Thought Box

The Khan Syndrome: Are we ready for a New Kind of Hero?

The Khan Syndrome: Are we ready for a New Kind of Hero?

by Khalid Mohamed July 31 2018, 4:27 pm Estimated Reading Time: 15 mins, 4 secs

Admit it. We all need a hero - someone whom we can look up to, admire and believe that he represents the zeitgeist of the present-day conditions. Be it in the spheres of politics, sport, science or cinema.

In cinema, the inspiring hero has been the prerogative of the male since the medium was invented. Occasionally when the focus is on the woman, the genre has been patronisingly called “women centric” and quite hilariously “ladies’ picture”.

Vis-à-vis politics, there has been timeless tumult. The question recurs: Will the prime authority of the nation, return to power after being voted in by a public mandate for a five-year term?

Mrs Indira Gandhi, to date, has been the only one who bucked the male syndrome in post-Independent India. Other Prime Ministers, whether from the Congress or its opponents, have been of a variable quality, ranging from the well-meaning to the questionably divisive.

In sport, cricket especially, there have been stars – Sachin Tendulkar for one – who’re venerated across the sub-continent. Incidentally if Imran Khan has emerged as the Prime Minister of Pakistan, the bemused global buzz can’t get over the unprecendeted ascent of a former playboy.

To cut to the movie chase, Indian cinema has yielded heroes ranging from perfectionists and the charismatic to the accidental. They have amassed staggering fan followings; the ticket-buying public which can see their deities do no wrong. In southern India, popular actors have risen to become chief ministers who established a deity-like status. In Mumbai-produced cinema, actors – both male and female – have made forays into politics, albeit with only a few like, Shabana Azmi and to a degree Jaya Bachchan, who have articulated their voices and concerns impactfully in Parliament.

As actors principally, Bollywood stars continue to be in a status quo. The lead is formed by the Khan trio – Salman, Shah Rukh and Aamir - each one of whom entered the showbiz akhada towards the end of the 1980s.

They’re bestselling brand names. The Khans are a habit, an addiction perhaps like your favourite fragrances, toothpastes and soaps. You know what you’re about to get.

Before them, it had taken over a decade for Amitabh Bachchan, the raging bull of an avenging hero, to climb up to the top rung of the charts. Pre-Bachchan, there was the man of charm, crinkly eyes and a killer smile, Rajesh Khanna, for whom the word ‘superstar’ was coined.

Earlier, of course, there was the best – in all senses of the word – the trinity Mumbai-produced cinema has ever known. Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand and Raj Kapoor ruled during the 1950s and ‘60s. Unarguably, Dilip saab is the most modernistic and memorable thespian of Mumbai’s cinema.

For good or bad, the Khans’ top position has seen a longer shelf life. Aamir kicked off with an enormously successful love story, Salman fretted around the same time in a Rekha-dominated domestic shampoo, and Shah Rukh initially made whoopee on the then-rapidly developing domain of national television.

Coincidentally, the three Khans lingered on the margins before striking popularity platinum. Aamir Khan the dreamy Romeo of Qayamat se Qayamat Tak (1988), Salman Khan the besotted romantic of Maine Pyaar Kiya (1989), and Shah Rukh Khan the bike-riding lover boy of Deewana (1992) flitted like moths to the showbiz flame. Before they entered the A-list, all of them were hangers-on, so to speak.

Aamir Khan assisted his uncle producer-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, it seems) 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 35 mm screen, he showed up in a variety of films, be it Kundan Shah’s Kabhi Haan Kabhi Na and Mani Kaul’s labyrinthine adaptation of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. Formally, the beginnings of the three Khans in Film Town could be described as a ‘struggle’, though not in the traditional Amitabh Bachchanesque mode of, “I had to sleep on a Marine Drive bench and eat channas for dinner.”

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 attracted on Doordarshan serials. Apart from that, there’s another point common between the three Khans - none of them is tall.

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 its love - and not rage - which makes the world goes round.

Come together -that 'teen' spirit

The Khans 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 to the nation’s, ishq-vishq-pyaar-vaar-deprived audience. Today, age-wise they are all on the right side of their 50s.

Born in 1965, Aamir Khan is the eldest by a few months, and brought in his 53rd birthday on March 14. Shah Rukh will turn 53 on November 2 and Salman on December 27. Currently, all of them are playing characters of indeterminate age, oftentimes affirming the traditional Bollywood dictum that even at middle-age heroes can discover the incipient flush of love. Like Salman Khan can go goggle-eyed on seeing Sonakshi Sinha in Dabangg. Katrina Kaif, Kareena Kapoor, Jacqueline Fernandes, he has wooed and won them all.

