In the 1990s, Salman Khan played the dancing, singing, fighting, eve-teasing hero. In 2016, in Sultan Salman plays the dancing, singing, fighting, eve-teasing hero.
How long can he keep it up? Can he do that in his late fifties? What about his sixties?
Shah Rukh Khan is facing an existential crisis. Fan was different but a disaster at the box office. Dilwale was a pukka formula film and still a disaster.
SRK was lost in the ensemble cast of Happy New Year and struggling as an ageing romancer in Chennai Express and Jab Tak Hai Jaan.
The Khans may still be ruling today, but Akshay Kumar (48) is the best bet for ruling the Bollywood box office well into his fifties and sixties, with the way he has re-invented himself in the 2010s. Rustom is merely the latest new flower in his varied bouquet.
A rough-cut diamond in the 1990s and 2000s, Mr Khiladi has finally emerged as a polished superstar in his own right in 2016.
It probably began with OMG - Oh My God! in 2012. Here Bollywood actually experimented with a serious philosophical treatise on god and got away with it!
The very next year came Special 26, a polished Hollywood-style heist based on the India of the 1980s.
Bollywood is usually not known for such slickness. But Akshay continued the trend with Baby (2015), arguably India's greatest film on counter-terrorism.
The year began with Airlift, which combined patriotism, realism and Akshay's continuation of the tryst with the different.
|Rustom is probably one of the most intense films produced by commercial Bollywood.|
Curiously, all of these films were box office successes too. Others come out with superhit masala flicks, while Akshay churns out one realistic hit after another.
In between all this serious stuff, he still manages to belt out absolutely mindless nonsensical films like the Housefull series (which also keep the box office registers ringing, by the way).
Comedy versus stiff upper lip roles. Action versus realism. Films full of sense versus nonsense. Akshay wants it all and is currently getting it.
The trend continues with the recently released Rustom, which probably is one of the most intense films produced by commercial Bollywood.
It keeps you on the edge of the seat till the final court verdict. (Even though you know that he's going to get away in the end!)
Is our hero Rustom a villain or a saviour? Is he being played or playing the game? Is he a traitor or a patriot? Is he a murderer or a victim?
Rustom will go down as one of the deliciously grey roles that Bollywood has to offer, much like the recent Gabru of Udta Punjab.
Rustom has already picked up Rs 50 crore by the end of its first weekend and will be probably Akshay's third Rs 100 crore hit of the year.
But it all has been coming for a very long time. A look at his career and Mr Khiladi could actually be called Mr Versatility.
Akshay is probably the only Bollywood superstar who can play both God (OMG - Oh My God!) and gigolo (Desi Boyz).
He can oscillate between an extreme mindless dissociative identity disorder personality (Housefull 3) and a serious psychiatrist treating a dissociative identity disorder patient in a serious film (Bhool Bhulaiyaa).
In Khatta Meetha, he was a corrupt constructor outright but a corruption crusader with a brain and plan in Gabbar is Back (a thinking angry young man, if you will).
He can play any kind of victim with ease. Whether it's a sexually harassed victim in Aitraaz or a hassled manservant in De Dana Dan.
A pathetic panauti (epitome of unluckiness) in Welcome or even a troubled vegetable cutter in Chandni Chowk to China, Akshay can pull it off with ease.
Remember him playing a blind robber in Aankhen?
|Akshay has also managed to belt out absolutely mindless nonsensical films like the Housefull series.|
Akshay can supersize any role that he does in the future. He played a counter-terrorism expert in Holiday: A Soldier Is Never Off Duty and supersized that with Baby.
He played a rough international wrestler in Khiladiyon Ka Khiladi, but became a much more polished mixed martial artist in Brothers.
We loved him as a heist specialist whom we desperately wanted to get away in Special 26 and a cool underworld don in Once Upon a Time in Mumbai Dobaara!
8 x10 Tasveer was a movie ahead of its times where Akshay played someone with supernatural powers. Nerd (Jaan-E-Mann). Ageing international cricketer (Patiala House). Businessman vigilante (Boss). Saviour businessman (Airlift). Akshay is one big experimenter.
Akshay's most repetitive role though is that of a police officer: Main Khiladi Tu Anari, Mohra, Khiladi 786, Aan: Men at Work, Police Force: An Inside Story, Daava, Insaaf, Paandav, Tarazu, Angaaray, Meri Biwi Ka Jawaab Nahin, Ashaant and Mr Bond.
But here too you will find a variety of roles and shades like Khakee, which also stands out for its refreshing difference.
The multiplex era has changed the rules of the game, but things will further change in the future.
There is demand for greater variety as the Indian IMDb Top 250 list has showed. Can the likes of Salman survive when the tide finally turns away from the current formula?
Hrithik Roshan looks like a spent force and Ajay Devgan is erratic. Aamir Khan is probably the only superstar who will continue evolving and coming out with a variety of roles, just like Akshay.
But then sometimes, Aamir comes out with a movie after ages and ages.
If you discount the arty Dhobi Ghat and his singing cameo in Delhi Belly, then in terms of big commercial releases, 3 Idiots came in 2009 and Talaash: The Answer Lies Within after that, only in 2012!
So Akshay is the only superstar who promises both quantity and quality and he's ageing like wine to boot!
Yesterday looks great for SRK.
Today looks great for Salman.
Tomorrow looks great for Akshay.