Chronicling the Khan era

Chronicling the Khan era

Keeping sensationalism at bay, seasoned film journalist Kaveree Bamzai attempts an honest study of the three Khans of Bollywood.

The Three Khans

In her book ‘The Three Khans and the Emergence of New India’, author Kaveree Bamzai says the rise of the Khans — Shah Rukh, Salman and Aamir — coincided with the opening of the Indian economy, the emergence of religious fundamentalism and the return of caste politics.

Bamzai, a seasoned film journalist, is sharp and candid and keeps sensationalism at bay as she attempts an honest study on the three Khans, who dethroned Amitabh Bachchan in Hindi cinema in the 90s. One of the book’s real merits is how it avoids being an information overload while combining India’s political history with the journeys of the trio.

It somewhat rings true when she writes, “the three Khans have shown resilience in the face of challenges, both on account of changes in society and in the face of growing competition from their contemporaries.” Today, millions of fans want Shah Rukh to bounce back as he tries to quietly tide over the storm of his son Aryan’s arrest in a drug case. 

Paying a price?

His supporters believe he is a victim of political vendetta. The actor is paying a price only for being a Muslim, they say. Discussing the idea of ‘Muslimness’, Bamzai writes “the three Khans are at pains to show they are a product of their class rather than their religion.”

Circumstances have forced the actors to often explain what India means to them, observes the author. “I am Hindu and Muslim both, I am Bharatiya,” Salman had said in court during his blackbuck poaching case in 2017. While this sounds like a desperate attempt from the controversial star to champion his Indianness, Aamir’s words in a 1998 interview sound rational. Talking about his then-wife Reena, he says, “We both come from cosmopolitan backgrounds. Neither Reena nor I hail from ‘Hindu’ or ‘Muslim’ ghettos respectively.”

The Khans have faced the wrath of politicians and religious groups as India battles accusations of being an intolerant nation. Perhaps that explains their hesitancy to play Muslim characters on screen, reasons the author. The book’s major problem is how it repeatedly talks about the three Khans redefining the idea of India. Her ignorance of South India, however, shines through.

People from the southern part of India largely consumed content — driven by superstars, and gifted filmmakers — in their language. Agreed, till the internet revolution, the non-Hindi speaking audience loved Bollywood’s obsession with extravagant song and dance.

That said, the vast cultural and intellectual differences meant South Indians weren’t easily influenced by the superficial idea of culture and nation depicted in grand Bollywood films.

That said, Bamzai’s narrative on the craft of the three Khans stands out with fine clarity. A year before a teenage Sachin Tendulkar caught the nation’s imagination, Aamir emerged as a youth icon with ‘Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak’ in 1988. With endearing performances in ‘Rangeela’ and ‘Ghulam’, he became a middle-class icon. As an established star, Aamir is hailed for making movies that mattered and invariably carried a message (‘3 Idiots’, ‘Taare Zameen Par’ and ‘Dangal’).

Shah Rukh’s life changed forever when he aced the anti-hero roles in ‘Baazigar’ and ‘Darr’. More than digging deep into his romantic hero image, Bamzai focuses on how Shah Rukh became the NRI hero.

With ‘Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge’, ‘Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham’ and ‘Swades’, Shah Rukh convinced the NRIs with his construction of Indianness, she notes. Bamzai says people enjoyed his level of comfort with western ways even while retaining his innate Indianness on screen.

The success of Shah Rukh and Aamir came on the back of melancholic stories of family sacrifices. Salman, however, was the quintessential rich, spoilt brat. Son of the famous screenwriter Salim, the actor became the hero of working-class men by connecting with their anxieties and lifestyles in ‘Tere Naam’, ‘Wanted’ and ‘Dabbang’.

Declining stardom

Calculated approach, perseverance and hard work explain the enduring legacy of the three Khans. They put Hindi cinema on the global map with ambitious projects. Bamzai doesn’t take a stand yet covers all the controversies that hounded the trio.

She is also straightforward about their declining relevance in cinema. The era of star appeal is all but over. Shah Rukh’s dynamism needs scripts that suit the current times. Salman, a natural in front of the camera, never took his career seriously. He is proud of being in Bollywood’s infamous ‘100 crore club’ with formulaic films. Aamir is better placed, courtesy his sharp script sense and disciplined approach to his characters.

Taking the ‘Baahubali’ films as an example, Bamzai argues that Bollywood cannot frequently produce magnum opuses because of its lack of work ethic for big-scale films. The success of Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Pankaj Tripathi has led to democratisation of talent in Bollywood which is generally slammed for promoting star culture in Bollywood.

Further challenging male stardom is the emergence of female superstars like Priyanka Chopra, Alia Bhatt, Deepika Paduokone and Kangana Ranaut. Bollywood and the Khans have also failed to compete with South Indian films in generating quality content on streaming platforms.

In today’s India, the biggest superstar isn’t a Bollywood actor. He is the nation’s prime minister, Narendra Modi. “Those who supported the government have been rewarded in various ways,” she says, adding that the big names of Bollywood refrain from coming across as being anti-establishment.

Aamir once cared to take a stand on social issues but prefers to remain silent today. He isn’t the same Shah Rukh, who once took on mighty politician Amar Singh by saying, “If you scare me by saying you will harm me, I will get scared, because if I die, who will look after my children? But if you threaten my children, I will not be in self-preservation mode.” 

Some stories in the book have already been said before. But ‘The Three Khans and the Emergence of New India’ is always interesting and never boring.

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