This is another one of those posts that I know I have said in various forms in other comments and stuff, but I thought I might as well write it all out in one place so we can think about it together. Once again, the war drums are beating as to why Shahrukh is playing too young, in a romance, and opposite a woman half his age. Replace “Shahrukh” with “Salman” or “Ajay” or “Akshay”, and the same question comes up. Let’s not settle for the simple “ageism!” or “midlife crisis!” explanation, let’s dig a little deeper.
Non-Usual Disclaimer: I am not, nor have I ever been, a part of the Indian film industry. This is all just based on observation and analysis of public records, like interviews and box office figures. You can feel free to disagree or offer an alternative theory, but this is mine.
The starting point should really be that box office post I wrote a few weeks back. It’s easy to get caught up, as an outsider, in the horserace aspect of the film industry, the “who has the biggest box office? What film gets their fastest? What star is on top?” stories. Or, alternative, to get caught up in looking at films as purely artistic products, to critique them as though they existed in a vacuum with the only goal of pleasing critics. But neither of those are true. Films are there as the product that supports millions of small laborers worldwide. They need to make a profit, they need to bring in an audience, or else thousands of people will go hungry tonight (including me, as I said in my box office post, I learned how to analyze this stuff when I was working minimum wage at a movie theater and a flop movie meant I ate popcorn for dinner).
So start with that! When a star makes a film “just for the money”, it’s not only for his benefit. That 100 crore isn’t some obscure way of tracking who is the top box office star, or so they can buy a gold plated swimming pool or something, it’s so millions of people around the world will be able to eat and the industry will continue chugging along.
It sounds egotistical to say that this is all on the one star, but it kind of is! Just to talk about it in broad strokes, let’s say that 1/3rd of all Hindi film profits per year come from the films of the 3 Khans. Which actually isn’t that far off, in 2016, 700 crore came from Dangal and Sultan alone. And then there’s Fan, which only made 85 crore. 2016 was a terrible year for the film industry, lots of articles about struggling producers and distributors and theaters. If Fan had been a hit, tacked on another 300 crore to the total, that could have made the difference.
(brilliant movie, not a profitable movie)
Okay, let’s stay with the 1/3rd idea. Because it’s easy to conceptualize. So, a movie star decides “I’m only going to do offbeat character roles in small films so I can stretch as an actor”. It means he will take a 1/3rd hit in his income (2/3rds being non-film related, brands and weddings and stuff). But he is fabulously wealthy, makes no difference to him.
But let’s leap alllllllllll the way down to the bottom of the industry. I am running a small theater in a small city. Can I handle a 1/3rd reduction in my annual profits? Does that mean I have to lay off 1/3rd of my staff?
You can expand this to all parts of the industry. Spot boys, cameraman, assistant directors, everyone takes a pay cut of 1/3rd. And the industry profits as a whole take a 1/3rd cut, that’s the profit margin, production houses start looking for outside investors and cutting output, Hollywood moves in and buys up even more of the Indian industry, and takes up even more screens in the Indian theaters. 10 years later, Hindi film is essentially dead.
That’s worst case scenario, but it is also a real fear and a threat that is in the back of all those articles about Hollywood films doing better in India, stars making fewer films per year, theater owners struggling, etc. It’s the unspoken thing that everyone fears, the reason there is this desperate urgency in finding a new generation of stars, in finding a new big hit movie, and all of that. And desperate attention paid to every major star release because it HAS to hit, or else the film world ends.
(Very very bad week for Hindi film when this movie beat Fan, first time a Hollywood movie beat a Khan release at the box office)
And now you could say “yes, well, maybe that’s a good thing. If popular Hindi film is replaced by Hollywood, then the common mass could watch Hollywood, and Hindi films would just be the more intellectual interesting films.” But, would we? Or would those intellectual interesting filmmakers just start working in Western films, and the audience for those intellectual interesting films turn more and more towards Western products? Maybe, maybe not. But we don’t know, and again, that is the fear. Artsy film people in India want better movies from the Hindi industry. But they don’t want the complete end of the popular Hindi industry! That runs the risk of destroying themselves along with it.
Okay, that’s our baseline. Stars HAVE to be in hit movies or else Hindi film ends. As they themselves have said in interviews, so they know they have this responsibility on themselves, and a failed film is a failure to support all the millions of people around the world who rely on them for income. Maybe this isn’t true, maybe it is an exaggeration of their responsibilities, but this is what they think.
Now the question is, how to ensure it is a hit film? There are 3 things that everyone complains about with stars:
- They make the same movie over and over playing the same character.
- They play characters much younger than they are
- They play opposite actresses much younger than they are.
