It's time for the three Khans to make away for a new kind of hero

They are all now 56, they have reigned over Bollywood for the past three decades and have acted as heroes in a staggering 275 and odd films but it's time for change, writes Khalid Mohamed

The Khan triumvirate- Shah Rukh, Salman & Aamir (L-R)
The Khan triumvirate- Shah Rukh, Salman & Aamir (L-R)

Khalid Mohamed

Once the charismatic trio, Dilip Kumar-Raj Kapoor-Dev Anand were the masters at their game, especially during the 1950s and ’60s. Then the Khans formed the presiding trinity – thanks to an unwavering secular-minded audience -- for well over three decades now, each one of them entering showbiz towards the end of the 1980s.

And frankly – but for Aamir Khan -- they’re no longer acting. They’re the bestselling brand names: They’re a habit, an addiction, perhaps like your favourite fragrances. You know what you’re about to get: not acting but the same ole Khan mannerisms mostly.

Yet even during the ongoing pandemic, Shah Rukh Khan’s Dilwale Dulhania..., Salman Khan’s Dabangg franchise and Aamir Khan’s Lagaan and 3 Idiots, have been among the most-watched golden oldies on the streaming channels. Akshay Kumar is about the only one who has struck up a loyal viewership, in the meanwhile, but that’s essentially for his freshly produced batch of films.

To rewind, it took over a decade for Amitabh Bachchan, as the avenging hero, to descend from the top rung of the charts. Before him there was the man of charm, with crinkly eyes and a killer smile, Rajesh Khanna, for whom the word ‘supertstar’ was coined. For good or bad, the Khans’ top position has seen a much longer shelf life.

Before the Khans entered the A-list, all of them were hangers-on, so to speak. Aamir Khan assisted his uncle director Nasir Husain and subsequently acted in the unconventional, quasi-experimental Raakh as well as Holi.

Salman Khan modelled, assisted director Shashilal Nair (not too happily) and was a mere side-plate in Biwi Ho To Aisi. As for Shah Rukh Khan, he was the small screen Fauji and Circus boy. On the screen, he showed up in a variety of films, be it Kundan Shah’s Kabhi Hanh Kabhi Na and Mani Kaul’s labyrinthine adaptation of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot.

There was that much-awaited turn of fortunes for Aamir Khan as the dreamy Romeo of Qayamat se Qayamat Tak (1988), Salman Khan as the besotted romantic of Maine Pyaar Kiya (1989), and Shah Rukh Khan as the bike-riding lover boy of Deewana (1992).

Aamir and Salman originated from film families, Shah Rukh Khan was the New Delhi outsider who made up for his lack of immediate connections with the attention he had attracted on Doordarshan serials. Besides that, there’s another common point—none of them is tall in height.

Come to think of it, each Khan is a rebuttal of the six-foot-plus tall Angry Young Man persona of Bachchan which had bossed over the nation, before the three young romantics asserted that it’s love -- and not rage --which makes the world go round. They wooed their heroines obsessively, lip-synced to melody-friendly songs and wore costumes which suggested as if they were on casual leave from office. And most vitally, they were in their 20s when they connected with the nation’s, ishqvishq-pyaar-vaar-deprived audience.

Today they are all aged 56. Born on March 14 1965, Aamir Khan is the eldest by a few months. Shah Rukh’s birth date is November 2, and Salman’s December 27 respectively. Currently, all of them are playing characters of indeterminate age, opposite way younger heroines, oftentimes affirming the traditional Bollywood dictum that even at middle age heroes can discover the initial flush of love.

Of the trio, Aamir Khan does have that Peter Pan quality; he can be overwhelmingly credible even in the roles of a fresh MBA graduate in DilChahta Hai or the campus smarty in 3 Idiots. By contrast, when he buffs up his body to portray a mean vendetta machine in Ghajini, the viewer does have to suspend that sense of disbelief. That he can’t carry off a garbled script and does make wrong choices was confirmed by the disastrous Thugs of Hindostan (2018). Since then, he has been producing and acting in Laal Singh Chaddha, an acknowledged remake of Forrest Gump.

Among the Khans, Aamir has the lowest score of approximately 60 films. It goes without saying that he is an intelligent actor. Still, you can’t help hoping he would let himself go, just open up without second thoughts before the camera. On the upside, his fastidiousness can be interpreted as a sense of responsibility to the audience. As a film producer Taare Zameen Par, Peepli Live, Dhobi Ghatand Dangal, took the risk of ignoring formulaic rules and regulations.

