Does Akshay Kumar's 2017 box office run uphold 'patriotism' as Bollywood's true saviour?
In what has been a stifling year for Bollywood so far, Shree Narayan Singh's romantic comedy Toilet: Ek Prem Katha has proved to be a sigh of relief. Akshay Kumar's recently released film, with its patriotic undertone, has cashed in on the Independence Day weekend to rake in over Rs 80 crore at the box office within a short span of five days.
As it gears up to hit the coveted Rs 100 crore mark, the impending development makes trade pundits look at the Rs 100 crore club films of the year so far. Excluding the dubbed version of SS Rajamouli's Telugu war epic Baahubali 2: The Conclusion, only five films have made it to the club in over seven long months.
The first grosser was Rahul Dholakia's crime drama Raees, starring Shah Rukh Khan in the lead role. Shah Rukh, whose experimental film from last year, Maneesh Sharma's action film Fan, failed at the box office, reestablished himself as the 'King Khan' when his first gangster film Raees fared well at the box office.
Despite clashing with Raees on the Republic Day weekend, Sanjay Gupta's revenge saga Kaabil, starring Hrithik Roshan, also made it to the Rs 100 crore club. This was Hrithik's do or die film after his debacle from last year, Ashutosh Gowariker's period drama Mohenjo Daro.
And so, 2017 started off on a commendable note, probably leveraged by the momentum of Nitesh Tiwari's record breaking sports biopic Dangal that rescued the film industry from the woes of demonetisation. Kumar's first release of the year, Subhash Kapoor's courtroom drama Jolly LLB 2 proved to be yet another catalyst when it hit the screens in February.
However, in the same month, Bollywood was hit by its first major disaster. Vishal Bhardwaj's period drama Rangoon tanked at the box office despite the presence of powerhouses like Kangana Ranaut, Saif Ali Khan and Shahid Kapoor.
While a myriad range of reasons - such as the exam season, astronomical budget and lack of focus on the film's narrative - were speculated to cause the failure, Ranaut held it as a personal attack on her after her controversial remarks on Koffee with Karan (when she termed the host and filmmaker Karan Johar as the "flag-bearer of nepotism").
The fans seemed to hit back at the film industry in the following months as the debate around nepotism snowballed into a larger issue. They just refused to turn up in large numbers for Arjun Kapoor's films - Mohit Suri's romantic comedy Half Girlfriend and Anees Bazmee's wedding comedy Mubarakan. Shraddha Kapoor's film, Shaad Ali's romantic comedy OK Jaanu, and Sonakshi Sinha's slice-of-life entertainer Noor, met the same fate.
There were exceptions too as Varun Dhawan and Alia Bhatt hit box office gold yet again with Shashank Khaitan's romantic comedy Badrinath Ki Dulhania.
But the biggest jolt arrived when the invincible Salman Khan fell before the might of the audience's evolved taste for cinema. Kabir Khan's period drama Tubelight, that starred him in a non-quintessential Salman Khan role, failed to live up to the star's standards despite crawling its way into the Rs 100 crore club.
Interestingly, the outsiders could not escape the audience's ire either, who apparently chose not to settle with anything less content-oriented than Aamir Khan's Dangal or Prabhas' Baahubali that turned out to be universal success stories.
Shah Rukh Khan and Sushant Singh Rajput - who are considered the archetypal outsiders of the Hindi film industry - also saw their films get scrutinised through the same lens. Their respective films, Imtiaz Ali's romantic comedy Jab Harry Met Sejal and Dinesh Vijan's romantic thriller Raabta, were panned for not delivering enough content even after consuming massive budgets. Ranbir Kapoor's Jagga Jasoos too failed to make any headway at the box office.
Now, Kumar's Toilet: Ek Prem Katha has once again provided a ray of hope to the industry that has been in the dark for majority of the year so far. While it is certainly his star power that adds to the box office numbers, Shah Rukh and Salman's failures prove that brand value can only aid to a certain extent. Beyond that, the content has to deliver.
If Kumar's two releases this year are taken into consideration, they both have the theme of patriotism in common. Kumar, who won the National Award for the Best Actor this year (for Rustom), he has been credited with bringing stories from the hinterland to national consciousness through his films. It is one feat that even Dangal managed to achieve last year.
Ayushmann Khurrana will be seen in two such films in the next couple of months - Ashwini Iyer Tiwari's Bareilly Ki Barfi and RS Prasanna's Shubh Mangal Saavdhan. While both are set in the hinterland, they do not boast of the patriotic flavour that Kumar's films do.
And so, patriotism combined with stories from the hinterland seem to be the hot property in the Hindi film industry this year given Kumar's Midas' touch at the box office. While his next release, S Shankar's 2.0 is not set in the heartland, it is being projected as a Make in India film owing to its 100% indigenous technical production. The fate of 2.0 will determine whether Kumar got the pulse of the box office long before anyone else did.