'Kartik is an outsider, so he takes nothing for granted. That's why he will do well.'
In a year when megastars like Akshay Kumar and Ranveer Singh have gone down like ninepins at the box office despite big releases backed by topnotch production houses, he has been a redeeming factor in Bollywood.
Meet Kartik Aaryan, whose Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2 has hit the jackpot, becoming the second-highest grosser this year (excluding South Indian movies like KGF: Chapter 2 that were released in multiple languages).
Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2 made Rs 185 crore (Rs 1.85 billion) in the domestic box office, just behind another surprise success, The Kashmir Files.
If you add global box office collections, the movie has made a whopping Rs 230 crore (Rs 2.2 billion)-plus.
Made with a budget of Rs 65 crore-Rs 75 crore (Rs 650 million to Rs 750 million), Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2 sold its digital rights for over Rs 60 crore-Rs 65 crore (Rs 600 million to Rs 650 million) to Netflix, according to trade analysts, thereby virtually recovering its entire cost.
Its producers, Bhushan Kumar of T Series, made a neat profit of over Rs 100 crore (Rs 1 billion; this includes 50 per cent share from the domestic box office, music rights and global box office collections of an estimated Rs 42.6 crore/Rs 426 million).
The movie is also number one in Netflix's list of top OTT content for this week.
Can we then describe Aaryan as Bollywood's new bankable star, a new entrant to the big boys' club?
Says a producer who has worked with him, "Kartik is a fighter. He works like an underdog. He is an outsider, so he takes nothing for granted. That's why he will do well."
But being bankable is a different ball game, he adds.
"It means consistency. You could have one hit, like Shahid Kapoor, and then have a flop in Jersey and lose tonnes of money."
Aaryan realises that success in Bollywood can be fickle, so he appears in no hurry to cash in on his celebrity status and jack up his rates, or go on a signing spree, which most actors do.
He has officially denied reports that he has doubled his rates to Rs 30 crore-Rs 40 crore (Rs 300 million to Rs 400 million) after the success of the movie (he charges between Rs 15 crore and Rs 20 crore [Rs 150 million to Rs 200 million]).
Says film trade analyst Komal Nahta, "He told us that he is not signing up new films after Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2's success and is only reading scripts. He is cautious and choosy about the films he does."
About the unexpected success of the movie, Aaryan says, "We surely expected it to cross Rs 100 crore, but a hit over Rs 200 crore was beyond our expectation. We believed that family audiences would come (to watch it), but that even small kids would love it..."
This has, of course, drawn leading advertisers to come knocking at Aaryan's door.
He's being seen as the new youth icon.
He already has a dozen or more big names under his belt: Bata, Cadbury, Fanta, Doritos of PepsiCo, ITC Engage, Armani, boat, among others.
With the big thumbs-up Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2 has received, he is now consciously extending his reach to other segments: Mobile brands, motor vehicles, western leisure wear, mutual funds and investment companies.
Stopping short of divulging names, his team says these deals are in different stages of finalisation.
Says a senior executive of a fast-moving consumer goods company of which he is brand ambassador: "He is careful about the product and the company he chooses. He is looking to build a relationship with good brands across segments. He is approachable and not hankering for only money. For him, it is a long-term game."
Those who've turned to him for endorsements in the past say he charges between Rs 60 lakh (Rs 6 million) and Rs 1 crore (Rs 10 million), so it is not as expensive as the big stars who charge mostly over Rs 5 crore (Rs 50 million).
For this rank outsider, it has been a slow journey with its ups and downs.
He debuted back in 2011 with Pyaar Ka Punchnama, but came to be appreciated only in 2015 when Pyaar Ka Punchnama 2 hit collections of Rs 64.1 crore (Rs 641 million).
In 2019, his movie Sonu Ke Titu Ki Sweety crossed the Rs 100-crore threshold but the very next year he had a box office disaster in Love Aaj Kal, which made just Rs 35 crore (Rs 350 million).
It was during the COVID-19 lockdown, when everyone was glued to OTT, that the thriller he acted in, Dhamaka, a remake of The Terror Live, did well -- though not brilliantly.
The movie was sold by Ram Madhvani Films along with Ronnie Screwvala's RSVP Films and others to Netflix for around Rs 90 crore (Rs 900 million).
He now has a series of four movies on his plate, which he signed up for before Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2. These include Shehzada with Kriti Sanon and Freddy with Alaya F.
The industry will be watching closely to see if he can repeat the success of Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2 and earn the coveted 'bankable star' tag.
For the moment, he's enjoying his new gift from Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2's producers: A swanky McLaren GT supercar with a price tag of Rs 4.7 crore (Rs 47 million).