Why Shah Rukh Khan remains the ultimate NRI hero
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New Delhi: At last count, Shah Rukh Khan’s gangster drama Raees had grossed $12.5 million (Rs84.25 crore) overseas besides netting more than Rs190 crore in domestic box office collections. That includes about Australian $832,280 (Rs4.2 crore) in Australia, €125,867 (Rs90 lakh) in Germany, Malaysian Ringgit 256,657 (Rs38 lakh) in Malaysia, New Zealand $252,256 (Rs1.2 crore) in New Zealand, £1,145,733 (Rs9.6 crore) in the UK, $3,269,479 (Rs21.8 crore) in the US and Rs9.53 crore in West Asia in first two days.
This definitely isn’t the first Khan-starrer to have stormed the overseas box office. His 2015 release Dilwale may have only made Rs148 crore in India but grossed more than Rs175 crore outside the country. At more than $23 million (Rs100.5 crore) and $19 million (Rs100.2 crore), respectively, My Name Is Khan (2010) and Chennai Express (2013) rank among the top 10 Bollywood grossers in the overseas markets. Even Khan’s tepidly received outing Fan (2016) managed to make more than Rs67 crore abroad. His 1998 Mani Ratnam romantic drama Dil Se was the first Indian film to enter the top 10 in the UK box office charts even though it remained a commercial failure in India.
“There are films that may not have done too well in India but have done reasonably well abroad. There is a fan following that is ready to see anything that has Shah Rukh Khan in it,” said trade analyst Komal Nahta.
While actors like Aamir Khan and Salman Khan may have slowly crept into the territories formerly dominated by Shah Rukh abroad, the Raees star is supposed to have started the trend as early as the mid-90s and even today, with the exception of a dedicated fan following for someone like Rajinikanth, remains fairly ahead of the pack among Bollywood actors when it comes to wooing NRIs.
“At an international level, Shah Rukh Khan epitomized the song-and-dance, Bollywood, romantic hero at the end of the late 1990s,” said film critic Raja Sen. “For the Indian diaspora, he typifies what they want from a Hindi movie—larger-than-life romance, arms spread out, twinkling eyes and great music which other actors might not always give. I’m sure they all have big overseas niches now, but with someone like Shah Rukh, I think audiences are just buying into the idea of what they want Bollywood to be.”
It was a few years into Khan’s career when directors like Subhash Ghai and Karan Johar realized, with their films Pardes (1997) and Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998), respectively, that the market was actually abroad, Sen added. The two films made about $1.7 million and $6.3 million, respectively, overseas and solidified Khan’s image as someone who played characters that remained Indian at heart despite living outside the country.
“It was almost a throwback, old-school Bollywood in a new, glossier package. And I think that’s what people really took to,” Sen said. “The fact that he’s a huge romantic hero and has a massive fan following among women helps take the myth and iconography of it forward.”
The rise may have been phenomenal but keeping at it hasn’t been easy. Unlike most Indian actors, Khan’s overseas markets have moved from being conventionally North America, UK and UAE-driven to cover regions like Latin America, Peru, Malaysia, Singapore, Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, France, Norway, Denmark and even Middle East countries like Jordan, Palestine, Egypt and Iraq. Constantly capturing audiences there remains a challenge.
“It is critical to work again and again to engage that audience and our effort is always to go beyond the diaspora,” said Gaurav Verma, chief revenue officer at Red Chillies Entertainment, Khan’s production house that spearheaded the overseas distribution and marketing campaigns for many of the actor’s recent releases that he co-produced.
The idea, Verma emphasized, is to localize the content in exactly the same way as Hollywood studios try to woo India. Firstly, it is a matter of pushing the availability of the film and distributing it wide enough to get numbers that only come when people other than South Asians turn up.
Compared to the 15-20 screens Hindi films typically get in a country like Malaysia, Dilwale was taken to 90 and Raees to 45-50. The latter is the first Indian film in recent times to go to Ukraine and Uzbekistan and is also due for release in Iraq and Egypt which most Bollywood studios don’t look at. In more mainstream territories like the US and the UK, trade experts say a Shah Rukh-starrer can command nearly 30% more screens than a regular Hindi film.
Secondly, it means customizing the marketing and content for local audiences, making it available on platforms that they are on, not just in theatres but across television, Internet and transitional avenues. Verma added it’s an important strategy to get Khan’s films, either dubbed or subtitled, on local channels in overseas territories.
“We try and offer the content in the local language and reach out to as many consumers as possible outside the diaspora,” Verma said. “There are challenges but with him being there, it becomes much easier for us. You need a star with that kind of traction in that market and he’s probably the only one.”
Meanwhile, as younger actors like Ranbir Kapoor, Ranveer Singh and Varun Dhawan struggle to find a foothold abroad, the following that stars like Shah Rukh command becomes stronger by the day.
“Overseas, he’s become bigger than the industry around him,” Sen said. “You don’t have to watch tennis to know how big Roger Federer is. Similarly, people might not know Bollywood per se but if they are into movies internationally, they will have heard of Shah Rukh Khan even if they haven’t seen his movies.”
All figures in this story have been sourced from movie website Bollywood Hungama.