Aamir Khan and Salman Khan, the senior most of the market leaders, appeared in 1988 - Aamir (a child artiste in Yaadon Ki Baraat and Madhosh in the early '70s) had done an adult role in the 1984 Holi, but as a hero his first was Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak, the game-changer then. Another 1988 release, Biwi Ho To Aisi, had debutant actor Salman Khan as a second lead to Farooq Sheikh (!) and though the film was a success, he actually broke through with the blockbuster Maine Pyar Kiya (1989).
In 1988 itself, a popular television serial Fauji saw its young leading man from New Delhi, Shah Rukh Khan, draw attention. After a few more serials, G.P.Sippy and Viveck Vaswani signed him first for Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman, but his first release was the Golden Jubilee Deewana in 1992. Raju... and Chamatkar also proved successes later that year, but after a few average successes like the riveting Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa, it was the twin blockbusters in negative leads that actually catapulted SRK to stardom - Baazigar and Darr.
Akshay Kumar, after a cameo in Mahesh Bhatt's non-starter Aaj (1990) started as hero in 1991 with Saugandh and got his first hit in Khiladi (1992). Also released in 1991 was Ajay Devgn's first film Phool Aur Kaante, a bumper hit. Thus technically, both of them are a year senior to SRK in films!
Finally came Hrithik Roshan, who too had begun as a child artiste in his grandfather J.Om Prakash's 1980 golden jubilee Aasha (remember him cavorting with Jeetendra in the hit song 'Jaane Hum Sadak Ke Logon Ko? ') and Rakesh Roshan's Aap Ke Deewane (both 1980 releases). After another child artiste turn in Bhagwan Dada (1986) Hrithik completed his academic education, underwent grooming and finally surfaced as Hindi cinema's till-date-latest-superstar with his father's blockbuster, Kaho Naa...Pyaar Hai (2000).
Since then, the Khans have gone from strength to invincible strength and Akshay and Ajay have grown as both actors and stars since the millennium, graduating from action hunks to brilliant comic actors.
Hrithik Roshan, who had a mixed innings but maintained his star status, revitalized his career after Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara and Agneepath in 2011 and 2012 respectively. Shah Rukh Khan has also weathered his flops My Name Is Khan and RA.One with the success of Don 2 late last year and the average faring of Jab Tak Hai Jaan this year. And yes, such is his unequalled BO clout overseas that all four of these films have proved major blockbusters there!
The story today
Salman of course is the biggest among them ever since Dabangg (2010), and his first 2012 release Ek Tha Tiger smashed records to almost get the Rs. 200 crore status, hitherto crossed only by Aamir's 2009 film 3 Idiots. With Dabangg 2 now crossing 100 crore within six days, the actor is being considered Mumbai's counterpart of the South's Rajinikanth and infallible in his B.O. draw that overpowers both merits or demerits of any film.
With every film of his crossing the Rs. 100 crore mark (Ready, Bodyguard and even his action and song cameo in Son Of Sardaar) in the last 30 months, Salman is said to have green-lit many projects - No Entry Mein Entry, Kick, Sher and more. What will be made next depends on his will and the script written for him.
Aamir Khan's Talaash has done modest business but the three Khans are so invincible today that Dhoom 3 (Christmas 2013) and Rajkumar Hirani's PK are surefire blockbusters, while Shah Rukh Khan is co-producing Chennai Express with Rohit Shetty and Farah Khan's Happy New Year, both of which will be hot when they are ready for release.
While the Khans cannot be touched in the moneys riding on them, a record Rs 150 crore is riding on Hrithik's only forthcoming film, his home production Krrish 3. He has also okayed Shekhar Kapur's forever-in-the-making Paani after Yash Raj Films have taken it up, as well as Siddharth Anand's official remake of Hollywood's action caper Knight And Day. Early this year, Hrithik in an action role with a well-timed and well-marketed release, Agneepath, blazed a fiery trail in its first week at the B.O. as the year's first hit.
Ajay is banking on Himmatwala besides Prakash Jha's Satyagraha and Akshay Kumar on A Wednesday director Neeraj Pandey's heist drama Special 26, Once Upon A Time In Mumbaai Again and Anthony D'Souza's Boss. Also announced is A.R.Murugadoss' remake of a South blockbuster, Thuppaki. Both these superstars have had a great run, though Devgn has a Tezz spoiling his record of last year's Singham, Bol Bachchan and Son Of Sardaar and Akshay Kumar, who began well with Housefull 2 and Rowdy Rathore had the fiasco that is Joker and the also-ran Khiladi 786.
