The return of the Khans

But the question is for how long? In every major industry in the country, there is an old order that has sustained their stardom, but has slowly adapted themselves to suit their age. 

author_img Kaveree Bamzai Published :  15th January 2023 02:20 PM   |   Published :   |  15th January 2023 02:20 PM
SRK in a still from the newly released Pathaan

SRK in a still from the newly released Pathaan

With arms outstretched, shirt undone to display an impressive chest, and accessories out of a luxury catalogue (from a Cartier bracelet to Balenciaga shoes), against a shimmering Mediterranean Sea, Shah Rukh Khan is all set to reclaim Bollywood, his lost kingdom, after a four-year absence. A lot has happened to him and to India in the intervening years.

The BJP government returned to power at the Centre, a vicious social media hashtag #BoycottBollywood became routinely applied to everything that failed the stringent Hindutva test, from the colour of a bikini to the lyrics of a song, his son found himself embroiled in an engineered drug scandal, and a Covid-fatigued audience found itself addicted to originality and authenticity, with a southern accent.

Oddly enough, one of Shah Rukh's last biggest hits was in 2013, Chennai Express, a Hindi movie with a heavy southern accent, played for laughs rather than for genuineness by its female star, Deepika Padukone.

Shah Rukh leads a potential Khan resurgence in 2023, beginning the year with action director Siddharth Anand’s Pathaan, then starring in Tamil director Atlee’s Jawan in June, and rounding up the year with  Rajkumar Hirani’s Dunki. He’s a R&AW agent in Pathaan, an avenging angel in Jawan, and an illegal immigrant on a journey across the world in Dunki.

Also read: Shah Rukh Khan reacts to Atlee praising Pathaan trailer; calls him ‘King of mass’

At the Red Sea Film Festival in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, he showed no signs of wanting to go anywhere, saying he planned to do action films for the next decade. He explained the four-year break as a combination of waiting for his daughter to call him to New York to help her while she entered the acting school and the travel restrictions imposed by Covid-19.

“I had been working non-stop for 32 years, 18 hours a day. So I did the second best thing, learnt Italian cooking,” he joked.

His compatriot, Aamir Khan, seems to have retired hurt for now, announcing a break of a year at least to focus on his family, something he has been vocal about neglecting while being obsessed with his movie career. As he said at a summit in March 2022: “I was caring and loving towards my family, but spent all my energies in wooing the audience.  I took my family for granted. I went on this journey to win the hearts of people I didn’t know, ignoring those closest to me.”

Aamir was expected to ring in the new era of Khandom in 2022 with the much-anticipated release of Laal Singh Chaddha, a remake of the beloved Tom Hanks blockbuster Forrest Gump (1994). But the movie was a resounding flop, making Rs 130 crore on a budget of Rs 180 crore. Partly a victim of the BoycottBollywood movement (where a series of handles amplifies a social media trend) and partly a symptom of the smug assumption that audiences were not familiar with Forrest Gump, Laal Singh Chaddha is a warning to anyone who thinks Indian audiences are not picky when it comes to their stars.


Salman Khan in Kisi Ka Bhai Kisi
Ki Jaan

Salman Khan, in many ways, seems best engineered for this new era. He has the first-mover advantage in the action-hero stakes, having begun his reinvention in 2009 with Wanted, a remake of Telugu star Mahesh Babu’s Pokiri. Globally, action sustains stars longer than any other genre.

Exhibit A? Tom Cruise, all of 60, and still raring to thrill. But while Cruise pushed himself to deliver stunts that will take himself and his audiences to the edge of danger, Salman has increasingly become lazy in his action sequences. Will the last 30 minutes of Pathaan, where he makes his entry as Tiger, change that? He follows up his special appearance in Pathaan with Kisi Ka Bhai Kisi Ki Jaan and then the third instalment of Tiger later in the year.

His action persona has seen diminishing returns, with his last film in 2021, Radhe: Most Wanted Bhai, going straight to streaming. He has a loyal fanbase, almost like southern movie stars, but even they can have too much of Bhaijaan.

All three of them are 57 now. None of them has attempted an image change, with Aamir ageing in Dangal (2016) only to return to playing a college student in Laal Singh Chaddha.

Shah Rukh is borrowing liberally from his own past, from a bus sequence shot in Pathaan channelling the spirit of Chhaiyaan chhaiyan in Dil Se (1998) to the 2011 movie Don 2’s flowing hair and devil-may-care attitude. Salman’s attempt to align his image with that of Bharat in the 2019 film of the same name was also underwhelming, and its harking back to the glories of the Nehruvian era and Manmohan Singh’s smart negotiation of liberalisation was not something that fit the narrative of the current establishment.