Let’s use our brains and take these complaints one by one and think about why they are happening.
1.1. They make the same movie over and over playing the same character.
Well, first, this isn’t actually totally true. This is confirmation bias. Any time we see them in the same kind of movie, we say “oh look, yet another [blank] film from [blank].” And any time we see them in a different movie we say “oh look, [blank] is just trying to prove that he can play a [blank] before he goes back to doing the same thing in his next movie.”
It’s not totally true, but it is still a little true. When a film is backed and promoted as a big hit, it is usually in a trusted genre with a trusted character type for the star. So the most popular and successful films seem to be the same for every actor, that’s where the misconception arises.
So, why do they make the same movie over and over? Well, there are millions of people relying on them. The pressure has been increasing over the past several years as releases get bigger and bigger and HAVE to be hits. You can’t afford to experiment any more. And audiences like things that are familiar.
In the west, we have the “genre” theory, you show up at a theater and say “give me a ticket for the new action movie.” But Indian film developed differently, following the Rasa theory it provided a wide range of elements all in one film. The thing that pulled them together was the central character, guiding us through the film. And, eventually, that central character became the identifying aspect, we didn’t want to see an action movie, we wanted to see a Amitabh Bachchan movie. Instead of a romance, we wanted to see a Shammi Kapoor movie. And so on and so forth. The audience comes to rely on this, if we go see Shammi Kapoor and he is playing an angry drunk, we will be furious and ask for our money back, because that’s not the kind of film we wanted.
(Or sometimes it works out, we discover a new variation on a familiar flavor and we like it. But it’s a pretty big risk to take)
That’s what happened with Fan (along with all the other things that happened). Despite the trailers, the posters, everything else that indicated this would not be a happy film, people came out of it absolutely FURIOUS that it wasn’t the “Shahrukh Khan film” they thought it would be, no songs, no romance, no good! And then Raees went the other way, tacked on a romance and songs just to make the audience happy, to feel like they got their SRK fix. And it still didn’t quite work, because the film as a whole never really felt like it came together
So, okay, now he is playing it safe. Jab Harry Met Sejal is being actively promoted as “don’t worry, calm down, this is exactly what you liked before, no surprises, you can trust us and give us your money.” I mean, look at the title!
2. They play characters much younger than they are
Again, a bit of a confirmation bias here! Salman in the second half of Sultan took his shirt of and showed us an old man gut, he is playing someone tired and over the hill. Shahrukh literally played himself in Fan, made fun of his age in Chennai Express, etc. etc. Aamir played the father of two teenagers in Dangal, because he is the father of two teenagers. Actually, older than that now, right? Time moves so fast! I remember when Ira was just a cute little girl.
(She’s so grown up!)
And also again, bit of an explanation for the confirmation bias, the films in which they play their own age tend to be promoted as “special” “different”, so we don’t think of them as part of their regular filmography. Plus, they tend to squeeze in some kind of youthful moment so the audience still feels like they aren’t THAT old.
And, why is that? Why does the audience need young characters in their films?
Periodically I will run across someone proudly and excitedly saying “India is a young country! The majority of the population is under 30.” And I will think “wait, doesn’t that just mean most people don’t live past 40? Isn’t that a bad thing?”
But setting that part of it aside, let’s think about the audience/potential ticket buyers for a film. The majority of them are under 30. You could make films for little kids, but they aren’t buying tickets, their parents are. So, who is old enough to buy their own tickets? People around 18-20 and up. And then you hit 40 and die (according to demographics).
If I am 30, who am I going to relate to on film? Not kids, I am all grown up now. Not older people, they are old and I don’t want to think about old age. I want to think about people like me and a little younger than me. People making their way and finding themselves in the world.
And so we end up with the major stars, the only ones who can guarantee that kind of box office return, having to play much much younger than they are, because that’s the best way to reach the largest audience.
3. They play opposite actresses much younger than they are.
This is the first one that is NOT entirely driven by an effort to please the audience. I don’t think the audience cares how old an actress is. And I don’t think the producers do either really.
There are a couple of elements that come into play. First, again, the characters and plot have to be aimed smack at 25-35 to hit the biggest demographic. Our hero is already going to be outside of that demographic. Maybe it’s good to help the audience a little by only asking them to suspend disbelief for one of the leads, not the both of them,.
There are some gender flipped examples of this. A few of them. Ki & Ka with Kareena and Arjun, Mohabbat with Akshaye and Madhuri, Army with Sridevi and Shahrukh. It’s less common, but the pattern holds, you cast an older bigger star, and then put someone young opposite them to balance and make it easier to believe the big star is younger than they are. But this is much less common because there are few female stars at the same level as the male stars, but that is explained in this whole other post here.
