As the novelty of 2017 wears off and we settle into the comfort of its familiarity, Indian cinema is already celebrating early profits. Trade reports indicate that worldwide collections for Telugu megastar Chiranjeevi’s Khaidi No. 150 — his big-screen comeback after a decade — are in the vicinity of ₹150 crore just three weeks after its release. The Mohanlal-Meena-starrer Munthirivallikal Thalirkkumbol has reportedly become Malayalam cinema’s second highest first-week grosser ever, just behind Mohanlal’s own Pulimurugan and ahead of his Oppam. Meanwhile, the Hindi industry aka Bollywood is crunching numbers for the Shah Rukh Khan-starrer Raees which, as this article goes to press, is inching towards ₹100 crore at turnstiles worldwide in less than 10 days.

These films have more in common than their box-office impact. All three are helmed by male stars who are over 50. SRK is 51, Mohanlal 56, Chiranjeevi 61. And while each of them has had a unique career trajectory, they are part of a pan-India band of senior male actors who continue to dominate their respective film industries well past the age that societies worldwide tend to see as a person’s “prime”.

Stereotypes be damned. It is as if these men are paraphrasing that line from the Amitabh Bachchan-starrer Kaalia: “Hum jahan khade ho jaate hai, line wahi se shuru hoti hai.” (Where I stand is where the line begins.) Read: “Hum jis umar ke hai, prime wahi se shuru hoti hai.” (The age I am is where my prime begins.)

Full house

The last 13 months exemplify continuing viewer interest in them. In 2016, 74-year-old Bachchan played a pivotal role in the ensemble film Pink, which used him to front its promotions, turning what might otherwise have been a niche product into one of the year’s biggest Hindi earners. The highest Hindi grosser in 2016, Dangal revolved around 51-year-old Aamir Khan. At No. 2 was Sultan starring another 51-year-old, Salman Khan. Crossing state borders, Mohanlal co-starred with Junior NTR in 2016’s highest Telugu grosser, Janatha Garage. Meanwhile, Kollywood legend Rajinikanth’s fans persist in turning his releases into mega events. Kabali’s box-office figures, revealed by its producers, have been disputed, but the controversy has not blemished the 66-year-old Tamil icon’s standing.

India’s smaller film industries too have a part in this phenomenon. Prosenjit Chatterjee at 54 lived up to his reputation as a hit machine when Praktan — co-starring Rituparna Sengupta — became the biggest Bengali grosser of 2016.

And 66-year-old Nana Patekar delivered a sterling performance in Natasamrat, the second-highest Marathi grosser of all time.

Our habit — idol worship

What makes these men tick? Why do they still click? Can they be clubbed together as a homogeneous lot? Setting aside Patekar’s Marathi successes, Natasamrat’s director Mahesh Manjrekar attributes the continuing dominance of the remaining male stars discussed here to a national penchant for idolatry. “We Indians like to be ruled,” he says. “We have not come out of that slavery. I heard that Tiger Shroff was signed by Subhash Ghai when he was born. I said, ‘What the hell! You don’t even know whether the fellow can open his mouth and talk.’ There are too many icons in Hindi cinema. People wait for their films and before they decide the film is good or bad, it has collected ₹70 crore. Some atrocious Telugu and Tamil films do well for the same reason. Idol worship is our habit.”

True. But it is equally true that few stars have cashed in on these favourable social conditions over such a long period. Despite their parallel success, it would be unfair to assume commonalities between these men even where they do not exist. As Manjrekar adds: “Marathi audiences do not run after stars, they respect actors. Nana has the intelligence to see that. He might do idiotic trash in Hindi, but in Marathi he will never do run-of-the-mill fare. That gives him an edge.” Nikhil Sane, business head of Zee Studios Marathi Film Division, which distributed Natasamrat, recalls that Patekar took a year to prepare for it. “Nana sir learns the script by heart, he knows everyone’s dialogues not just his own, he knows the shot breakdown, everything. Working with him was a learning experience,” he says.

