Why one of Bollywood’s biggest stars sees YouTubers as competition

“You have to go everywhere.”
“You have to go everywhere.”
Image: Yashraj Films
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Being a Bollywood star today is about much more than just box office numbers.

Besides a movie’s release in cinemas and on satellite TV, there are also digital rights that go a long way in validating an actor’s success these days. “…that digital money that you get can be more than your satellite or more than your theatrical [income]—it’s shocking—because a film that might run on digital might not be something a theatre-going audience will go for,” Varun Dhawan, one of the industry’s most popular actors, said in an interview with Quartz on Sept. 12.

The 31-year-old cited the example of his April 2018 release October to explain how digital distribution can breathe life into a movie. Unlike his commercially super-hit releases—Humpty Sharma ki Dulhania and Judwaa 2, among others—the slice-of-life drama October was not a money-making mill; its Rs45 crore ($6.3 million) performance at the theatres was deemed average at best. “But how October did on Amazon (Prime Videos) is a lot more than it could’ve done theatrically because it’s a different taste. That audience will enjoy it more,” he said.

A big reason for this trend is that with the internet, the awareness of varied content is spreading and reaching newer audiences worldwide. On Netflix, American crime drama Narcos is being watched in India and India’s first Netflix original, Sacred Games, is finding fans the world over. And all this isn’t just influencing movie performances online but also making stars and their content more recognisable outside their home countries.

Take, for instance, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, one of Dhawan’s idols. “His movies do better in China than they do domestically sometimes,” Dhawan said. In fact, Johnson’s movies even released during the country’s “blackout” summer when typically only homemade movies are permitted. There have also been instances when Bollywood actor Shah Rukh Khan’s movies drew larger audiences abroad than in India, Dhawan added. Khan’s Raees and Jab Harry Met Sejal (both released in 2017) tanked at home but minted money in the UK, US, and the Gulf.

Moreover, with social media picking up, film stars are facing competition from a unique set of people: YouTube stars.

“The stuff they do—there are things I’m seeing and getting inspired and I might put them in films because their skits are damn funny,” Dhawan said, rattling off names like Bhuvan Bam, Ashish Chanchlani, and Amit Bhadana. Bam recently became the first Indian YouTuber to amass 10 million subscribers and Bhadana hit the milestone soon after. The former is even making his acting debut in a short film this month.

So, what’s their USP? Cracking the vernacular code, believes Dhawan, who will next be seen essaying the role of a small-town tailor in India’s hinterlands in Yashraj Film’s Sui Dhaaga. “They’re all performing in Hindi. These guys are really getting their country,” he said. “Maybe the reach isn’t as big (as movies) today because the internet’s still growing but if you see, in the next 10 years, these are the stars.”

Be it winning over a whole new market or capitalising on smaller screens like laptops and smartphones, “you cannot just be a star on one medium today. You have to go everywhere,” Dhawan said.