollywood had a great phase from 2009 till 2019, where the quality of content shot up. Every major star and actor experimented merrily.  Hrithik did Guzaarish (2010), Aamir did Dangal, Salman had Sultan, Bajrangi Bhaijaan and Akshay found his new groove with more multiplex-friendly audience stepping out to watch his films post Special 26 (2013).

"In all of this, your mass base started getting eroded. Salman would do one film, then we had a Tiger Shroff and then a Milap Zaveri became a success. Bollywood had stopped making cinema that the masses had to watch. But with COVID, Bollywood is in the phase where Hollywood was in 2008, when they released Iron Man.

"The film changed the concept of a big film, there was a 'Marvel-isation' of the mainstream theatrical space. Post that, Hollywood didn;t look. Will Smith, Adam Sandler, Will Farrell, all theatrically died post Iron Man and never got back their groove. Stars died and that's what happened with COVID to Bollywood," Vishek adds.

The verdict of 2022 is out, that merely having stars in a project doesn't guarantee an opening, forget about success. The audience is not coming out to watch films in theatres unless they feel confident, usually after multiple confirmations through a film's trailer and songs.