“Get the three Khans. I am here,” quips Bauua Singh, the shorty who makes the most noise in Aanand L Rai’s recent Zero. In Bollywood’s biggest offering this Christmas, Shah Rukh Khan played Bauua Singh, the mealy-mouthed dwarf whose sum total in life adds to nothing and whatever he creates will also be “zero,” in the harsh words of matinee star Babita Kumari (Katrina Kaif). It was billed as King Khan’s most unconventional character, something that he has given it his all. His efforts showed on screen. Also starring Anushka Sharma as a scientist with cerebral palsy syndrome, Abhay Deol as a compulsive womaniser and R Madhavan in a toupee that went out of fashion in the 18th century, both emotions and expectations were running high for Zero. But a rocky start on December 21 had thrown a question mark over its future. Where Rs 100 crore looked a shoo-in amidst all the pre-release fanfare, as the first Friday wore on it was clear as day that it would be difficult for the high-stakes labour of love to break even. Today, the film has managed to collect only Rs 85.95 crore. Ranveer Singh’s Simmba, all set to cross the Rs 50 crore mark in just three days, spells further bad news for whatever is left of Zero’s theatrical life.
This expensive dud is being widely seen as a big blow to SRK. Even B-listers with weaker star power than Shah Rukh Khan are churning out Rs 100-blockbusters with regularity. More importantly, trade pundits had pegged Zero’s production budget at a staggering Rs 200 crore, making it SRK’s most expensive film to date. Besides the star-studded cast, the movie boasted lavish VFX, monumental sets and a hefty marketing budget. Then, there’s also the question of Brand SRK. Ahead of its release, Zero was being viewed as Khan’s return to big box-office, a well-deserved victory that has eluded him for long. But the film’s failure has further magnified his recent unlucky spell. Critics were already referring to the superstar’s shine wearing thin. After Zero, the situation is direr than ever.
It might comfort him to know that he was not alone in the box-office misery. 2018 was pretty blah for all the Khans, save Saif Ali Khan. That could be because Chhote Nawab, being a Khan-lite, comes with no expectations. The triumph of Sacred Games, a gritty Netflix series and his centrality to its critical and commercial success, took everyone by surprise. As the 2018 year-enders have unfailingly reminded you, this was a year of the underdog. Ayushmann Khurrana, Taapsee Pannu and Vicky Kaushal have already been anointed by critics and movie-goers alike as the ‘Actors of 2018.’ Of the A-listers, the indefatigable Akshay Kumar is still in the game. Where does this leave the other big daddies?
Let’s take a look at how the Khans fared in 2018. They all had a release each but none of their films feature in the top grossing list that is headlined by the likes of Sanju (Ranbir Kapoor) and Padmaavat (Deepika Padukone-Ranveer Singh) among others. Hope 2019 serves them better.
Shah Rukh Khan
In the course of his rise to stardom, Shah Rukh Khan has played the quintessential lover with innate charm. He famously ran away with the bride, in DDLJ and made the childish act of shooting-star in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai cool. In Swades, one of his better efforts, he played a NASA-returned scientist who helps transform a remote Indian village by connecting it to the grid. Aanand L Rai’s Zero seemed to pay homage to this SRK mythology, even as it artfully subverted his lover-boy image by shrinking him in size. Thankfully, the director retained the one thing on which his career rests — the famed dimples that have served as his birthright on Hindi screens. SRK buffs will be quick to spot the other canny nods and clues. To begin with, ‘Shrunk’ Rukh Khan a.k.a Bauaa Singh is nothing like Raj/Rahul but just as relentless and charming. Devoted fans know SRK as the obsessive lover who likes to run away with the girl in the end. He’s used to winning. But Zero reveled in a counter-narrative.
