Have stars really got the power?
It had to happen. Carried away by a surprise string of successes at the box office, the Mumbai film industry's battery of know-all instant minstrels - the television show hosts, the self-styled trade pundits and the film rags - have begun to hum a long lost number, a refrain that, as has been proven time and again, went out of vogue with Amitabh Bachchan's halcyon days.
These chroniclers of the pulp factory would have us believe that the purple patch that popular Hindi cinema has struck owes something to the resurgent clout of our stars, to the mass appeal of the Salman Khans and Akshay Kumars of the world. That's utter flapdoodle!
The collections of the Salman Khan-starrer, Tere Naam, have begun to dip drastically and the film is only into its second week. Salman does have his fan following, but his fans can, at best, help a film take a decent opening.
The rest hinges on the film itself. If Salman were really the miracle man he is being made out to be, Tumko Na Bhool Payenge and Yeh Hai Jalwa, released last year, wouldn't have been dumped quite as unceremoniously as they were.
The success earlier in the year of the nondescript Andaaz had more to do with the oodles of oomph injected into it by the sassy twosome of Priyanka Chopra and Lara Dutta than with the supposed box-office draw of Akshay Kumar.
The same is perhaps true of Qayamat as well. Despite the presence of the high-flying Ajay Devgan in the cast, the masses took a liking for the film because it had not one, not two, but three bold bimbettes - former beauty queen Neha Dhupia, Riya Sen and Isha Koppikar - ready to shed their inhibitions - and clothes - with abandon. That Devgan was at the head of film's cast was only a bonus.
Yes, not even Ajay Devgan can guarantee a hit today. He could not prevent a poorly scripted Chori Chori from sinking, could he despite having Rani Mukherjee, who is currently on an incredible high post-Chalte Chalte, for company. Let's face it: a commercial Hindi film clicks either if it titillates the masses, strikes an emotional chord or impresses the multiplex crowd with its quality. The stars are of secondary importance.
Nothing could prove that more eloquently than Koi… Mil Gaya. The film may have put Hrithik Roshan back in the reckoning after a string of flops in 2002, but he would be the first to admit that he is only a cog, no matter how important, in the film's wheel.
Koi… Mil Gaya is on a roll because producer-director Rakesh Roshan, the scriptwriters and the technicians have hit the right buttons all the way through.
The Bachchan era ended well over a decade ago and no contemporary star has the power to propel a poor product in the manner that the Big B once could. Today, even he cannot help an Aks or an Armaan beyond a point.
Did Lagaan and Dil Chahta Hai click because of Aamir Khan? He did play vital roles in both films but if they went down well with the masses, it was solely of their content.
Ajay Devgan's releases have been consistently talked about over the past few years primarily because of the quality of the films he has opted for. It is his uncanny ability to pick the right films and roles that has stood him in good stead.
Consider the films he has done in the past five years: Zakhm (1998), which fetched him his first Best Actor national award, Thakshak, Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, Kachche Dhaage (all 1999), Dil Kya Kare (2000), Tera Mera Saath Rahen (2001), The Legend of Bhagat Singh, Deewangee, Company (2002) and this year's Bhoot. An actor would have to be really daft to go wrong after bagging such an array of quality parts?
Not all these films have been smash hits, but they have certainly helped Devgan build up a reputation as a star-actor who can be relied upon never to drop beneath a minimum quality threshold. Only two other contemporary actors could claim that status - the tried-and-tested Aamir Khan and the relatively raw Akshaye Khanna.
Aamir completed Lagaan in 2001, but he isn't scheduled to begin his next film, Ketan Mehta's The Rising, until late this year. He is a megastar all right, but he knows better than anyone else that no matter how popular he might be with the masses, only a good script can drive a film to greatness.
Akshaye Khanna seems to have adopted a similar approach to work. He does one film at a time, and that's a strategy that allows him chooses his roles with care.
The result is there for all to see: his last three releases, Dil Chahta Hai, Humraaz and Hungama, have all been box office successes. But not unexpectedly, the young actor hasn't ever laid claims to any special powers as a star.
He might have learnt a thing or two from Shahrukh Khan's experience. There is no bigger star on the current Bollywood firmament than Shahrukh but it has taken him several attempts as a star-producer to hits the bull's eye.
If his presence in a film were enough, Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani and Asoka, both home productions, would have been big hits. They weren't because they were bad films. Chalte Chalte romped home because, for a change, the story and script were given precedence over the star pairing of Shahrukh and Rani Mukherjee.
So, let's get real and junk all those utterly fanciful theories about the "return of the megastars". Mega stardom is well and truly a thing of the past. The script is a film's actual "hero". It will continue to be so until another Amitabh Bachchan is born.