The Khan Syndrome


 By Khalid Mohamed

They have formed the presiding trinity for well over two decades now, each one of them entering the showbiz maidan towards the end of the 1980s. And frankly, they’re no longer acting, they’re bestselling brand names. They’re a habit, an addiction perhaps like your favourite fragrances, toothpastes and soaps. You know what you’re about to get: not acting but the same ole Khanisms mostly, calculated for the weekend grabbing moolah.

It took over a decade for the Amitabh Bachchan, as avenging hero, to descend from the top rung of the charts. Before him 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 trinity Mumbai-produced cinema has ever known – Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand and Raj Kapoor — during the 1950s and ‘60s. Unarguably, Dilip saab is the most modernistic and memorable thespian Mumbai’s cinema.

The TrinityFor good or bad, the Khans’ top position has seen a longer life. One kicked off with an enormously successful love story, another fretted around the same time in a Rekha-dominated domestic shampoo, and the third Khan first made whoopee on the rapidly developing domain of television.

Coincidentally, all three of them 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 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 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 have 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 it’s love — and not rage —  which makes the world go round. They wooed their petite heroines obsessively, lip-synced to melody-friendly songs, 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 they are all on the penultimate end of the 40s.

Born in 1965, Aamir Khan is the eldest by a few months, bringing in his 49th birthday on March 14. Shah Rukh turned 49 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 initial flush of love. Like Salman Khan can go goggle-eyed on seeing Sonakshi Sinha in Dabangg. 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 then Deepika Padukone in Om Shanti Om-cum-Chennai Express. A joke is cracked about SRK’s age in Chennai Express. So, okay it’s duly acknowledged. Tee hee.  

Aamir Khan in Dil Chahta Hai

Dil Chahta Hai

Obviously heroes, 40-plus-year-old-virgins, 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 or the campus smarty in 3 Idiots. 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 more lately Dhoom 3 whose final scene is the last word in unintended hilarity.  

Aamir Khan’s primary strength is his boyishness — allied with an annoying 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-this?, 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 superb Dilip Kumar.

Aamir Khan in Ghajini


Among the Khans, he has the lowest  score of approximately 37 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 questionable, laurel leaves are called for  his impressive performances in Lagaan, Sarfarosh and Rang de Basanti 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 Peepli Live and Dhobi Ghat have 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 and Ghulam. Like all actors he has had his bloomers too, like Tum Mere Ho (a snake madari adventure!), Daulat ki Jung, Baazi, Aatank hi Aatank and Mela to cite a random few. Today, he’s a brand name 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.

Shah Rukh Khan in Baazigar


Once, it used to rain surprises in Shah Rukh Khan’s backyard. His uncontrollable-energy, balletic body language and stuttering dialogue has given him a distinctive appeal through a mixed bag of over 60 films. If Aamir Khan’s voice, dialogue delivery and diction have been seductively low-key, SRK’s have been disturbing. And if AK’s sunshine smile  was a mannerism that his fans demanded consistently, SRK’s toss of shampoo-silk hair, a raise of those diabolical Jack Nicholson-like eyebrows, deep dimples and a pout of lips became his identifying characteristics. More than any other actor of his generation, he relished risks, caring a damn about the good-guy image by  investing a psychotic edge to Baazigar, Darr and Anjaam.

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 nice 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 Billoo Barber.

Shah Rukh Khan in Chak De India

Chak De India

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, he 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.

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 fondly of Mani Kaul’s Idiot either.

That’s where Aamir Khan is a cut above SRK today. Aamir can occasionally 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, My Name is Khan was dogmatic drivel. With only the special effects Ra.One and Don 2 in his work-pack, 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 of the trio. Looks? Yes, that traditional attribute does count significantly with the audience. Besides that, he’s uber casual, tossing off performances effortlessly, without taking himself too seriously — epitomised fulsomely in the Dabangg series and Ek Tha Tiger (Ready and Jai Ho have perished from the mind). He dances loonily (the fiddling with the belt to be sexually suggestive), he displays his gym-sculpted body and laughs at himself while bashing up the 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.

Salman Khan in Hum aapke Hain Kaun

Hum Aapke Hain Koun…!

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. With Sanjay Leela Bhansali, he 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 weird hairstyled Majnu gone unhinged. Clearly, at the moment the actor is 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 – Salman Khan is ill at ease. Moreover, his  choice of films has been haphazard. For instance, 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 , 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. Kick, this year’s Eid attraction, is bound to get that magic weekend crowds. He’s acted in over 70 films, 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.

The Khans, all 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).

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 and on and yawn, is anybody’s guess. Frankly, they are prisoners of their own images. None of them is doing anything new. 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 deified, yes. But fame and adulation are fickle, which can evaporate without a warning.

If you ask me, I think we need a new kind of iconic hero now. He could be a rank newcomer or he could be Ranbir Kapoor, the most charismatic and accomplished actor of his generation, much younger than the Khans and with a fan base which is fast equalling to that any of the Khans. Hrithik Roshan has what it takes too, to emerge in the forefront.

Once 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 2000s is being sorely missed. The same ‘ole won’t do – forever.

Follow Khalid Mohamed at @Jhajhajha on Twitter

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6 replies »

  1. “He could be a rank newcomer or he could be Ranbir Kapoor, the most charismatic and accomplished actor of his generation…”

    – WTF? are you f**king kidding me? Ranbir kapoor …. BULLSHIT!!!


  2. The picture of SRK holding the gun is from Darr, not Baazigar.
    But whatever, wonderfully written article sir.


  3. I think RK is the most effortless actor right now. His characters seem to be so easy and it just doesnt look like its acting. I dont care what he does in real life. You see any regular college kid and it is the same dating scene anywhere.


  4. One of the best posts I’ve read on the Khans. Aamir has been given accolades of being the “Thinking” action but as this article rightly points out, he has acted in his share of trashy stories like Ghajini and Dhoom 3. The Khans have to be willing to move beyond the stereotypes like their hollywood superstar counterparts do.


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