New Delhi: The big Diwali weekend is long gone but Bollywood still seems to be reeling under what seems to have been a subdued festival for the industry as opposed to the fireworks that were taking place down south.
At last reported collections of ₹177 crore, the biggest Hindi film offering Housefull 4, only contributed marginally to the minuscule 7-10% jump the month of October saw as compared to the same period last year. Trade experts are not even considering the earnings of the other two Diwali releases, Saand Ki Aankh and Made In China, significant. In contrast, with a limited language release, Tamil superstar Vijay’s sports drama Bigil has minted ₹176 crore across the country, making it the actor’s third consecutive Diwali blockbuster after Sarkar (2018) and Mersal (2017). And the Atlee directed film shows no signs of slowing down, having earned ₹23 lakh on day 12 in home territory Chennai alone, taking its total earnings in the city to ₹11.31 crore.
To be sure, despite the obvious disadvantage of a restricted market, Vijay who has only seen two of his 11 films flop since 2010, has a track record that reads much better than several Bollywood and even Tamil movie heroes. Both Sarkar and Mersal had touched the Rs. 250 crore mark worldwide, and trade experts say the figures of his films have even surpassed those of erstwhile superstar Rajinikanth in Chennai. And there are specific reasons for the consistent box office run.
“Vijay has a great image and a super strong fan following in Tamil Nadu especially at the grassroot level," explained independent trade analyst Sreedhar Pillai. His charm extends from the youth to female audiences for whom he always has something special in his movies, Pillai said. In Bigil, for example, the actor has essayed a dual role — an aged gangster and a women’s football team coach.
“The narrative (in Bigil) revolves around a female football team, which Atlee and his writer S Ramana Girivasan use to address a number of issues," film critic Baradwaj Rangan said in his review. “There’s an acid-attack survivor. There’s a woman with an eating disorder. There’s someone who’s oppressed by a conservative, patriarchal household. There’s a bit that discusses the impact of pregnancy on a sporting career. Plus, there’s the fact that many of these women are from underprivileged backgrounds. I have always been uncomfortable about “mass" movies paying lip service to serious issues in the midst of all the hero worship — but there’s some dignity here. And it fits. (It is a women’s team, after all.)"
The social messaging balances well with Vijay’s inclination to cater primarily to mass audiences and centres. While his earlier films portrayed him as the stereotypical dancing, action hero, Pillai says the actor has made a conscious attempt to become more sophisticated. There are fewer songs in a Vijay-starrer now, none of them objectify women and they follow the broader trajectory of making a point while making it fun for audiences.
“It’s (still) a model of how we can get serious even in the overblown world of a “mass" movie, and yet not forget to have fun," Rangan said in his review of Bigil.
His self-professed imminent entry into politics, like Rajinikanth, further helps create a halo around Vijay. These are aided by the messiah-like roles. In Sarkar, he was a non-resident Indian raising awareness about electoral fraud. In Mersal and Kaththi (2014), he fought medical negligence and corporate manipulation to take over farmland.
Vijay’s final strategy lies in the takeover of audiences beyond Tamil Nadu, in multiplexes across Delhi and Mumbai and in overseas territories. At last count, Bigil had made $ 1,117,671 ( ₹7.91 crore) in the US, £ 503,423 ( ₹4.60 crore) in the UK and A$ 512,622 ( ₹2.51 crore) in Australia. Pillai said he has emerged as the heartthrob of Sri Lankan Tamils living abroad, particularly in Europe, Canada and Australia.
“I think Bollywood heroes are looking at Vijay as some kind of a role model for the mass movies he has popularized," Pillai said. “These are films with strong social messaging and a huge interval block and it always comes with something for the family, not just straight action. No wonder Shah Rukh Khan called Bigil ‘Chak De! on steroids.’"