March of the old guard
The writer talks about the return of the age-old Bollywood, the success of senior superstars, and the cracks in the armour that is glossed over by the hype and magic
Earlier this year, in the now-famous post-end credits scene in Siddharth Anand’s Pathaan, we saw Shah Rukh Khan in a cool moment of banter with another star, Salman ‘Tiger’ Khan, cracking a self-reflexive joke about the creaky bones of Bollywood’s ageing Khans. He starts off by wondering if the trinity—all touching 58 this year—should think of retiring. “Tees saal ho gaye yaar ab humein chhod dena chahiye" (It’s been 30 years; we should quit now)”. He then goes on to ask a seminal question: “Hamari jagah lega kaun (Who will replace us?)”, and eventually makes the thumping assertion that they are irreplaceable: “Humein hi karna padega. Bachchon par nahin chhod sakte (We will have to do it. We can’t leave it to the kids).”
It’s as though SRK had already anticipated that some of the venerable veterans of Bollywood, like him, would be turning the industry’s fortunes around after a protracted dry spell through the pandemic and after. When you consider that their popularity has been on the decline and they have all been summarily dismissed as fading stars, this comeback becomes the stuff of mass cinema really.
August and September have emerged as the biggest at the Bollywood box office this year, and Ormax Media, the Mumbai-based media consulting firm, suggests that 2023 could well turn out to be the highest-grossing year of all time at the Indian box office. All thanks to SRK’s Jawan, 66-year-old Sunny Deol’s Gadar 2, 56-year-old Akshay Kumar’s OMG2 and beyond Bollywood, 72-year-old Rajinikanth’s Jailer. SRK, at the last count, had delivered Rs 1,050.30 crore gross with Pathaan (as per Bollywood Hungama) and Rs 695.67 crore with Jawan, and Deol’s Gadar 2 had grossed Rs 679.69 crore.
The emphasis on the age of these stars is only to underline their longevity. In fact, take away these Golden Jubilee actors, including Ajay Devgn and a ‘soon-to-turn 50’ Hrithik Roshan, and you’d be left with almost no one else to wear the heavy crown of superstardom. A 40-year-old unreliable Ranbir Kapoor? Or the callow younger bunch of ‘in their 30s’ Kartik Aryan, Varun Dhawan and Tiger Shroff? Perhaps a 38-year-old Ranveer Singh with the recent success of Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani (Rs 346.66 crore gross) behind him could make the cut but industry watchers think he can get too iconoclastic and unorthodox to have a sustained sway over the conventional masses.
As opposed to the vintage side of Bollywood stardom, there is a diametrically opposite aspect to take note of the rapidly declining age of the Indian theatre-going audience. According to a recent annual theatrical sizing report, titled Sizing the Cinema: 2023, the median age of India’s theatrical audience has dropped from 27.5 years pre-pandemic to 24.1 years. So, more than the impressive crores their films have amassed, what’s astonishing is how the boomers and OGs are appealing to the millennials and the Gen-Z viewers. Many who are flocking for the sequel Gadar 2, for instance, weren’t born when Gadar: Ek Prem Katha released in 2001. They would not be driven by the tug of nostalgia for the iconic handpump scene or the ‘dhai kilo ka haath’ dialogue. Moreover, the lead star, Sunny Deol, has hardly been active in recent years to have caught their eye. Yet, Gadar 2 is a Sunny Deol blockbuster, not the success of Utkarsh Sharma (who plays his son in the film). Similarly, it’s the senior SRK, the cigar-smoking, rock-loving Captain Vikram Rathore, who trumps over the younger SRK, his son Azad in Jawan. Even when one of his young compatriots in the film calls him ‘uncle’, his charming reaction to her sweeps the audience off the floor.
The title of Jawan doesn’t just invoke the Indian soldier but plays with the idea of youth as well. In fact, the awareness of the march of time and a simultaneous disregard for it informs the film. When Azad hijacks the Mumbai Metro train and is called “buddha” (old man) by a cop, he takes off the bandages on his head, wraps them around the officer’s head and then shouts as he age-shames him, in return: “Buddha hoga tera baap (Your father must be an old man).”
The ‘Zinda Banda’ anthem is another of SRK’s ways of asserting his far from old and decrepit stardom. As is his conscious attempt to pull out a vintage colleague—Salman in Pathaan and Sanjay Dutt in Jawan—to underscore the solidarity with them in their evergreen, never-say-die star appeal. SRK’s overt political statements aside, you can’t get away from his messaging on dotage and reinventing a supposedly fading stardom either.
It’s the generational, father-son theme then which stands out even more in the outings of both Khan and Deol. “He (the son) is Simba, this (the father) is Mufasa”, goes a line in Jawan referring to The Lion King. The epochal dialogue “Bete ko haath lagaane se pehle baap se baat kar (Before you touch the son, deal with his father)” could have, in fact, been roared as effectively by Tara Singh when he returns to Pakistan to rescue Jeete his imprisoned son and single-handedly gets the better of the entire Pakistan army in Gadar 2.
It must be noted that in this remarkable success of senior superstars, women continue to have no place. Even while we are celebrating the box-office success that has come this year, we must also notice that the films are all built on the typical, massy model centring on scale, spectacular action, and machismo. Even the women-friendly romantic persona of SRK has fallen in line and turned into an all-out action hero, with six-pack abs and rippling muscles.
At one level it’s nice to see the father trump the son and the idea of ageism being shown the door. But is it all so simple and straightforward? Especially when it’s built on the typical, familiar, massy model—noisy, amped up in scale, spectacular in action, adrenaline-driven but mired in orthodox tropes of unbridled machismo. Even the romantic, women-friendly persona of SRK, in his mellow 50s, has fallen in line and turned into an all-out action hero, showing off his six-pack abs and rippling muscles. However much some of us may like it, Ranveer Singh dancing to “Dola re” in RRKPK is still a rarity, and an oddity in Bollywood.
And yet, it must be noted that in this scheme of box office success of senior superstars, women continue to have no place. There was at least a Gangubai Kathiawadi last year. This year, there may have been Rani Mukherjee’s Mrs Chatterjee vs Norway, but it’s on the fringes. Age barriers have never existed for men in any sphere of life. It’s the senior women who are forced to quietly fade away into the horizon. That has been and continues to remain so in Bollywood as well. Much as we celebrate male superstars in their 50s, the fact is that the biggest female star, Alia Bhatt is just 30.
Tiger 3 and Dunki are up next. Will they stick to this successful recipe and taste more success? For now, Bollywood is thriving once again, even if not in all the ways we might hope.