Saturday marks 30 years of Shah Rukh Khan’s Bollywood career. He made his debut with Deewana on this day back in 1992. He tasted box office success almost immediately with Baazigar and Darr the following year. Within a few years, he was the undisputed leader of the Hindi film industry. Over the next decade and a half, he worked his Midas touch, delivering multiple hits almost every year and consistently setting new benchmarks for box office successes. In the last decade, the hits have dried up somewhat and that has been Shah Rukh’s failing for sure. But the film industry has been unable to fill the void he left at the top, and that has been Bollywood’s fault. Also read: Gauri Khan shares ‘beautiful note’ on Shah Rukh Khan’s 30 years at movies
Shah Rukh’s peak as the ‘King of Bollywood’ lasted roughly from the mid-1990s to the late 2000s. His superstardom roughly began a few years after Amitabh Bachchan’s reign at the top, who had himself taken over from Rajesh Khanna. In fact, one can trace back an almost unbroken chain of the number one heroes of Bollywood till Dilip Kumar in the late 1940s. Since then, the last ten years have been the longest when there has been no clear-cut ‘superstar’ in Hindi cinema.
From Akshay Kumar and Ranveer Singh to Salman Khan and Aamir Khan, have all tasted varying degrees of success. But none of them have been dominant for different reasons. Aamir has not been prolific enough, while Akshay and Salman have had their fair share of misfires too. Ranveer simply doesn’t give the same assurance of success that a ‘superstar’ should. The current landscape of the Hindi film industry means there will never be another superstar. If this status quo remains, viewers will continue to see a musical chair of middling ‘stars’, none of whom will ever attain true ‘superstardom’.
Social media’s ‘star saturation’
The proliferation of social media has brought stars closer to fans. They respond to comments, interact with fans on live chats, and occasionally repost of Instagram Stories which makes audiences feel more connected to stars than ever before. However, it has also created curated personas of stars where they are presented as not how they are but how they can be best marketed. Shah Rukh Khan did not become a superstar because of marketing. Outside of his box office success, what made him a favourite of the masses was that he seemed genuine. Here was a boy next door who was now the biggest actor in the industry and he still seemed humble, honest and hilarious. He still appeared as a family man and there was no publicity campaign behind it.
And then there is the fatigue and saturation that social media brings. With the stars of today always active, always around, they stay in the public eye 24×7. Fans know about everything from their favourite chocolate to the colour of the bed sheet in their room from last Tuesday. And they don’t have to wait for the next edition of Filmfare or Debonair for it. The mystery behind them is gone. The stars are accessible but are also human.
Superstars only exist in south cinema now
The one place that has escaped this social media saturation is south India. The four major film industries that are colloquially called south cinema–Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, and Malayalam–still have their fair share of superstars. For one, Rajinikanth, Kamal Haasan, Mohanlal, and Mammooty still rule the roost. Then you have the new crop like Prabhas, Ram Charan, Allu Arjun, and Yash. Their superstardom emerges from fan craze, the kind of which is absent in Bollywood nowadays. The one lakh people that descended onto Ramoji Film City for RRR’s pre-release event are testament to that craze. Can any star, minus the Khans, command that kind of fan craze in Bollywood today? I’ll let you ponder on that one.
In Bollywood, studios have created personas of ‘stars’ from actors that they market around their films. These are almost products and brands that can be sold, not real people. And which is why, despite talent and even success, many of them fail to break that glass ceiling of superstardom. Part of the reason is that today’s Bollywood stars feel like they have arrived from an assembly line, eminently replaceable and not distinguishable.
Shah Rukh Khan has three releases lined up for 2023. He will start with Yash Raj Films’ Pathaan, a larger-than-life action entertainer and end it with Dunki, his first collaboration with Rajkumar Hirani. In between these two, there is Atlee’s Jawan, a massy thriller. For the first time in years, Shah Rukh has given himself a fighting chance to succeed at the box office. He may hit the jackpot or he may not. That’s on him and his films. His career will still continue. He may not rule Bollywood ever again but with his reign, ended Bollywood’s monarchy. Now it’s an oligarchy ruled by a few studios and their representatives. Bollywood, now is a kingdom without a king and there will never be another.