For over a decade now, the next superstar has been awaited - in vain. The hegemony of the three Khans - Salman, Shah Rukh and Aamir - all aged above 50, hasn't been dented. However, with the underwhelming performance of Salman's Eid release, Tubelight, the age-old question has popped up once again - can any actor, a newcomer or an already established one, win against them in the popularity stakes?
The answer's blowing in the wind. Reason: Tubelight cannot be written off as a colossal disaster. After all, during the first week, the mangled adaptation of Hollywood's Little Boy (peppered with Forrest Gump) has entered the INR 100 crore-plus club. As for the disparaging reviews, Salman has reacted to them coolly, "I am happy with the critics. At least, they didn't give it minus-star ratings." Sarcasm totally intended.
Apparently, downers don't faze him. After all, this December, Tiger Zinda Hai, the sequel to his hugely successful espionage thriller Ek Tha Tiger, could actually reaffirm his status as Bollywood's most bankable hero. In the past, he has surmounted professional as well as personal obstacles - including the no-show of the utterly forgettable Jai Ho (2014) and the contentious court cases that would have unnerved any human being. Come to think of it, the Being Human image now overrules the Bad Boy moniker Salman had once been tagged with by the Indian media.
Perhaps to convey the message that Salman Khan isn't perturbed at all by the power breakdown of Tubelight, he's reportedly keen to team up once again with its director Kabir Khan for a project showcasing him in a role spanning the ages of 40 to 70. Really? Will such a film ever take off? Doubts have been raised since Salman suffers from a nerve ailment on his face, which could be aggravated with the use of prosthetics or heavy makeup.
In the meantime, Shah Rukh Khan returns to the romantic mode with the upcoming Jab Harry Met Sejal while Aamir Khan, the most risk-taking Khan of them all, is concentrating on the period drama Thugs of Hindostan.
Given a scenario in which the three Khans are still on top of their game and command instant attention (read lavish budgets) from Bollywood's trade investors, it would seem that their younger colleagues, at this juncture, cannot challenge the exalted status of the Khans.
Yet, I can't help feeling that there are at least three actors - in terms of their acting chops and dedication to their métier in individualistic ways - measure up to the Khans. Foremost among them, I'd count Ranbir Kapoor, who could well luck out next year with Rajkumar Hirani's biopic on the controversy-ridden life of Sanjay Dutt. Blending spontaneity with studied acting, Ranbir has what it takes to be convincing and impactful before the camera.
Right now, he has the romcom, Anurag Basu's Jagga Jasoos, coming up. Whether the inordinate delay in its completion will show up jarringly in the final product remains to be seen. The 34-year-old actor, who has also co-produced the film, has often stated that he intends to turn to direction in the future. Hence, the box office performance of Jagga Jasoos will be the deciding factor in his leap to the next level.
With calculated stealth, Varun Dhawan has been establishing a connect with the audience, shuffling between roles that appeal to the masses as well as the mandarins. While on one hand, director David Dhawan's son exudes a youthful image (as in, for instance, Badrinath Ki Dulhania), on the other, he shows immense calibre to take on more mature roles (as in Badlapur). Adept at dancing à la Govinda and showing a flair for goofball comedy, the 30-year-old actor has asserted that he doesn't wish to be typecast. If and when he can strike the right balance - by plunging into darker areas in the vein of Badlapur - chances are there will be no stopping Varun Dhawan from making it to the top of the star constellation.
Call it a lack of consistency, perhaps in the case of Hrithik Roshan, an actor who knows his craft and emotive strengths. The cliché goes that he's been at his best under the direction of dad Rakesh Roshan. Indeed, if Hrithik reappears in the fourth edition of Krrish, currently at the inception stage, he could be back in prime action. That Hrithik strives for perfection, in the tradition of Aamir Khan, has never been sufficiently acknowledged.
As it happens, Hrithik has also been hampered by that avoidable element called 'bad timing'. His interpretation of the sightless, vendetta-seeking middle-class husband in Kaabil was widely appreciated. Had Kaabil not clashed with the release of the Shah Rukh Khan-starrer Raees, the 43-year-old actor could have re-bolstered his career.
Some would add Ranveer Singh's name to this enclave too. Snag is that for a measure of control - he tends to go over the top frequently - he needs the supervision of Sanjay Leela Bhansali, who has shown the 32-year-old actor at his best in Goliyon Ki Raasleela Ram Leela and Bajirao Mastani, and could well strike up a hat-trick with Padmavati.
Clearly, Ranbir Kapoor, Varun Dhawan and Hrithik Roshan are superstar material. They are serious threats to the Khans' supremacy. Or there could be a surprise, a dark horse who outraces them all.