Three of those – Salman Khan, Amitabh Bachchan and Akshay Kumar – were in the top ten, outranking Hollywood A-listers such as Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Leonardo DiCaprio.
The rankings, compiled by Forbes, were released last week and included actors working outside Hollywood, allowing an international comparison of star earnings for the first time.
That change also meant Hong Kong martial arts star Jackie Chan was second top, with most of his $50 million (£32m) in earnings last year made from films produced in China. American actor Robert Downey Jr. topped the list for the third year in a row, earning $80m. The two highest-paid Indian actors, Khan and Bachchan, tied for seventh, each earning $33.5m last year.
“I am surprised it has taken so long” to get global rankings, said Bollywood publicist Raju Kariya. India’s male actors, easily recognisable by their aviator sunglasses and tight designer clothes, are so popular that “everyone from five-year-olds to elderly aunties are completely gaga over them”.
Khan’s place also demonstrated that Bollywood stars can get through scandal relatively unscathed. The action hero is the subject of non-stop media attention amid an ongoing court case for a 2002 hit-and-run that killed a homeless man and injured four others. His popularity also hasn’t suffered from his 2006 conviction for poaching an endangered blackbuck deer, which he has appealed.
Even though the top Bollywood hunks are raking in cash, the earnings of Hindi-language films are languishing. Bollywood is the world’s most prolific producer of films, churning out some 1,000 year, double that of Hollywood. Yet so far this year, only half a dozen or so Bollywood films have turned a profit, while most of the hundreds that come out of Mumbai’s film industry are money losers.
As India’s economy grows and the middle class expands, more people are buying theatre tickets and the number of movie theatres has increased. But Bollywood is facing increased pressure from imported films.
The competition, particularly from Hollywood, is making India moviegoers more demanding and discerning, said film trade analyst Vinod Mirani. “Movies are actually getting worse” as money-making vehicles in India, he said.
Bollywood revenues have been growing by about 10 percent a year and will reach $4.5 billion in 2016, according to a study.
Up until the 1990s, film in India was usually financed by politicians and criminals. The industry has since modernised with financing coming from major companies. Foreign production houses Sony, Walt Disney and Universal Studios have also opened office in India.
Reliance MediaWorks, owned by one of India’s richest tycoons, Anil Ambani, sold off its entire multiplex business, Big Cinemas, to UK’s Carnival Films last year for more than $100m.
Altogether, the five Bollywood stars made Indians the second-highest paid as a group, with combined earnings of $140.5m.
Film industry analysts said they were unsurprised that Indian actors rank among the world’s highest paid.
While their films may not be big money earners, they have global recognition thanks to a large Indian diaspora living from Australia to Canada and the United States.