The three Khans have dominated Bollywood since the 1990s but there are few signs of their being replaced, although the three are all in their fifties. One or two male stars film stars — like Hritik Roshan — generated excitement initially but did not capture the imagination of the public subsequently.
Karan Johar recently went on record to say that he could not see the younger set — Ranbir Kapoor or Ranveer Singh — replacing the Khans; while one cannot disagree, the reasons he offered were only perfunctory.
Of the three Khans only Salman remains a star in the social sense even today — as someone with a persona which narrativises public feelings and attitudes. Shah Rukh Khan had only one film, Dilwale, in 2015 and it was not a hit (Fan in 2016 wasn't either); one might propose that his career as a star is even spent. Dilwale was an attempt to revive the magic of DDLJ (1995) and failed.
Aamir Khan is a sharp businessman and perhaps the best actor of the three (PK, 2014) but he is better in his amusing impersonations rather than when he projects his naturally cocky persona (3 Idiots, 2009).
The male star has a special place in Bollywood and the reason women stars have generally taken a back seat, as it were, is because the onus of the action in a film narrative rests overwhelmingly on the male. There have been (exceptional) woman-centred films and one might cite examples like Andaz (1949), Dhool Ka Phool (1959), Sangam (1964), Aradhana (1969) and Damini (1992), but even these films are about women in a patriarchal world. In every other film, the man is led to act while the woman tends to remain decorative. Since the man’s actions are socially more significant the male presence (i.e.: where his capacity to act is directed) is also more interpretable. In Deewar (1975), for instance, it is the meaning of the angry young man that is most significant. One could also say this about the male star in films featuring the Khans – Baazigar (1993) Rang De Basanti (2006) and Dabangg (2010).
Male stars in Bollywood have often modelled themselves after Hollywood superstars — down to pursuing method-acting — but there is a basic difference between the two cinemas. One could say, by and large, that Hollywood stars are associated with genres — as, for instance, John Wayne with the western, Humphrey Bogart with noir and James Cagney with the gangster film. Actors like De Niro, Pacino and Christopher Walken are different in that they are picked for their versatility. Film genres in a national cinema are, essentially, perpetuations of mythologies around the nation. If the western perpetuates a mythology around the origins of the American state, noir films invoke, implicitly, the moral conditions of 1930, i.e. the depression. The mythology associated with each genre is deliberate and long-lasting; it is a means by which a ‘national memory’ is retained. Given this proposition, the rise of fantasy in Hollywood at the expense of the other genres is indicative of the erasure of historical memory.
Hindi cinema has not differentiated itself generically and its thrust is never to preserve historical memory. The non-contextual nature of its truths may be said to contribute to this; all films therefore include elements judged incompatible by any Hollywood film and the elements that dominate usually give each film its generic identity.
Sholay (1975) is considered a ‘curry western’ although it includes romance and slapstick comedy. Even ‘historical films’ from Bollywood do not perpetuate historical memory but further patriotism (1942: A Love Story, 1994) or provide a period setting for romance (Jodha Akbar, 2008). Male stars in Hindi cinema are not therefore associated with genres but they are still used to address the concerns of the moment. When the moment passes, the stars need to reinvent themselves — as first demonstrated by Dilip Kumar who moved from a naturalistic acting style in Andaz (1949) to playing the ebullient rustic in Naya Daur (1957). Dilip Kumar, Amitabh Bachchan and Salman Khan therefore transformed, as John Wayne and Humphrey Bogart did not need to.
There were male stars before 1947 (Surendra, Ashok Kumar) but the first male film star of independent India was Dilip Kumar. In films like Andaz and Jogan (1950) Dilip Kumar adopted a naturalistic kind of acting that implied a man caught up in the multiplicity of choices offered by ‘freedom’ and one associated this with the uncertainties confronting a new nation facing questions. The other two big stars of the 1950s were Raj Kapoor and Dev Anand but the former is better regarded as a director. His star presence needs a major foil (Premnath, Nargis), which is not true of Dilip Kumar or Dev Anand, who built his character around the morally devious individual thriving in the shifting city milieu. It is not accidental that the star is frequently seen in disguises, pretending to belong to another class (Munimji, 1955, Paying Guest, 1957), as though the shifting social milieu demanded subterfuge.
The debacle of the Sino-Indian War drove Hindi cinema into escapism and there is a new flippancy to the films after 1962 with more lightweight stars than in the 1950s, led by Shammi Kapoor (Kashmir Ki Kali, 1964). The rise of superstar Rajesh Khanna in the late 1960s is a more difficult phenomenon to explain, given his passive, decorative appeal. The male presence usually carries a threat — of what a man is capable of doing — but Rajesh Khanna’s is singular for lacking it. The character played by Rajesh Khanna is given very little to ‘do’ in any film and by the evidence of Aradhana (1969), Anand (1970) and Bawarchi (1972) he only catalyses transitions in other lives. Since he flourishes in the period 1970 to 1973 we could say that he had his heyday during Indira Gandhi’s early rule. Mrs Gandhi’s early years as PM represented a heady period, not least because India split up Pakistan. Opposition to her was weak since the movement led by JP Narayan commenced only in 1974. Rajesh Khanna, it would seem, had his best years as a star when there were few anxieties/expectations in the public space.