Once, it used to rain surprises in Shah Rukh Khan’s backyard. His uncontrollable-energy, balletic body language and stuttering dialogue has given him a distinctive appeal through a mixed bag of over 100 films. If Aamir Khan’s voice, dialogue delivery and diction have been seductively low-key, SRK’s have been disturbing. And if AK’s sunshine smile was a mannerism that his fans demanded consistently, SRK’s toss of shampoo-silk hair, a raise of those diabolical Jack Nicholsonlike eyebrows, deep dimples and a pout of lips became his identifying characteristics. More than any other actor of his generation, he relished risks, caring a damn about the good-guy image by investing a psychotic edge to Baazigar, Darr and Anjaam.

SRK could be double-faced, two personaefor-the-price-of-one ticket. Striking menace to begin with, he became the nice fella, the coolkid-next-door with a concatenation of terrific performances in Kabhi Hanh Kabhi Na, Yes Boss, Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman and of course, the pitamah of all romances Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge. The nasty stalker had been tamed, he wanted to be loved by everyone from his potential in-laws to Billoo Barber.

SRK attained superstardom, sprinting ahead of the two other Khans for a while. Occasionally there could be an edgy Dil Se or Josh but for the most part, he became stereotyped as the lovey dovey dude Rahul in the candy box movies of Yash and Aditya Chopra and Karan Johar. Delicious but the star-actor’s career appeared to be veering towards the diabetic. Subsequently, he took on the Devdas role incarnated memorably by Dilip Kumar earlier, and Don which was walloped out by Amitabh Bachchan in his prime. Yet the best were still to come and auspiciously they did: Swades and Chak de India showcasing SRK without a tick of his patented mannerisms.

An intuitive actor, SRK’s strengths have been his spontaneity and whooshing energy. Also, he uses his eyes expressively. His weaknesses are to over-illustrate his character (a pout to indicate displeasure, a fling of his arms to underscore rapture, and an unpunctuated ha-ha-ha to denote amusement).

Also, SRK’s overexposure through ad endorsements (even plugging ‘paan masala’ and involvement in IPL, have made him scarcely rock the screen. Rab ne Bana Di Jodi, Dilwale, Chennai Express (but for the famed ‘lungi’ dance) Raees, Jab Harry Met Sejal and Zero were just not in his league. No acting batteries required.Moreover, whenever an actor surrounds himself with a wah-wah-you’re-too-good durbar, the signs are ominous. Didn’t Rajesh Khanna kick himself out of the market by speeding through the same route?

The third Khan – at this point of time – Salman is the most good-looking and marketable of the trio. Looks? Yes, that traditional attribute does count significantly with the audience. Besides that, he’s uber casual, tossing off performances effortlessly without taking himself too seriously -- epitomised fulsomely in the Dabangg series, Ek Tha Tiger franchise, Bajrangi Bhaijaan and Sultan (Ready, Kick,Jai Ho, Tubelight and Antim have perished from the mind though). He dances loonily (fiddling with the belt to be sexually suggestive), he displays his gym-sculpted body and laughs at himself while bashing up the baddies ten times his size.

Indeed, at the moment the actor is to popular cinema what raw stock is to camera. He can romance, flay fists of fury and tickle the audience’s funny bone with his feather-light comedy (evidenced best of all in Andaz Apna Apna). Perhaps it’s best to let Salman Khan remain brattish, likeable, cool, moody. Because that’s when he acts naturally. He’s acted in approximately 117 films, he’s been written off several times and assailed by ceaseless controversies. Yet he has survived and is smiling wider than any of the other Khans of showbiz.

The Khans, all have TV shows on their bio-data too: Shah Rukh Khan (Kaun Banega Crorepati, unfavourably compared to Amitabh Bachchan’s), Aamir Khan (Satyamev Jayate) and Salman Khan (Bigg Boss).

In the second decade of the millennium, an actor who embodies the altered conditions may just be lurking around the corner to dislodge them. An actor who mirrors the zeitgeist of the here and now is anticipated. Actors who harvest weekend bumper crops at the box-office, whatever the quality of their films, continue to be loved and deified, yes. But fame and adulation are fickle, which can evaporate without a warning.

If you ask me, I think we need a new kind of iconic hero. He could be a rank newcomer or he could be Ranbir Kapoor, the most charismatic and accomplished actor of his generation, much younger than the Khans and with a fan base which is fast ballooning. Hrithik Roshan has what it takes too, to emerge in the forefront.

Once you thought Bachchan would be the one and only...didn’t you? Similarly, the Khans still call the shots in the trade, but could do with the realisation that a new hero, who will re-echo the mantra of inclusiveness in sync with the 2020s, is being sorely missed.

The same ‘ole won’t do – forever.

(This article was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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Published: 10 Jan 2022, 11:30 AM