The pandemic wasn’t a good time for the film business in India or the rest of the world. Covid restrictions meant the making of movies was halted or altogether cancelled. Those in the process of being made or just being finished had to be released on over-the-top (OTT) platforms. However as 2023 comes to an end, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that the Indian film industry made great business this year. This allayed fears and worries, often voiced during the last couple of years by filmmakers, that the audience may never come back to the theatres like they did pre-pandemic.
For cinema lovers, 2023 has been a carnival. After three years of audiences ditching the theatre for OTT platforms to watch movies, this year brought people back in droves to the theatres. And it wouldn’t be far from the truth to say that it was actor Shah Rukh Khan, often called the king of Bollywood, who heralded the audiences back to the movies with Pathaan which was released in January 2023.
The week of Pathaan’s release saw social media flooded with videos and images of fans flocking to theatres, and the industry heaved a collective sigh of relief. The film was a ray of hope that audiences were willing to spend money to go to the theatres and the pandemic hadn’t completely changed the way Indians watched movies.
As far as Hindi movies were concerned, two of Khan’s films Pathaan and Jawan were among those that rewrote the film industry’s story in 2023.
“This was a great year for Hindi cinema, overall. More number of films did well and each was different from the others. Bollywood movies were being written off. This was the year that proved they had gone nowhere. Good entertainment will always have an audience,” said SMM Ausaja, film historian and author.
And the craze went beyond just Hindi cinema. Barbie and Oppenheimer were released on the same day and “Barbenheimer” became a cultural phenomenon of sorts, where people watched both movies back-to-back in a day at the theatres.
Storm After The Lull
While more people went to watch movies in theatres in 2022 than in 2021, it was still not close to the money made by big-budget Hindi movies pre-pandemic. The biggest grosser in 2021 was Rohit Shetty’s Sooryavanshi which collected Rs 195 crore in net box office collections. Kabir Khan’s 83 was released the same year and it made Rs 84 crore in net box office collections.
Comparatively, 2022 was a better year as more films did well. Dharma Productions’ Brahmastra made Rs 257 crore, Vivek Agnihotri’s The Kashmir Files Rs 253 crore, Abhishek Pathak’s Drishyam 2 made Rs 230 crore, Anees Bazmee’s Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2 made Rs 186 crore, and Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Gangubai Kathiawadi made Rs 129 crore.
But in 2023, that narrative changed completely, propelled by Shah Rukh Khan’s comeback on the silver screen after five years.
In the two years leading up to 2023, Bollywood’s big studio productions like Shamshera, Ram Setu, Cirkus, among others failed while three southern movies Pushpa, KGF, RRR, and Kantara became mega successes even in the northern parts of India. People were going to the theatres and not just for Hindi movies.
“The rise of the south-Indian cinema was a crucial phenomenon. All four of them were creating such fabulous films which were massive blockbusters. So it seemed that Bollywood had lost its mojo. But I think 2023 is proof of the fact that Hindi cinema is alive and kicking. And a large part of it is because of the cinema of Shah Rukh Khan. The numbers and joy that Jawan and Pathaan brought to people were unmatched,” said Anupama Chopra, film critic and founder editor of digital platform Film Companion.
Pathaan collected Rs 1,050.30 crore (US $130 million) worldwide, becoming the second highest-grossing Indian film of 2023. Its record was broken later this year by Khan’s second release Jawan, which collected Rs 1,148.32 crore (US$140 million), and became the biggest Bollywood hit of 2023. Together, the two films broke several records.
It wasn’t just Khan who had a great run. Sunny Deol’s Gadar 2, a sequel to blockbuster Gadar: Ek Prem Katha which was released in 2001, made Rs 691 crore at the box office. Salman Khan-Katrina Kaif’s Tiger 3 made Rs 564 crore, Alia Bhatt-Ranveer Singh starrer Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani collected Rs 357 crore, Prabhas-Kriti Sanon starrer Adipurush made Rs 393 crore, and Ranbir Kapoor starrer Animal made Rs 862 crore. Several movies did well but Gadar, Pathaan, and Jawan became the breakout movies of this year.
“This has been a phenomenal year for Hindi cinema. After the pandemic, it was having a kind of dry spell, so to speak. That kind of craze around big releases that we saw once upon a time, was missing in the last few years. But this year that changed. Several movies did very well in terms of business,” trade analyst Komal Nahata said.
Khan’s Big Comeback
It was not just an important year for Bollywood but for Khan as well. Khan returned to the silver screen after a four-year hiatus. Zero was his last release in 2018, a box-office disaster. All his films before that, Raes, Jab Harry Met Sejal, and Fan had similarly failed to make a mark at the box office. His return after four years coincided with a dry spell that Bollywood films were facing at the box office. Post-pandemic, people did not return to the theatres for Bollywood releases.
The pandemic and the simultaneous boom in OTT platforms changed the viewing habits of audiences. People preferred watching movies from the comfort of their homes. OTT platforms also opened up audiences to vernacular cinema like never before. A hitherto Bollywood-obsessed nation suddenly woke up to Malayalam, Telugu, Marathi, and several other regional cinemas. However, that changed with Pathaan.
“He has always been a very big star. If you look at his meteoric rise and the way he has been able to sustain it is phenomenal. His choice of films has been very intelligent in terms of the commercial aspect. He chose his directors also very judiciously. And all of these worked in his favour,” said Ausaja.
Khan’s comeback not only had the whole Hindi film industry pinning its hopes for revival on the ‘last of the stars,’ but he had lived through a personal crisis. His son was detained for alleged possession, consumption, and sale of illegal substances. He was later absolved of all charges. The wider nepotism debate and the targeting of the industry as a den for ‘moral vices’ also added to the overall unappetising collections. #BoycottBollywood became a common trend on social media platform X (previously known as Twitter).
“This was a significant year for Bollywood because the Bollywood narrative changed through the pandemic and post the passing of Sushant Singh Rajput. The narrative was that it was operated by a certain set of people, actors, and directors. It was a place of nepotism and had no place for outsiders. And to compound all of this, films were not working,” Chopra said.
Pathaan also faced boycott calls after it got embroiled in a slew of made-up controversies. In December, when the first song of the film 'Besharam Rang' was released, there was online outrage over Deepika Padukone sporting an orange bikini. To add to all of that, Bollywood’s perception took a hit with the untimely death of actor Sushant Singh Rajput and the controversies that were made out of it.
Khan’s fan clubs — spread across 35 cities and in 11 countries — played a crucial role in Pathaan’s success. Amid the controversies, Khan stayed away from the usual promotional activities like press conferences and city visits that precede a big Bollywood release. This is where the fan clubs stepped in, changing the narrative on social media and egging people to go watch Pathaan in the theatres.
“His (Shah Rukh Khan’s) has been one of the best comebacks in the history of cinema. Two of the biggest blockbusters this year were by him,” said Nahata.
Cinemagoers also had high hopes for Dunki, Khan’s third film which was released on December 21 this year. However, it failed to deliver to expectations. Despite its not-so-great performance, it is set to cross the Rs 300 crore mark for box office collections this year.