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Does Stree's success mean Rajkummar Rao is now a commercially viable star?

While some trade experts would not lay too much store by Stree's superb run at the box office, others believe it will certainly open bigger doors for the actor.

With Aparshakti Khurrana, Abhishek Banerjee and Pankaj Tripathi in a scene from Stree

Mayur Lookhar

Actor Rajkummar Rao’s films have mostly received critical acclaim, but the talented actor has now begun to make a mark at the box office as well.

Stree, the horror-comedy directed by Amar Kaushik, earned Rs4.50 crore nett at the box office on its second Friday (7 September), according to BoxOfficeIndia.com, taking its domestic collection to Rs63.35 crore nett in just eight days.

Made at an estimated budget of Rs20 crore, the film was released on 1,800 screens across India. And Stree’s success can be gauged from the fact that even on its second Friday, the film had a decent collection while new releases like JP Dutta’s multi-starrer Paltan and Sajid Ali's Laila Majnu were disappointing.

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Paltan, which was released on 1,000 screens, opened with just Rs1.25 crore nett, while the Imtiaz Ali-written and Ekta Kapoor-produced adaptation of the classic love story was a disaster, making just Rs30 lakh.

Stree is arguably Rajkummar Rao’s most successful film so far. His previous most successful film was Kai Po Che! (2013), which made Rs43.58 crore nett at the domestic box office. But the Abhishek Kapoor film had Sushant Singh Rajput and Amit Sadh in the lead as well.

Stree’s success begs the question: can Rajkummar Rao finally be looked at as a commercially viable star?

Film exhibitor Akshaye Rathi does not think so. “There are a lot of films where it is the subject, the writers, and the director at work who take the lead in making a draw at the box office,” Rathi said, citing a few examples.

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“MS Dhoni: The Untold Story (2016) was a Sushant Singh Rajput film. Before that Rajput hadn’t seen such numbers. Never before Dhoni, or after that, has he managed to come to that kind of collection,” Rathi pointed out.

MS Dhoni: The Untold Story (2016) made Rs119 crore nett at the domestic box office. Rajput followed it up with a dud in Raabta (2017), which shut shop with a mere Rs4.63 crore nett.

Rathi also pointed to Aditya Roy Kapur and Shraddha Kapoor, who reaped great success with Aashiqui 2 (2013) but have since struggled to make a mark at the box office.

“As a solo lead, Aditya Roy Kapur has never seen such numbers before or after Aashiqui 2," Rathi said. "Similarly, never before has Rajkummar Rao on his own merit, as solo lead, given such numbers. For the films that are coming, we don’t know if they will get this kind of numbers. A lot will depend upon the subjects and the directors.

"Stree, more than being a Rajkummar Rao or Shraddha Kapoor vehicle, is a classic example of how you can make an experience on a low budget,” the exhibitor argued. “Without taking any credit away from Rajkummar, Shraddha or the supporting cast, all of whom have performed very well, the numbers are courtesy the merit of the director, the writers and the technical crew.”

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Trade analyst Vinod Mirani does not want to look too far ahead into the future but believes Rajkummar Rao is here to stay.

“What this film has done is that it has established Rajkummar as an actor," Mirani argued. "In terms of commercial saleability, he has so far been doing films with limited budgets. As an actor, he will command better payment. Rajkummar has taken the slot which Amol Palekar used to own once.”

Among the GenNext actors, it is probably Varun Dhawan who leads the pack when it comes to box-office success. Mirani, however, believes it is wrong to compare Rao with Dhawan.

“A producer or a director cast an actor according to their script," he explained. "If they want Dhawan, they will go for him. Rajkummar has proved himself to be a reasonably viable actor for he does small-budget films. Today, you can’t guarantee [the box-office appeal of] any actor.”

What cannot be denied is that Rajkummar Rao has enjoyed a good run in the past year and a half. Newton (2017) was India’s official entry to the Oscars, and Bareilly Ki Barfi (2017), co-starring Ayushmann Khurrana and Kriti Sanon, was a critical and commercial hit.

While Rajkummar Rao is yet to feature in a film produced by marquee banners like Dharma Productions and Yash Raj Films, he has shown that he is more than capable of playing any character. While Fanney Khan (2018) did not work, its failure can hardly be attributed to the performances of the artistes, including Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Anil Kapoor and Divya Dutta.

Producer Prernaa Arora of Studio Five Elements certainly believes Stree's success will open other doors for Rao. 

"This is what I call success on merit," she said. "This proves content is king and queen. I definitely believe Rajkummar is made for all kinds of cinema. He has travelled through genres into the heart of the public. He has proved that with Bareilly Ki Barfi and now Stree."

Box-office analyst and independent film distributor Suniel Wadhwa credited the actor's earlier works with helping him achieve critical acclaim even when they were not runaway hits. "Rajkummar Rao, who breaks out with his first huge commercial success, was earlier considered more of an unconventional and art film actor," he said, "but those films were made at low budgets, which had limited appeal and audiences, so they might not have been commercial successes but those [films[ were critical successes."

Wadhwa, too, saw no reason why Rao would not be tapped now by bigger producers. “Stree's winning streak at the box office is huge for Rajkummar Rao," he said. "It will open more doors with big production houses and studios to rope him in for more commercial and script-driven subjects."

Rajkummar Rao will reunite with Anil Kapoor and Sonam K Ahuja for Vidhu Vinod Chopra's Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga (2019). His upcoming releases are 5 Weddings (2018) and Mental Hai Kya (2019), which also stars Kangana Ranaut.