Journalist Kaveree Bamzai: 'Shah Rukh Khan is in dire need of a course correction'
How will posterity remember the Khans? Journalist Kaveree Bamzai, who has had a ringside view of their stratospheric rise for over two decades, says history will be kinder to them as distinctive power-packed entertainers
Editor-independent journalist Kaveree Bamzai’s The Three Khans: And the Emergence of New India chronicles the parallel career graphs of Aamir, Salman and Shah Rukh Khan and is a fascinating sociological insight into cataclysmic changes that swept through a post-liberalised India in early 1990s. wknd. spoke to Bamzai about the making of the book. Edited excerpts from the interview:
What was the inspiration to write The Three Khans — And The Emergence of New India?
I had reported on them for over 20 years and felt that their contribution to popular culture was not properly catalogued. We tend to under-appreciate Hindi cinema and don’t quite assess its social impact and society’s impact on cinema, in turn. The Khans burst onto the screen when India was going through fundamental changes in the economy, in caste mobilisation and in the rise of Hindutva. It was the end of the brief Rajiv Gandhi dream, our dalliance with youth, with modernity and with change. Movies were rough, loud and violent. The Khans came in youthful, romantic, burning with ambition, bristling with energy. In the years that followed, there would be so many changes, such as stock markets, Ram temple at Ayodhya and affirmative action as proposed by the Mandal Commission, but the Khans would be constant, entertaining us, helping negotiate the changes, and enabling us to shed old skins and wear new ones.
How apt is it to say that there’s sunset on Khan Market?
There is a sunset for now. The risks the Khans took in the ’90s and the 2000s are not evident anymore. They have become increasingly self-referential and self-reverential. They need to rediscover the courage it took for Shah Rukh Khan to make a movie like Swades and say those immortal lines: India is not the greatest country in the world, but it can be. The guts that Aamir Khan showed in piloting a movie like Lagaan right up to the Oscars. The instinct Salman Khan showed in choosing Dabangg to showcase what his fans wanted from him — an uncomplicated masculinity at a time when women were rising and emerging as a powerful social force against deep-seated misogyny. If they are able to recover what was best in them, there is no reason for the sun to rise on Khandom again.
How difficult was it to get a sneak peek of the real Khans from the reel ones?
Not very difficult. Fortunately, my reportage over the years with India Today had given me time to talk to them, understand their ecosystem, have conversations with those who worked closely with them, and be able to separate the myth from the reality.
Would you agree that the Khans were the last stars of Bollywood, as OTT spawns a new genre of content over charisma?
Yes. The business model of the film industry has changed. Audiences have become far more aware of different forms of storytelling, characters in web series are becoming larger than life, and the theatrical experience has stalled due to the pandemic. Movie stardom itself will be defined differently now even though stars will still cling to the box office — look at Scarlett Johansson suing Disney for releasing Black Widow on streaming. But they will have to either accept the hybrid form of stardom or expand the currently underserved theatrical market in India.
How has Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi emerged as the new cultural icon, who is giving stiff competition to the Khans?
PM Modi has established a direct relationship with citizens of the country by saying and doing things that seemingly connect to them, whether it is talking about toilets in his first Independence Day speech or reaching out to women through the reduced-price LPG scheme. This common touch, burnished through Mann Ki Baat broadcasts on All India Radio, which has the widest access of all mediums, over 99 per cent through its 479 stations, has translated into a larger-than-life image for the prime minister in most parts of India. With his cultural and social interventions, including asking the film industry to make “nation-building” cinema, he is able to transcend mere politics and the wall-to-wall coverage of his speeches and events since he began his electoral march towards Delhi in 2013 has enabled him to dominate the mind space of the nation. The Khans have also acknowledged his primacy, whether it be by Salman Khan flying a kite with him on the eve of the 2014 General Election, or Aamir Khan meeting him across a desk in the PMO, or Shah Rukh Khan taking a selfie with him at Mahatma Gandhi’s centenary celebrations in Mumbai.
Among the three Khans, whose cultural impact has been the most pronounced?
As I show in the book, all three have had equal impact but in differing ways. Shah Rukh Khan allowed the 90s Indian man to show a softer side to the women in his life, Aamir Khan showed that films with a social conscience could make money as well, and Salman Khan enabled the underachieving mofussil working-class male to feel good about himself, his gym routine and his social status.
The Khans’ careers run parallel to yours as an editor. Why did you choose not to conduct a separate interview for this book?
I think they have had enough of me over the years. No, seriously, I did tell all of them about the book I was writing. They chose not to speak to me for it.
Why do you think directors like Zoya Akhtar, Sriram Raghavan, Vishal Bharadwaj and Anurag Kashyap didn’t work with the Khans?
Not for lack of trying. Almost all of them have had some projects they have taken to them but have not materialised. Vishal Bhardwaj came close to working with Aamir Khan on Mr Mehta and Mrs Singh, as well as for Langda Tyagi in Omkara (the role eventually went to Saif Ali Khan). Aamir Khan has worked with Zoya Akhtar’s creative partner Reema Kagti in Talaash and been the voice of the dog Pluto in Dil Dhadakne Do. Sriram Raghavan met Shah Rukh Khan after the success of Andhadhun at the invitation of the latter. And Anurag Kashyap and Shah Rukh Khan almost collaborated on No Smoking and Allwyn Kallicharan.
The Khans, like almost all Bollywood stars, have become prisoners of their own image. Do they have it in them to reinvent?
I certainly hope so. Shah Rukh Khan needs a course correction most urgently. He seems to be going about it systematically, alternating the big would-be blockbuster Pathan with the more independent film possibly directed by Attlee or Raju Hirani. Aamir Khan has for long played a character, so he needs the least change. Salman Khan is an action star with many franchises — Tiger, Radhe and the softer Prem — but he needs to collaborate with smart young directors to keep them fresh.
Which Khan’s legacy would be remembered the most?
All three I believe have given us memorable movies, wonderful songs and dialogues worth repeating. They will all be remembered.