The Khans at 50: How the Triumvirate Conquered Time and Convention
The Khans at 50: How the Triumvirate Conquered Time and Convention

Why a country made mostly of young people is still enamoured by the triumvirate of Shahrukh Khan, Aamir Khan and Salman Khan, each of whom is well past their sell-by date, going by Bollywood’s century old history.

I could see Shah Rukh Khan waving his hand in my direction, but was reasonably sure it wasn’t pointed at me. Just a few seconds ago, he’d already taken my case while I’d presented him a trophy on behalf of the Hindustan Times at the Film Producers’ Guild Award — one of those fake TV show prizes, “entertainer of the year” type of thing, that are instituted to keep both stars and sponsors happy. “Thanks for this Mayank, even though you don’t like my movies,” he’d said in his characteristic self-deprecating tone. And then he turned to face the audience, carrying on with a spiel that I could hear nothing of, because the voice was being projected toward the massive hall and I was standing right at the back.


Now was calling me up again. This time I could hear him better, as he pulled me to his side. “Aaya oonth pahad ke neeche. You don’t have to make movies, but you can criticise them,” he said. “Just doing a job,” I vaguely mumbled. “Repeat the dialogue after me,” he started. I parroted the first line (whatever it was from one of his movies), and while repeating the second, said “Mujhe ghar jaana hai (I want to go home).” The audience was his. They laughed (at me, I’m sure). For that brief moment, I felt a little awkward. A little later, I thought “What a graceless guy, I was just there to hand him a trophy.” I don’t know how much of this embarrassing episode played out on TV.


Later, when I was getting a drink with one of SRK’s close associates, I wondered aloud about why someone so earth-shatteringly famous and rich, who’s had the nation’s box-office figures dancing at his feet for two and half decades would care about one reviewer or review  (RA.One had released around then) in one newspaper, which like all other popular publications must have been adding to his gargantuan public image through full-page product ads, gossip, PR pap, event based ‘news stories’ and interviews on a daily basis anyway. This top employee from SRK’s company told me he’d never met anyone in his life who gave such a damn about being adored by absolutely everyone— it didn’t matter who. “It kills him if it’s any other way.”



“The thing about stars,” art patron Neville Tuli once told me in reference to Amitabh Bachchan, “is they know how to accept love from the public.” This relationship between the awestruck masses and the stars from another sky, most observers believe, is strangely and inexplicably cosmic. It’s hard to make complete sense of it. Besides that, the leading man in the movies is usually blessed with a comfortably photogenic face, which the camera is innately attracted to from all angles.


In 1926, the British government, for the first time, instituted a year-long survey on the workings of the theIndian film industry. Speaking before the commission, Dadasaheb Phalke, the father of Indian cinema (he had made the first Indian feature film, Raja Harishchandra) had listed for his British interviewers the ideal prerequisites of an Indian actor: Punjabi, upper class, Hindu,male, most suited, he said. This was in 1926-27, mind you.


Looking at the current and past crop since, Phalke had basically predicted a full post-Partition Punjabi pantheon in Bollywood, starting with Ranbir Kapoor (and three generations before him: Prithiviraj, Raj, Shashi, Shammi, Rishi, Randhir), and God knows how many other Kapoors (Jeetendra, Anil, Arjun, Kunal), Roshans (Hrithik, father Rakesh), Deols (Dharmendra, sons Sunny and Bobby, nephew Abhay), Dhawans (Anil, Varun), Dutts (Sunil, son Sanjay), Chopras (Prem, Uday), Puris (Om, Madan, Amrish),  Ahujas (Govinda), Bhatias (Rajeev, who is Akshay Kumar), Aroras (Vijay), Anands (Dev), Malhotras (Siddharth), Devgans (Ajay), Khurranas (Ayushmann), Khannas (Vinod, Akshaye) and so forth. The list is evidently endless.


The Punjabi Rajesh (born Jatin) Khanna is widely considered India’s first “superstar”, mostly on the back of the 15 back-to-back ‘solo-hits’ he delivered as a lead actor. But his uninterrupted reign really lasted only three years, between 1969 and 1971. Amitabh Bachchan, half-Punjabi himself, took over from Khanna in the mid-70s as the longest serving superstar (at 70-plus, he continues to do lead roles).


