A year-and-a-half an airtight proof was presented that Bollywood icon Shah Rukh Khan—“King Khan,” to everyone—was still the world’s biggest movie star.
Well, maybe it wasn’t so airtight, and maybe some of evidence wasn’t exactly scientific*, but what prompted that article was the fact that Khan’s latest movie at the time, Fan, had recently flopped, breaking a 7-year streak of hits and blockbusters for the Hindi-language actor, and slightly tarnishing his claim to being the most consistent box office performer of the prior 25 years. Khan had been fending off pretenders to his throne for years, and I wrote the article as an affectionate paean for his loyal subjects to assure them that their King was still on top.
But every reign must come to an end, and I’m back now to proclaim that a new king is about to be enthroned. That king, that new royal majesty of cinema superstars (as if you really needed me to invoke his name), is Aamir Khan.
In my 2016 article I measured cinema supremacy along several different dimensions—box office track record, popularity, wealth, number of bodyguards, number of eponymously named movies—but I feel this time the situation is quite clear and I can justifiably keep it simple. This time I submit for you two simple metrics: recent box office track record, and global popularity. And by both measures, it’s indisputable that Aamir Khan is the reigning king.
The thing that humbled our former monarch, Shah Rukh Khan, is that his recent films have been more cold than hot at the box office. The aforementioned Fan released in April, 2016 to tepid reviews and disappointing box office returns of just Rs. 188 crore / $29 million worldwide. Good for a mid-level star, but weak for a megastar like Khan. And with its Rs85 crore budget the movie was a financial disappointment. That was followed by Dear Zindagi in November, 2016, which took in just Rs139 crore /$21 million. Khan finally had a modest success in January 2017 with Raees, which earned Rs. 281 crore / $45 million against its Rs. 85 crore budget, restoring a bit of luster to Khan’s fading star. But then his August, 2017 release, the romantic comedy Jab Harry Met Sejal sealed the fate of his reign with its disastrous Rs. 117 crore global result.
Now before I get to Aamir’s numbers, let’s take a look at his rival Salman Khan. Back in April of 2016 I wrote that Salman’s numbers, if not his fitness for the crown, at least put him in serious contention for the title of world’s biggest movie star. And indeed his very next release, the July, 2016 sports drama Sultan, was an enormous hit with a Rs. 584 crore worldwide total. That made it the third-highest grossing Hindi-language movie at the time, a notch below Dhoom 3 (2013) and two below then box office-champion PK (2014), which had amassed an amazing Rs. 792 crore ($130 million). Remember those last two titles, they’ll come up again.
But Salman’s aspirations for cinema supremacy were dashed like a cheap light bulb when his June, 2017 period war drama Tubelight badly misfired, collecting just Rs. 237 crore on a Rs. 135 crore budget, thus losing scads of money for the investors and distributors who had bet heavily on the picture’s success. Khan earned poor notices for his performance, and even worse ones for his judgment in producing and starring in the picture in the first place. Khan had been in this position and worse before—he once had 10 flops in a row in the early nineties, and another string of flops and disasters in the mid-2000’s, yet he had always eventually managed to redeem himself. But Tubelight not only erased the momentum Khan had generated with Sultan, it may have single-handedly relegated him to permanent second-tier status among the movie gods.
Aamir Khan doesn’t make as many movies as his fellow superstar Khans, but the ones he does make, at least over the past decade, are box office magic. Nine of his last ten films have been enormous global hits. His last three—the aforementioned Dhoom 3, PK, and Dangal—have each successively redefined the very definition of what is financially possible for an Indian movie. His pictures are not just commercial successes, they’re also critical darlings, thoughtful humanistic ruminations on important social issues, that also happen to be great fun. Like Shah Rukh and Salman, he produces his films, he just does it much better than either of his rivals do.
As for his box office record, only one word is necessary: Dangal. Here’s how the December, 2016 Aamir Khan-starring sports drama stacks up, all by itself, against the recent track records of Shah Rukh Khan and Aamir Khan:
And this, mind you, comes before Aamir’s new picture Secret Superstar, which has all the makings of another massive hit. If there’s anyone who seriously doubts that Secret Superstar will succeed at the box office, drop me a line so I can explain you how self-flagellate for committing sacrilege.
No doubt you’re thinking “Hey, what about all those Hollywood stars.” And I’ll grant you that their movies collect more money, a lot more, than do the Indian films. But that’s a fundamental and inalterable fact of Indian cinema economics. Although it’s a huge market in population, India’s domestic reach is limited by low incomes, a dearth of cinema screens, and all sorts of distribution inefficiencies that cap its potential grosses. So it’s important to also discuss movie stars’ popularity. I’ll get to that in part 2 of this article.
*For example, my ranking of stars by the number of eponymously named movies uncovered only one among the contenders, Shah Rukh Khan’s My Name is Khan. By this criterion alone John Malkovich would also be a contender for the title of “World’s Biggest Movie Star.”
—The Article is originally published at The Forbes