Dunki-Salaar box office war marks clash of two unlike superstars

“I want to end the year with a film for myself,” Shah Rukh Khan said recently while promoting his latest, Dunki, in Dubai. That the film should clash with the Prabhas-starrer Salaar upon release is an interesting turn of events. Just as their films, the two superstars are unlike each other in every other way and are currently at very different phases of their careers. Yet, Dunki and Salaar bear a thematic commonality. Both films, at some level, talk of walls that segregate nations and societies, and the human quest to overcome them.

Shah Rukh Khan’s film is a story about ‘Dunki’ flight, the name colloquially given to the illegal journey that many embark on, to unlawfully cross borders and reach the destination of their dreams which, in case of the protagonists, is London. Then, often failing to find a decent life, these people pine to return home but are left with no money to do so. The focus of the film is ghar waapsi, or homecoming, as a motley group led by the film’s hero struggles against all odds to fulfil ghar waapsi wish.

The Prabhas-led Salaar is, on the other hand, positioned as a dystopic thriller bearing spiffy VFX-laden atmospherics that could bring back notions of Mad Max. The film, set against the backdrop of a fictitious land named Khansaar, symbolically and otherwise aims at depicting how the powerful often erect walls to prevent the common people from being exposed to outer worlds in a way that it could change their lives for the better.

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While on Dunki, an interesting fact about the film is its story starts in 1995, the year Shah Rukh Khan made Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge. The Aditya Chopra blockbuster would create box office history and also emerge as one of the significant releases to cement SRK’s status as a superstar and romantic hero. The happy ending of DDLJ saw Khan as the NRI protagonist Raj heading home to London with the love of his life, Simran (Kajol), as the iconic train sequence plays out in the climax. The scene comes back to you as Khan’s voiceover says in the trailer of Dunki: “Yeh kahaani maine shuru kee thi. Toh khatm bhi main hi karoonga, pachchis saal baad (I started this story. So, I should be the one to end it 25 years later).”

In a year when he has already scored as superstar of the masses with action avatars in Pathaan and Jawan, Shah Rukh Khan’s ode to ghar waapsi marks a shift to feel-good vibes. Dunki promises to reload Rajkumar Hirani’s blockbuster entertainment idiom, as the filmmaker returns half a decade after his last hit Sanju. The film has been pitched as a signature Hirani dramedy that balances the director’s old-school storytelling with contemporary content.

In stark contrast is Prabhas’ grim world of Salaar, touting new-age Kannada filmmaker Prashanth Neel’s gritty directorial treatment highlighted by angst and violence that borders on gore. Neel’s trademark filmmaking won him a pan-India fan base thanks to his superhit KGF films. The trailer of Salaar promises to bring back similar vibes, though Neel has insisted there is no connection between the worlds of KGF protagonist Rocky, as portrayed by Yash, and that of Deva, the character Prabhas plays in Salaar.

Salaar: Part 1 — Ceasefire, as the film is officially known, is the first of a two-film franchise. The film stars Prabhas and Prithviraj Sukumaran as friends. The film highlights how the hero rebels against his powerful best friend upon learning the latter’s royal clan has been exploiting people and preventing them from knowing the world that exists beyond their confines. “Badi badi deewarein banaate hain darr ke vajah se. Iss liye nahin ki koi baahar chalaa jaaye. Iss liye ki koi baahar se andar na aa sake (They erect tall walls out of fear, not to prevent us from venturing out but to ensure no external influence sets in),” says Prabhas’ character in the film.

Salaar is Prashanth Neel’s first Telugu language directorial, although the ambitious biggie will also be released in Hindi, Tamil, Kannada, and Malayalam versions. The multiple-language release strategy should be an advantage but Prabhas, Neel and producers Hombale Films must be aware their pan-India ambition for a blockbuster runs right into the path of an in-form Shah Rukh Khan. At a reported production cost of over Rs 250 crore, Salaar, after all, rides a budget that is more than twice that of Dunki. Also, the censors have passed the Prabhas-starrer with an ‘Adults only’ certification owing to its violence quotient, which could cut down ticket sales.

The battle of the weekend, after all, would appear more crucial for Prabhas than Shah Rukh Khan right now. Prabhas’ dream run as a pan-India superstar began with the blockbuster shows of Baahubali: The Beginning (2015) and Baahubali 2: The Conclusion (2017), but the actor’s subsequent releases Saaho (2019), Radhe Shyam (2022) and Adipurush (2023) ended up duds. Although still hailed as a big draw at the national box office despite these flops, a less than spectacular run for Salaar could be a problem — at least as far his pan-India superstar status goes. SRK and Dunki, in comparison, would seem to have a pre-release headstart. At 58, the Bollywood idol continues to bask in the spotlight he garnered in 2023 with Pathaan and Jawan, after a five-year absence from the big screen.

For many, the Christmas weekend clash of Dunki and Salaar is more than just a showdown of two superstars. This is also a week that could bring back the never-ending debate over Bollywood’s claim as India’s premiere film industry, and the hotly-contested assertion that fans of South Indian cinema makeagainst the claim. The argument gathered steam in the post-Covid phase when, as Bollywood biggies floundered, three films from the South set new pan-India records. These were Pushpa: The Rise — Part 1, RRR and KGF 2.

The months that followed saw the South film industries line up several big productions in dubbed Hindi formats for the pan-India market. However, none of these managed to impress all-India audiences. Will Prabhas’ Salaar reverse the trend?

Vinayak Chakravorty is a critic, columnist and journalist who loves to write on popular culture.

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