Talent, voice, screen presence and Salim-Javed’s scripts apart, Bachchan’s takeover from Khanna is often attributed to his punctuality and professionalism. Bachchan was the perfect antithesis to the lackadaisical and late-lateef Khanna, a minor headache to his producers, who had to punt money on him nonetheless. They had little choice. Bollywood, by the 1970s, resembled a gambling den where the stock-in-trade was the movie star alone.


This star-system really emerged, with full gusto, in the early 1950s, with three actors with totally different personas and styles of film-making — two Punjabis again, Raj Kapoor and Dev Anand, and a Pathan, Dilip Kumar (born Yusuf Khan). The word ‘triumvirate’ is automatically keyed into a piece while referring to these three leading men, as if the much shorter ‘trio’ lacks heft. The weighty ‘triumvirate’ got used again in the case of three new actors from the 1990s onwards, who were all born in the same year (1965), bearing the same surname, Khan. They are, of course, Aamir, Shah Rukh and Salman. They stormed into the scene about a couple of years apart from each other, although their actual film debuts had been relatively tepid efforts.



Aamir debuted (as an adult actor at 18) with Subah Subah (1983), a film that never released in theatres. Shah Rukh first appeared in a television movie In Which Annie Gives It Those Ones (1989), in a bit role, where the Booker prizewinner Arundhati Roy had played the lead role in a script written by her. Salman debuted with Biwi Ho To Aisi (1988), in which Farooq Sheikh was the hero.


‘Last name Khan’ has almost been a natural synonym for a Bollywood lead actor since the trio’s success. There have been quite a few since, beginning with Saif (around the same time as the ‘triumvirate’) and several others — Irrfan, Imran, Arbaaz, Fardeen, Sohail and Zayed. Kamaal R Khan doesn’t count, sadly.


Much is made of how a nation with an 80 per cent Hindu population came to worship three Muslim heroes as screen-gods, when right before Partition, Yusuf Khan had to change his name to Dilip Kumar in order to fit in. There’s a lot of conjecture involved here. It isn’t clear that Dilip Kumar assumed a Hindu moniker to conceal a Muslim identity. The name was given to him by Devika Rani, who ran the studio Bombay Talkies after Himanshu Rai’s death. She had ordered Dilip his first film, Jwar Bhata (1944).


The Hindu Bengali Kumudlal Ganguly, another actor who had earlier also debuted with Bombay Talkies, was similarly made to assume the screen name Ashok Kumar. Other Hindu leading men, such as Harikrishna Goswami, Rajendra Kumar Tuli, Harihar Jariwala and Rajeev Bhatia (as mentioned before), were in the same way rechristened Manoj Kumar, Rajendra Kumar, Sanjeev Kumar and Akshay Kumar for the screen. Maybe adopting the casteless Kumar as an alias for film audiences was just a Bollywood thing to do.


Those who make the Hindu-Muslim argument around the Khans and the film world, usually in praise of the ‘secularism’ and ‘tolerance’ among movie-goers in a country otherwise divided along communal lines, are unable to appreciate how Indians have traditionally viewed Bollywood as a cultural and geographical state of its own. The liberalism in its approach to sex, love, foreplay, dress codes, music, lyrics and lives in general is seen as belonging to altogether another world. The prism through which audiences view characters on screen, and indeed “film people” through fanzines — whether single, dating in rotation, multiply married, or in caste and religion-blind relationships and marriages — is not the same lens they apply to judge their own family, friends or neighbours.


The ‘society secretary’ in Mumbai, who has an issue with allowing Muslim tenants in his building, could be a Shah Rukh Khan fan. The mother who may not approve of her daughter wearing short dresses or her son having girlfriends could be besotted by Kareena Kapoor or Salman Khan doing the same things in pictures or in public. Films and ‘filmis’ get a special celeb pass. They’re above normal prejudices — they’re simply loved more unconditionally. That’s the power of movies.


