The Hindi film industry is having a hard time. Since the beginning of the pandemic, it's lost plenty of money, and as a result, several jobs too. Of the few theatrical releases that Bollywood did see, there was only one that lived up to its billing – Rohit Shetty's Sooryavanshi. The Akshay Kumar-starrer was the first big-ticket film to release in the theatres since January 2020. Released on a Diwali weekend, it opened to packed theatres across the country, collecting Rs. 77 crore nett in its first weekend and approximately Rs. 223.9 crore gross in its domestic run [till date] as per Ormax Media.
It was a gamble – theatres in Maharashtra had only re-opened a couple of weeks ago and the footfalls for Hindi films across the country had been negligible due to the lack of releases. "We had to start putting out content to assess the general mood of the audience. It always works better when you start with a bigger, anticipated film, which has the ability to draw in people," explains co-producer and CEO of Dharma Productions, Apoorva Mehta. The plan worked, and Akshay Kumar's star power expectedly yielded tangible output. "Sooryavanshi's Diwali release will be remembered as the film that brought the audiences back to cinemas post pandemic, and led the way for other big films to follow," Kamal Gianchandhani, CEO, PVR Pictures acknowledges.
That said, every major release since Sooryavanshi, right from Bunty Aur Babli 2 to Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui, didn't work at the Box Office. All hopes from distributors and exhibitors were then pinned to the big-budget sports biopic – Kabir Khan's 83, starring Ranveer Singh. That didn't manage to attract an audience either – its first weekend garnering a below-par Rs. 45 crores. On the same day, two other films released digitally – Basil Joseph's Minnal Murali on Netflix and Aanand L Rai's Atrangi Re on Disney+ Hotstar. The latter, starring Kumar yet again, this time as a magician, brought some magic to the OTT space too. The film received a staggering 20 million views since its release day – the highest by a Hindi film on the platform in the first 10 days. Laxmii, the previous record holder (and Kumar's first direct-to-OTT release) is a close second, with 19.2 million views over the same time period. Was Atrangi Re then the bonafide hit in a week where all eyes were pinned to the theatres? Undoubtedly so.
So, is it safe to imply that at a time when nothing seems to click, a film starring Akshay Kumar does?
Through two lockdowns and an uncertain time for Hindi movies, Kumar kept going. Here's what his pandemic has looked like. He shot for five films – Bell Bottom, Atrangi Re, Prithviraj, Bachchan Pandey and Raksha Bandhan – in the past two years alone. During the first lockdown, his spy thriller Bell Bottom was the first film to be shot. It was also the first Hindi film to release after the deadly second wave last year. Sooryavanshi was the first and only box office hit. On streaming, he had two releases – Atrangi Re and Laxmii, which remains the most-viewed Hindi film on Hotstar with 25.6 million views, as per Ormax Media.
Jackky Bhagnani, the co-producer of Bell Bottom, vividly recalls a FaceTime conversation with his father and Executive Producer Vashu Bhagnani along with Kumar around mid-May in 2020, during the peak of the first wave. "They said, 'Hum August mein shoot karenge.' I said, 'But how will we do this? It's not possible, we are not even allowed to get out of the house.' They told me to go full throttle and start prepping."
The preparations began in full swing as the cast and crew started coordinating via Zoom calls. Shooting in India wasn't allowed yet, so they flew to London in August. "We used to wake up at 6-7 AM in the morning for our Zoom calls. Akshay sir used to be there, along with [director] Ranjit Tewari, Aseem Arrora (writer), my father, sister, Deepshikha Deshmukh [representing Pooja Entertainment] and 6-7 of the core team members," says Jackky. A crew of 200 flew to London in chartered flights arranged by Vashu Bhagnani and Kumar himself. A bio-bubble was created and the shooting was completed in 40 days.
Producer Nikkhil Advani, who has also collaborated with the actor as a director in multiple projects, including Chandni Chowk To China (2009) and Patiala House (2011), has a 'left brain-right brain' theory to decode Kumar's success rate. "His left brain drives him towards more cutting edge and different projects, while his right brain allows him to ensure that it would be a good fit for everybody involved in the project – whether it is a studio, a producer or a director."
