Why Bollywood’s Biggest Films Are Failing at the Box Office

Despite the star wattage of A-listers Aamir Khan and Akshay Kumar, the underwhelming box office performance of “Forrest Gump” adaptation “Laal Singh Chaddha” and “Raksha Bandhan,” respectively, have set the alarm bells ringing in Bollywood.

Both films released on Aug. 11. The date was tailor-made for “Raksha Bandhan,” a film about brother-sister relationships, as it coincided with the festival of Raksha Bandhan, which celebrates siblinghood. Headlined by Kumar, one of India’s most bankable stars, the film, which was made on a budget of approximately $9 million, has collected some $6 million in a week of release, according to industry estimates.

The numbers are starker for “Laal Singh Chaddha.” Khan headlined three of India’s all-time box office champions, including No. 1 “Dangal” ($311 million); No. 6 “Secret Superstar” ($154 million), by “Laal Singh Chaddha” director Advait Chandan; and No. 7 “PK” ($140 million). However, his last release, 2018’s “Thugs of Hindostan,” also underperformed.

“Laal Singh Chaddha,” which was made on a budget of approximately $22 million, has grossed some $11.3 million globally in a week. This includes a No. 12 placing in North America, where it collected $1.8 million and a seventh place debut in the U.K. with a shade under $500,000. Paramount released the film in both territories.

In addition, July release “Shamshera,” headlined by Ranbir Kapoor, was produced for approximately $18 million and grossed $8 million.

Analyst Karan Taurani of Elara Capital attributes the lackluster performance of these films to an audience whose tastes have changed after two years of being exposed to world class content at home during the pandemic. “Just the star does not help. A lot of the audience behavior, taste preferences, in terms of what they want to watch on content, has changed over a period of time,” Taurani told Variety, adding that footfalls are down by at least 30% compared to pre-COVID days.

Taurani pointed to the only three Bollywood films that have been hits in 2022, saying that Vivek Agnihotri’s “The Kashmir Files,” which did not have marquee names, and Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s “Gangubai Kathiawadi” — which made $43 million and $26.5 million, respectively — worked because of their strong content. Meanwhile, horror-comedy “Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2,” which stars Kartik Aaryan and Tabu and grossed $33.5 million, had an audience because it is part of a franchise.

The analyst also said that a backlog of films held up due to the pandemic is now “looking stale in nature.” In addition, Taurani said that negative social media — Twitter users called for a boycott of “Laal Singh Chaddha” over Khan’s alleged 2015 criticism of India’s religious intolerance — also affected box office traffic.

This year has also seen a breakthrough by a handful of Indian films made in South Indian languages, rather than Hindi, the language of the Mumbai-based Bollywood sector.

S.S. Rajamouli’s Telugu-language “RRR,” starring Ram Charan and NTR Jr, and Prashant Neel’s Kannada-language “K.G.F: Chapter 2,” starring Yash, were hits in their Hindi-dubbed versions as well. “K.G.F: Chapter 2” released in Kannada with dubbed Telugu, Tamil, Hindi and Malayalam-language versions and grossed $160 million, while “RRR” also released in those languages and made $150 million. Tamil-language “Vikram,” starring Kamal Haasan, Vijay Sethupathi and Fahadh Faasil, collected $63 million from its combined original and dubbed versions.

However, these films were made with large budgets by Indian standards, and Taurani said that such spending is neither typical, nor sustainable. “RRR” was produced on a budget of approximately $73 million. “Vikram” cost $18 million and “K.G.F: Chapter 2” some $13 million.

“These kinds of films can’t be made every month or every once in two months. You can’t expect five or six these films coming every year, that’s not going to be possible,” Taurani said. The next big-budget Bollywood release, “Brahmastra Part One: Shiva” starring Ranbir Kapoor, Amitabh Bachchan and Alia Bhatt, is due Sept. 9. Taurani expects a big opening for the film, with the subsequent performance dependent on word-of-mouth.

Taurani likens the current phase of Bollywood box office to a previous dip in 2017. Following the release of Rajamouli’s “Baahubali 2: The Conclusion,” which was made in Telugu and Tamil and grossed a total of $278 million, Bollywood’s Hindi films also underperformed. These included star-driven titles “Tubelight” (with Salman Khan), “Thugs of Hindostan,” “Jab Harry Met Sejal” (Shah Rukh Khan) and “Jagga Jasoos” (Kapoor). This was followed by a resurgence in subsequent years.

“We are going through a transition and will definitely make a very strong comeback in 2023. I’m sure the directors, creative producers and the scriptwriters are very much aware, in terms of how to change the nuts and bolts of the content,” said Taurani.

Meanwhile, the show may not be over for “Laal Singh Chaddha.” Aamir Khan is a major box office draw in China — the country contributed a hefty percentage of the box office for “Dangal” and “Secret Superstar” — and should the film secure a release there, it could yet be a fairy tale ending for the fable.

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