Stardom peaks for Bollywood superstars

Three Bollywood actors are in Forbes' top 10 list as world's highest paid, bypassing Hollywood A-listers.

Salman Khan in Bajrangi Bhaijaan. Eros International
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Bollywood films, with their colourful sets and hyper-coordinated song-and-dance numbers, have catapulted five Indians into the ranks of world’s highest-paid male actors.

Three of those actors – Salman Khan, Amitabh Bachchan and Akshay Kumar – were in the top 10, overtaking Hollywood A-listers such as Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Leonardo DiCaprio.

The rankings, compiled by Forbes, were released last week and for the first time included actors working outside Hollywood, allowing an international comparison of star earnings.

That change also meant Hong Kong martial arts hero Jackie Chan was second, with most of his US$50 million (Dh183m) in earnings last year made from films produced in China. American actor Robert Downey Jr topped the list for the third year in a row, earning $80m last year. The two highest-paid Indian actors, Khan and Bachchan, tied for seven, each earning $33.5m.

“I am surprised it has taken so long to get global rankings,” says Bollywood publicist Raju Kariya, who has worked in the industry for more than 30 years. India’s male actors are so popular that “everyone from 5-year-olds to elderly women are completely gaga over them”.

Khan’s place also demonstrated that Bollywood stars can get through scandal relatively unscathed. The action hero is the subject of non-stop media attention, amid an ongoing court case for a 2002 hit-and-run that killed a homeless man and injured four others.

His popularity also hasn’t suffered from his 2006 conviction for poaching an endangered blackbuck deer, which he has appealed.

Even though the top Bollywood hunks are raking in cash, the earnings of Hindi-language films are languishing. Bollywood is the world’s most prolific producer of films, churning out about 1,000 a year, double that of Hollywood. Yet so far this year, only half a dozen or so Bollywood films have turned a profit, while most of the hundreds that come out of Mumbai’s film industry lose money.

As India’s economy grows and the middle class expands, more people are buying theatre tickets and the number of movie theatres has increased. But Bollywood is facing increased pressure from imported films.

The competition, particularly from Hollywood, is making moviegoers more demanding and discerning, says film trade analyst Vinod Mirani.

“Movies are actually getting worse” as moneymaking vehicles in India, he says. Bollywood revenues have been growing by about 10 per cent a year and will reach $4.5 billion next year, according to a study by the Confederation of Danish Industries in India.

Up until the 1990s, films in India were usually financed by politicians and criminals. The industry has since modernised, with financing coming from major companies. Foreign production houses such as Sony Pictures, The Walt Disney Co and Universal Studios have also opened offices in India. Reliance MediaWorks, owned by one of India’s richest tycoons, Anil Ambani, sold off its entire multiplex business, Big Cinemas, to the United Kingdom’s Carnival Films last year, for more than $100m.

Altogether, the five Bollywood stars made Indians the second highest paid as a group, with combined earnings of $140.5m.

Film industry analysts said they were unsurprised that Indian actors rank among the world’s highest paid.

While their films may not be big earners, they have global recognition thanks to a large Indian diaspora living around the world, from Australia to Canada and the United States. Indian actors also often negotiate a cut of a movie’s total revenues, guaranteeing themselves extra income even when films flop, whereas their western counterparts usually only secure a share of profits.

The growth of the internet and social media in India has also fuelled the fame of Bollywood actors. And they are ubiquitous on TV, appearing in advertisements for everything from air-conditioners and luxury cars to perfume and underpants.

Salman Khan, for example, grossed more than $20m just from his Being Human clothing line last year, while Bachchan endorses more than a dozen products, ranging from soft drinks to paint. Bachchan, 72, who is so popular there is even a temple dedicated to him in the eastern city of Kolkata, was the oldest actor on the list, beating out 63-year-old Irish actor Liam Neeson, who made $19.5m last year to land in 22nd place on the list.

The third-highest ranked Bollywood actor was another action hero, Kumar, with earnings of $32.5m last year, putting him in the ninth spot.

Lower on the list of 34 actors were Shah Rukh Khan, in 18th place, and Ranbir Kapoor at 30.

* AP