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The three Khans and all our yesterdays

Kaveree Bamzai’s book 'The Three Khans' chronicles the careers and the cultural impact of Aamir, Shah Rukh and Salman Khan

(from left) Shah Rukh Khan, Salman Khan and Aamir Khan at the 21st anniversary celebrations of 'Aap Ki Adalat'
(from left) Shah Rukh Khan, Salman Khan and Aamir Khan at the 21st anniversary celebrations of 'Aap Ki Adalat'

A book on the Khans was inevitable, but why now? Salman, Aamir and Shah Rukh started out at the end of the 1980s and were kings of Bollywood by the early- to mid-1990s. They are still major stars even if less of a collective cultural force than they were in the ‘90s and 2000s. Kaveree Bamzai says she wrote The Three Khans And The Emergence Of New India because she lived through the same period as her subjects, and had met them several times over the years. What’s implicit in this innocuous reason is the suggestion that those times are now past, that Bamzai comes to praise the Khans but also bury them.

The Three Khans (Westland, 599) takes us through 30 years of Hindi cinema, alternating between the trio’s films and personal lives and sometimes zooming out for a look at the nation. Divided by time period, it proceeds chronologically, methodically. Bamzai, a journalist and former editor of India Today, writes that the book is “my own observations, that of (the Khans’) friends and co-workers, and their own words chronicled over the years in reams of magazine pages”.

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The portraits that emerge are detailed, though not very different from the impressions one already has of the individual Khans. Shah Rukh is the self-aware, mercurial one. Salman is referred to as a “man-child” thrice. Aamir gets four variations on “thoughtful” and six on “perfectionist”. Bamzai doesn't seem to have spoken to the Khans exclusively for the book, nor do there appear to be many new interviews conducted with others. The broad details of the stories would be familiar to proper Bollywood fans, though the placement in a Khan-focused narrative helps the reader appreciate just how central the three of them were in shaping the Hindi cinema—and India—of the last three decades.

In seemingly digging up every single thing said about the Khans, Bamzai provides a granular view of their careers. Yet, the context that might situate this is often missing. There is a lot of detail about what was going on in India at any given time but the links back to the Khans are tenuous (a discussion about their films circa 1990 segues into four pages on former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi). Bamzai does cover some of the larger changes in the industry: the impact of multiplexes, the toeing of the government line by today’s stars, OTT’s role in shaking up the establishment. But other important changes are ignored or mentioned in passing: the indie boom of the late 1990s, the rise of a new Middle Cinema. She mentions the rise of the historical film but dismisses them as “costume balls”, which ignores both their wild success and their hardline, often bigoted outlooks. There’s no analysis of why the highest-rated directors of the last two decades—Zoya Akhtar, Sriram Raghavan, Vishal Bhardwaj, Anurag Kashyap—have not worked with the Khans.

Often, Bamzai relies on another critic, academic or journalist to supply an opinion on a film. In the first chapter, she quotes writer Aysha Iqbal Viswamohan saying Aamir Khan in Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak (1988) was not a hero in the mould of Jackie Shroff or Sanjay Dutt—something I, then five years old, might have been able to venture. She then quotes Jyotika Virdi and Gautam Chintamani on the same film. A little later, Ashish Rajadhyaksha is quoted on Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge’s “unproblematic subsumption of feudal patriarchy into postmodern globalization”. In a country where the quantum of film knowledge and the confidence of opinions offered on it have no relation, this is a strange reticence.

Bamzai’s observations, when they come, are often perceptive and withering. It’s thus difficult to come to terms with why there are so many other voices, often saying things she would have expressed better herself. On page 16, six authors are cited in four lines, all to say that Hindi cinema has been shaped by “Muslim influences” but that there has been an othering of Muslims over the years. Jessica Hines is drafted in to say that Aamir Khan’s acting isn’t naturalistic; she compares him to Simon Callow and Donald Sinden, so then Bamzai has to explain who they are. This is especially a problem when there’s a contentious opinion—like Zero being described by Kaushik Bhaumik as one of the “most moving films about cinema ever imagined”. Since Bamzai offers no take of her own on the film, one can only assume she agrees.

The Three Khans gave me the feeling of watching an Asif Kapadia documentary: one testimony after another, barrelling through the minutiae of a life without the help of the usual signposts. Bamzai has certainly cast her net wide; some of the chapters seem to offer an almost month-by-month account of what was going on in the trio’s lives. This is a lot of Khan for your buck, even if some of the details are unnecessarily specific (when Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham showed on German television, we are told, it “got an audience share of over 12.3 per cent among the target group of 14- to 49-year-olds”).

Also read: If I’m not happy, then nobody is happy: Shah Rukh Khan

Bamzai gives the Khans the cold shoulder in the last chapter. After saying they have “degenerated into weaker versions of themselves”—again, a quote, so we will assume she endorses it—six full pages go by before we read about them again. She writes about how actors like Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Jaideep Ahlawat are becoming non-traditional leads in the streaming era. This is true, and relevant, though a pertinent aside might have been how adeptly these character actors have upstaged the Khans in their own films. (Siddiqui has the distinction of having done it to all three—Salman’s Bajrangi Bhaijaan, Shah Rukh’s Raees and Aamir’s Talaash.) Bamzai then dedicates eight pages to Ayushmann Khurrana and Ranveer Singh.

The Khans’ absence in the last chapter in a book dedicated to them is telling. Bamzai may end by saying “India and the world aren’t done with them yet”, but, as she correctly diagnoses, only Aamir, with his penchant for reinvention, has a good chance of remaining a vital actor. Thirty years have passed, which means those who grew up with the Khans now have children who will want to discover their own idols. They will be told stories of a time when three actors, so different from each other yet fused together in the public imagination, drew and redrew the boundaries of Hindi cinema.

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