Box office

All hail Salman Khan, the sultan of the box office

The megastar has become a one-man industry with the keys to the Bollywood treasure chest.

Yash Raj Films presents the new Salman Khan movie Sultan, but surely it is the other way round?

Khan has delivered one of the biggest hits of his career with Sultan, a drama by Ali Abbas Zafar about a wrestler who exorcises his demons both in and outside of the ring. The net box office earnings of the Yash Raj Films production are nudging to the point that is beyond the comprehension of ordinary people: Rs 180.36 crore at the end of a five-day run that started the day before Id-ul-Fitr on July 6. This massive sum does not include overseas collections or the pre-release satellite channel broadcast fee (rumored to be in the region of Rs 61 crores).

Even after the fervor of the opening week has faded, Sultan looks all set for a long run, with the potential to surpass previous record holders such as PK (in the region of Rs 342 crore) andBajrangi Bhaijaan (Rs 315-odd crore).

Sultan has not just helped YRF wipe out the memories of the underperforming Shah Rukh Khan starrer Fan earlier in the year and the poor showing of its productions Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!, Kill Dill, Daawat-e-Ishq, Mardaani and Bewakoofiyan over the past couple of years. Sultan’s success demonstrates the indispensability of star power to filmmaking. Several recent mid-budget films, including Piku, Neerja and Kapoor & Sons, have charmed audiences, but it takes the likes of Sultan to remind us that the serious money can be guaranteed only by a handful of A-listers.

Khan has also single-handedly addressed the domestic industry's anxieties about Hollywood’s improved performance in recent months – The Jungle Book raked in a little over Rs 200 crore in its English and dubbed versions in India. Other tentpole films such as Captain America: Civil War and Deadpool have also performed exceedingly well.

Two factors helped boost Sultan's fortunes. One was the movie’s mid-week release on a bank holiday in the lucrative Maharashtra territory (July 6), followed by Eid on July 7 and July 8 and then the weekend. The other is Salman Khan’s ever-increasing ability to put bums on seats. In 2015, he headlined Bajrangi Bhaijaan and Prem Ratan Dhan Paayo, and their combined business was in the region of Rs 530 crore. Over the past few years, Khan’s touch has converted clunkers into box-office gold; with Sultan, he has been elevated from Midas to Zeus.

It is said¸ only half-jokingly, about Rajinikanth, that the natural order of things is reversed when the Tamil superstar enters the frame. Memes such as “Rajinikanth hasn’t joined Twitter but Twitter has joined Rajinikanth” and “The Rajinikanth award goes to…Oscar” indicate the icon’s huge impact on popular culture. The presence of fan club members at some of the Sultan shows and the critic-proof nature of Khan’s movies suggests that, like his Tamil counterpart, this megastar has become a metastar. If there is anything holding back the Salman Khan memes, it is the difference in perception between the two screen idols: Rajinikanth has a clean image, while Khan isn’t out of the woods yet.

For vast sections of the Hindi film trade that treat every new Salman Khan release as a celestial event and the lakhs of fans who call him their “Bhai”, or elder brother, Khan can do no wrong. This despite the fact that he still faces two criminal cases, relating to poaching blackbuck in Rajasthan in 1998 and driving over a man sleeping on a pavement in Mumbai in 2002. While the Supreme Court hasn’t reached a verdict in the drunk driving case, the court of the people declared his innocence a long time ago.

Irrefutable evidence that the film industry and the paying public have forgiven Khan his excesses can be measured by the number of tickets sold for each of his productions. Considering an average ticket price of Rs 110, more than 1.2 crore Indians between July 6 and July 9 have contributed to Sultan’s takings so far. Controversy appears to have only bolstered Khan’s image as a man who is all heart and without cunning and who has paid a disproportionately heavy price for his transgressions.

