Wrapping up a year-full of films to list the hits and flops is dicey business.

Why? Because the box office is the yardstick and a “hit” is calculated in terms of how much the producer gets in return from ticket sales compared with how much was the budget of the film. But this yardstick does not stand the test of a “good” film.

For example, Sanju, according to box office takes, is a super duper hit. But as a film per se, it is nothing more but a public relations exercise disguised as a feature film made on a lavish budget. It is a fictionalised white-washing of the imprisonment of a top star, Sanjay Dutt, where the media is labelled the villain. The protagonist is fleshed out very realistically by Ranbir Kapoor and the technical gizmos are just right to draw the mass audience to the theatres from every corner of the country.

Sanju surpassed the lifetime domestic net collections of Tiger Zinda Hai and PK to become the second highest-grossing film (nett) of all time. The critics seemed to have liked the film mainly because of the performances, the script and the direction. And not to forget, the charismatic intrigue set off by the story of Sanjay Dutt.

Looking at the box office takings of Sanju, one may assume that fictionalised biographies are the demand of the day. Raazi which is a super-hit. The film is an adaptation of Harinder Sikka's 2008 novel Calling Sehmat, a true account of an Indian Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) agent who, upon her father's request, is married into a Pakistani family of military officials to relay information to India, prior to the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971.

This is perhaps Meghna Gulzar’s career-best as director. It is truly beautiful account that spells out the completely patriarchal manipulation of a young girl by tricking her into becoming a spy with talks of “for the sake of the country” and robbing her of the life of a normal, growing girl who falls in love with her husband. The audience from all quarters lapped up the film making it a super hit.

Raazi became second film, driven by female lead, to gross more than ₹ 100 crore nett in India, after Returns. The film grossed more than ₹ 120 crore in India, emerging as highest-grossing film of Alia Bhatt, surpassing Badrinath Ki Dulhania.

Akshay Kumar’s Padman is a celluloid adaptation of the real story of Arunachalam Muruganantham who revolutionised and succeeded in removing the conspiracy of silence on women’s menstruation by teaching hundreds of women how to make clean and cheap pads to be used by women when they have their periods.

The film, produced by Twinkle Khanna, is based on her short story. Though its making was on the loud side dealing with a controversial subject many men and women would not quite care for, the film turned out to be a hit. The film was banned in Kuwait and Pakistan due to its subject.

But the box office is like a lottery ticket. You never know what will win and who will lose. The fact that three biographical features became hits does not prove that all such films hit the target. Nandita Das’ Manto on the life and works of Sadat Hasan Manto that was screened at the Cannes earlier this year, fizzled out of Indian theatres within a week of its release, drawing the label “flop.”

In the ambience of literary ignorance in India, a partly fictionalized feature film Manto, arrives like a beacon of light in a relatively ignorant world. But the audience rejects it right away mainly because a major slice of the audience may never even have heard of this man while Sanju is a sure hard-sell and Padman has Akshay Kumar. So, there is absolutely no guarantee that every biographical feature will pull the audience to the theatres.

Why is Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s much-debated and controversial Padmavat a “superhit”?

Bhansali has an unique marketing strategy for most of his films. He stirs up a big controversy that even leads to a demand by some groups to stop the theatrical release of the film in some pockets of the country. This is followed by a lot of media hype, panel discussions across television news channels, interviews in newspapers so when the film is actually released, people are dying to queue up outside the ticket counters.

Add to this the real life love story of Deepika Padukone and Ranveer Singh who play the main lead in the film and are top ranking stars, a hyped up and concocted story disguised as “history” and astronomical production values and your film is bound to be a hit. The film was released in only 70% of places in India and yet it grossed huge amounts both in its Indian release and its release beyond Indian shores.

But wait. If huge budgets, lavish sets, high production values and stars like Amir Khan and Amitabh Bachchan are paired in a fictionalised historical film like Thugs of Hindostan the box office can play a terrible game and churn out the biggest flop film of the year.

Produced on an estimated budget of ₹335 crore (US$47 million), Thugs of Hindostan is one of the most expensive Indian films in the history of Hindi cinema. The seed of the project was 1839 novel Confessions of a Thug by Philip Meadows, which documented the Thuggee cult, a crime gang in India that thrived for around 600 years, and coincided with England's aspirations to set up base in the subcontinent through the trade channel with East India Company.

The film turned out to be the biggest flop of the year. Why?

Says critic Kumar Shyam in The National (November 13, 2018) “TOH is more than three hours long, and cannot sustain the audience for that duration. TOH turns out to be your standard revenge drama, with just a touch of history and a bucketload of 'inspirations' from Pirates of The Caribbean, Bahubali and Lagaan all rolled into one. Lines are blurred badly between Khan's bunch of Thugs and Bachchan's freedom fighters.”