Aamir Khan goes ape over Kareena Kapoor in 3 Idiots and Katrina Kaif in Dhoom 3. Ditto Shah Rukh Khan, as the mousy clerk who flips over Anushka Sharma in Rab ne Bana di Jodi and Mahira Khan in Raees, not to forget Deepika Padukone in Om Shanti Om-plus-Chennai Express. A joke is cracked about SRK’s age in Chennai Express. So, okay it has been duly acknowledged. Tee hee.  

Obviously heroes, 50-plus-year-old lover boys, are still acceptable to the public mind. In fact, of the trio, Aamir Khan appears to have that Peter Pan quality; he can be overwhelmingly credible even in the roles of a fresh MBA graduate in Dil Chahta Hai,  the campus smarty in 3 Idiots and the alien from nowhere in PK.

By contrast, when he buffs up his body to portray a mean vendetta machine in Ghajini, he may look the part but the viewer does have to suspend that sense of disbelief. Physically-explosive heroism is not his best suit, never mind the huge box-office receipts of the gore-spilling take on Hollywood’s temporary memory loss cult flick Memento, and then in Dhoom 3 whose final scene is the last word in unintended hilarity.  

Getting into the act - Aamir Khan

Aamir Khan’s primary strength is his boyishness - allied with the compulsion to do the right thing (read perfectionism, as written in his one-man dictionary). Alas, there’s self-righteousness instead of madness in his method. As an actor, he’s self-directed and not the director’s delight at all. Motivation, ‘why-am-I-doing-this-and-why-am-I-doing-it-like-that?’, and self-consciousness about his image, are elements which may make for a good actor, but not a great one. Which is why, although he has followed the principle of selecting handpicked films, he cannot achieve the stature of the eternal artiste Dilip Kumar.

Among the Khans, he has the lowest score of approximately 45 films. It goes without saying that he is an intelligent actor. Still, you cannot help hoping he would let himself go, just open up without a second thought before the camera. On the upside, his fastidiousness can be interpreted as a sense of responsibility to the audience.

If the unchecked violence of Ghajini, the superficial terrorism dialectics of Fanaa and revenge hi-jinks of Dhoom 3 have been disturbing, laurel leaves are called for his impressive performances in Lagaan, Sarfarosh, Rang de Basanti and Dangal which stirred the spirit of nationalism, and for Taare Zameen Par, which sought to remove the bias against dyslexic children.

In addition, as a film producer of Peepli Live, Dhobi Ghat, Delhi Belly and Secret Superstar, he has taken the risk of backing away from the formula rules and regulations.

The Aamir Khan who is loved is still the Aamir Khan of the entertainers QSQT, Dil Hai Ke Maanta Nahin, Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar, Hum Hain Rahi Pyaar Ke, Andaz Apna Apna, Rangeela, Ghulam and Raja Hindustani.

Like all actors he has had his bloomers too. Random examples: Tum Mere Ho (a snake madari adventure!), Daulat ki Jung, Baazi, Aatank hi Aatank and Mela. Today, Aamir Khan is equated with superior quality cinema. If there’s a task before him now, it is to push the proverbial envelope further, to take your breath away as an actor, and become more instinctive than studied before the eye of the camera.

Once, it used to rain surprises in Shah Rukh Khan’s backyard. His uncontrollable-energy, balletic body language and stuttering dialogue have given him a distinctive appeal. If Aamir Khan’s voice, dialogue delivery and diction have been seductively low-key, SRK’s have been provocatively free-form.

And if AK’s sunshine smile was a mannerism that his fans demanded consistently, SRK’s toss of silken hair, a raise of those diabolical Jack Nicholson-like eyebrows, deep dimples and a pout of lips became his identifying characteristics. For a brief phase, he relished risks, caring a damn about the good-guy image by investing a psychotic edge to Baazigar, Darr and Anjaam. A similar ruse in Fan just didn’t match up.

Heartbreakingly sweet on the one hand and intolerably bitter on the other, SRK could be schizoid, two personae-for-the-price-of-one ticket. Striking menace to begin with, he became the good fella, the cool-kid-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 the actor with a heart in Billoo Barber or the somewhat whitewashed mafia don of Raees.

SRK attained super-stardom, 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 Chopra and Karan Johar.

Delicious, but the star-actor’s career appeared to be veering towards the diabetic.  Subsequently, SRK took on the Devdas role incarnated memorably by Dilip Kumar earlier, and Don which was walloped out by Amitabh Bachchan in his prime. Both Devdas and Don saw SRK in form but for sure the best were still to come... and auspiciously they did: Swades and Chak de India showcasing SRK without a tick of his patented mannerisms.