The decision to release Bell Bottom in August 2021 came as a surprise to many. Theatres across the country were running in limited occupancies and shows. More importantly, theatres in Maharashtra – the biggest market for Hindi films, typically contributing to 30-35% of a film's revenue – were yet to reopen. "I think it was a very rushed job," says film trade analyst Komal Nahta. "The fact that he got working and, therefore, indirectly provided employment to so many people is creditable. But it came at the cost of delivering an unsuccessful film because it didn't work at the Box Office." The film collected a gross income of Rs. 37.8 crore in India, a dismal amount. However, Kumar's star power got the film a streaming deal with Amazon Prime Video before its release and eventually generated 14.3 million views as per Ormax Media.
There's another angle to this. Jackky reveals that the decision to release the film was also taken to provide solidarity to an industry that had been facing losses after losses. "The decision to release a film has always been related to economics, but in Bell Bottom's case, we thought that it was also about restarting the industry," he says.
It was also a way for Kumar to test waters for his upcoming projects. He had a huge line-up of films coming up, including Sooryavanshi, Prithviraj, Atrangi Re, Raksha Bandhan and Ram Setu. The release of one mainstream project in the current climate would've given him an idea of the kind of income a film was expected to make.
In the larger picture, the metrics drawn by the film came in handy to the Hindi film industry too. "It gave other A-list stars and producers the confidence to date their films and helped the multiplexes demonstrate to both the government and the audience that we were taking the necessary steps to ensure patron safety while keeping the cinema experience intact," explains Gianchandhani.
Kumar's bankability as a star is unquestionable. According to a report from Box Office India, his 2019 releases [Kesari, Housefull 4, Good Newwz and Mission Mangal] had grossed an approximate Rs. 750 crore domestically, creating a new record, surpassing the previous best by an exponential margin. The previous record was held by Salman Khan, whose releases had earned Rs. 514 crore in India in 2015. It's worthy to note that none of his contemporaries, including Shah Rukh Khan and Aamir Khan (who haven't had releases since 2018) or Salman Khan (whose last film Radhe, released directly on streaming and received widely negative reviews) have delivered during this time.
In 2020, Kumar became the only Indian actor to get featured in the Forbes' Top 100 Highest-Paid Celebrities In The World. According to the list, his yearly earnings came up to an estimated $48.5 million. This came during a time when there had been an increasing debate on the continuous spike in actors' salaries. In fact, at the recently held FC Producers Adda 2021 with Anupama Chopra, Advani, while talking about star remunerations in today's time, went on to reveal that the highest he had paid to a single actor was Rs. 135 crore.
It's also important to note that most of Kumar's films since 2015 have been co-produced by Cape Of Good Films, a subsidiary of his home production, Hari Om Entertainment – making him a direct stakeholder in the revenues of his films, including all three of his releases in 2021.
Is he worth the sum? The industry answers in the affirmative. "He has almost become a sure thing," says Advani. "That's the best way to describe Akshay. There's no pressure on the producer. When Akshay says yes to your project, you know that you're in a comfortable zone." He was also quick to adapt to the industry in a post-pandemic world, becoming relevant on streaming while keeping the Box Office afloat at the same time.
It's perhaps this bankability of the actor that makes his brand of cinema critic-proof. Three of his last four films got flak: Laxmii, for a hugely problematic portrayal of the trans community, Sooryavanshi for being Islamophobic and Atrangi Re for making a mockery of mental health.
Kumar's next project Prithviraj was supposed to be the first big Hindi release of 2022 too. However, like RRR and Radhe Shyam, the YRF film too got postponed, owing to the Omicron spike. As the state of theatrical releases this year, once again, looks uncertain, it'll be interesting to look at what Kumar – with a massive (but tentative) six-film slate – brings to the Box Office and digital screens this time around.