On the 65th anniversary of Indian Independence, I along with a guesstimated five million people in India went to see Ek Tha Tiger. Salman Khan’s new film was riding on breathless hype, the formidable reputation of Yash Raj Films, and the insurmountable charisma of ‘Bhai’ — a man so loved that his fans happily eschew the routine requirements of a film — story, character, coherence, craft. Salman is a genre unto himself and his presence alone is enough to create frenzy.
The frenzy on August 15 was so staggering that even jaded trade pundits reeled with excitement. Ek Tha Tiger netted almost Rs. 33 crore on day one, setting a new opening record. There were reports of the police being summoned to theatres in Jaipur because the crowds were overwhelming. In the suburban Mumbai theatre where I saw the film, Salman’s silhouette in the first few frames was greeted with such loud cheering that I couldn’t hear the soundtrack. I concluded that I was witnessing the arrival of the Bollywood Event Film.
This, as defined by The Guardian columnist Phil Hoad, is the film that becomes “an event: the must-see, the one that sucks all of the oxygen out of the room and scorches the box office.” This is a film that looms so large that it dominates the pop-culture horizon and scares off all competition. It creates so much noise that consumers view it as an event that they must participate in. This film is critic-proof — no matter what we say about it, people show up in droves to see it. In short, it’s a pre-sold blockbuster.
Hollywood has perfected the art of the Event Film. Each year, studios put out mammoth movies that generate global buzz and mind-boggling box office — recently, The Avengers became the third biggest movie of all time with grosses of $1.4 billion (the first two are Avatar and Titanic). These films connect the world — from New York to London to Tokyo, viewers line up to see the latest instalment of Twilight or Batman. The thrill extends beyond the screen — there is a shared excitement in standing in lines that snake around blocks or going for a midnight screening.
The original event film was Steven Spielberg’s 1975 classic Jaws. Universal Studios spent $700,000 on television ads for the film — a rarity at the time. The film was released in 409 theatres and went on to make $129 million — it was the first ever to break the $100-million mark. In Bollywood, the Event Film is a more recent phenomenon and its evolution is closely tied in with the formation of the Rs. 100 crore club. The first film to hit Rs. 100 crore in India was Ghajini in 2008. Since then, every year, at least two to three films make this coveted mark. So far, only one — 3 Idiots — has managed to cross Rs. 200 crore domestically.
Hundred crore is now the benchmark of a successful film. When a film does these numbers, producers, publicists and the press go into overdrive — reams of print and airtime are devoted to marking the occasion. The conversation about who is and who isn’t in this club is not restricted to the film trade. It’s debated on the front pages of newspaper supplements and celebrity magazines. Today, Rs. 100 crore is the biggest barometer of success and the best way to achieve it is to create an Event Film.
The ingredients are an A-list actor, a suitable holiday release date (the Khans have co-opted the festivals so Salman takes Eid, Shah Rukh works best at Diwali and Aamir seems to have a lock on Christmas) and aggressive marketing strategies. Ek Tha Tiger was released on 3,300 screens in India. There were 1,268 shows per day in Mumbai alone — the carpet bombing ensured that audiences had no choice but to see this film. A five-day weekend bookended by Independence Day and Eid sent the collections skyrocketing. By Monday, the film crossed Rs. 100 crore. In its first week (nine days since it released on a Wednesday), Ek Tha Tiger made Rs. 154 crore, becoming Bollywood’s second highest grosser after 3 Idiots.
These tent-pole pictures will become more common as Bollywood filmmakers try to make as much money in as little time as possible (these days, most films barely do a four-week run in theatres). But a crucial difference is that in Hollywood, event films are driven by concepts and characters — Harry Potter, Batman, Spiderman or the Na’vi in Avatar are bigger than the actors who play them. In Jaws, the star was a mechanical shark.
But in Bollywood, the star dwarfs everything and everyone else. As trade journalist Komal Nahta pointed out, when a film makes R100 crore, the hero is immediately labelled with the tag, not the film’s director. The blockbuster Event Film is a necessity for Bollywood and for us viewers. The excitement and anticipation on that first day first show of Ek Tha Tiger was itself a visceral thrill. Shah Rukh Khan has long maintained that our movies continue to have such a strong hold on audiences globally because our star system is so deeply entrenched. That may be so. But I hope that someday, our stories become the event and not our stars.
Anupama Chopra is an author, journalist and a movie reviewer for the Hindustan Times. The views expressed by the author are personal.