Seventy-five is a solid, statesman-like age, a been-there-done-that sort of age, an age where you are supposed to know your place in the world and not try to learn new tricks. Our grand nation, one must admit, doesn’t quite seem to be acting as old as it is. As independent India turns 75 this week, it feels like a good time to look at three specific Indians—all turning 57 in 2022—who have, over the years, become rather adept at not acting their age. Perhaps there are lessons to learn.
Aamir Khan turned 57 in March, Shah Rukh Khan will in November and Salman Khan in December. Fifty-seven, in movie-star years, is a rather significant age. (For context: Amitabh Bachchan was 57 when he did Sooryavansham.)
They are, in many ways, the last of Hindi cinema’s Mohicans, the last to see the mile-long queues for tickets, with films running for weeks and months—even years—and not mere opening weekends. It is, however, a shaky time for the trio. Hindi movies are routinely opening to empty theatres. Merely being a star doesn’t seem to be enough any more—which may be a good thing when it comes to audiences demanding more satisfying stories, but it heralds an alarming instability for these performers who have carved their own legacies over more than three decades. Not only must they attempt to justify their (unjustifiable) price tags, they now find themselves consistently targeted by faceless trolls, irresponsibly lodged FIRs and selfie-loving officials.
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The nephew of a producer, the son of a screenwriter, and the outsider who made up his mind to conquer Hindi cinema. Aamir, Salman and Shah Rukh burst on to the scene with vitality and confidence, their appeal lying in their nonchalance, in the way they didn’t resemble other heroes of the time. Their heroism felt casual. In their breakout films—Aamir in Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak (now on Zee5) and Dil (now on Netflix), Salman in Maine Pyar Kiya (now on Amazon Prime) and Baaghi (now on Zee5), Shah Rukh in the television shows Fauji (now on Amazon Prime) and Circus, before the films Deewana and Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman (both now on Amazon Prime)—the Khans are goofy and delightful, revelling in their own youth, three boys who can’t believe they are getting to monkey around in front of a camera..
Even from those early efforts, it is clear each of them unquestionably had what is called “it”. They met the Hindi cinema brief: They could all hold emotional moments, glare hard at villains, look pleasant in sweatshirts, and, when taking hold of a girl’s wrist, make it look like the world is about to end. Yet what hits me most about those raw efforts isn’t competence, or even charm, but the sheer, maddeningly infectious joy of three young lads born to perform. Their energy is irrepressible.
They created their own trajectories. Salman, the pretty one, became simultaneously the most domesticated and the most brawny, the one with the most illogical and impassioned fans; the naturally gifted Aamir played up the breeziness before switching to intense performance-heavy roles, branding himself as the Actor; Shah Rukh made his mark as an antihero before making the women swoon, all while keeping one foot in parallel cinema, alternating mega-commercial films with incredibly arthouse ones. They competed hard, casually borrowed from each other’s playbooks—Shah Rukh got his trademark arms-wide-open pose from Aamir in Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikander, for instance, just like Salman decided to remake south Indian films after the success of Aamir’s Ghajini—and continue to keep each other on their toes.
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Their rise coming at a time when the word “secular” had not yet been labelled a pejorative, their Khan-ness was entirely incidental. Movies had always been their own religion. In the sparkling world of the silver screen, Yusuf Khan became Dilip Kumar and Dileep Kumar became A.R. Rahman—and both, incidentally, married women called Saira Banu. Religion never got in the way of fandom. Neither, to be fair, did nationality. In cricket, we grew up loving Imran Khan as much as we loved Kapil Dev..
This 75-year-old India, on the other hand, is significantly more insecure. Films are regularly boycotted for increasingly arbitrary reasons—like having a Hindu character as a villain—and this makes it easier to see just what a special time we have spent with these three Khans, with Raj and Prem and Raghu Jaitley, icons who tied instead of actors who divide.
Now, as the very idea of India is under threat, these three Indians must struggle to reposition themselves. They will make it, of course. They have come up the hard way, taken many a knock on the jaw, and if they could survive the insanely high-waisted trousers of the 1990s and still emerge as heroes, they will certainly be able to make it through this mucky time in our history. (I am less sure about India itself.)
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Over my years as a film critic, I have frequently been derided by fans—fans of each individual Khan—for lambasting their films, and while we should not at all let up and allow mediocrity in the name of support, we must also, in a way, root for these three icons who have, against all odds, become underdogs again.
Aamir, Shah Rukh and Salman have never done a film together. Yet this unlikely, inspiring, often bizarre narrative of their lives, taken together, reads like a script. These were Hindi cinema’s heroes during the liberalisation of the 1990s, and together they embody the idea of a younger, more optimistic India, an India open to new possibilities. Together they stand like characters in a Manmohan Desai film. With arms wide open.
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It is always worth revisiting Shah Rukh Khan’s offbeat attempts, and I would recommend Ketan Mehta’s uneven but ambitious 1995 satire Oh Darling Yeh Hai India! (Apple TV/Google Play) where characters speak in rhyme, everyone is corrupt, and the country is being auctioned off to the highest bidder. The film would be boycotted today.
Raja Sen is a film and TV critic, screenwriter and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.