The star is an attraction; the superstar, an addiction. The star elevates projects; the superstar is the project, rendering other film-making departments redundant.

Stars must track the audience pulse and update their acts; superstars set them pulses racing – often stretching their luck beyond what the audience mood permits, arrogantly hoping to be exceptions to the law of diminishing returns. Which highlights the fundamental distinction between a star and a superstar - the ability to pull off rank bad films - and explains why alert stars and superstars reinvent themselves and get choosier in time.

By this token, Bollywood today has no bonafide superstar left, none capable of lifting the atrocious that is, only stars and ex-superstars trying to avoid stale scripts and/ or indifferent treatments.

Not everyone has taken the path with as much conviction and aplomb as Aamir Khan – Amitabh Bachchan, Akshay Kumar, and Salman Khan can’t resist showboating, Shah Rukh Khan is rarely fully immersed - but the change is welcome nonetheless. The audience is no longer taken for granted, and there is at least an effort on actors’ and filmmakers’ part to explore new territory.

Much has been said about how satellite TV and multiplexes have driven the change. TV, by deconstructing superstar auras and exposing audiences to quality international content without burning holes in pockets. Multiplexes, by affording screening opportunities for a richer bouquet of narratives and encouraging audience discernment with pricy ticketing.

This is all true. ‘Good’ TV and multiplexes have ensured that the audience is no longer beholden to a star and won’t queue up for indifferent fare - it punished Salman for Tubelight the same year (2015) it made his Tiger Zinda Hai a blockbuster – but bad television, the cheesy, OTT soap operas in particular, may just have been equally complicit in the killing of the Bollywood superstar.

“This is what the audience wants,” Bollywood filmmakers have long said in defense of their superstar-driven formulaic fare. This is an incomplete diagnosis. Sure, Hindi film audiences have high tolerance for sub-par cinema but that has not stopped them from rewarding superstar-less above average efforts. Even in the eighties, perhaps the darkest decade for mainstream Hindi cinema, there were more than watchable films which won audience approval without superstar presence.

Karz (1980) starred Rishi Kapoor (1980), popular, immensely so, but forever short of genuine superstardom. Arjun (1985) happened before Sunny Deol’s peak years, Maine Pyar Kiya (1989) before Salman’s, Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak (1988) before Aamir’s. Naam (1986) released when Sanjay Dutt’s career was going nowhere. Anil Kapoor had solo hits in Meri Jung (1985) and Tezaab (1987) before he emerged a contender to Amitabh’s throne. Masoom’s (1983) cast was not exactly known for its box office draw. Rekha and Sridevi, sacrilegious as it is to list them among budding and near superstars, showed they were more than superstar accessories, the former with Khoobusrat (1980) and Umrao Jaan (1981), the latter with Sadma (1983), Mr India (1987), and Chandni (1989).

Hindi film watchers clearly seek a fix of both the loud-regressive and the uplifting. The former for its coarse and fantasist appeal; the latter because, well, it is uplifting even if mildly so under a lazened eco-system. Even today with all the space carved for improved content, the pedestrian-loud-regressive side will occasionally assert itself with Housefull 3 (2016), Kick (2014), or Rowdy Rathore (2012).

If this assertion happens less often now and has driven top marquee names to step out of comfort zones, it is not only because a section of the audience craves a different taste after exposure to good TV and multiplex-y fare - but also because others are getting their fix of the loud-regressive from bad television.

The soaps have everything that superstar-driven formula film had. Irritatingly virtuous leads, thunderous villains, twitchy vamps, lame jokes, clumsy titillation, plot points oscillating between crises and celebration, screechy soundtracks, tacky production values. Why hit the theaters for high, unapologetically mindless drama then when all this is available at home in back-to-back slots across general entertainment and film re-run channels at a fraction of the price of a multiplex ticket? And so, many may have figured that their fix of the bad is best obtained at home, and that the theaters are best reserved for the good fix.

This mind compartmentalization should not come across as a surprise. It is increasingly evident in how discretionary spends are segmented. Not every Indian Premier League contest draws a full house, fans preferring to hit stadia only for the more promising encounters and catching the rest of the action at home. Wardrobes are no longer dumps, but planned and organized – at least mentally! - by season, time of day, and occasion. Casual and celebratory eating out options, once overlapping, are now clearly marked out. For special occasions, the meal must not be a meal alone but an experience. So also for movies. The promising, the compelling, or at least the material packaged so, are for theater viewing.

For cheap thrills, there is TV, doing as a good a job as cinema once did.