If trade reports and news stories in the media are to be believed, Akshay Kumar’s Samrat Prithviraj isnt doing well at the box office. Kumar is one of the biggest moneymakers in Hindi filmdom who makes films primarily for the box office without any claims of artistic ingenuity. He is a successful mainstream Hindi film star, a status he has achieved without the patronage of leading Hindi film production houses. There are always numerous memes and jokes afloat on social media trying to guess the next Indian luminary Kumar has set his eyes on for a possible biopic. Is this plain deshbhakti? The answer is perhaps known to all.
Kumar, like several others in Hindi cinema, has found a new formula – excavate a well-known/moderately-known/relatively unknown figure from Indian history/mythology, reconstruct his story making it suitable for a Hindi masala film, a genre unto itself , evoke national pride and it’s a sure shot formula for bringing audiences to the theaters. This phase of films has also given us new insights into the life and work of Akshay Kumar — a star whose films are increasingly align with the dominant political ideology.
It might be too early to conclude that Samrat Prithviraj’s fate at the box office indicates the audience’s disenchantment with biopics masquerading as history. This is not a rejection of nationalism per se but a certain type of movie, whose narrative arc is now predictable. The plot usually follows the journey of an underdog or a figure from the Indian past. The films set out to prove their greatness thereby enshrining them in public memory and often claiming to correct an oversight — these characters being ignored in mainstream historical narratives. These claims, however, are often untrue. Lest we forget these statements are also motivated by the commercial interests of the film. These are part of a well-designed promotional campaign to evoke audience interest in the subject.
The recent spat of flops at the box office, however, indicates a sense of fatigue in audiences with such kinds of films. Audiences might want to see more contemporary subjects and stories closer to their time and lives portrayed on screen as opposed to relics from a distant past. Perhaps there is also a sense of dismay with the same star acting in a series of similar films that appear in quick succession.
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Is this an expression of disinterest in the genre per se? Will the formula work with another star? Or are viewers too tired of seeing the same/similar content repeated film after film?
On the other hand, the Kartik Aaryan starrer Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2 is already a big hit at the box office. My intention is not to attempt a qualitative analysis or comparison of these two films. I am not even suggesting that Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2 is a superior film for some reasons. In fact, in many ways, the success of this film, whose first part featured Akshay Kumar, is a reaffirmation that Hindi film audiences are immune to change. They still go to the theaters seeking a specific kind of Hindi film which has a recognizable template by now but maybe they want this entertainment in a new avatar, with a new face and a new storyline. While the key ingredients remain unchanged, there are only a few minor adjustments they are perhaps looking for.
It might make no sense, however, if this argument is applied to Salman Khan films, for instance, but then such is the peculiar nature of hero worship in Indian cinema. That said, the popularity of Salman Khan is not owing or restricted to a specific kind of movies or characters that he has portrayed on screen in recent times. In his films, he is the biggest draw. The audiences come to the theater to see their favorite star. Everything else, including the story, script and performances, matters very little to the viewers. A Salman Khan film release is an occasion of unapologetic and unabashed expression of Hindi cinema fan behaviour.
Some commentators and academics have also linked the increasing popularity of recent Telugu and Kannada blockbuster films in the Hindi heartland to the discussion presented in this article. These films are equally regressive. Hindi film audiences are veering towards these films in search of newer stories and entertainment, a clear alternative to commercial Hindi cinema. But how long will this last? Only time will tell. However, the early signs cannot be ignored.
(The writer teaches literary & cultural studies at FLAME University, Pune)