Salman is the son of Salim Khan, originally from Indore. Salim had first failed to make it as an actor, and then teamed up with Javed Akhtar to script some of the most commercially successful films of the 1970s. According to Salman, his father never saw any potential in him as a star. At any rate, he never put in a word for him. His logic to his son, or so Salman said, was that if he was really that good-looking or had it in him, some film-maker or the other, regularly visiting their family home, would have noticed him. Nobody had.



As the blockbuster writer’s son, Salman was happy to draft scripts himself in his late teens and pass them around, in case someone was interested in directing them. He was also modelling for brands, and had presented himself to Sooraj Barjatya, the young heir of Rajshri Productions, who was looking to cast for the lead role in his directorial debut. Barjatya wasn’t wholly impressed with Salman, who in turn recommended the names of his friends in case the 22-year-old director was willing to consider others instead. Taken in by his generosity, Barjatya said, he tested Salman again for the main part and finally offered him the rich-boy-poor-girl formulaic romance, Maine Pyar Kiya.


Not too far across Bandra in Mumbai, young Aamir Khan had, around the same time, dropped out of college because he wished to be associated with films rather than waste his time learning commerce. His father, Tahir Hussain, was a producer, although not even remotely as successful as his uncle Nasir Hussain, who used to rule the scene of musicals in the 1960s. Aamir took up a part in a diploma film at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune, called Subah Subah (1983), before starring in Ketan Mehta’s Holi (1984), also shot on the FTII campus, and assisting uncle Nasir on the movie Manzil Manzil (1984).


Mansoor Khan, Nasir Hussain’s son, who had also dropped out of several top universities including MIT and Cornell, was looking to direct a film and revive the family business with a major production. Aamir was already an actor in the family. Audiences didn’t know him yet. A massive teaser campaign was launched in Mumbai, with faceless hoardings across the city asking, “Who is Aamir Khan?” The final hoarding revealed the poster of Mansoor’s Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak (QSQT, 1988) on the Friday of the film’s release.


The campaign clearly worked. The movie, based on Romeo and Juliet, was instantly lapped up by the teenybopper crowd. It was subtle and relatively sophisticated in its sensibility, and quite unlike the rest of the garbage of 1980s Bollywood, widely considered its lowest point. Both QSQT and Maine Pyar Kiya (1989) reintroduced soft melody, or rather music, back into the desi musical. The actors were likeably young and fresh, as were the voices of the first-time directors. The movies changed the game for Bollywood towards the end of the decade, and Aamir and Salman were the overnight captains of this new game.


Of the three Khans, Shah Rukh’s career appears to be the one with a more definite trajectory. To start with, he was the only “outsider” — both to Mumbai and films. He graduated from theatre in Delhi (under Barry John) to television first, and was widely noticed as Lieutenant Abhimanyu Rai in the hit Doordarshan show Fauji. The art-house film-makers had already noticed him. He starred in Mani Kaul’s television mini-series Idiots (1992), based on Dostoevsky’s novel of the same name. Before moving to Mumbai, he told me, his friends in Delhi had asked him to simply touch the feet of the Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro director Kundan Shah and come back. He made his mainstream Bollywood debut appearing only in the second half of the film Deewana (1992), playing a street ruffian deeply interested in a young widow.


Romantic films were clearly launch pads for both Aamir and Salman, as is the case with most top actors. But it is Shah Rukh who more disruptively explored the genre, playing a murderous lover (Baazigar, 1993), a second-rate stalker (Anjaam, 1994) and a simpleton (Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman, 1992). His role in the biggie, Yash Chopra’s Darr (1993), as the obsessive lover (a role that Aamir had famously declined) gave him the public image of a romantic who would go to any lengths to get the girl he desires.



Aditya Chopra’s dream debut Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995) firmly established him as a Mills & Boon, impossibly perfect romantic lead in the Indian context. Of the three Khans, unsurprisingly, it is Shah Rukh who commands the maximum female following. It doesn’t matter what characters he may play henceforth. This is no different for, say, Ryan Gosling, who inspired a similarly devoted fan club through his incorrigibly female-fantasy part in The Notebook (2004). It hardly mattered what Gosling played thereafter. That’s the level of cosmically permanent bond that some actors forge with their dedicated fan-base, which is possibly why they are called stars. According to the Mumbai film industry folk, the star is arithmetically the lead actor with a captive audience, who can guarantee a certain footfall in theatres during the first weekend of the film’s release, regardless of the film’s content.


