Is Samrat Prithviraj’s box-office success a rejection of Bollywood’s nationalism formula?

If you believe trade reports and reports in the media, Akshay Kumar’s Samrat Prithviraj does not work well at the checkout. Kumar is one of the biggest moneymakers in the Hindi film dome, making films primarily for the box office without any claim to artistic ingenuity. He is a successful mainstream Hindi film star, a status he has achieved without the patronage of leading Hindi film production houses. Social media is always buzzing with memes and jokes trying to guess the next Indian luminary Kumar has his eye on for a potential biopic. Is that simply Deshbhakti? The answer is perhaps known to all.

Kumar, like many others in Hindi cinema, has found a new formula – dig up a well-known/moderately well-known/relatively unknown character from Indian history/mythology, reconstruct his story to make it fit for a Hindi masala film making a genre in itself inspires national pride and is a surefire formula for drawing audiences to the theatres. This film phase has also given us new insights into the life and work of Akshay Kumar – a star whose films are increasingly aligned with the dominant political ideology.

It might be too early to conclude that the fate of Samrat Prithviraj at the box office indicates audiences’ disenchantment with biopics masquerading as stories. This is not a rejection of nationalism per se, but a certain type of film whose narrative arc is now predictable. The plot usually follows the journey of an outsider or a character from India’s past. The films attempted to prove their greatness by enshrining them in public memory, often pretending to correct an oversight – these characters were ignored in mainstream historical narratives. However, these claims are often untrue. Lest we forget that these statements are also motivated by the film’s commercial interests. These are part of a well-designed advertising campaign to generate audience interest in the topic.

However, the recent spate of box office flops suggests audience fatigue with such films. Audiences may want to see contemporary themes and stories portrayed closer to their time and life on screen, rather than relics from a distant past. There may also be a sense of dismay that the same star is starring in a series of similar films coming out in quick succession.

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Is that an expression of disinterest in the genre itself? Does the formula work with a different star? Or are viewers tired of seeing the same/similar content movie after movie?

On the other hand, Kartik Aaryan star Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2 is already a big hit at the box office. It is not my intention to attempt a qualitative analysis or comparison of these two films. I’m not even suggesting that Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2 is a superior film for any reason. In fact, the success of this film, which starred Akshay Kumar in the first part, is in many ways a reaffirmation that Hindi film audiences are immune to change. They still go to theaters looking for a certain type of Hindi film that now has a recognizable template, but maybe they want that entertainment in a new avatar, with a new face and a new plot. While the main ingredients remain the same, there are just a few minor tweaks you might be looking for.

However, it may not make sense if this argument is applied to Salman Khan films, for example, but that is the particular nature of hero worship in Indian cinema. However, Salman Khan’s popularity is not due to any particular type of films or characters he has portrayed on screen lately. In his films he is the biggest attraction. The audience comes to the theater to see their favorite star. Everything else, including the story, the script, and the performances, is of secondary importance to viewers. A Salman Khan film release is an opportunity to unapologetically and unabashedly express the behavior of Hindi cinema fans.

Some commentators and academics have also linked the rising popularity of recent Telugu and Kannada blockbuster films in the Hindi heartland to the discussion presented in this article. These films are equally regressive. Hindi film audiences turn to these films in search of newer stories and entertainment, a clear alternative to commercial Hindi cinema. But how long will that take? Only time can tell. However, the first signs cannot be ignored.

(The author teaches literature and cultural studies at FLAME University, Pune)

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