There are five male stars in present-day Bollywood who have been going strong since the turn of the 1990s. If anything, their stature and Box Office power have only increased with time. Even today, they’re among the most saleable mainstream actors. But of Aamir Khan, Shah Rukh Khan, Salman Khan, Akshay Kumar and Ajay Devgn, the last is easily the most low-profile and unassuming. In this day and age of blatant self-promotion, one rarely sees Ajay strutting his stuff and tom-toming his feats to the media.
Ajay Devgn’s debut film as a lead actor, ‘Phool Aur Kaante’ (1991), directed by Kuku Kohli, was a runaway hit. His entry scene, in which he’s seen standing astride two motorcycles, has since assumed something of a cult status. ‘Phool Aur Kaante’ released on the same date as much-hyped ‘Lamhe’ and surprisingly routed it at the ticket counters. Anil Kapoor had warned Ajay to not have his debut clash with ‘Lamhe’ as it was directed by Yash Chopra and starred the hit lead pair of Sridevi and Anil. But the tables turned as ‘Lame’ bombed unceremoniously.
His next, ‘Jigar’, released on Diwali in 1992 and again crushed the big-budget ‘Yalgaar’ which had a huge star in Sanjay Dutt.
So, in his first two movies, a rookie Ajay got the better of two of the biggest stars of that time – Anil Kapoor and Sanjay Dutt.
After delivering two smash hits in the action genre, Ajay decided to stick with it and signed a slew of action movies, with no consideration to the script. All these tanked badly and 1993 was a learning curve for him as ‘Divya Shakti’, ‘Platform’, ‘Shaktiman’ and ‘Sangram’ met with a lukewarm response.
Harry Baweja’s ‘Dilwale’ (1994), a romantic drama, brought Ajay back on a winning track. He whipped out two more successful films in 1994 – ‘Vijaypath’ and ‘Suhaag’.
His next set of action movies – ‘Gundaraj’, Haqeeqat’, and ‘Naajayaz’ – again came a cropper in 1995. Once again it was a romantic drama ‘Diljale’ (1996) came to his rescue. His next two releases ‘Jaan’ (1996) and ‘Ishq’ (1997) too lit up the Box Office and broke his ‘action hero’ image. The super success of ‘Pyaar Too Hona Hi The’ (1998) and ‘Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam’ (1999) established him as an actor and star of substance. ‘Zakhm’ (1998) too won him enormous plaudit and a National Award for the Best actor, though it was a commercial failure.
New Millennium: The mixed bag
Ajay grew in stature as an actor between 2000-2009 as he dished out superlative performances in ‘Company’ and ‘The Legend of Bhagat Singh’, but his Box Office standing took a beating. ‘Raju Chacha’ (2000), a movie he himself produced, gave him great financial grief, while ‘Deewane’, ‘Tera Mera Saath Rahe’ and ‘Hum Kisi Se Kam Nahin’ too were damp squibs. Only ‘Company’ did average business.
In the next few years, ‘Gangajal’, ‘Khakee’, ’Apharan’, and the ‘Golmaal’ series kept him afloat, though none of them was a big hit. In ‘Omkara’ (2006), Saif Ali Khan walked away with all the kudos and awards. Ajay’s list of flop movies in this decade is long – from ‘Shikhar’ and ‘Sunday’ to ‘Halla Bol and ‘Insan’, but he remained an A-list actor nevertheless.
The ‘Singham’ returns
Ajay reinvented himself after enduring a topsy-turvy ride through the 2000s. In 2010, he unfurled two blockbusters – ‘Golmaal 3’ and ‘Rajneeti’ and one hit – ‘Once Upon A Time in Mumbai’. The fact that he had different roles in all these movies added a luster to his achievements. In the next two years, ‘Singham’, ‘Bol Bachchan’ and ‘Son of Sardar’ also minted money at the turnstiles.
Suddenly, Ajay found himself right beside Aamir and Salman in the Bollywood’s pecking order. ‘Himmatwala’ and ‘Satyagrah’, both released in 2013, were an aberration but he was back with a bang in 2014 with ‘Singham Returns’, which took a bumper opening. Last year, he delivered arguably the biggest blockbuster of his career ‘Golmaal Again’. We can overlook the duds, ‘Shivaay’ and ‘Baadshaho’, for now.
Rivalry with Khans and Kumar
While it’s fair to say that Ajay Devgn cannot be put into the bracket of ‘Khans’, he has surely held his own resolutely against them. In the 1990s, he bashed out as many hits as the Khans but couldn’t carve out his own ‘Hum Aapke Hain Kaun’ or ‘Dilwale Duhaniya Le Jayenge’.
Nevertheless, he was among the top 5 male stars of the 1990s. Even now, he’s going strong and turning out massive hits, though he hasn’t been part of an all-time blockbuster or the highest grosser of the year, a feat the Khans have attained many a time.
A more appropriate comparison would be with Akshay Kumar. While Ajay was clearly ahead of Akki in the 1990s, the latter eclipsed him in the next decade. Since 2010, Ajay Devgan has been more consistent and given bigger hits. Ajay, for his part, has chosen to focus entirely on his work and rarely does one read reports of any major controversy surrounding him.
Rohit Shetty factor
No other director has tapped into the commercial fiber of Ajay Devgn with as much success as Rohit Shetty. During Rohit’s initial days, Ajay backed him to the hilt despite the failure of his first movie ‘Zameen’ (2003). Since then the duo has been part of a host of superhits such as ‘Singham’, ‘Golmaal 3’, ‘Singham Returns’, ‘Golmaal Again, and ‘Bol Bachchan.
Unlike the Khans and Akshay Kumar, the media has never christened Ajay Devgn a ‘superstar’ but his vast oeuvre – consisting of several superhits and stellar performances – that spreads across three decades speaks for itself.
Most importantly, Ajay has won and retained the undisputed approval of the paying public – something that has kept him in the top echelons of Bollywood since he made his debut.
Follow the author on Twitter (@navneet_mundhra)