During the week that I wrote this piece, two big budget Bollywood movies opened in cinemas on the same weekend, one starring Shah Rukh (Dilwale) and the other with the much younger Ranveer Singh (Bajirao Mastani). Even a non-moviegoer, casually looking at the two films’ promos, could gauge that Bajirao would be a far superior film in its story-line, production design and performances. Yet, the fact that Dilwale would have almost twice the opening day collections of Bajirao (which it did) was a foregone conclusion for anyone who follows box-oce numbers. Shah Rukh had just walked into the film as himself, as had his fans into the theatres. Ranveer, a star in his own right of the current generation, had sequestered himself in a hotel room, shaved his head, gone through several rounds of look tests and attempted a mild Marathi twang to convincingly get into Bajirao’s character. Most young actors, often inspired by performances in quality cinema across quality cinema across the world that everybody is now exposed to, tend to put in that kind of work for their roles. They can’t take their audiences for granted any more.


Aamir has moulded himself along similar lines as a star. His fans walk into the theatre for him, no doubt, but they hope to leave the theatre recalling the character he played; there is pressure on him to pick good scripts. This has allowed him a crossover audience that may not watch typically star-driven Bollywood event pictures otherwise. It’s possibly the reason he’s at the top in box-oce (BO) terms. His films have consistently broken previous records: the first film to cross Rs 100 crore (Ghajini), 200 crore (3 Idiots), 250 crore (Dhoom:3) and 300 crore (PK).



Almost the entire credit for such BO figures usually goes to the lead actor, because he’s traditionally been central to the production process in the Indian film industry’s context. He consequently takes home almost half the film’s revenue. This propensity among the Indian public to fall for (or rather at the feet of) larger-than-life figures — something one notices in politics, too — could have something to do with our love for mythology. Cinema is a great tool to fashion god-like images. Shah Rukh (5’8”), Salman (5’7”) and Aamir (5’5”) peering at us from a gigantic screen look several times our size, and eortlessly command an awe-inspiring stature. Or maybe this idol-worship is natural to a society with a long history of domination through invasion, feudalism and a hereditarily hierarchal caste structure. Sociologists may have probed this deeper. We are probably programmed to look up. This religious outlook towards cinema is even stronger down south. Salman, in that sense, is a closer approximation of a South Indian superstar.



I WATCHED THE FIRST DAY, first show of his last film Prem Ratan Dhan Payo (directed by Sooraj Barjatya) at a single-screen theatre in Mumbai. The morning’s proceedings began with the movie’s main hoarding being garlanded, as audiences offered respect, bathing the billboard in milk. This is the scene we’ve heard about when the films of ‘Thailava’ (or Rajinikanth) open in theatres in Tamil Nadu. Thalaiva means ‘Leader’ or ‘Boss’, and Salman is likewise called ‘Bhai’ by his male groupies. The love or adulation reserved for film stars is expressed best through epithets attached to them. Bachchan is ‘Shahenshah’ or ‘Big B’. Rajesh Khanna was ‘Kaka’ (or baby-face, or a playful child, like Lord Krishna). Aamir, because he concentrates more on the quality of his films, is quite simply the ‘Perfectionist’. Shah Rukh is rather unassumingly ‘King Khan’ or ‘Badshah’.


Religion or hero-worship inevitably begets competition. What good is your god if it’s no better than the other’s? How strong is your faith if it isn’t defended against someone else’s? A friend of mine, who’s worked in the social media arm of both Tehelka and Filmfare magazines, tells me the two jobs in terms of demographics were roughly the same. The band of blind followers for politicians such as Narendra Modi (rubbished as ‘NaMo Bhakts’) or Arvind Kejriwal (disparagingly called ‘AAPtards’) were no different than devotees of Salman (‘Bhaitards’) or Shah Rukh (‘SRKians’), and others for that matter. You only have to type even a reasonable comment on Twitter on any of these demi-gods to watch their disciples virtually wallop you in daylight.


