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2023: When Bollywood made a spectacular theatrical comeback

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The year that marked the triumphant return of the alpha male to the big screen and ageing star Shah Rukh Khan fronting Bollywood’s march back to the box office after Pathaan, Jawan, and Dunki with Sunny Deol and Karan Johar walking alongside, reviving their careers and the fortunes of the Hindi film industry.

The year, the first after the pandemic, began with Pathaan and finishes with Dunki, the two very different Shah Rukh films bookending the success of Sunny Deol starrer Gadar 2, Johar’s Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahani and the hugely controversial Animal that brought back Bobby Deol into the limelight.

But 2023 was not just about macho heroes fighting their way to victory in high-octane, high-tech thrillers edged with VFX and testosterone. Bollywood’s return to its theatrical glory days was also about sequels and agenda-driven films.

Last year, around this time, Hindi cinema was struggling to make a mark in theatres, while films from the South captured the hearts of audiences across India, the pinnacle being the RRR song “Naatu Naatu” winning at the Oscars.

Major Bollywood titles that failed to work at the ticket window in 2022 included Samrat Prithviraj, Raksha Bandhan, Shamshera, and Laal Singh Chaddha.

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The revival kickstarted with Shah Rukh’s spy act in the January release Pathaan which brought him back to movies after a gap of four years. The Siddharth Anand-directed film became one of the biggest hits of the year with its earnings of £100 million worldwide, leading to many think-pieces and discussions for its palatable patriotism in a hero who was found in a theatre and named ‘Pathaan’ by a group of Afghan women he saves during a mission.

Shah Rukh followed it up with another hit in September’s Jawan, which once again saw the actor live up to the hype surrounding his return. Directed by Atlee, the film went on to mint more money than Pathaan by earning over £101 million.

He seems to have hit a hat-trick with Dunki, which has done reasonably well at the box office despite mixed reviews. Though its earnings don’t match up to the earlier two films, the Rajkumar Hirani directorial has grossed over £25 million globally since its December 21 release.

Gadar 2 was the surprise package of the year. It made over £50 million and marked one of the most spectacular returns to forms for Sunny in his 40th year in films.

In fact, the year belonged to the Deol family. It saw Papa Dharmendra playing a hardcore romantic in Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahani and younger brother Bobby walk away with praise for his brief but impactful role in Animal.

Besides, Sunny’s son Rajveer also made his acting debut with Dono, which did not do the numbers but got its lead actor noticed.

With the film, Johar, whose last full-fledged feature was 2016’s Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, reminded his fans why he continues to be a filmmaker who knows how to tug at the heartstrings through his larger-than-life cinema.

The family entertainer, starring Ranveer Singh and Alia Bhatt, is Johar’s most realised film, delivering both laughs and lessons on equality and respect in relationships while overturning stereotypes that have long been Hindi movie tropes.

He has acknowledged in interviews that he tried to correct past mistakes in his cinema through the film about a rich Punjabi brat and a Bengali journalist.

While there was a Rocky Aur Rani… giving viewers a progressive vision, the year ended with Sandeep Reddy Vanga’s Animal, starring Ranbir Kapoor, in one of the most divisive films of 2023.

Just like Vanga’s Kabir Singh, Animal too courted controversy over its projection of masculinity, violence, and its promotion of the toxic, overtly macho hero. The film, however, is one of the biggest Hindi blockbusters of the year earning over £80 million.

Before Animal, Ranbir had a solid hit in Tu Jhoothi Main Makkaar, which also raised eyebrows for its depiction of gender dynamics.

There were smaller, quieter successes too.

Three years after Shikara, Vidhu Vinod Chopra returned to the big screen as a director with 12th Fail, a low-budget film whose box office success (over Rs 60 crore) surprised many.

With testosterone seemingly at an all-time high, cine-goers didn’t quite warm up to female-led stories, except for Rani Mukerji’s Mrs Chatterjee Vs Norway.

Kangana Ranaut’s Tejas, Vidya Balan’s Neeyat, Akelli featuring Nushrratt Bharuccha, Shilpa Shetty’s Sukhee and Dhak Dhak, starring Ratna Pathak Shah and Dia Mirza, didn’t work.

It was also a year of sequels with Gadar 2, OMG 2, Tiger 3, Dream Girl 2, and Fukrey 3 releasing and proving the worth of franchise cinema.

Salman Khan had a moderately successful year with one hit and one flop in Tiger 3 and Kisi Ka Bhai Kisi Ki Jaan.

Kartik Aaryan, who delivered his career-best numbers with 2022’s Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2, had a mixed year. His mid-budget film Satyaprem Ki Katha entered the £10 million club after an abysmal show by Shehzada, the Hindi remake of Telugu hit Ala Vaikunthapurramuloo.

His contemporary Vicky Kaushal too had a similar year. Zara Hatke Zara Bachke, a mid-budget family entertainer, was a surprise hit, while Sam Bahadur barely managed to keep its head above water amid fierce competition from Animal.

Kaushal’s The Great Indian Family didn’t measure up to expectations.

Like 2022, this year also had its fair share of propaganda movies. Some hit the mark like Vipul Shah’s The Kerala Story, while others like Om Raut’s Adipurush and Vivek Agnihotri’s The Vaccine War failed.

Adipurush, a retelling of the Ramayana, was one of the buzziest films of the year but upon its release attracted ridicule over its language, storytelling, and poor quality of VFX.

The films that didn’t work at the ticket window were many. Some of them were: Selfiee, Mission Raniganj, Bheed, Sudhir Mishra’s Afwaah, IB71, and Khichdi 2: Welcome to Paanthukistan.

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