Popular cinema, a study suggests, basically addresses the socio-political expectations of the present, which is why unexpected happenings like assassinations do not get visible response. Mrs Gandhi’s death in 1984 is not narrativised by popular cinema but the alienation of the Sikh community finds an acknowledgement when Karma (1986) introduces a patriotic Sikh who sacrifices his life for the nation. Dilip Kumar and Dev Anand’s early personas can be associated with expectations from independence — existential freedom and modernity’s moral perils. The Angry Young Man may be associated with the unfulfilled promises under Mrs Gandhi — when her populist rhetoric was seen to remain rhetoric.
The three Khans had their careers commencing in the late 1980s, a decade synonymous with minor stars in the public imagination. The lack of big stars in the 1980s may be seen alongside the absence of stable discourse in the public space; while Mrs Gandhi’s first term meant something definite to the public, her second term did not, and neither did the subsequent years with Rajiv Gandhi, VP Singh and Chandra Shekhar. The introduction of a ‘discourse’ into which way India was headed emerged strongly only after 1991 with the economic liberalisation, which put an end to the limp pretences at socialism.
Shah Rukh Khan’s appearance on the screen was by far the most explosive among the Khans’ with Baazigar (1993, his fifth film). The anti-hero of this film, it can be argued, represents public apprehension at the decline in moral values brought out by the end of Nehruvian interventionism. If this film is to be compared to any other, it is to Guru Dutt’s Jaal (1952) in which the protagonist’s (Dev Anand) startling amorality can be similarly associated with the absence of the moral state — since the film is set in Portuguese Goa.
Baazigar also posits the absence of the state but that is because the state is seen to be withdrawing from the public space. When, in the film, the representatives of two business families (SRK and Dalip Tahil) fight it out with axes, the police watch from a distance, as if declining to intervene since the state has a small role to play in private conflicts. SRK’s next key performance was DDLJ (1995) in which the male protagonist seems too facetious to be anything but amoral, but later demonstrates that he draws directly from tradition. Interestingly, as SRK reinvented himself to fit the role of someone tentative and self-mocking (Om Shanti Om, 2007), so did Ashay Kumar, who had had a macho image. The swiftly transforming milieu of the decade perhaps made the more solid qualities obsolete.
More than Shah Rukh Khan, Aamir Khan appears to have as his constituency the Anglophone class; perhaps his persona appeals to a globally connected social segment; films like Dil Chahta Hai (2001), Rang De Basanti (2006) and 3 Idiots mirror its attitudes, especially towards authority. Aamir Khan’s cocky irreverence towards officialdom — which also found expression in the TV show Satyamev Jayate (2012-14) — suggests his affiliations to a class with strong neo-liberal sympathies. The class’ spending power because of its rise through the new economy led the Hindi film to target it but the specific targeting of Anglophone clientele also suggests that mainstream cinema’s address is not as inclusive as it was. Salman Khan’s later avatar can be usefully interpreted as non-Anglophone India’s consequent resistance.
Where SRK’s presence is marked by slippery flexibility and Aamir Khan’s by cockiness, Salman Khan expresses himself through raw power — in the service of moral certitude. The star, after a stint in romance reinvented himself as an action hero but his characters do not suffer the doubts that older action heroes (like Dharmendra’s) might have had over extreme actions. The cruelty Salman Khan casually inflicts in Wanted (2009) where, as an undercover cop, he kills eve teasers on a train, demonstrates the arbitrary magnitude of his punishment. His Dabangg (2010) continues the blurring of distinctions between assumed power and vested authority. It also implies the ceding of power locally by the weakening state when the protagonist is (approvingly) portrayed as a caste-conscious police officer who misuses his position. For instance, Chulbul Pandey woos the heroine wearing his uniform and it is as though she could not, hence, refuse him. But unlike in SRK and Aamir Khan’s films, there is little celebration of consumption in Dabangg and it perhaps addresses a class which is not Anglophone, and which India’s growth story has bypassed. One could also add that its sanction of brute power, without legitimate/licensed authority to back it, mirrors the khap phenomenon in semi-urban India.
The milieu in which mainstream Hindi cinema operates has transformed in the last two or three years. In the first place, the uncertainty and economic excitement of the last decade has declined and the kind of instant resourcefulness SRK projected may not touch as (many) chords. Secondly, there is a new nationalism in the air and a move towards a stronger state which suggests that Salman Khan’s capacity for fisticuffs will need to be redirected. Sultan (2016) even directs it towards patriotism when it makes him a wrestler competing in the Olympics.
But (regardless of the artificial excitement in the media space) there is also a sign of political stability except in pockets like Kashmir and the North East, which have rarely featured in Hindi film discourse. The rise of new superstars seems to require complex kinds of expectations — which independence and Nehruvian modernity, Mrs Gandhi’s populism, economic liberalisation and globalisation all generated but which the present scenario does not offer.
Perhaps Hindi cinema will have to wait a decade before it sees the rise of another male superstar.
MK Raghavendra is a Swarna Kamal winning film scholar and author of The Oxford India Short Introduction to Bollywood (2016)