In 2008, Aamir Khan inaugurated with Ghajini what came to be known as the “Rs 100-crore club”. The film’s astounding Rs 100-crore earnings inspired a new kind of A-list production – a family entertainer led by bankable stars, directors and music composers that aimed to be a blockbuster to beat all blockbusters. Such movies are released on festive days or national holidays to take advantage of audiences on a break from work and studies and in a generous mood to splurge money on increased ticket prices. They are often solo releases, which means that they face no competition. Since they are released on every available screen and heavily promoted, they make a lot of money.
The Rs 100-crore club includes Bodyguard, Singham, Ek Tha Tiger, Chennai Express and Ready. Over the years, the category has been revised upwards to reflect increased box-office potential. A-list productions are now weighed in the Rs 200 crore-plus category, and films like PK (2014), Bajrangi Bhaijaan (2015) and Sultan (2016) have crossed even the Rs 300-crore mark. The latest rupee-magnet is Dangal, which is causing records to tumble in the wake of its December 23 release. The wrestling drama has overtaken the Salman Khan-starrer Sultan in earnings, and is poised to become one of Aamir Khan’s most gargantuan hits (Rs 304.38 crore at the end of week two, according to co-producer and distributor Disney). Here are the few things we learnt from Dangal’s triumphant run.
Aamir Khan is Mr Middle India
Despite his Bollywood pedigree (he is a second-generation star) and his early image as a sweet-faced romantic hero, Aamir Khan has adroitly managed to repackage himself as Mr Middle India. Since the late 1990s, Khan has played a man who is faced with a crisis and comes out on top through a combination of intelligence, determination and personal courage. He has had his fill of action turns (Ghajini, Dhoom: 3), but his most popular roles are those in which he has portrayed ordinary men with extraordinary qualities.
Many of these roles have a strong nationalistic and nation-building streak: the doughty police officer who defeats a Pakistani terrorist in Sarfarosh (1999), the villager who inspires his clansmen to defeat the British in a game of cricket in Lagaan (2001), the art teacher who inspires his students in Taare Zameen Par (2007).
Khan has a canny ability to mythologise his career choices. He has leveraged his decision to appear in fewer films over the years by ensuring that he takes his audiences along with him on his journey. Every new Aamir Khan is a project that involves exertions and preparations that are shared with fans ahead of the release – weight gain and loss for Dangal; hair grown and shorn for Mangal Pandey and Ghajini; a new look with every new film. There’s a can-do flavour to Khan’s public image, a seductive mixture of ordinariness and star quality, and an earnest emphasis on social issues that sets him apart from his closest rivals Salman Khan and Shah Rukh Khan. He makes his peers seem like mere entertainers.
Aamir Khan, on the other hand, knows what’s good for you, and as Dangal proves, audiences seem to agree with his prescriptions.
The old-fashioned Hindi movie has many fans
Trade pundits are bemoaning the general slide in Bollywood business, the increasing rarity of the typical mass entertainer that has something for everyone, and the fad among studios for mid-budget films that resonate more with residents of large metros than with audiences in smaller cities and towns.
The monstrous receipts of Dhoom: 3, PK, Bajrangi Bhaijaan, Sultan and Dangal prove that they are connecting with their intended audiences. These mega-earners are new versions of old-fashioned family entertainers. They are films you can take the children to (and some of them even have a message that makes you feel like you have done social service under the garb of buying a ticket). They bring together family drama, humour and action into an attractive package. And they invariably have the Hindi film industry’s biggest and brightest stars, who have the ability to lend a patina of gold to dross (Exhibit A: Dhoom: 3).
It’s true that there are fewer such films in the average year, but perhaps that is precisely why they are succeeding. The lower the number of sightings, the greater the anticipation.
Ironically, it’s actually become easier to make a Rs 300-crore movie. It’s harder to produce the other kind of film, the one that will be viewed on its own terms and not measured against the number of zeroes accumulated.
Nationalism + achievement = box office glory
There have been so many major and minor sports biopics in recent years that already, the sub-genre has become a clichéd heap of training montages and early obstacles that are eventually surmounted for predictable victories. The biopic is in danger of becoming the new fantasy movie – a fantasy of individual achievement against a hostile and corrupt system that is designed to hold back Indians. If this system did not exist, films as varied as Bhaag Milkha Bhaag and Dangal argue, Indians would have been sitting at the top of gold medal charts.
The lone hero who demolishes criminal entreprises has a new hunting partner: the sweaty athlete pounding the ground in the hope of winning a medal for the country. In this endeavour, it is perfectly acceptable to replace fact with fiction (for instance, make villains out of coaches, as Dangal did), since the ultimate goal is to fly the national flag at the end of the movie.
Both the Mary Kom biopic, starring Priyanka Chopra as the Manipuri pugilist, and Dangal, based on Mahavir Singh Phogat’s efforts to train his daughters as champion athletes, include a rendition of the national anthem as the climax. Should we sit in our multiplex seats and clutch our cola cans in guilt, or should we stand for the second time during a movie screening? Only the brave acknowledge the difference between judicial overreach and manipulative filmmaking.
The emphasis on achieving glory for the sake of national pride robs the sports biopic of one of its fundamental qualities: an individual’s struggle to overcome doubt and personal adversity. Our sports biopics are Rocky in the first half and Rocky IV in the second half. They reduce the grit of the lone athlete to an act of patriotism. Other biopics that will be out in 2017 are following the template. Director Balki’s planned chronicle of Arunachalam Muruganantham, the businessman who manufactures low-cost sanitary napkins, already sounds like an appealing gimmick. Winning is no longer everything.