So, while the prevailing social scenario has facilitated the longevity of these stars, each has made choices that have contributed to their enduring influence. Award-winning novelist and cineaste Anita Nair analyses the two M’s of Mollywood thus: “Mammootty is like the head of a family. He is vocal about issues, intelligent and level-headed. So while he’s done films like Ponthan Mada and Soorya Manasam, which do not cash in on his personality, in general he shines in roles that tap into his air of aristocracy. People respond to roles in which he is in authority. He’s like the elder brother you look up to, while Mohanlal is like the younger brother you can relate to on a one-to-one basis. Between them, they’ve staked out these territories intelligently. Unlike the newer guys, these two have distinct personalities and distinct markets, and have seldom encroached on each other’s territory.”

Myths cannot retire

Sociologist Shiv Visvanathan perceives Mohanlal and those above 60 in this group as “both icons and institutions” who have transcended their star appeal to occupy a world of the audience’s imagination. “These guys have passed middle age successfully. There is a heroism to that,” he explains. “They’ve now become sociological forces of a different kind. When they do an ad, they’re like a statesman of life recommending a product rather than a film star selling one. This is the next level after star: myth. Myths cannot be retired, they can only be broken.”

The professional busyness and consequent standing of these male stars is a societal oasis in a country that still largely believes work and family life must compulsorily be followed (except perhaps for politicians) by retirement and renunciation, that the grihasthashram of Hindu tradition must perforce give way to vanaprasthashram and sanyas. This is an evolution worth emulating in other fields.

On the other hand, the absence of women in this discussion shows how misogynistic India’s film industries remain despite some improvements in recent years. For evidence, look no further than the films mentioned in this article, several of which are patriarchal or borderline sexist, if not outright anti-women. Praktan, for one, equates a self-respecting wife’s career ambitions with her tyrannical husband’s ego and insecurities.

Many male stars are directly responsible for curtailing their female contemporaries’ screen lives, using their clout to ensure they act opposite women 15-30 years younger. Whenever quizzed about this sexist ageism, they blame producers and public demand, but that is a half-truth.

India’s senior male stars, as it turns out, are backed by a convenient confluence of social and economic circumstances. While modern moviegoers are more demanding and less indulgent towards the emerging generations of actors, these stalwarts have benefited from lingering nostalgia for them supplemented by their own ability to adjust to changing tastes, the greater demands of film marketing and celebrity branding. Most of them work hard to stay trim for an era that places great value on packaging and visual allure. Their peers have fallen by the wayside, bewildered by a transformed world order, but these men have been quick to adopt the tools and platforms now available to them.

Bachchan, for example, is one of the country’s most active luminaries on the social networking site Twitter and has attracted 24.7 million followers, the highest for an Indian entertainer. Adaptability and perseverance coinciding with the present socio-economic reality is what has led to a bouquet of male veterans across India towering over their industries even as younger actors thrive.

In an increasingly cynical world though, these men may be the last of the country’s megastars inhabiting a mythical realm. The shift is already visible. Bachchan without a solid script has not been seen as a safe solo box-office bet for the past 15 years.

Mammootty may have notched up two Mollywood hits in 2016’s top 10, but critics slammed him for Thoppil Joppan’s mindlessness, and Kasaba’s director Nithin Renji Panicker concedes that his film’s impressive box-office run was stemmed by the criticism it received for its crude sexism, which kept family audiences away.

Just as the epoch of demi-gods ended with NTR and MGR, the days of taking fans for granted may well be waning. Remember that Salman always had a committed crazed following, but he achieved his current stature across class divides only after he qualitatively upped his film choices, starting with Wanted in 2007.

The future belongs to those who combine charisma and talent with well-thought-out choices.Aamir, for instance, identified years agothe audience that has the potential to last forever. His dedicated viewers are not unquestioning worshippers, they are viewers who throng theatres with the confidence that he will deliver excellence. After all, looks change, knees weaken and voices quaver with advancing years, stardom can lose its sheen and formulae can get boring. Great art, however, never goes out of fashion.