A comeback hit from one of the country’s biggest movie stars is just what the flailing Hindi-language film industry needed.
Shah Rukh Khan just reclaimed his status as one of India’s biggest butts-in-seats draws after a four-year absence from movies.
Director Siddharth Anand’s action spectacular “Pathaan,” a loosely connected installment in India’s ongoing YRF Spy Universe series, earned $77 million in its first week of global release. The immediate success both reaffirmed Khan’s bankability and provided a much-needed jolt to a struggling Bollywood industry.
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Khan was a name synonymous with Bollywood in the 1990s and 2000s. However, as explained by film critic and pop culture journalist Siddhant Adlakha, he was known more as a romantic lead than as an action hero.
“The comparison is closer to Tom Cruise of the 1980s and 1990s,” argued Adlakha, “when he became a star through films like ‘The Firm’ and ‘Jerry Maguire,’ as opposed to the last two decades during which Cruise has primarily made action flicks like ‘Edge of Tomorrow’ and the ‘Mission: Impossible’ sequels.”
After a four-year absence, some of that obviously related to the COVID-19 pandemic, preceded by some underwhelming releases, this was sold and received as a comeback vehicle. Meanwhile, its existence as a pure actioner qualified as an against-type event for fans of the superstar. The patriotic action spectacle with a $28 million budget, which plays like a pinball-paced mash-up of “Mission: Impossible II,” “GoldenEye” and “xXx: The Return of Xander Cage,” even earned $9.4 million in its Wednesday-Sunday North American launch.
One can see loose parallels between 57-year-old Khan’s return to form in a big-budget action vehicle like “Pathaan” and 60-year-old Cruise roaring back to the top of Hollywood’s movie star mountain with “Top Gun: Maverick.” A key difference is that Khan’s respective film industry was even more explicitly associated with its top-draw matinee idol.
Shah Rukh Khan’s sabbatical coincided with Bollywood’s decline
“Khan was so tied to Bollywood financially,” said Adlakha, “because you just don’t have many big hits without movie stars.”
Between 1992 and 2018, Khan starred in between one and seven movies a year, and then after “Zero” in 2018 took a break.
“Furthermore,” Adlakha continued, “the 2018 to 2022 period coincided with Bollywood eventually placing second in market share to Tollywood [the industry based on movies in India’s Telegu language] while the former was seen as being in a creative and commercial rut.”
As recently as 2019, Hindi cinema, or Bollywood, made up 44% of annual Indian box office earnings with Telugu/Tollywood and Tamil/Kollywood each making up around 13%. By 2020, the combined earnings of non-Bollywood movies surpassed the total for Bollywood and by 2022 Tollywood was in the lead.
Tollywood’s rise in popularity was appropriated by right-wing muckrakers
Even while 77% of last year’s Bollywood releases underwhelmed, at least some of that Bollywood slump talk was due to a confluence of offscreen controversies and alleged implicit pressure from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s more right-tilting government.
As explained by journalist and box office expert Jatinder Singh, the death-by-suicide of actor Sushant Singh Rajput was blamed in some circles on Bollywood itself. The Fatty Arbuckle-type scandal was highlighted by segments of the Indian national media in what became a crusade targeted at Bollywood just as South Indian movies like “RRR” and “KFG 2” were growing in popularity.
“A narrative grew from right-wing trolls,” said Singh, “that these films were more pro-Hindu, more respectful of India and other bigoted nonsense.” They were taking credit for the softer Bollywood grosses compared to the steadily rising Tollywood earnings.
Think American right-wingers blaming the failure of “Lightyear” on pre-release chatter over its same-sex kiss.
The otherwise inoffensive “Pathaan” was targeted over its sensual musical number
With “Pathaan,” the controversies centered on a film’s mid-film musical number between Khan and Deepika Padukone. As both Singh and Asian Studies professor Deepak Sarma of Case Western Reserve University told TheWrap, Padukone’s saffron-colored dress garnered accusations that the scene was disrespectful of Hinduism. Noted Sarma, “It elicited negative responses from religious fundamentalists and their Bharatiya Janata Party overlords, who seek to own, control, and dictate Hindu-Indian sentiment and outrage.”
However, continued Sarma, “given the recent news about the banned BBC documentary on PM Modi, such global attention may continue to raise concerns about the rise of religious fascism in India. This is especially problematic and troubling when one of the actors in question is the beloved Khan.”
For intentionally extreme comparison, imagine if absurd QAnon allegations against Tom Hanks both became a mainstream story but something implicitly promoted by the American government. Meanwhile, $77 million and counting later, the pre-release online muckraking was about as successful as similar campaigns waged against “Captain Marvel” and “The Woman King.”
“Pathaan,” like “RRR,” is a sign that Indian cinema can cross borders
“I do think Indian films are growing their box office globally,” stated Hyde Park Entertainment Group CEO Ashok Amritraj. “However, it remains only for a select few.”
While China’s blockbusters have earned most of their revenue in-country, Indian biggies like the $150 million-grossing and Oscar-nominated “RRR” and “Dangal” — which earned $193 million in China in 2017 – can pull real money outside of their respective home country.
Speaking of “RRR,” S. S. Rajamouli’s Tollywood spectacular has now, as of last weekend, earned more IMAX revenue in Japan than it did in India. Amritraj expressed hope that the worldwide audience will grow as more consumers become more accustomed to the Indian filmmaking style, while also crediting global streaming platforms for getting such films in front of otherwise unaware eyeballs.
Sarma added that “These Bollywood crossovers, combined with Indian films produced by Netflix for a global audience, suggest that Indian cinema is being seen in many more contexts and by a more diverse audience. These films are being shown at theaters across the United States, for example, with sold-out shows, and even some non-Indian attendees.”
Is Bollywood back for good?
As summed up by ComScore Movies – India Managing Director Rajkumar Akella, “Bollywood cinema is enjoying a massive resurgence with a global box office performance that reflects the popularity of ‘Pathaan’ and the impressive superstar drawing power of Shak Rukh Khan.”
Just as the “Top Gun” sequel works as a metaphor for how Hollywood failed so badly at cultivating new movie stars that Tom Cruise still needs to come off the bench to save the day, “Pathan” eventually becomes a parable about loving and protecting a country that – as laid out in the villain’s tragic origin story — does not always love you back.
“Every industry has controversies,” noted Amritraj, exclaiming that the main takeaway from “Pathan” was the simplest one, that Shah Rukh Khan was still a major movie star.
After years of struggling amid concurrent socio-political pressure, the right movie star in the right movie instantly showed all parties that Bollywood could rise again. Time will tell if this is an exception to the rule or, to quote that other industry-boosting blockbuster, miracle NO. 1.
Before joining The Wrap, Scott Mendelson got his industry start in 2008 with a self-piloted film blog titled "Mendelson's Memos." In 2013, he was recruited to write for Forbes.com where he wrote almost exclusively for nearly a decade. In that time he published copious in-depth analytical and editorialized entertainment industry articles specializing in (but not exclusively focused upon) theatrical box office. A well-known industry pundit, Mendelson has appeared on numerous podcasts and been featured as a talking head on NPR, CNN, Fox and BBC.