For example, at one point, the ‘palat-palat’ episode is snubbed with Bauua walking away from Aafia Yusufzai Bhinder (Anushka Sharma) mumbling, “Rokle rokle.” Similarly, the jilted Aafia reminds Bauua that all he is good at is “running away.” The film reflects SRK in his boldest avatar, yet. Deconstruct his recent filmography and you will see how he has been having a sort of touch-and-go. In the last three years, he has headlined films as diverse as Fan, Dear Zindagi, Jab Harry Mey Sejal and Raees. So, no one can accuse him of not trying to break out of the Raj/Rahul formula. Few actors are as self-aware as the articulate star. Talking about his trajectory during Zero promotions, he told a radio channel that he began his career by playing anti-hero roles. Turning the conventional wisdom about him on its head, he said the Raj/Rahul rom-coms was actually his way of experimenting after a series of negative roles! At heart, SRK revealed he was a theatre actor and the impulse to be challenged by roles was deeply ingrained in him. “I was made for doing films which are different,” he lucidly observed.
Of his recent oeuvre, Zero remains the riskiest. Director Rai succeeds in getting SRK to channel his “Dilli ka launda” swag. It’s impressive how Rai riffs on all important SRK institutions — the idea of romance, fan-star relationship that has been a bedrock of the SRK mythology (explored differently here than in Fan though in both Shah Rukh gets to a taste of the other side, of what it’s like to be a fan as opposed to the screen icon he is), Rab De Bana Di Jodi and its dance competition and then, you have that party scene where all his leading ladies are rounded up to witness the old boy work his famous magic on the stars in the night-sky. Not to mention, an ode to the fantasy world of Bollywood itself, with loving references to Dilip Kumar, the Kapoor family and especially, the Hindi film songs. Does SRK still have the magic? Well, the critics have had their say. The audience was left confused, as to what to make of Zero that started as a Western and ended as space fantasy. Director Aanand L Rai, the maker of Tanu Weds Manu and Raanjhanaa, aimed to find artistic potential in the vertical journey of his diminutive hero from being the cowboy of Meerut to space monkey of Mars. On the whole, Zero failed to interest the audience and except a stray reviews that spoke in favour of the film a majority of critics have been dismissive.
Zero’s Box-Office Collection: Rs 85.95 crore (Day 9)
How he fared last year: Both Jab Harry Mey Sejal and Raees were duds. Critics repeatedly point out that SRK is in a reinvention mode while others have written his obituary several times over. Wonder how long before he gets his own Dabangg.
Most commercially bankable of all Khans, the recent Thugs of Hindostan broke Aamir Khan’s golden-boy run. You can usually rely on him to dole out a blockbuster with ease. After all, Dangal remains one of the biggest Hindi hits of recent years. In the film co-starring Amitabh Bachchan and Katrina Kaif, Aamir plays a kohl-eyed, colourful con artist, Bollywood’s answer to Jack Sparrow. Despite being applauded for its visual razzle-dazzle, the so-called epic tanked and is being frequently clubbed into 2018’s worst films list. Poor Aamir. His second film with Yash Raj after Dhoom 3, the TOH drubbing proves YRF brings out the worst in him. Even the thriving Chinese who have taken a shine to the Dangal star couldn’t save this sinking ship!
Thugs of Hindostan’s Box-Office Collection: Rs 335 crore
How he fared last year: A relatively smaller film by Aamir’s standards, the well-intentioned Secret Superstar (2017) was an average earner in India, but a blockbuster in China. Yet another proof of “Uncle Aamir” — as he’s fondly called in China — and his Midas touch.
Salman Khan is nobody’s idea of a great actor. But even by own standards, Race 3 was the laziest ‘Bhai’ flick in a long time. The Remo D’Souza heist thriller saw Salman, along with its multi-cast, sleepwalking through and through — this time in Cambodia. Guess as far as spy capers go, audiences certainly prefer their favourite Khan in the much-superior Tiger series. Aside from Race 3, Salman has made friendly appearances in Yamla Pagla Deewana Phir Se, Welcome to New York and Zero in 2018. In fact, his special cameo in Zero (in the song ‘Issaqbaazi’) has turned out to be one of the high points of the otherwise messy film. The short-pack SRK and the usual bravado of Salman coupled with two of Bollywood’s best dancers (Ganesh Acharya and Remo D’Souza) is a lovely masala touch that audiences can take back home.
Race 3’s Box-Office Collection: Rs 303 crore
How he fared last year: The Dabangg star opened 2017 with the washout Tubelight but by December had earned back the stripes with the runaway success of Tiger Zinda Hai.