The bylanes and dirt tracks of Versova, Aram Nagar and Lokhandwala in suburban Mumbai are not only centres of casting agencies and production houses, but also places where film aspirants sweat over the prerequisite to a career in entertainment – the prefect body. Walk into any gym and you are likely to meet at least half a dozen young men chiselling themselves in the likeliness of the reigning gods of Bollywood. If the images on their altar are anything to go by, there is a new deity in town – Tiger Shroff. For an actor who was body shamed, trolled for his “awkward looks” and even called a male Kareena Kapoor, this is a dramatic turn of events indeed.
For the new generation, Tiger’s last name may not ring a bell at all. The last time his father, the actor Jackie Shroff, appeared in anything of consequences was a YouTube video in which he uses unprintable expletives while trying to master a speech on polio vaccine. Tiger (real name Jai Hemant) is no Kapoor, Khan or even Dhawan. He is not classically good looking and cannot emote just yet, but as far as the Hindi movie trade is concerned, he is charismatic enough to guarantee a solid opening. As Shroff readies for his third film, A Flying Jatt, after Heropanti (2014) and Baaghi (2016), the buzz is that the 26-year-old actor is on his way to deliver a hat-trick. Baaghi, co-starring another industry kid, Shraddha Kapoor, reported a collection of Rs 67 crore in the first ten days. The Hrithik Roshan starrer Mohenjo Daro managed to do a business of approximately Rs 55 crore over two weekends.
So far the Tiger Shroff script has been about turning obstacles into milestones. Before Heropanti was announced, Jackie and Ayesha Shroff were grist for gossip columns, with rumours of extramarital relationships, bankruptcy and a broken marriage. Tiger Shroff began to tread in softly, almost as if to right the wrongs of perception management committed by his parents. Video clips and photographs of a Jackie Chan lookalike (from afar) performing incredible stunts and practising hard at parkour and mixed martial arts were slipped to websites by friendly film journalists. The message was subtle but important: here was a boy from a troubled home whose family had fallen on hard times, and who was working his way from ground up.
Shroff swept up the empathy votes without having to try too hard. In an industry that opens its doors wide to those with familiar nicknames and famous last names, Shroff won round one without even stepping into the arena. “Every producer adores him,” said a filmmaker who has known him over the years. “It has a lot to do with the fact that unlike other industry insiders or star kids, he did not really have much to fall back on. Even till recently, his father was desperately knocking on doors to raise money to bail out his troubled wife. You had to feel sorry for this son.”
Nobody was surprised when Subhash Ghai announced a remake of his 1983 hit Hero with the son in the role that launched the father’s career. Shroff did not get Hero (the role went to Sooraj Pancholi). Instead, he got Heropanti and it turned out very well for him.
Despite producer Salman Khan’s muscle power and Ghai’s endorsement of the new Hero, it tanked. Meanwhile, Heropanti, directed by Sabbir Khan and starring Shroff with Kriti Sanon, changed everything for the male lead even though the run-up to the film’s release was far from pleasant.
The debutant actor was subjected to cruel trolling, but his team kept their cool. Prabhat Choudhary, co-founder of the publicity and talent management company Spice that handles Shroff, said, “What else can you do but to grin and bear it? We were confident that once the film was released, people would change their minds about him. And it happened exactly like that.”
No other male actor in recent history has been heckled so badly for his looks, not even Abhishek Bachchan, said an industry source who wished to stay anonymous. “The girls get it bad. Sonakshi Sinha is still dismissed as the big girl who cannot act. No one looks beyond her body.” But the audiences have proved their willingness to look beyond Shroff’s unusual looks and consider his fresh-faced earnestness and flying kicks and vaults. A Flying Jatt, a superhero-themed film directed by choreographer and director Remo, is likely to leverage Shroff’s newfound clout.
Anirban Das Blah, CEO of the talent management agency CAA Kwan that handles Shroff’s marketing and branding, says the actor has positioned himself carefully and has channelled his hunger to rise above his weaknesses well. “He is not the kind of guy who will appeal to people sitting in a posh coffee shop and discussing avant garde films,” Blah said. “When I speak to my staff, my drivers, the watchmen, the average Joe on the streets, they tell me they have watched his films several times. When Heropanti was released, my friends did not watch it. But the film was a success, thanks to these people.”
Tiger has moulded himself as the new action hero, a combination of Jackie Chan and Hrithik Roshan, Blah said. “And that is the brand definition that seems to be working for him.”
According to a programming head at a leading multiplex chain who wished to stay anonymous, Shroff fulfills an emotional and social need of middle-class audiences. “At times all you need is a guy who is young and fit and can fight and dance,” the source said. “So what if he looks odd? He gives people hope. If he can do so well for himself, so can anyone.”
Shroff’s reach extends to the single screens, which are the “ultimate test of a Hindi film hero”, added the source. At a time when most of his peers are either top-lining slick romcoms or urban family dramas, Shroff has taken up the only slot available – a 1980s-style action hero who can also dance.
“In the next seven-eight years Tiger is going to be big,” predicts the filmmaker. “He has cracked the formula.”
But like all formulas, this too comes with an expiry date. The trade source explained, “He will possibly take the route followed by earlier heroines. Karisma Kapoor, for instance, did those Govinda-David Dhawan films to win over the masses. After they consolidated their gains, they did a Shyam Benegal kind of film to prove that they could also act. Once they were able to establish their credibility, they moved on to more nuanced roles. Tiger is on the first rung of the ladder.”
Trade insiders do not expect Shroff to be the next Ranbir Kapoor, but instead see shades of a young Ajay Devgn and Akshay Kumar in him. “He is aware of that,” Blah said. Shroff has not appeared in any path-breaking films, and there are no surprises in his choice of projects. But he is obviously making the right decisions. “Nobody expected anything from such an odd looking fellow,” said the trade source. “And that is his biggest strength. He is a classic case of the underdog whose time has come.”