Bollywood films, with their colorful sets and hyper-coordinated song-and-dance numbers, have catapulted five Indians into the ranks of the world's highest paid male actors. Three of those actors- Salman Khan, Amitabh Bachchan and Akshay Kumar - were in the top 10, outranking Hollywood A-listers such as Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson and Leonardo DiCaprio.
The rankings, compiled by Forbes, were released last week and included actors working outside Hollywood, allowing an international comparison of star earnings for the first time. That change also meant Hong Kong martial arts darling Jackie Chan was 2nd placed, with most of his $50 million in earnings last year made from films produced in China. American actor Robert Downey Jr. topped the list for the third year in a row, earning $80 million in 2014. The two highest-paid Indian actors, Khan and Bachchan, tied for 7th, each earning $33.5 million last year.
"I am surprised it has taken so long" to get global rankings, said Bollywood publicist Raju Kariya, who has worked in the industry for more than 30 years. India's male actors, easily recognizable by their aviator sunglasses and tight designer clothes, are so popular that "everyone from 5-year-olds to elderly aunties are completely gaga over them."
Khan's place also demonstrated that Bollywood stars can get through scandal relatively unscathed. The action hero is the subject of nonstop media attention amid an ongoing court case for a 2002 hit-and-run that killed a homeless man and injured four others. His popularity also hasn't suffered from his 2006 conviction for poaching an endangered blackbuck deer, which he has appealed.
Even though the top Bollywood hunks are raking in cash, the earnings of Hindi-language films are languishing. Bollywood is the world's most prolific producer of films, churning out some 1,000 year, double that of Hollywood. Yet so far this year, only half a dozen or so Bollywood films have turned a profit, while most of the hundreds that come out of Mumbai's film industry are money losers.
As India's economy grows and the middle class expands, more people are buying theater tickets and the number of movie theaters has increased. But Bollywood is facing increased pressure from imported films.
The competition, particularly from Hollywood, is making India moviegoers more demanding and discerning, said film trade analyst Vinod Mirani. "Movies are actually getting worse" as money-making vehicles in India, he said.
Bollywood revenues have been growing by about 10 percent a year and will reach $4.5 billion in 2016, according to a study by the Confederation of Danish Industries in India.
Up until the 1990s, film in India was usually financed by politicians and criminals. The industry has since modernized with financing coming from major companies. Foreign production houses Sony Pictures, The Walt Disney Co. and Universal Studios have also opened office in India. Reliance MediaWorks Ltd., owned by one of India's richest tycoons, Anil Ambani, sold off its entire multiplex business, Big Cinemas, to UK's Carnival Films Pvt. Ltd. last year for more than $100 million.
Altogether, the five Bollywood stars made Indians the second-highest paid as a group, with combined earnings of $140.5 million.
Film industry analysts said they were unsurprised that Indian actors rank among the world's highest paid. While their films may not be big money earners, they have global recognition thanks to a large Indian diaspora living from Australia to Canada and the United States.
Indian actors also often negotiate a cut of a movie's total revenues, guaranteeing themselves extra income even when films flop, whereas their Western counterparts usually only secure a share of profits.
The growth of Internet and social media in India has also fueled the fame of Bollywood actors. And they are ubiquitous on TV, appearing in advertisements for everything from air conditioners and luxury cars to perfume and underpants.
Salman Khan, for example, grossed more than $20 million just from his 'Being Human' clothing line last year, while Bachchan endorses more than a dozen products ranging from soft drinks to household paint.
Bachchan, 72, who is so popular there is even a temple dedicated to him in the eastern city of Kolkata, was the oldest actor on the list, beating out his 63-year-old Irish colleague Liam Neeson, who made $19.5 million last year to land in 22nd place on the list.
The third-highest ranked Bollywood actor was another action hero, Kumar, with earnings of $32.5 million last year putting him in the 9th spot.
Lower on the list of 34 actors was Shah Rukh Khan, in 18th place, and Ranbir Kapoor, at No. 30.
Read: Salman, Akshay Kumar and both Bachchans feature on Forbes rich-list