The Rs 1 billion blockbuster club: Amitabh Bachchan is a member

It must be the biggest irony of Amitabh Bachchan’s celebrated career spread over 49 years that despite featuring in almost 230 films, the Big B did not have a single hit in the elite Bollywood .

That jinx has finally got broken with the release of Thugs of Hindostan on Diwali, earlier this month. That Thugs has been panned by critics and viewers alike, and has been declared a flop does not really matter. What matters is that Thugs has done a box office gross of Rs 1.5 billion, ensuring that Amitabh Bachchan finally has a century to his credit!

Joining him in the 1 billion club is a surprise entrant, Ayushmann Khurrana. While Khurrana’s Badhaai Ho has comfortably crossed the Rs 1 billion mark (earning Rs 1.64 billion at the box office in India, and grossing Rs. 2.09 billion worldwide), his Andhadhun too is nearing the mark (the film managed to collect Rs 0.91 billion at the box office in India, and a total collection of Rs 1.02 billion worldwide till last week). The Chandigarh boy therefore grossed collections of Rs. 3.11 billion in the month of October through his two releases, giving the likes of Salman Khan, Akshay Kumar and Aamir Khan a bit of a scare!

But let us first get some basic definitions right. The Bollywood Rs 1 billion club is an unofficial designation by the Indian film trade and the media, related to Indian language films that have net Rs 1 billion or more in India after deducting the entertainment tax. So, to make it to this prestigious club, a film has to gross (actually cross) that amount in India alone. Overseas collections, satellite earnings or monies made from music or sponsorships are not taken into account when anointing a film as a 1 billion grosser and admitting it as a member of the coveted club.

The term 1 billion club was coined in 2008 when the Aamir Khan starrer Ghajini became the first Indian film to net that amount in the domestic market. The mark had already been breached by the Salman Khan-Madhuri Dixit starrer Hum Aapke Hain Kaun way back in 1994 but since the term didn’t exist back then it missed being crowned as such. Industry statisticians would also like to remind us that the first Indian film to cross Rs 1 billion worldwide was the 1982 Mithun Chakraborty starrer Disco Dancer that reportedly earned over Rs 900 million in Soviet Russia alone! Moreover, the first Indian film to gross an ‘adjusted’ Rs 1 billion (adjusted for inflation) overseas was the 1951 Prithviraj Kapoor-Raj Kapoor-Nargis starrer Awaara which also took Soviet Russia by storm. But these blockbusters do not count in the official (actually unofficial) record books because hits and superhits in that era were calibrated not on the basis of box office collections but on the parameter of box office longevity (Silver Jubilee for 25 weeks, Golden Jubilee for 50 weeks and Diamond Jubilee for 60 weeks).

As on November 2018, there are 39 actors who are members of the Bollywood 1 Billion Club (though no such official club actually exists) with Salman Khan the top scorer with 13 such knocks. Akshay Kumar (9), Ajay Devgn (8), Shah Rukh Khan (7), Aamir Khan (6), Hrithik Roshan (4), (4), Riteish Deshmukh (4), Ranbir Kapoor (4), Varun Dhawan (4) and Ranveer Singh (3) are the other big hitters on the list. Surprisingly there are more actresses in the club than there are male actors. At the last count 43 heroines were part of Rs 1-billion grossers with Deepika Padukone (7), Jacqueline Fernandez (6), Kareena Kapoor Khan (6), Katrina Kaif (6), Sonakshi Sinha (5), Priyanka Chopra (5), Asin (4), Anushka Sharma (4), Alia Bhatt (3), Sonam Kapoor Ahuja (3), Ileana D’Cruz (3) and Shraddha Kapoor (3) leading the hit parade.

The interesting paradox of the Rs 1 billion syndrome is that it actually does not in any way reflect the popularity of the actors with marketers of brands. Despite not being part of this club till now, Amitabh Bachchan has been of the most favoured brand endorsers in the country. At the same time both Salman Khan and Ajay Devgn have really never found favour with top quality brands. They have been doing endorsements but both the quantity and quality of their brand ambassadorships has always significantly trailed the Big B. The only positive correlation seen in recent times is Ayushmann Khurrana whose entry into the centurion club with Badhaai Ho coincided with his signing on the very prestigious Coca Cola endorsement. The Coca Cola company has been fairly choosy about who to hand their fizz to … past endorsers are all elite superstars ranging from Aamir Khan, Shah Rukh Khan, Salman Khan, Akshay Kumar, Ranbir Kapoor, Deepika Padukone to Katrina Kaif. Young Khurrana certainly does not belong to this list of commercial superstars. But the fact is that his commercial success has coincided with his being assigned the No. 1 cola brand for endorsement.

Critics have always had a point-of-view on this club. The most vehement criticism of this elite bracketing has been that many of the names on the list are there merely because of being part of successful multi-starrers. In themselves many of these actors are incapable perhaps of delivering a blockbuster on their own strength. Both Abhishek Bachchan and Riteish Deshmukh, for example, owe their presence on the honours list because they were part of successful franchises like Dhoom and Housefull. Which is why Ayushmann Khurrana delivering a Rs 1-billion superhit with Badhaai Ho, and almost getting there with Andhadhun actually makes him a ‘saleable’ actor. Therefore, his individual goodness and box office prowess will certainly propel him to greater preference amongst brand marketers in the future, for sure.

The 1 billion box office metric has also run afoul of industry watchers as there is now almost a clear cut formula to getting into this big league club. Thugs of Hindostan is a classic example of how a movie panned by all as a super flop, made it to the list in just 3 days. A big banner backing (Yash Raj Films in this case), a Diwali opening (right timing), a star cast comprising Aamir Khan, Amitabh Bachchan and Katrina Kaif (superstar cast), high ticket prices especially at multiplexes on weekends (good opening) and a release across 5000 screens in India (widespread distribution) and no other big banner release on the same day (zero competition) can ensure that even a dud can become a blockbuster. Badhaai Ho, in contrast, just managed 2000 screens for its opening, and faced the Arjun Kapoor-Parineeti Chopra Namaste England as competition as that movie also debuted on the same day. Nevertheless, Badhaai Ho entered the centurion club in 17 days. Not bad at all.

Contra points-of-view notwithstanding, this club remains the gold standard of the business. Formula or no-formula, a Rs 1 billion blockbuster is a superhit whichever way you look at it. Of course, if you get into micro analysis, Thugs of Hindostan supposedly cost Rs 3 billion to produce, but only netted Rs 1.5 billion. Badhaai Ho was produced at an estimated cost of Rs 290 million, but has already brought home over Rs 2.1 billion in earnings. That surely changes perspective.

For brand managers, commercial success is surely important. It reflects both popularity and fame. But in the choice of a brand ambassador, many other factors come into play. One of the main reasons for the lukewarm success of Salman Khan on the endorsements front has been his bad boy image because of controversies like the hit-and-run case and the black buck conviction which large companies, especially multinationals, seriously shy away from. Similarly despite the blockbuster success of the Munna Bhai franchise, Sanjay Dutt has hardly had any takers amongst brands except perhaps an occasional underwear-baniyan brand. Aamir Khan’s courting of controversies at various stages of his career has also resulted in many brands choosing not to work with him, though the fact also remains that AK is himself very choosy about the brands he endorses. Still, the emergence of a low-key, under-stated, controversy-free Ayushmann Khurrana as the choice of Coca Cola only underlines that big brands would rather than sorry.

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