Salman remains an eternal favourite on TV, hosting his 13th season of Bigg Boss, scolding contestants, flirting with the women who come to promote their movies on the show, and mock-admonishing the men. 

He is also still the first resort of every nubile lookalike of a previous girlfriend who wishes to be launched or relaunched in Bollywood. His birthday celebrations can bring traffic both outside Galaxy Apartments in Mumbai and on social media to a screeching stop.

Shah Rukh’s offscreen activities make as much noise as Salman’s, and when he speaks, which is now rarely, it makes national headlines. His recent speech at the Kolkata International Film Festival was scrutinised in such detail for its subtext that a far more comprehensive critique of the current establishment’s attitude towards the film industry by Amitabh Bachchan was almost ignored.

Shah Rukh’s global appeal, beyond the South Asian diaspora, in pockets of Europe where his romantic persona has won legions of women fans, has ensured that his films open well abroad. But the true test of a superstar is how devoted his homegrown audience is and how desperately it wants to see him. 
Is it hungry enough to overcome the clearly jaded premise and treatment of Pathaan, which looks similar to War, directed by the same filmmaker, in 2018?


Aamir Khan

The problem with the Khans is that their stardom has become a gilded cage. They are unable to break out and make entertainment that can be small in scale. As film scholar Vamsee Juluri puts it: “Their legacy is big enough for them not to change and find loyal support (if perhaps on a smaller scale), and yet the fact that the writing is on the wall these last few years should make them find the motivation to search out new stories and visions.

There was a time when wokeness and nativity (for lack of better words) didn’t have to be that opposed to each other. I miss the elegance of Lagaan and the empathy and intergenerational bonds of Taare Zameen Par. But I think the ‘mass’ is no longer in the hearts of those who run Bollywood.”

That includes the stars in what film scholar CS Venkiteswaran calls the “kingdom of disconnectedness”. Three decades of stardom means many years of living in a rarefied atmosphere, breathing air quality that is completely different from the common person, and thinking of ideas that have only a tenuous hold on reality. In such a situation, familiarity breeds content. Remakes of southern films, remakes of Western hits, action films with one-line premises—what is easier to sell to the stars is also easier to sell to the audiences, or so the belief goes.

Film scholar Maithili Rao believes the way the media has been posing the question has put additional pressure on the Khans: is it the end of Bollywood as we have known and loved, now that southern cinema threatens to be the new pan-Indian film? Referring specifically to Shah Rukh, she says, “'He defined the metrosexual man. Sophistication and self-referential mockery come naturally to him. The question now is, can he reinvent a grittier metrosexual man when the public taste seems to favour the almost toxic masculinity of Pushpa, KGF and Kantara? These macho men are over the top in their rough act and reduce women to servile sex objects.”

Except for Baazigar (1993), Darr (1993) and Anjaam (1994), Shah Rukh has been the chivalrous charmer. Going by the Pathaan trailer, she adds, he seems to be trying hard to define a new cool, that is amused and distant, with the woman doing all the wooing. “As for Jawan,” she says, “the bandaged wounded soldier should play to the patriotic fervour that is so heated now. He is also playing safe with 
south director Atlee. That film has a better chance.” With Dunki, she hopes Shah Rukh vindicates our faith in him as an entertainer who has taken more risks than others—Swades, Chak De! India, My Name is Khan, Fan and Zero.


Salman Khan in 'Tiger 3'

But the question is for how long? In every major industry in the country, there is an old order that has sustained their stardom, but has slowly adapted themselves to suit their age. It is true of the two beloved superstars of Malayalam cinema, Mohanlal, 62, and Mammootty, 71, as much as of Rajinikanth, 72, and Kamal Haasan, 68, in Tamil cinema.

Both sets of superstars stopped playing young in their 40s, though they didn’t stop appearing with younger heroines to reduce their screen age.

After all, Bachchan was all of 58 when he graduated to playing father in 2000 in Mohabbatein, with Shah Rukh playing the new order. This was after two long breaks—one in 1984 for a three-year stint as MP, and then in 1992 to return in 1997 with a series of films, which tried to reinvent him as the ageing action star.

It didn’t work.