Akshay, however, was the one mega-star who wowed critics and audiences alike in 2012 with his co-production of and guest role in OMG - Oh My God! , which t - besides getting in hosannas- emerged as the biggest hit of the year in terms of Return of Investment by making four times its costs!
Far Away From the Pinnacle
Though the top names among the latest entrants - Ranbir Kapoor, Imran Khan and Ranveer Singh - and even Shahid Kapoor and Emraan Hashmi are said to be charging Rs. 10 crore or more per film, none of them can guarantee great business or even an opening. Even Emraan Hashmi, despite his decent track-record in modest-budget films from Murder to Raaz 3, cannot rise above a Rush or a Shanghai.
Despite Ranbir Kapoor's unexpected entry into the elite 100 crore club with the intense Anurag Basu winner Barfi!, his forthcoming movies, Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani and Besharam and Imran Khan's soon-to-be released Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola (January 2013) haven't created enough buzz yet, and director Milan Luthria and Akshay Kumar are still the principal aces of Imran's Once Upon A Time In Mumbaai Again. Ranveer Singh's films to come (Vikramaditya Motwane's Lootera, Sanjay Bhansali's Ram Leela and Ali Abbas Zafar's Gunday) are awaited more by critics and the urban GenY than by the entire spectrum of audience.
It is clear that the younger lot seem more inclined to act in new-age, niche cinema. Ranbir's only money spinners have been Barfi!, Ajab Prem Ki Ghazab Kahani and Raajneeti, a multi-hero film. Imran's biggest and Ranveer's only hits remain their (mass-appeal) debuts, Jaane Tu…Ya Jaane Na and Band Baaja Baaraat. And Abhay Deol would do well to remember that his sole hit so far has been Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, which top-lined Hrithik Roshan!
There are two more good actors who have persistently chosen bad scripts and hampered themselves. Neil Nitin Mukesh has only one hit, New York, co-starring John Abraham, to show among eight releases! Shahid Kapoor has had a sustained weak spell after Jab We Met (2007) in all kinds of films, including the niche Kaminey, the atrocious Chance Pe Dance and even his own home production - the 'epic' blunder that was Mausam.
An upcountry distributor who prefers anonymity opines that all these stars can make parallel revenue if they opt for mass-friendly products. Connecting with smaller cities and centers take time and they are lagging behind for this reason even if they have been mostly accepted by the metros, says another distributor.
What is clear is that the young brigade is doing films that do not have a wide audience. With the NRI audiences also preferring stars and mainstream entertainers, the die is clearly cast in favor of the big stars. Investments in them have to be proportionate to the prospects of returns and while an Abhay Deol candidly admits that he has chosen his offbeat lane because he is aware of his limitations for becoming a mainstream hero, Imran too acknowledges that it will be years before he can aspire to the levels of the senior Khans.
Incidentally, even the music is polarized, with the young brigade not giving enough importance to lip-synch songs and not favouring good Indian melody. While Shah Rukh Khan, Aamir Khan and Hrithik Roshan are trying the mid-way road of having supposedly contemporary music, Salman, Akshay and Ajay are completely ethnic even in their songs. And as of now, with Sajid-Wajid and Himesh Reshammiya heading their favourites, the odds seem stacked even there in favor of Indian melodies as part of the masala package. This year, the music of Rowdy Rathore, Khiladi 786 and Dabangg 2 in particular have had a major role in their business.
While being aware of the morbid possibility of the senior stars losing ground as time is against them vis-à-vis the youngsters, we hope that experience and the wisdom that comes with it makes the young guns see sense and metamorphose into future superstars who are fit to take over the mantle by then. Even Amitabh Bachchan balanced mainstream and middle-of-the-road mainstream cinema after he achieved superstardom, right? And that is better than a Naseeruddin Shah going commercial - that too very late in the day - after realizing that niche films neither give financial security nor films that endure in people's memories and DVD collections! Because celluloid stars run the industry, not the four or more stars of an ivory-tower critics' review!