Hands on - Shah Rukh Khan

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 unpunctuared ha-ha-ha to denote amusement). Another failing: he cannot determine what a purposeful film is and what is not. After Paheli, he badmouths smaller cinema, - not his scene, okay okay, we get it - and doesn’t speak too kindly of Mani Kaul’s Idiot either.

That’s where Aamir Khan scores above SRK today. Aamir can distinguish between cinema of substance and cinema of fluff. Also, SRK’s overexposure through ad endorsements (even plugging furniture upholstery for heaven’s sake) and involvement in IPL have made him scarcely visible on screen. Rab ne Bana Di Jodi was half-likeable. Ditto My Name is Khan, nobly-intentioned but haphazard.

With the special effects-coated Ra.One and Don 2, the star – didn’t play his cards right at all.  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?

And to think there was a point when SRK’s turnips – Guddu, English Babu Desi Mem, Army, One Two ka Four, Trimurti – didn’t affect his star status at all. Today, his baiters are awaiting that one dud to bury him. Chennai Express, a thorough mishmash, served the purpose of rescuing him. Lungi dance ho! Also, you can’t help wondering why SRK has never teamed up with his Baazigar duo Abbas-Mustan again after Badshah? Could it be because they don’t fit into the profile of his durbar?  

The third Khan – at this point of time, the hottest Khan – Salman is the most good-looking and muscle-endowed of the trio. Looks? Yes, that traditional attribute does count significantly with the audience. Besides that, he’s uber casual, tossing off performances  without taking himself too seriously - epitomised fulsomely in the Dabangg and Ek Tha Tiger series, Bajrangi Bhaijaan and Sultan (Ready, Kick, Jai Ho, Tubelight and Race 3 have perished from the mind). He dances loonily -- for instance, fiddling with the belt to be sexually suggestive -- he displays his buffed-up body and laughs at himself, a la Rajinikanth, while bashing up a bunch of baddies ten times his size.

Salman Khan could have been an all-rounder, but for his unpredictable behaviour which flows from his real life attitude to his screen performances. Frequently, you detect that his dance moves as well as his dramatic pitch are merely of the moment.

His dialogue dubbing is careless, and his low-octave voice barely rises to that key pitch of intensity. One of a kind, Salman seems to be astonished by his own appeal. That’s his saving grace actually. Without this element, his performances could have lapsed into the pits of hopeless arrogance.

Prem is his second name, assigned to him by Sooraj Barjatya, a director whose mentorship he appears to respect. No wonder, Maine Pyar Kiya and Hum Aapke Hain Koun..! are Salman Khan’s most charm-oozing performances yet. In Prem Ratan Dhan Paayo, the charm appeared to have dated.

With Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Salman was under control in Khamoshi: The Musical and Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (his guest appearance in the director’s Saawariya was vapid though).

To David Dhawan’s brain-bending comedies like Judwaa, Biwi No. 1 and Partner, he has contributed unbridled zaniness. In Prabhu Deva’s Wanted, he was the invulnerable man of action a la like the southern superstars, and in Satish Kaushik’s Tere Naam, a weirdly hairstyled Majnu gone unhinged.

Look no further - Salman Khan

Clearly, at the moment Salman Khan is still 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).

Sorrily, when it comes to transmitting sobriety and seriousness – as in Love, Phir Milenge, Kyon Ki and Mr aur Mrs Khanna – he is ill at ease. Moreover, his choice of films has been chaotic. Take Auzar, Hello Brother, God Tussi Great Ho and Veer. Whatever happened there?

Perhaps it’s best to let Salman Khan remain brattish, likeable, cool, and moody. Because that’s when he acts naturally. At this juncture, he is in a position to take his career and acting skills wherever he wants to. Time’s stood still for him.

His films, targeted as Eid attractions, are bound to get that magic weekend crowds. 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.

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

Reign on - Aamir, Shah Rukh and Salman Khan

To rope in any one of the trio is a filmmaker’s dream come true, instantly commanding saleability at astronomical prices in the market. How long this will go on yawn, is anybody’s guess. Like it or not, they are prisoners of their own images.

Moreover, in the second decade of the new 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 veneraterd, yes. But fame and adulation are fickle, which can evaporate without a warning.

If you ask me, we need a new kind of iconic hero now. He could be Ranbir Kapoor – whose equity has rocketed with Sanju – at the age of 35 the most charismatic and accomplished actor of his generation. Hrithik Roshan has what it takes too, to emerge in the forefront.

There was a time when you thought Bachchan would be the one and only… didn’t you? Similarly, the Khans call the shots in the trade, but could do with the realisation that a new hero in sync with the 2010s is being sorely missed. The same ‘ole won’t do – forever.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The writers are solely responsible for any claims arising out of the contents of this article.