(Mohabbat, Madhuri is 30 and a major star and Akshaye is 22 and just launched)
This isn’t an insuperable barrier. Kajol and Shahrukh co-starred in Dilwale, Shahrukh and Mahira Khan co-starred in Raees, Salman and Kareena in Bajrangi Bhaijaan, Aamir and Sakshi Tanwar in Dangal. Although, even there, there was a 10 year plus age gap with each, we have just gotten used to heroines being that much younger than heroes, it feels “normal”.
Which brings me to my next point, why are heroines always so much younger than heroes? Talking real big picture, it’s because of fertility! If you want to have kids, and you are a woman, 35 is the magic year. We all know this, right? Not that it is impossible after 35 by any means, but it is a lot harder. So, 2 kids, 5 years apart, that means your first one would ideally pop up at 30. Which means married at 29. Which means career ends at 29, or at least take a 7 year break until the youngest is old enough to stop breastfeeding.
Again, none of this is what you HAVE to do! You can have kids after 35, you can have kids only a year apart, you can only have one kid, you can have no children at all, you can have children without getting married, whatever your heart desires! But if you want to keep the option open of 2 kids 5 years apart, that means planning for the possibility of a career that ends at 29 with marriage. 29 at the latest. And even if you know for sure about yourself that you don’t want kids, or you only want one kid, or you want to adopt so age doesn’t matter, or whatever else, everyone else in the world is looking at you thinking “She’s 31, she’s engaged, she’s going to go on maternity leave within a year, I’m not hiring her.”
Making a movie isn’t like other jobs. You can’t just go back to work and then come home and stay up all night with the kids. When they get a little older, it’s a great career for having kids! They can come on film shoots with you, everyone spoils them, they learn what “Mommy” does, and all that. But when they are 3 and younger and need your attention every minute, it is really hard to handle that and also be filming for 15 hours straight.
At the very least, you have to slow down. Even if you only take the bare minimum time off, like Kareena did, she still lost a year of work. With the way movies are filmed right on top of each other and with film schedules intermingled, taking 6 months completely off means turning done 2-3-4 films altogether. And then starting fresh trying to sign new stuff post-baby.
(And yes, it is also hard because producers are horrible about it. Sonam, an awesome producer, actually talked to Kareena about it and worked around her needs and they were able to finish the film. But another producer might have just swapped actresses when the pregnancy was announced)
And of course, no one knows exactly when they will get pregnant. Which is the other thing you don’t say out loud but everyone is thinking. If you get married, everyone assumes you want to get pregnant. And if you are currently not pregnant, they still won’t sign you, because they are worried about a Heroine situation where you get into pre-production and suddenly learn a baby is on the way and you are out a movie star.
So, there’s two big reasons to cast a younger actress. A) so the audience can more easily believe that hero and heroine are both young, and B) the industry slants young in general with women because of babies and biology.
Here’s the 3rd one. Scheduling! Let’s go back to Dilwale. Kajol only worked on Dilwale for like a month. She was in and out and done in no time. And in between we saw her going to events with her husband, with her mother and sister, spending time with her children, plus making personal appearances as brand ambassador, to support her charities, everything else in her life. A married woman with kids and family responsibilities, who is also still a major figure in India, has a really complicated schedule. She can’t drop everything and make the kind of commitment required for a major role.
(totally worth it, I think. I would rather have Kajol for slightly rushed scenes and a story that feels incomplete, than another actress who had time to really dig into the character. But it is a gamble)
Or the filmmaker can do what they did for Kareena in Bajrangi Bhaijaan, write a tiny little part that she could shoot in no time and where she would really shine. Or you can do what they tried with Raees, and with Dangal. Bring in an actress from outside the film industry, who is older and experienced, but not quite as busy as a major female movie star would be.
Or you can play it safe. Take an actress who is famous, young and unmarried, and willing to drop everything and work around your schedule. So, Anushka. Or Kat. Or Anushka. Or Kat. There’s a reason they keep popping up. Once you narrow down the requirements, that’s all there is.
Here’s the thing, it is entirely possible to make a really good movie that everyone from every age can relate to, with an older actress who is so dedicated that she will drop everything (including her family responsibilities) to work on it, and with a performance from the star which is so good that no one cares if it is familiar or not. That is the movie that we want, that is the movie that we are asking for.
(This movie. Remember this movie? Hemaji and Amitabh in a romance in their 60s?)
But remember, if you make that movie and it doesn’t work, Hindi film is over in ten years. That’s the stakes that are keeping the stars from taking the leap. It’s an awfully big thing to gamble with.