In a critical moment in Dil To Pagal Hai, the beloved 1997 Yash Chopra directorial, Madhuri Dixit’s Pooja chooses Shah Rukh Khan’s flamboyant Rahul over Akshay Kumar‘s nice, dependable, no-demands-no-expectation Ajay. But sitting somewhere in the audience, Mumbai-based Zainab Soni, who was a Shah Rukh fan till then, shifted loyalties to the opposite side. Akshay lost the battle of heart but by the end of the film, earned the unconditional love of a fan.
A quarter of a century later, the superstar is going through one rejection after another at the ticket window, especially in a year that has seen more failures than successes even from Bollywood’s biggest stars, making his misses even more significant for the industry. But the sentiment among his fans, trade experts and exhibitors is loud and clear — Akshay Kumar might face bumps, but never losses.
Dubbed as a ‘one-man industry’ owing to the frequency of his releases, Akshay, much like his character from Dil To Pagal Hai, has been Mr. Dependable at the box office. In 2019, the last pandemic-free year for the movies, Akshay had starred in four diverse releases — a historical war film Kesari, ISRO-set drama Mission Mangal, the fourth instalment of the comedy franchise Housefull 4 and Good Newwz. The cumulative collection of his films was a whopping Rs 750 cr.
But 2022 has been a stunning disappointment. His all three theatricals so far–Bachchhan Paandey, Samrat Prithviraj and Raksha Bandhan–have bitten the dust. His latest thriller Cuttputlli has skipped cinema halls and gone direct to streaming amid murmurs that the actor is carefully rethinking his theatrical choices. The film received mixed reviews.
According to various industry insiders, Akshay has also slashed his upfront fee of reportedly Rs 130 cr by almost 50 percent for some of his future projects, to help mount his films better and bigger. During the trailer launch of Cuttputlli a few weeks ago, Akshay opened up about how he reflects at his performance this year and agreed that the box office failures of his films scream for a course correction.
“If my films are not working, it is our fault, it is my fault. I have to make the changes, I have to understand what the audience wants. I want to make changes, I want to dismantle my way of working and think what kind of films I should be doing. Nobody else is to be blamed but me,” he had said.
Trade analyst and film exhibitor Akshaye Rathi wouldn’t want to be harsh on the superstar. He argues, even though the year so far has been a “mixed bag” for Akshay, his underwhelming films kept the box office running. “He is the one guy who has at least turned up at the box office so regularly and allowed some cheer to exhibitors with some collections coming in,” Rathi claims.
Times have never been more volatile for the Hindi film industry than now, as it struggles to get audience to theatres in the face of competition from the more exciting South Indian counterpart and due to its own sub-par quality. It’s gotten difficult even for an Akshay Kumar, whose performance at the box office has largely remained indifferent to changing trends.
Last year, he delivered the blockbuster Sooryavanshi. Rathi says the superstar should be credited for being “the opening batsman of the industry post the pandemic.” But his critics believe Akshay’s films don’t come with guarantee anymore especially when the audience has found other massy heroes to cheer for. They also point towards the lack of good content and story being largely sacrificed with the focus on its lead face.
“If you ask why are his films not working anymore, the answer lies in his career trajectory,” an industry insider shared with indianexpress.com. “He did action films in the 90s, moved to comedy in the decade that followed. But there was a shift in the last ten years, when he started doing ‘socially relevant’ films.
“One must understand, these films, from Padman to Toilet Ek Prem Katha, can get you star ratings, but rarely a mammoth box office blockbuster, the kind which breaks records. This year, all three films have been underwhelming. A star like Akshay needs to come up with big scale films, like Sooryavanshi, because he has a loyal fan base,” the insider adds.
Film and trade business analyst Girish Johar, however, is against jumping the gun and declaring any expiry date for his stardom. He adds that Akshay Kumar’s dry spell is not strong enough to dent his reputation as a star whose films have consistently oiled the machinery of box office. “Everybody knows that he does three to four films in a year, in fact everybody in the fraternity also says how he is one-man industry with the kind of work that he is giving to the entertainment industry, and that stays intact,” Girish says.