This ‘triumvirate’ turned 50 in 2015. They remain the nation’s top youth icons, which is slightly odd for a country where only 35 per cent of the population is over 35. Over the past two-odd decades, almost all the top grossing films every year have been shared between the three Khans. What gives? No knock on their obvious talent, and they’re truly multi-talented, no doubt. I suspect their perennial dominance has also much to do with timing, or to use the terrible cliché, “being at the right place at the right time”. They totally captured public imagination in the early 1990s, which coincided with the turning point for the Indian economy. The first obvious outcome of economic liberalisation, which began full steam 1991 onwards, was the explosion in the media industry.


From two to three channels on Doordarshan, there were more stations on Indian television than we could zap through, and almost all concentrated on entertainment. The eyeballs were already there. For the first time, we saw the leading stars of the time on music videos, news channels, entertainment pap shows and movie channels, right in our drawing rooms, peddling something or the other (and themselves) round-the-clock. As new, international products entered the Indian market, they needed strong local faces to sell brands that the masses couldn’t so easily identify with. You saw the same face in hoardings across small-towns and cities. The mainstream publications, also subsidised by the same advertisers, were forced to take popular entertainers more seriously. They brought in the money, and the masses.


The audience interacts with a star on the screen for no more than three hours when a film releases. The star becomes an omnipresent character, appearing everywhere else through the year — as if they also make films. The relentless reproduction of their image exponentially enhances their myth. The English-educated Shah Rukh, a middleclass middleclass fable of his own, with a stand-up comic’s wit at awards shows, print and television interviews, product launches, college lectures, YouTube videos and on internet memes, nearly became the face of this new quasi-capitalist India. From 2001 onwards, Bachchan, ever the astute competitor, wasn’t left behind.



The three Khans also unwittingly (or wittingly) played off each other. Salman took on Shah Rukh. Shah Rukh took on Aamir. Aamir retaliated. Salman was pacified. Shah Rukh took on Salman. It was as if there were no other actors worth the print. The Pied Pipers carried their following on to social media. It helped that their captive audiences didn’t wholly overlap either — Aamir tapped into the genuine, mainstream film bus; Shah Rukh’s core base were NRIs, the multiplex crowd and women; Salman was the messiah of the frontbencher, single screen, mostly male lot. His idea of a good film, Salman once told me, was one in which the audience flexed its muscles and felt like a bit of a hero while stepping out of the theatre. Age didn’t calm him. As the budgets dramatically increased, Salman’s films only began to look better. Akshay Kumar and Ajay Devgan, also well past their forties, latched on to the genre, reinventing themselves with how they had originally started — as massy action heroes.


However, the mall rats of new India (with multiplexes accounting for 65 per cent of a film’s revenues) expected more from their new actors. The space for Bollywood potboilers was already taken. The films starring Shah Rukh or Salman remain an unending nostalgia trip, playing at a theatre near you. They also open in theatres once a year, only heightening the excitement. If Ranbir Kapoor does a roadside tapori act in Besharam, his audiences barf; they flock to theatres to catch the slicker Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani. Likewise, if the young Arjun Kapoor attempts a Salman in Tevar, few care; they don’t mind him in 2 States, which is considered a “small film”, and by association he remains a “small star”. It’s a chicken-egg situation.


An entire film industry couldn’t survive on three huge hits in a year. Nobody knew this better than the old-time producer Manmohan Shetty (who’s not in the business of films any more, having sold his company to Reliance). Sometime in mid-2000, he had to wait forever outside Shah Rukh’s driveway for a meeting to sign the star up for a film. Disgusted, he left, and in desperation put in around Rs 30 crore on a sci-fi project (2050: A Love Story) with a newbie (Harman Baweja). The movie bombed spectacularly. There were few alternatives, though. Gradually, other top producers — Yash Raj (Aditya Chopra), Dharma (Karan Johar) — started investing heavily in new talent for lead roles, and so you see fresh faces on big posters: Ranveer Singh, Varun Dhawan, Sidharth Malhotra, Sushant Singh Rajput. They are still over 25 years behind their top competitors. It’s harder to find a crowd-pleasing script, or even suitably define that anymore, than take on the ‘triumvirate’. Importantly, these three Khans still care about what the audience thinks of them. I don’t think they’re going anywhere anytime soon.

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