It was only when he decided to play his age in 2000 that he never looked back, echoing his senior statesman avatar even in his small screen persona on Kaun Banega Crorepati. A new generation was introduced to him through satellite TV, children of those who had been young when Bachchan was young.

It was the satellite boom of the 1990s that allowed a new generation to become fanboys of Mohanlal and Mammootty as well. The TV boom required content and their movies from the 1970s and 1980s, all in colour, were readymade content. It extended their cinematic life by another 10 years, says Venkiteswaran. “After liberalisation, TV became female and cinema became a male-centric space,” he says.

“So the heroes became superhuman, with the heroines becoming more like fangirls rather than equals. There was a shrinking of cinema as public art and it became a space inhabited by young men and their fan clubs.” The digital boom that began a decade ago returned the Malayalam film industry to its artisanal and cottage industry roots, with new directors, writers and actors. “They brought down the stars to human scale and the family returned to the cinemas, though they were fewer in number, from 2,000 in 2000s to 700 now. 

A new generation of stars emerged and the two superstars also recalibrated themselves to play the common man, and sometimes in the case of Mammootty, even low life.” If the Khans want to remain relevant, they have to adapt themselves to the changing times, says film scholar Aysha Viswamohan. “Remember Bachchan put grey in his hair as early as Adalat,” she says.

“That was 1976. He played both the young man and the ageing man convincingly. None of the Khans ever showed us their capacity to age on screen consistently, except perhaps briefly for Shah Rukh in Veer Zaara, Aamir in Dangal and Salman in Bharat. Bachchan did it more than once, in Desh Premee (1982) and Mahaan (1983), for instance. If the Khans can’t look old in their 50s, when will they reinvent themselves?”

Perhaps the more interesting question is why they should reinvent themselves. Stardom in Bollywood is too big, especially male stardom, which is forced to address a pan-Indian audience. The money, the fame, the endorsements. Why change if there is no propelling reason? But as Tamil film scholar Mohan Raman says, the industry will do what the market tells them to. As footfalls drop, they will be forced to recalibrate. He points to the next-generation stars like Ajith Kumar, Vijay, Vikram and Suriya who are slowly modifying their roles.

“They are no longer playing college students, but professors,” he says, just as Rajinikanth and Haasan are no longer singing duets and running around trees. Haasan always played ‘different’ roles and as far back as Annamalai in 1992, where he ages and has a grown-up daughter.

SRK in 'Jawan'

With Pathaan and Tiger 3, Yash Raj Films hopes to have found the perfect way to make the Khans age well, by creating the YRFSpyUniverse, in which they hope to add Kabir (Hrithik Roshan) of War (2019). The collaboration between the two Khans is not unusual, though they have had their differences over the years.

Actor and co-producer of Dabanng 3, Nikhil Dwivedi, says, “All of them have always been fierce competitiors, but over time developed mutual admiration for simply realising that the other has done as well over decades. To be in the top bracket for around 35 years draws its own admiration. It cannot be denied that there is a new narrative being built up to show them as they don’t ‘belong’ to us, but I think the counter-narrative to it can only be that they do unbelievably good work. This narrative seems to have merit only when their own work doesn’t stand up.”

The YRF Spy Universe could work. There’s precedence for this. The Expendables, an action franchise that Sylvester Stallone began in 2010 with a bunch of ageing actors, continues with its fourth edition due this year. Despite The Expendables 3 faring badly at the box office, the team has reunited with Stallone as Barney Ross, leading his band of mercenaries.

It also extended the action star’s career by at least a decade. Not only is he producing a female-led Expendables spinoff but has his Marvel Cinematic Universe role as Stakar Ogord in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, is in the TV series Tulsa King, and will star in the dystopian future action movie Little America. Stallone, 76, Arnold Schwarzenegger, 75, and Jason Statham, 55, return for the fourth edition.

There are other successful examples of stars trying to outrun their innate mortality, most recently Cruise, who not only updated Top Gun, a beloved action movie 36 years later, but is also getting ready for the seventh edition of Mission Impossible, a spy franchise he first starred in 1996. At the Red Sea Film Festival, Shah Rukh said he plans to do action movies, now that he has done sweet love stories, social dramas and some bad guys.

“Now for the next 10 years I want to do action films, Mission Impossible-ish kind of roles and in the last seven-eight years we have developed the technology for them,” he said, adding, “Young kids, mine especially, love action movies. And Pathaan has been shot everywhere, Russia, Dubai, Somalia.” 