Worry around Akshay Kumar’s lackluster performances this year is not only because its in quick succession, but also because in the middle of his theatrical releases came the news that his Ratsaasan remake Cuttputlli would stream on OTT. Akshay is not new to streaming platforms either. His 2020 Diwali release Laxmii streamed on Disney Plus Hotstar because theatres were shut due to the pandemic, followed by Atrangi Re in 2021.
Cuttputli was announced last year and finished filming early this year. The superstar didn’t make it clear then if it was indeed a direct-to-digital OTT release, which brings to mind two questions: Did the actor take the OTT route because of his poor theatrical run? And if it’s true, should a big star treat OTT as a safety net at a time when box office needs him?
“Ideally, a star of Akshay’s stature should not come on OTT. He has consistent box office pull, which he should utilise. Even if he comes on OTT with a mid-sized film, that can be balanced if his theatrical outings are big, unmissable films. But that is not happening either, which is why the complain,” the insider says.
Akshaye Rathi agrees, that ideally, all exhibitors would be “more than delighted” to see a star like him turn up at the box office regularly, but they are also mindful of him spacing out his theatrical release window instead of clogging his calendar.
“Through the pandemic he has been the one actor who worked relentlessly. He has quite a few films that are ready. If an actor has 6-7 films in a year, it is practically impossible, even fans can get saturated by that. So if a couple of them go to streaming, that is understandable. Going ahead, we would like to see him go to streaming, but via box office,” Akshaye Rathi adds.
Both, Girish and Akshaye, agree that the star is just “one film away” to create magic at the box office and flops are just a phase. “It is just a matter of couple of films, but otherwise he knows what he has done and everybody knows what he is capable of doing, he is one of the most bankable names today. Certain films are made to do well at the box office others are being made for OTT and, and his films have done better than many others in the recent times, it is a mixed ball game,” Girish says.
Zainab’s love for her idol, unlike the industry, does not depend on history of his box office figures. The fan, whose friends bring her cake every year on September 9 on Akshay’s birthday, says she is obviously sad that the actor is failing at the box office but her faith in him is unwavering. That’s because Zainab not only believes in Akshay Kumar as a star but also counts on the person that he is known to the public.
“It is very difficult to accept your mistakes, but Akshay does it all the time. First he apologised for endorsing a pan masala, then he confessed that it is his fault if his films are not working. He recognises where he is going wrong and wants to rectify it, so he is sincere about his work and wants to do better… He has always been open to change and he has time and again rediscovered himself, and that’s what has my heart in Akshay,” Zainab adds.
However, the insider feels that Akshay needs to reconsider his choices in terms of content and posturing. The entertainment consumption in a post-pandemic world has drastically changed where the film’s trailer can make or break the film’s opening. The box office window is also considerably smaller and only films that can garner a positive word of mouth can register gains. People are clear — give us something worth our while to spend money and head to theatres. In the face of this changing scenario Akshay — along with most of the Hindi film industry — is struggling.
Akshay’s fan Jatin Sharma, a marketing executive from Delhi, however, feels that the media is too quick to write off the actor. “Yes, he has had consecutive underwhelming releases but that shouldn’t make him a butt of jokes or harsh criticism like calling him a flop. He has been one of the few outsiders who have made such a huge place for themselves in the industry, where star kids are launched every year. It’s sad to discredit him overlooking his 25-year-long glorious journey,” he says.
Though the light of box office has shied away from the actor this year, he still has time to turn things around with his big ticket Diwali release, Ram Setu. The action-adventure, which features him as an archeologist, is expected to open in cinemas on October 24.
Akshaye Rathi says going forward, he wishes the actor changes gears based on the “current, post pandemic requirements” and be more in sync with the changed taste of the audience which has evolved during the pandemic. “He is a very sharp guy, who is glued into the realities of the market. I am sure it is only a matter of time before he will start delivering blockbusters.”
Ram Setu, Rathi feels, can emerge a success like the recent Telugu blockbuster Karthikeya 2, which followed its lead character on a journey to find the lost anklet of Lord Krishna. “Ram Setu has an interesting premise. If you look at what has happened with Karthikeya 2, not just in Telugu but Hindi, it shows that if the ethos of a film connects with the audience, it can truly surprise.
“So for Ram Setu, what better time than Diwali to release. Having said that, it truly depends on the merits of a film today. If they are there, which we all are hoping they are, Ram Setu will smash it out of the park,” Rathi adds.