What is it that makes the three Khans of Bollywood — Shah Rukh (SRK), Aamir and Salman — so popular and charming? Ever since their arrival in the Indian film industry, their popularity has gone from strength to strength.
Last year, they ranked first, second and fourteenth, respectively, in the Forbes India list of celebrities. Together, they hold the record of nine out of 10 highest-grossing movies in the history of Hindi cinema. And, here’s the most pleasantly surprising part: they have crossed the half-century mark, age-wise.
After more than two decades in Bollywood, the Khans’ hold on the industry is just as firm as it was in the 1990s. In fact, they are so famous that the first thing that a majority of tourists coming to Mumbai want to do after landing in the city is to see ‘Mannat’ and ‘Galaxy’, the residences of SRK and Salman Khan. Before, it used to be ‘Pratiksha’ and ‘Jalsa’, the two big bungalows of Amitabh Bachchan. If you visit the Bandstand in Bandra, an upscale suburb of Mumbai, you will see scores of people clicking selfies in front of ‘Mannat’ and ‘Galaxy’. This happens all year round. The number of visitors or fans goes up to the thousands at the time of the stars’ birthdays.
What is the secret of their success? They still rule the roost with the same aplomb that they used to in the 1990s. Even the combined forces of the young brigade of Ranbir Kapoor, Ranveer Singh, Sushant Singh Rajput, Varun Dhawan, Shahid Kapoor and the slightly older Hrithik Roshan have not been able to dethrone the Khans.
Just plain old professionalism?
“It is their hard work, sincerity and eagerness to do the best in every film they do. That’s why they are ruling today,” says Ramesh Taurani, Managing Director of Tips Films Ltd, Tips industries Ltd.
In fact, Tips, a company that’s into music production since the 1990s, produced two of their earliest films Auzaar (1997) and Jab Pyar Kisi Se Hota Hai (1998) with Salman Khan. Taurani adds, “The Khans are superstars because they choose their films very carefully. They have become very selective. In the last 10 years, they have given many blockbusters and that’s why their popularity has grown to this level.”
"The Khans did not become superstars overnight. They have struggled, faced flops and received flak from the industry and their fans. It has taken them time, real hard work, perfect strategising and great adaptation to the changing times.’’ — Shyam Shroff of Shringar Films
Adaptability to the changing nature of the film industry has made the Khans invincible, says filmmaker and founder/director of Shringar Films, Shyam Shroff. Shringar Films is a big name in the film distribution business, on-screen programming and film marketing. It was among a handful of organisations which laid the foundation for the multiplex chain of Fame Cinema.
“The trio’s films get a bumper opening. What more does a film distributor want?” says Shroff. “But one has to understand that the Khans did not become superstars overnight. They have struggled, faced flops and received flak from the industry and their fans. It has taken them time, real hard work, perfect strategising and great adaptation to the changing times.’’
A strategy of selection
Strategising is something that the Khans have mastered over the years. For Aamir Khan, it was an innocuous dialogue in the Farhan Akhtar’s debut directorial venture Dil Chahta Hai: “Perfectionist ko improve karna mushkil hota hai [it’s difficult for a perfectionist to improve upon his work]”. The film hit the cinema screens in 2001. Ever since, that line, and the image of Mr Perfectionist and Aamir Khan have become synonymous. So much so that even his co-stars address him as such. In a recent interview given to one of the newspapers in Mumbai, actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui said, “Aamir Khan is a perfectionist. To work with him one has to be a perfectionist too!”
“The Khans are superstars because they choose their films very carefully. In the last 10 years, they have given many blockbusters and that’s why their popularity has grown to this level.” — Ramesh Taurani, Managing Director of Tips Films
Aamir has been super-selective while picking his scripts, which is why he has been making very emotional and relevant films. He came into international prominence when Lagaan — Once Upon a Time (2001) — a film that he produced and acted in — was nominated for an Academy award in the Best Foreign Language Film category. After winning the Indian civilian awards of Padma Shri (2003) and Padma Bhushan (2010), he switched from rom-coms to theme-based films such as Fanaa (2006), Rang De Basanti (2006) Taare Zameen Par (2007), Ghajini (2008), PK (2014) and the latest Dangal (2016) which has become an all time super-hit film. His reputation got an unprecedented boost when he made and anchored a TV talk show Satyamev Jayate on Star Plus. After that show, for his fans ‘Aamir can do no wrong!’