Naming it Pathaan is also no accident. Shah Rukh’s stardom is global, as is the Pathaan diaspora, and as poet and lyricist Javed Akhtar pointed out recently, now also in Western Europe, where Indian cinema did not have a presence.

Shah Rukh has played a Muslim character only a few times in his career—Hey Ram (2000), where he plays an archaeologist who saves his Hindu friend; Chak De! India (2007) where he is a Muslim accused of wilfully losing his match against Pakistan; My Name is Khan (2010), where he is a pacifist, Dear Zindagi (2016) where he is a quirky psychologist, the sophisticated artist and ex-husband; and in Raees (2017), he plays a businessman who has “baniye ka dimaag aur miyanbhai ki daring”.

In Pathaan, Shah Rukh is the patriotic Muslim, who has not been named by his religion or his identity, said an early promo but by his dharma and karma.

“He thought of his country as his dharma and considered protecting it his karma,” the voiceover notes. The #BoycottBollywood brigade will find it hard to attack a screen Muslim who is willing to endure months of torture at the hands of the enemy.
Aamir, briefly seen in Revathy’s Salaam Venky, will spend the year helping edit and promote his son Junaid’s film Maharaja. Salman awaits the release of Kisi Ka Bhai Kisi Ki Jaan, based on the Tamil film Veeram (2014), starring Ajith Kumar.

He has stuffed it with every possible southern audience magnet, from Jagapathy Babu, Pooja Hegde and Venkatesh as co-stars, Devi Sri Prasad as music director to Ram Charan in a cameo. Tiger 3 will see an extended cameo from Shah Rukh as part of the YRFSpyUniverse, with Katrina Kaif returning as Zoya, Tiger’s Pakistani wife and former ISI agent, and Emraan Hashmi playing the antagonist.

Actor Kubbra Sait is a fan of the Khans: “For any average Indian household cinema-goer of the 80s, 90s and the millennium, the Khans were the ultimate dream catchers. They defined what escaping the mundane reality looked like. They made us believe in good winning over evil. They showcased action. They encapsulated love… of all kinds… the novice love, the triangle love, the love towards your mum, perhaps even friend. They even befriended the non-compromising Indian dad. They told us how we felt and what was missing through music. They defined a generation of films for us. The Khans were all so different that I feel their sole motive was to make our universe abundant.” 

Also read: 'They said it is a very harsh profession,' Aamir Khan's parents did not want him to enter Bollywood

They were superstars and will always remain superstars, whether or not they are placed on a pedestal, she says. Make no mistake, the Khans need to sustain their stardom. but Old Bollywood also believes it needs them to sustain itself. The option is a complete transformation. But then the question is who will decide the new order? The state, which is itching to take control of the narrative, or Bollywood itself, which has to find a new voice? For now, Shah Rukh Khan saying Jai Hind while protecting Bharat Mata in Pathaan may well be enough.

Upcoming Movies

Aamir Khan

This year he will focus on his family, which he says he neglected while he concentrated on his movie career. He will also help edit his son Junaid’s acting debut in Maharaja, a Yash Raj Film co-starring Jaideep Ahlawat. 

Salman Khan

He has two films this year: Farhad Samji’s Kisi Ka Bhai Kisi Ki Jaan, a remake of the 2014 Tamil hit Veeram and Tiger 3, the third instalment of the spy franchise. He will also appear in Pathaan and most likely host Bigg Boss again.

Tiger 3
Starring: Salman Khan, Katrina Kaif, Emraan Hashmi
Director: Maneesh Sharma 
Release date: November 10, 2023

Kisi ka Bhai Kisi ki Jaan
Starring: Salman Khan, Pooja Hegde, Venkatesh Daggubati, Ram Charan Teja
Director: Farhad Samji 
Release date: April 21, 2023

Shah Rukh Khan

Busiest of them all, he has three new releases: Siddharth Anand’s Pathaan, part of the YRF SpyUniverse, Atlee’s Jawan, and Rajkumari Hirani’s illegal migrant drama Dunki. He will also appear in Salman Khan’s Tiger 3 as Pathaan.

Starring: Shah Rukh Khan, Nayanthara and Vijay Sethupathi
Director: Atlee 
Release date: June 2, 2023

Starring: Shah Rukh Khan, Taapsee Pannu, Vicky Kaushal
Director: Rajkumari Hirani 
Release date: December 22, 2023

Starring: Shah Rukh Khan, Deepika Padukone, John Abraham
Director: Siddharth Anand 
Release date: January 25, 2023