As Shah Rukh Khan completes 30 years in Bollywood today – his debut movie ‘Deewana’ had been released on June 25, 1992 – The New Indian looks at his untrammelled domination overseas and how he put Indian cinema on an international landscape.
The beginning of the 1990s was like a whiff of fresh air for India as old shackles and shibboleths were being dismantled. The ‘Nehruvian socialism’ had given way to an open and liberalised economy. Its manifestations were visible in all aspects of life, including the film industry. The ‘Angry Young Man’ Amitabh Bachchan was in the twilight of his career and so was his brand of cinema. Three youngsters –Shah Rukh Khan, Salman Khan and Aamir Khan – had brought with them a newfangled exuberance and style.
The new-age hero was now romancing with abandon in designer apparel on the silver screen instead of fighting the system. Just like the economy, Indian films were now also exposed to the international market and were being cheerfully embraced. Due to the migration of millions of professionals to other countries in the early 1990s, the Indian diaspora became influential. ‘Maine Pyaar Kiya’ and ‘Hum Aapke Hain Koun!’ did roaring business in the US, UK, Canada and Australia.
Then in 1995, debutant director Aditya Chopra reeled off ‘Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge’ – whose first half was shot in London – which became a mammoth blockbuster not just in India but overseas as well. It not only heralded a journey of a superstar but also rolled out a template for Bollywood makers to woo the Indian diaspora. SRK became a huge star in India but even bigger internationally.
Between 1995 and 2012, the three Khans collectively ruled the roost in India, but it was a one-horse race overseas. At various stages during that period, Salman and Aamir had taken over SRK in the pecking order but outside India, the other two Khans were not a patch on the DDLJ actor.
During those 18 years, SRK cranked out the biggest hit of the year abroad 14 times. Only four times – 1996 (‘Khamoshi’), 1999 (‘Taal’), 2005 (‘Salaam Namaste’) and 2009 (‘Three Idiots’) – the movies of other stars outstripped SRK’s films at the turnstiles.
This is not to say SRK was no longer popular after 2012 outside India. His ‘Chennai Express’ in 2013, ‘Happy New Year’ in 2014 and ‘Dilwale’ in 2015 did phenomenal business in the international markets. Because of some middling choices, his films might not have done that well after that, but he’s still arguably the biggest overseas superstar of Bollywood. One right film will again catapult him to the top.
In 1997-1998, the three biggest grossers of those respective years overseas belonged to SRK. In 1997, ‘Dil Toh Pagal Hai’, ‘Pardes’ and ‘Yes Boss’ were the three biggest hits outside India; and in 1998, ‘Kuch Kuch Hota Hai’, ‘Dil Se’ and ‘Duplicate’ attained this feat. Interestingly, ‘Dil Se’ and ‘Duplicate’ had tanked miserably in India but were massive hits overseas, wholly because of SRK’s propulsive pull.
The pattern replicated several times over the next few years. Many SRK films which were commercial clunkers in India turned out to be colossal blockbusters in other countries. ‘Phir Bhi Dil Hindustani’ was a damp squib in 2000 but was a much bigger grosser than ‘Kaho Naa Pyar Hai’ overseas.
Sunny Deol’s ‘Gadar’ slayed the Indian box office in 2001, while ‘Asoka’ was an unmitigated dud but the scenario was completely different outside India. ‘Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham’ and ‘Asoka’ were streets ahead of ‘Gadar’ overseas. Even the off-beat ‘Paheli’ did rumbustious business in 2005, beating many other commercial films.
At the turn of the new decade, Salman pummelled SRK at the domestic box-office with ‘Dabangg’ (2010), ‘Bodyguard’ (2011) and ‘Ek Tha Tiger’ (2012) becoming the high grossers in India. However, outside India ‘My Name is Khan’ (2010), ‘Don 2’ (2011) and ‘Jab Tak Hain Jaan’ (2012) eclipsed Salman’s gigantic blockbusters.
SRK’s influence and heft went beyond just numbers as his films opened up new overseas territories for India. In many countries such as Poland and Germany, his films were the first Indian movies to get a release. Raj Kapoor in the 1950s and Mithun Chakraborty in the 1980s had garnered immense popularity in the then Soviet Union and were jubilantly feted. After them, it was SRK who became the face of Bollywood for the rest of the world in the 1990s and 2000s.
Many experts attribute SRK’s jaw-dropping popularity among overseas audiences to his romantic image and his choice of films. The allusion is that SRK and his makers deliberately set movies in the US and the UK to pander to the Indian diaspora. Another reason bandied about is the subjects which are intrinsically NRI-pleasing. But that isn’t completely true and paints a half-baked picture.
Yes, films such as ‘DDLJ’, ‘K3G’ and ‘Kal Ho Na Ho’ were set in London or New York but that can’t be the sole reason for their stupendous success. One can rattle off the names of so many films of other stars which were set in foreign countries but crashed unceremoniously both in India and overseas. Secondly, films such as ‘Asoka’, ‘Paheli’, ‘Dil Se’ and ‘Don 2’ – which were not romantic flicks – set the cash registers ringing in foreign countries. Even ‘Devdas’, ‘Don’, ‘Om Shanti Om’, ‘Main Hoon Na’ – to name a few – were not exactly the NRI-friendly films but were lavishly adulated by the overseas audience.
The fact is that films of all genres of SRK hit pay dirt overseas and proved monumental money-spinners. The kind of records SRK has established overseas seems insurmountable at the moment. It will be an arduous task for anyone in future to measure up to his achievements overseas. He will always be a barometer to judge the success of successive generations.