One of the reasons given for the lackluster performance of Shah Rukh Khan’s last release Dilwale was Khan’s statement on the then ongoing intolerance debate. The actor had criticised the growing environment of intolerance in the country that had inspired many from the arts field, including authors, writers, and directors, to return their national awards.
The year before in December, Aamir Khan faced a similar situation in which some religious groups tried to form a similar public opinion about Khan’s PK before its release. The movie though turned out to be a huge success. In fact, it became the highest grossing Hindi film ever.
This example simply shows the credibility of two superstars. Both keep delivering hit after hit, but there’s a novelty factor attached to one of them. No brownie points for guessing the name.
Aamir seems to have learned well from his 2006 experience when he was criticised for supporting the Narmada Bachao Andolan. Despite the pressure, he refused to apologise for his statement, and suffered for it. However, he managed to regain his footing when he joined the Anna Hazare movement in 2011-2012.
In India, film stars are generally perceived as people hungry for success and money who either don’t or choose not to have opinions on social issues.
But Aamir Khan turned that around for himself with his TV series Satyamev Jayate in 2012. Its unexpected success made Khan the champion of human rights and the face of the community of thinking Indian actors. He also became the face of the Incredible India campaign. On the box office front, his very average film Dhoom 3 (2013) broke all records and that established his authority over the audience. Later, PK only consolidated his market position.
In 2016, he is again at crossroads. Dangal will hit the screens this year, but Aamir has taken a considerable beating in the intolerance row. His statement that wife Kiran Rao wondered at leaving the country for the sake of their child’s future was at the nexus of it. He’s been defending his views, but the fall out has been that he is no longer the face of the Incredible India campaign.
But, does someone like Aamir need to defend himself?
Let’s take a look at the actor’s brand placement. He is still the number one Khan when it comes to generating revenue through a single film. This is when Shah Rukh Khan and Salman Khan have a more consolidated fan base among the NRIs and the indigenous population. PK earned Rs 26.63 crore on day 1, several crores less than the openings of Ek Tha Tiger (Rs. 32.92 crore on Day 1) and Chennai Express (Rs. 33.12 crore on Day 1), but went on to become the most commercially successful Bollywood film ever.
At a time people were focused on delivering a Rs 100 crore film, Aamir focused on quality work. He understood why the audience was wincing.
His astuteness in terms of marketing and product placement is not the result of overnight thinking. Every controversy has made him smarter. Now, he seems to exactly know what to say when. Even this time, the first question people asked after hearing his statement on the intolerance row was: Is his film releasing? His flip-flops on the issue gave the social media a chance to meme him. But, he again found a chance to redeem his image in the Sunny Leone interview controversy. Openly coming in support of a misogynist TV interview presented him in a good light. This is what fans expect from their idols.
Similarly, he was dismissed as the brand ambassador of the Incredible India campaign, but was later called by the PM for a get together. A winner yet again. And now, his Paani Foundation is in action in drought hit areas of Maharashtra. Hardly any other mainstream actor is seen doing similar work, making Aamir more relatable; an actor with a heart.
He is very much in the box office game and the hype around Dangal shows his bankability. The film is constantly in the news, months before its release. And, if everything goes right, trade pundits predict Dangal may break previous box office records. Khan being a good actor is just a bonus for his producers.
He might be doing one film a year, or he might be the only Bollywood superstar sans endorsements on TV (Snapdeal detached itself from Khan after the intolerance row), but his stakes are still high, maybe higher than anybody else.
An actor who started his journey 31 years ago with Holi is still ruling the roost. That in itself is an incredible tag that will stick for a long while, one that can’t be stripped all that easily. Aamir has rebranded himself through all the controversies, making his name synonymous with innovation, strategy and success. That is being bankable at its best.
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