How the Pandemic altered star- and other movie equations—Part 1

Tiger Zinda Hai remains Salman Khan’s last super-hit, excluding his cameo in Pathaan. Photo: Yash Raj Films

How has the Hindi film hero hierarchy changed from before the pandemic?

Heroes, especially the big ones, often decide the face value of a movie and the initial enthusiasm it generates. This is subject to its final performance that depends primarily and predominantly on word-of-mouth, which is based on value-for-money entertainment and the right mix of the two EQs (Emotional and Entertainment Quotient) and the optional third, IQ (Intelligence Quotient). And despite the pay-parity debate and some exceptions in the past, even the topmost heroines do not really pull in audiences to a significant number here, speaking in a purely practical sense, unless the content is very strong, like with Alia Bhatt’s Raazi.

So let us analyze the big change.

The Scenario Before

Here is the way things were before the pandemic influenced the ratings of stars.

  1. Top level: Akshay Kumar (Multiple hits and successes without flops since 2016) and Salman Khan (Tiger Zinda Hai and the net collections of even under-performing films like Tubelight, Race 3, Bharat and Dabangg 3).
  2. Second level: Hrithik Roshan (Kaabil, War & Super 30) & Ajay Devgn (Golmaal Again, Raid, Simmba cameo, Total Dhamaal, De De Pyaar De & Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior)
  3. Wait & Watch superstars: Aamir Khan (after flops Thugs of Hindostan and Secret Superstar—this one did well internationally) & Shah Rukh Khan (Raees internationally, Jab Harry Met Sejal, Zero)
  4. Next level: Ranveer Singh (Padmaavat, Simmba, Gully Boy)
  5. Respectable positions: Ranbir Kapoor (Sanju), Tiger Shroff (Baaghi 2, War), Ayushmann Khurrana (Bareilly Ki Barfi, Shubh Mangal Saavdhan, Badhaai Ho, AndhaDhun, Bala, Dreamgirl) and Shahid Kapoor (Padmaavat & Kabir Singh despite Batti Gul Meter Chalu).

The changes in the pandemic were huge, starting with Tanhaji…, whose triumphant run was cut short. Theatre closures, close-downs of studios and outdoor shoots and economic compulsions for audiences (besides health risks) led eventually to a never-before upheaval in the star-roster, and it is perhaps a sign of the times that no new or existing hero came in to threaten or replace those at the top during this phase.

In fact, the emergence of OTT series as a new power-point and even as a platform for direct film releases led to several names that did not count as crowd-pullers to be falsely listed as “stars” (a term for those who pull in significant audiences on their own steam, like Salman still does!). This happened mostly on the strength of a film that did well on merit, but also on media-hype: names like Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Rajkummar Rao were examples.

Theatres began reopening in the second half of 2021, at first cautiously in some centers with a 50 percent audience. Shoots, too, recommenced with precautionary methods like shooting in a “Bio-Bubble”, preferably in low-infection or zero-infection zones. Ergo, the kind and quantum of films actually being shot went through a monumental shift.

And while Aamir Khan (Laal Singh Chaddha) and Hrithik Roshan (Vikram Vedha) delayed or held back shooting for their coming films, Akshay Kumar was bold enough to release Laxmii on OTT and then his BellBottom (the first big film in the world shot in 2020  during the virus scourge) in theatres. Very interestingly, the media was flown to Mumbai to Surat for the press screening, as theatres were not yet open in Maharashtra!

Akshay Kumar’s Sooryavanshi, with Ranveer Singh and Ajay Devgn in cameos, was th first post-pandemic hit. Photo: Universal Communications

However, director Rohit Shetty, held on to Sooryavanshi (also co-produced by Akshay) doggedly, despite the film being ready for release just before the lockdown began, finally releasing it on November 5, 2021, Diwali New Year, to packed houses.

More than a year after Tanhaji, it was Sooryavanshi that collected almost 200 crore in the Indian theatres. Meanwhile, Salman Khan had experimented with a combined pay-for-OTT-meets-theatrical release in Radhe: Your Most Wanted Bhai in 2020, and he now also came up with Antim—The Final Truth as a theatrical release three weeks after Sooryavanshi, but both failed to entice the audience.

Ajay Devgn tried his luck by releasing the ambitious Bhuj: The Pride of India digitally, and so did the already-burdened-by-flops Varun Dhawan (Coolie No.1), but both met with disastrous results in tune with those films’ cinematic qualities. Meanwhile, Ranveer Singh finally released his ambitious co-production, 83, which did collect Rs. 100 crore plus, in December 2021. But the movie was critically panned and could get back only a fraction of its investment.

Things had changed. In multiple ways! We will analyze them in the concluding part of this story.

To be continued…



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