NOW THAT PATHAAN has broken many box-office records in India, it is hardly a spoiler that the movie has Salman Khan and not just as a regular special appearance but a character from a franchise that he had helmed earlier, as a spy, in two very successful movies—Ek Tha Tiger and Tiger Zinda Hai. In the movie itself, the promise of Shah Rukh Khan making a presence in the next Tiger instalment is there. To further add to the mix, there is another spy character from the hit movie War, played by Hrithik Roshan, who is mentioned in Pathaan and so he might probably be in the mix of future spy movies that the stable of Yash Raj Films will churn out, now that they have got the formula down. Earlier, filmmaker Rohit Shetty had made a Hindi version of the superhit Tamil movie Singam and then later turned it into a cop universe with Ranveer Singh and Akshay Kumar from movies Simmba and Sooryavanshi, respectively. Like Salman Khan, they all drop into each other’s movies of this universe.
The idea is a mimicking of the Marvel cinematic universe of superheroes, which has been the most successful money churner in the history of the entertainment industry. Ordinarily, given that Bollywood usually lifts stuff without too many creative inputs, you would think that superheroes would be its route too. Except that superheroes haven’t really got the same traction on Indian shores, though even that is seeing some signs of changing with the performance of Brahmāstra. Meanwhile, what we have got are spies and policemen, which more or less neatly fits into the nationalism genre that is the flavour of the industry.
What is mindboggling now is the sheer scale that it has taken. There is a reason that Salman Khan and Shah Rukh Khan don’t ever make a movie together—no producer can afford it. If they themselves produce it, as superstars do now, there is no guarantee of the profits doubling, which is necessary for each to get back their market’s worth. The Bollywood cinematic universe is the middle path, where each gets to milk the other’s value while also retaining their own, an optimum trade where identity is not compromised and yet you get the illusion of togetherness. Of the many reasons for Pathaan’s extraordinary success is also the addition of Salman Khan. This mechanism also bypasses the prickly issue of the superstar’s ego. If both Khans are in a movie, how does one decide whether they have equally important roles? With bit parts alongside each other, there is no expectation of it. All that the superstar has to focus on is ensuring that his own movie does justice to him.
The cinematic universe is not just a Bollywood phenomenon. In Tamil movies, there is already one in the making and you can be sure other regional industries will follow suit. And why not? The audience has pretty much the same taste in all states and a formula tested anywhere works everywhere.