If there is one thing Bajrangi Bhaijaan and now Sultan have proved, it is that if Salman Khan the star alone is guarantee of more than Rs. 150 crore business today, the same star plus a meaty subject means an easy additional Rs. 100 crore business nationally and proportionate revenues globally.
Clearly, Salman Khan has realized that popular cinema with added substance is a win-win situation that makes him the Numero Uno star in the truly comprehensive sense of the word.
It is Kabir Khan, who directed him earlier in the semi-serious super-hit Ek Tha Tiger (the biggest Salman hit till then) who had the visionary foresight to cast him as Bajrangi. The actor, too, needs to be complimented for making the right move at the right time, so much so that he can now afford to take good- humoured digs, as he recently did, at his Bodyguard and Kick kind of cinema.
Salman was sharp enough to realize that the superstardom he had attained since 2010 was not permanent, and that the actor-star needed to change before the audiences began to reject him. The two Khans (Kabir and Salman) blended their respective styles brilliantly in Bajrangi… and both came up trumps.
Yes, maybe Salman did not want an external producer for a probably-perceived risky venture, so he produced his (eventually) biggest-to-date blockbuster himself!
Aamir Khan has been largely doing weighty mainstream cinema since the 1999 Sarfarosh, including Lagaan and 3 Idiots all the way to PK. Earlier, whenever offbeat films were done by any superstar, including Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapoor, Dharmendra and Amitabh Bachchan, such films were never among their biggest hits. But Aamir was the first actor to prove, that, for the 'today' audience, the new formula was:
Superstar + Mainstream Cinema of Substance = Enhanced Popularity + New Highs at Box-Office!
But it is Akshay Kumar who was, perhaps, the first to cotton on to the fact that Aamir Khan had shown a fruitful path that could be followed. While his first tryst, 8X10 Tasveer (2009), was a poorly executed washout, the talented Neeraj Pandey perceived him differently and got him to do Special 26 (2013) with good commercial and better critical success.
However, it took the indifferent faring of his next lot of masala films vis-a-vis the success of the gritty Holiday and Pandey's second venture with him, Baby, which really set Akshay's ball rolling. Even Gabbar Is Back had a message-and a dead serious Akshay. Thus, by the end of 2015, Akshay was looked upon, including possibly by himself, in a new and 'deeper' light.
This year, Airlift and the excitement around Rustom, again a Neeraj Pandey film but only produced by him, consolidate Akshay Kumar's standing as a superstar who will now mix serious films with his spice-laden confections. After all, Airlift even did better business than the trite Housefull 3!
To some extent, my gut-feel is that Salman Khan has been somewhere inspired by this timely professional turn by Akshay Kumar, but he is unlikely to ever confirm or deny this.
Clearly, when you are not Aamir or Ajay, you need that minimum one visionary director who will take you to heights you never knew you could reach, and keep making such films with you. Kabir Khan is now making Tubelight with Salman, and Neeraj Pandey will, according to Akshay's statement on record, do two more films with him soon.
One question, however, disturbs me: that while Gen-Y stars Varun Dhawan, Ranveer Singh, Tiger Shroff and Sidharth Malhotra have age and thus time on their side to conform or experiment, where does all this leave Shah Rukh Khan and Hrithik Roshan? In terms of loyal directors of substance who can take their superstardom and acting talent to the next level, they do not have to have those who envision them differently and yet stand like rocks behind them.