The hell-and-back narrative of the film industry’s favourite prodigal son has been previously observed in the case of Sanjay Dutt, but Dutt has never had a hold on moviegoers the way Khan does. Only six years separate Dutt from Khan, but while the older actor is likely to find the going tough after he finished serving a prison sentence for possessing illegal weapons, 50-year-old Khan looks like he is beginning a new phase of his career.

Salman Khan in ‘Dabangg’ (2010).
Salman Khan in ‘Dabangg’ (2010).

Khan’s consistent run after many hits and misses began with Dabangg in 2010. Abhinav Singh Kashyap’s comedy-laced actioner riffed on Khan’s off-screen persona and was the first of many meta-narratives that invited audiences to see Khan playing on screen what has been presented as a version of his true self. From Ready through Bodyguard and Prem Ratan Dhan Paayo to Sultan, Khan’s films do not stray far from his latest representation as the last innocent standing. Sultan adds some layers to Khan’s screen profile, deepening the mythos surrounding him.

Khan’s most recent triumph has taken him several steps ahead of his closest rivals. No other actor in Indian cinema has had as many movies that have earned upwards of Rs 100 crore, and no other actor can hope to match his winning streak in the near future. Shah Rukh Khan’s popularity has been shaken in recent years with vacuous comedies (Chennai Express, Happy New Year, Dilwale) and misfired attempts to reinvent his enduring image as a romantic hero. Even Fan, in which he plays a popular actor and his deranged admirer, failed to tap into his mythos in the simple and identifiable way in which Sultan does for Salman Khan.

Aamir Khan has the gargantuan hits Dhoom 3 and PK to his credit, but his image as a cerebral superstar is currently at odds with the majority sentiment. His confession in 2015 that his wife, filmmaker Kiran Rao, had spoken of leaving the country in the wake of criticism of writers and other cultural personalities, has not endeared him to an increasingly nationalistic audience that wants its screen icons to wear their patriotism on their sleeves. Aamir Khan is credited with founding the club of Rs 100 crore-plus moneyspinners with Ghajini in 2008. The subsequent hits 3 Idiots, Dhoom 3 and PK have cemented his reputation as an audience magnet. His upcoming Dangal, a biopic of Haryanvi wrestling coach Mahavir Singh Phogat, will be released on December 23. In the past, the last two weeks of the years have proved immensely lucky for Khan – 3 Idiots, Dhoom 3 and PK were all released during this period. But how many wrestling movies set in Haryana can audiences take in a year?

At a recent event to launch the Dangal poster, Aamir Khan was the epitome of grace and canniness . He thanked Salman Khan for persuading actor and producer Puneet Issar to part with the Dangal title for his movie and declared that Sultan would be a super hit and would only fuel interest in Dangal. He mischievously added that the other two Khans “have always been bigger stars, there’s no denying that”.

Although it’s perilous to read too much into Aamir Khan’s remarks, which were made in the service of publicity for Dangal, it’s also tempting to see them as an acknowledgement by the creator of the Rs 100-crore club that the rules of the game have changed drastically since Ghajini. Shah Rukh Khan perfected the art of image management and publicity and harnessed his star power to turn producer in the 2000s at a time when few other actors were willing to take the risk. Aamir Khan rewrote the rules of distribution with Ghajini. Salman Khan has reaped the benefits of the chances taken by his competitors. He has taken charge of his screen image in the mould of one of his heroes, American actor and filmmaker Sylvester Stallone, and has had the fortune of seeing every one of his punts pay off.

In a business that worships profit, Khan’s monetary achievements eclipse his limited repertoire, publicity snafus (such as a recent comment that his vigorous workouts for Sultan made him feel like a raped woman), and alleged bullying of less-powerful figures. Murmurs of Khan successfully demanding the inclusion or exclusion of actors and singers from his projects are only likely to gather steam as producers seeking the keys to the Bollywood kingdom line up before him. Sultan is more appropriately named than anyone imagined.

The song ‘Baby Ko Bass Pasand Hai’ from ‘Sultan’.
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