Bollywood has been dominated by the three Khans for a while now and it would be useful to speculate about what each of them represents in social terms - since popular cinema is so closely followed by a public.
Bollywood is a ‘national cinema’ in the sense that mainstream Hindi films address people distributed across India, often not even conversant with the Hindi language
except for knowing a handful of words, which still enables them to understand the entire story - since it is so basic and undemanding. Hindi films address the social concerns/anxieties of this audience, which reflect those of the general public in India at any moment. Right now, patriotism is the ruling emotion because of the nation’s tensions with Pakistan (reflected in The Ghazi Attack, 2016). A few years ago, personal advancement by any means was the mantra and films like Bunty Aur Babli (2005) capitalized on that.
Film stars fill slots which make them vehicles to address the concerns of any moment. Shah Rukh Khan arrived when the Nehruvian political model was being abandoned and there was genuine anxiety over the nation’s moral fabric, and this is reflected in his anti-hero role in Baazigar (1993). When there was a feeling that tradition could become a moral stabilizer, his role in Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995) - where he plays a seemingly flippant boy who reveals that he respects tradition deeply - provided the appropriate kind of reassurance. When the concerns change stars need to re-invent themselves. Shah Rukh Khan’s roles of the new millennium (Om Shanti Om, 2007) rely shrewdly on the understanding that Indians were trying to come to terms with a new economic order with globalization and needed to be tentative. His self-mocking persona goes along well with the tentativeness of the global Indian in the early years of the new millennium.
With the socio-economic milieu becoming stable and people understanding where they stood, Shah Rukh Khan has not been able to reinvent himself again. His career may now be regarded as being in decline and one does not see a new hit coming from him. Raees (2017) tries to capitalise on his personal appeal, which was perhaps the only path left.
Aamir Khan is not really a star but an entrepreneur in entertainment who can do amusing turns in any role – even advertisements. He has reinvented himself so often – from the teenage lover in Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak (1988) to public crusader in the TV programme Satyamev Jayate (2012) – in which also he was playing a kind of ‘role’ – that it is difficult to say what he ‘is’. But one thing we can say is that he can jump boats readily to take advantage of any situation. After being anti-Narmada while promoting Fanaa (2006) and incurring Narendra Modi’s wrath, he saw the benefits of upholding personal aspiration (3 Idiots, 2009) when India’s growth story and ‘technological genius’ were rousing the public. Now he is riding on sports patriotism with Dangal (2016) just when patriotism is exciting the nation. A factor to be recognized is that he targets the English-knowing middle class, which is now the mainstay of a major part of Hindi cinema, a liberal class.
Salman Khan has also reinvented himself – beginning with young lover in Maine Pyar Kiya (1989) and going through various romantic avatars like the one in Hum Aapke Hain Koun (1993). But he can now – since Dabangg (2010) be identified with non-Anglophone India, which is now deeply divided from India of the metropolises. With the rise of the new economy and the perceived advantages of English-speakers as earners, Hindi cinema began targeting multiplexes where the clientele had greater spending power. Salman Khan in his new avatar targets non-Anglophone Indians and where ‘Anglophone’ Hindi cinema tries to be non-traditional as in 3 Idiots, he plays up issues like caste and feudal values like clan loyalties (Bodyguard, 2011). He also speaks Hindi with a rustic accent and tries to maintain his distance from English. The fact that he is so popular – the most popular Bollywood male star today – shows us that traditional audiences are very powerful in the box office – and that India’s global modernity is still shallow. Still, Tubelight demonstrated that Salman Khan’s career could also be at the crossroads.
The three Khans continue to dominate Hindi cinema and there is no replacement in sight. But there have been enormous changes in India in the past three years. For one thing, there is a perception that the traditionally weak State is becoming much stronger and this means that law-breakers like Bunty and Babli will not be celebrated. Hindi cinema is waiting for new kinds of heroes and only time will tell what kind will replace the Khans.
Text by MK Raghavendra
MK Raghavendra is a film/literary scholar, theorist, critic and writer. He contributes to numerous newspapers and periodicals in India and abroad, and has authored six books on Indian Cinema. He received the Swarna Kamal, the National Award for Best Film Critic in 1997.