He further sums up,“it turns out that at the box office in India, viewers have not been deceived by the star power and the potential historical interest: Thugs of Hindostan has sunk, and with very little trace.”

Of the 73 and odd Hindi features that released over 2018 with Zero remaining out of this list because it will release only on December 21, budget and box office collections show a short list of 16 hit films. This means that there are many more “average” and “flop” rankings than “hits,” “superhits”, “blockbusters” and “all-time Blockbuster.” If one goes through this list with a fine tooth comb, these films reveal a strange collage of audience taste that seems as colourful, as varied and as polarised as the Indian population itself.

How is a “hit” measured?

If the box office is the measuring rod, one must concede its position as one of the biggest hits of 2018. One online data record labels Sanju as an “all time super hit.” When a film manages just to cover costs, it is labelled “Average.” A film that loses 50% or more of the money invested is considered a “flop.”

A film is considered to be a “hit” when it doubles the money invested or the budget of the film. A “Superhit” is one which doubles the money invested and collects an additional 50% over and above this.

There are many surprises that are a welcome indication of audience tastes veering towards “different” but mainstream subjects with which the audience can identify. The best example is Badhai Ho, the box office takings going up by leaps and bounds with a story of a middle-aged couple expecting a baby when they already have grown-up and adolescent children!

It is a family drama that uses a lot of humour while making a statement on the absence of sex lives among Indian middle-aged couples. It does not have big stars and was released alongside TOH and yet, is still showing at theatres across India. With earnings of over ₹217 crore (US$30 million) against a budget of ₹29 crore (US$4.0 million), it ranks among the highest-grossing Bollywood films of 2018.

Hichki is a dynamic film filled with action and movement, social, emotional, psychological and even geographical, mapping the rough and tough upward climb of its cheerful yet cheeky protagonist who, never mind her TS, does not mince words when she needs not to. Hichki became one of the top five highest-grossing Bollywood films of 2018, after Padmaavat, Sanju, Race 3 and Baaghi 2. Hichki is also the third all-time highest-grossing Indian film led by a female protagonist, after Secret Superstar and Padmaavat.

If director Amar Kaushik intended to make a ghost-horror-comedy flick, the highest points of the film Stree which is a “superhit” should go to the “comedy” element enriched greatly by the classic performances of Rajkumar Rao, Pankaj Tripathy and the young actors who play Vicky’s close friends. However, post-interval, the comedy begins to wear off and so does the film. The way this film leaves comedy and satire behind to step into more serious territory that demands of Vicky to dress up as a bridegroom and pretend to meet the ghost-bride in a dramatized suhag raat, the film begins to limp and fall on its tracks. Shraddha Jahagirdar does not help matters with her apology of acting. With a box office earning of over ₹108 crore(US$15 million)Stree emerged a commercial success.

Raid, directed by Raj Kumar points equally accusing finger at the income tax officers and staff without whose compliance, through a heavy greasing of eager palms, an individual who is a local legislator cannot amass so much wealth that vests him with incredible power to crush any honest officer who treads on his toes. Income Tax officer Amay Patnaik’s transfer nearly fifty times over seven years is another finger pointing to the income tax department.

What saves the film are the outstanding, subtle and restrained performances by Ajay Devgn as Amay Patnaik and Saurabh Shukla which demonstrates the director’s command over control and not allowing the actors to go overboard at any moment. Raid turned out to be a big hit despite its serious structure, form and content.

Other surprise packages that turned out to be big hits are Sonu Ki Titu Ki Sweety (super hit), Andha Dhun (Superhit), Baaghi (Superhit), Sui Dhaga – Made in India (Superhit), Satyameva Jayate (Superhit – the biggest hit of John Abraham), Veere De Wedding (Hit), Parmanu – The Story of Pokhran (Hit), and Dhadak, the much-hyped romance borrowed from the Marathi hit Sairat marking the debut of Sridevi’s daughter Jhanvi and Ishaan Khattar whose debut film Beyond the Clouds has been marked a “flop.”

It is amazing that Mulk, a wonderful film with a serious subject that is as topical as it is sensitive, is marked “average” by some and “flop” by others. The big surprise is that Shoojit Sarkar’s very touching film October, is also a “flop.”

Pari is labelled with “Average” takings at the box office despite the huge pre-release hype and the Anushka Sharma tag. 102 Not Out is marked a flop while Kedarnath is still running in the theatres as we go to Press.

Note: This wrap-up excludes all films dubbed from other languages including English language films from beyond India.