It was the summer of 1988. A young man keen to become a writer and director was doing the rounds of producers in Mumbai, walking into offices that thousands had walked into before, and thousands would later.
His name was Salman Khan and he was about to become one of India’s biggest movie stars.
Not too far away in the same neighbourhood of Bandra, Aamir Khan had just zoomed to new stardom. Two other New Delhi men, outsiders in Bollywood, were preparing to begin their journey as actors. They were called Shah Rukh Khan and Akshay Kumar.
Years later, those four men are still the crown of the small clique of stars of Hindi cinema. But the whirlwind of change in Bollywood has not left these icons of entertainment untouched. They are adapting as well.
<b1>Actors are turning producers. Actors are turning directors. Actors are also writing films. They are turning businessmen — devising new, innovative ways to own the intellectual property of their films, from ownership of the film print to the ancilliary rights like those related to the Internet and mobile phones. They are working with new directors and themes.
“There was a time when we ourselves never used to watch our own movies. But actors are now thinking – what to do next, what’s the kind of film I want,” Salman Khan told the Hindustan Times in an interview.
“The game has become big … Audiences have changed. They have become impatient."
We are sitting at Salman Khan’s sea-facing apartment in Bandra on a rare day – he is home early after a half day’s shift. All around us, on the walls of the living room, are paintings done by Khan himself. Acrylic and charcoal.
Khan has just had an afternoon siesta. There are two bowls of cherries before him and he slowly picks on a few. “I think in another two years it will be a different thing altogether,” he said.
“Films like Taare Zameen Par, Chak De are all interesting films. I make it a point that my films …try to give that feel good cinema,” he said. Then he whistled and his cook knew the actor wanted coffee.
“For an average filmmaker, it is very difficult to get a hero on board,” said director and music composer Vishal Bhardwaj. Bhardwaj has no such obstacles though – he is part of Bollywood’s elite league of directors who most actors and producers and desperate to work with. That, too, is a reflection of the new Bollywood, with top actors keen to do unconventional themes with trend-setting directors like Bhardwaj.
“Fees in Bollywood are slowly inching towards Hollywood levels – if a Shah Rukh Khan does a film he will take at least US$6 to US$7 million – in comparison, Johny Depp will charge US$20 million,” Bhardwaj said. “Every actor has his own production house and if you have to cast them, you have to co-produce or work for those production houses.”
The top names – Amir Khan, Shah Rukh Khan, Suneil Shetty, Ajay Devgan, and most recently, Sanjay Dutt and Saif Ali Khan – all have or are set to launch their own production companies. Salman Khan – whose brother Sohail Khan is a producer – thinks it is a bad idea. “Being a producer is a different thing altogether,” he said.
The top actors are rumoured to charge between Rs. 25 crores and Rs. 30 crores per film, with other benefits to follow.
But there are few options – the shortage of saleable actors is so acute that there is a mad scramble whenever there is a new, promising face. Director Sriram Raghavan’s Johny Gaddaar threw up a new actor – Neil Nitin Mukesh, who was immediately snapped up by production houses, even though there are reportedly no scripts yet for most of them.
“We are short of talent...We are surviving on a whole lot of incompetence. You cannot make films against gravity,” Salman Khan says.
Ram Mirchandani, senior vice-president with UTV Motion Pictures, one of India’s major production houses, is one of the men trying to push forward change.
“The star system has got its own challenges. There are no more than 10 stars in Bollywood. And since there aren’t too many, prices have gone up,” he said. “The economies have changed and the waiting period has gone up.”
At the same time, Mirchandani points out, many of these stars can be relied upon to steer a film through its crucial first week.
But the dynamics of star power in Bollywood still begin and ends with male actors, a phenomenon that frustrates acclaimed directors like Sudhir Mishra.
“This (boom) will last only as long as the realisation among the promoters that the big star films are making big bucks. There is an absence of release-ability for non-star cast films,” said Mishra.
“In a country as huge as India, what I find ridiculous is that you cannot make a film with a female star. You can keep blaming the producers but the audience has something to answer for,” he said.