“One needs to be observant to see that the three Khans not only select stories which are considered safe but are unwilling to take projects that can be risky for the production houses,’’ says well-known trade expert Amar Solanki who has been analysing films for over four decades. “They opt for big production houses that spend lavishly on making good-looking films and are also generous when it comes to promoting and marketing them. These films get spoken and written about so much by the media before their release that fans, and even those who are not fans, feel denied if they don’t watch the film.’’
When it comes to fan-following, no one can beat Salman Khan. Though embroiled in legal battles with the intelligentsia crying hoarse over the favourable judgment he received in a case which had dragged on for over a decade, the man’s aura does not seem to diminishing. Each one of his Friday releases get huge openings all over the world. A profit of 100 crore rupees per film is normal for this actor. His last film Sultan earned six billion rupees at the box office and is still raking in moolha. The hero who thinks his acting skills are nothing to write home about continues to be a charmer when it comes to box office returns. He says, “With every film I try and give the audiences a little more than the previous film in terms of comedy, action, drama and so on.’’
In 2007 Salman started an NGO ‘Being Human’ which works for the education and healthcare of the underprivileged. His fans feel he genuinely helps the needy.
A change in script
Another reason for the Khans’ success is the change in the films’ storylines. The scripts in periods in which Rishi Kapoor, Govinda and even Amitabh Bachchan reigned supreme used to have a typical romantic storyline — the boy falls in love with the girl, sings around trees five to six times, beats up the villain and ends up living happily with the girl of his choice. Rishi Kapoor, taking a break from films at the time, had said, “I got tired of flaunting colourful cardigans and singing duets in the Alps.” The audience too got tired of those themes.
Then came Baazigar and Darr (1993), and Anjaam (1994). In these three films a villain, SRK, was the lead actor. After their release, filmmakers began to entertain the thought of having off-beat plots. It took some time for the industry to change the ways of narrating stories on-screen by selecting different themes. Ten years ago, no one would have thought of making films such as Dangal, Fan, Bajrangi Bhaijaan or even Rockstar, Philuari, Lunchbox, Pink, and Kapoor & Sons. In fact, it’s new kind of cinema that has enabled Rishi Kapoor and Amitabh Bachchan experiment with their roles which they could never do in their heyday.
Earlier on in his career, SRK too blossomed as a typical romantic hero, becoming famous for wooing women. But he was the one who brought a different attitude to the industry. His wit, his charm, respect for women and love for his family came as a breath of fresh air to those who had misplaced impressions of the industry big shots.
A silver-tongued Shah Rukh
SRK also personifies intelligence. In his tongue-in-cheek interviews he will say the same things over and over again, but in such a way that you end up reading, or listening to, the whole interview. He is active on social media and displayed his business acumen by starting his own film company Red Chilies. The net worth of his earnings is estimated to be more than 600 million dollars, which is why he is considered to be one of the richest actors in the world. To top it all off, he is known for his acting skills — 14 Filmfare Awards, tying up with the legendary Dilip Kumar, with eight best actor awards. He is also the recipient of the Padma Shri and Ordre des Arts et des Lettres and the Legion d’honneur given to him by the Government of France.
At present, it’s nearly impossible to dislodge the three Khans from the top [of Bollywood]. Though Akshay Kumar, Ajay Devgan and Hrithik Roshan are doing really well, they have not been able to match the Khans’ stature — and now it’s too late for them to do that, anyway. The younger actors are very good as well, but unless age takes its toll on the three superstars, no one can replace them.
Originally published in Dawn, ICON, April 16th, 2017