Mayank Shekhar: Did the cell phone kill the movie star?

Jun 27, 2017, 06:35 IST | Mayank Shekhar

Looking at stardom, when the size of the screen matters so much

Salman fans get befuddled when, instead of simply playing his macho self, he cries copiously on screen in Tubelight
Salman fans get befuddled when, instead of simply playing his macho self, he cries copiously on screen in Tubelight

Given that Amitabh Bachchan had been the leading man in cinema for over three decades already, one of the apprehensions he shared, when Star TV approached him to host the television show Kaun Banega Crorepati (KBC) in 2000, was if TV as a medium would signify a diminished stardom: "There was the initial cynicism about reducing yourself from 70 mm to a 25-inch screen. Metaphorically, that was terrible, because you're reducing your size," Big B told me in an interview once.

He took the plunge nonetheless, having been assured production quality equal to KBC's phenomenal run as Who Wants To Be A Millionaire abroad. The move turned out to be a game-changer. Not just for Bachchan, but for Bollywood itself. Practically all the top big-screen stars have done television since.

Cinema's stardom has obviously been linked to the size of the big screen, which forces us to look up to a figure so larger than life that we could fit into the hero's nostril, or get blown away if he sneezed in the dark hall. Did television/computer/Netflix/cell phone kill this stardom?

Let's look at Hollywood first. Around the turn of the millennium, when downloads on the Internet had hit a critical mass to severely affect theatrical footfalls, the only option execs in LA were left with, to beat the laptop, was to create tent-pole entertainment, wholly dependent on special effects, that would push audiences to step out of home, shell out money for a ticket, and place their eyes on the massive IMAX or 3D screen for the real thing. What guaranteed footfalls then? Not the star, merely the spectacle - reboots, sequels, disaster films, spin-offs, and franchises with several super-heroes for the price of one.

You look back at Hollywood in the '90s, and you'll be flooded with news stories on stars - whether Jim Carrey or Julia Roberts - setting new records upping their acting fee. You glance through the Forbes' list of the world's 100 highest earning entertainers, those sitting comfortably on top, bottom, centre are mainly 'musician, musician, musician' (making their living off live shows, something the Internet/TV can't replicate), interspersed with athletes, TV hosts, and once in a while, if any at all, a movie star!

What's the equivalent of India's Rs 100-crore box office club in the US? The billion-dollar, or Rs 6,500 crore club! This is to give you a relative sense of scale between two film industries that, besides Hong Kong, are the only ones with a traditional star system. Yet, of the 10 movie stars who make it to the list of 100 highest earning celebs, between June 1, 2016, to 2017, before tax and management fee, three are Indians - Shah Rukh Khan (#65, $38 million), Salman Khan (#71, $37 million), and Akshay Kumar (#80, $35.5 million).

Surely, like the No. 1, Diddy, much of whose earnings come from his clothing line and partnership with Ciroc vodka, Indian superstars make enough from outside cinema - endorsement deals, sports teams, or privately owned companies. But all of it still depends on their supposed star power. Which is their inherent ability to assure bums on cinema seats. Like with any other business, these one-man industries are also judged on their year-on-year growth in box office revenues.

Did the cell phone, net, piracy, and TV hit footfalls in theatres? Hugely. Could SRK, the king of romance, for instance, expand his empire merely banking on a captive audience built over two-and-a-half decades? Earlier, yes. Now, no. Starting 2011 or so, you watch him attempt everything he can to bring newer, younger, and older cell phone audiences into theatres - superhero (Ra.One), comedy (Chennai Express), masala (Happy New Year), obsession-drama (Fan), mafia (Raees)… Akshay isn't an action-comic star anymore. He does mostly sane, upper-mid-class pics! Each movie looks enticingly different, and he clocks at least four a year.

Perhaps the turning point for Salman - the last man standing - is when he showed up on the first day of Dabangg's shoot with a moustache on. He'd flatly refused until that day. Bhai fans are equally befuddled when, instead of simply playing his macho self - what essentially made star-driven movies, critic-script-audience proof - he cries copiously on screen in Tubelight. What Salman wants to know, as he said in a recent interview, is if the audience is laughing at him. He's glad to report that they're not. It's a big risk. The penny must drop. And it will keep getting tougher. If anything, the younger actors are having a harder time breaking into mythological stardom.

Does this inevitable tinkering to get people to genuinely look forward to a film on the big screen (since stars are everywhere, from TV to Twitter, anyway) affect the top entertainers' fame at the ground-level? Obviously not. That's not what this is about. Fame, or familiarity, unlike stardom, flows naturally from screen. It's cheap, democratic, and the size doesn't matter - even a viral video on YouTube will do. But it doesn't get you into the Forbes' list.

I remember someone telling me about a minor actor getting mobbed in a small-town. The actor came across a crazy fan who kept gawking at him, unsure why the quasi-celeb couldn't recognise him: "I just saw you yesterday on the screen," said the fan. The actor agreed, "Yeah, you could see me. But I couldn't. You need to know that."

Mayank Shekhar attempts to make sense of mass culture. He tweets @mayankw14 Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

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