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How Aamir Khan was transformed into one of Hindi cinema's most experimental actors


In 2016, Aamir Khan delivered another of his physical transformations as a pot-bellied, bellicose 60-year-old former wrestler. It was a display of method acting that is now routine for Khan. On his 52nd birthday (14 March), it is time to look back at how Khan evolved into one of Hindi cinema's most experimental superstars.

Shriram Iyengar

For years now, even before he turned into a bona fide blockbuster machine, Aamir Khan has been called a 'perfectionist'. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a perfectionist as 'a person who refuses to accept any standard short of perfection'. To achieve this, scientifically, a person will have to work by a set standard formula that achieves the best results. Yet, Aamir Khan has never adhered to formulae. From his first film, the actor has striven to set the trend instead of following it.

Khan made his debut in uncle Nasir Husain's Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak (1988). The film launched the star, along with co-star Juhi Chawla, as the next generation that would take over Hindi cinema. It was a true-blue star-son launch pad, a romantic film based on the classic Romeo and Juliet, with a bona fide director at the helm, and fresh hit music by Jatin-Lalit.

But even before QSQT (as it came to be called by the hipsters) hit the screens, Aamir Khan had worked in several films. His performance as the spunky Madan Sharma in Ketan Mehta's student drama Holi (1984) was far from the eye-candy role he was to fill in the 1990s. He had also been working as an assistant director for quite some time, but his actual debut as a leading man arrived in Aditya Bhattacharya's Raakh (1989).

Raakh was a dark, violent tale of revenge that had more in common with Martin Scorcese's Taxi Driver than Manmohan Desai. The film was shot on direct home video format and never released theatrically. Raakh was the story of a young man coming to terms with the brutal rape of his girlfriend. The Filmfare awards called it 'a stunning performance in a negative role' as it applauded Aamir Khan with a nomination for Best Actor. Khan stood alongside a group of technically proficient names like Pankaj Kapoor, Supriya Pathak and the debut cinematographer Santosh Sivan.

Incidentally, Nasir Husain had requested Bhattacharya to release the film after Aamir Khan's star launch. But the blockbuster success of QSQT ensured that Raakh was buried under a pile of YouTube videos, accessed only by true-blue Aamir Khan fans and film noir nerds.

In the next decade (the 1990s), Khan proved to be one of the most experimental actors in a mediocre decade. Not all of his experiments worked, but they marked him out. In Deewana Mujh Sa Nahin (1990), he played a photographer obsessed by his model. It was three years before another young Khan (Shah Rukh) would rattle the industry with his performance as an obsessive stalker in Darr (1993).

Aamir Khan followed it up by playing the world-weary journalist in Dil Hai Ke Maanta Nahin (1991), the underdog in Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar (1992), and a bachelor in charge of four kids in Hum Hain Rahi Pyar Ke (1993). He even signed on for Shekhar Kapur's ambitious Time Machine (1992), a tale of time travel. The film never got completed.

Despite the variation in character roles, it is also Aamir Khan's instinctive grasp of the story that makes him a successful actor. For instance, Rajkumar Santoshi's comic caper Andaz Apna Apna (1993), Ram Gopal Varma's Rangeela (1995), or Dharmesh Darshan's Raja Hindustani (1996) were films rejected by stars before they were picked up by Khan. Each of them won him critical acclaim and commercial success.

Rangeela's watershed moment also marks the beginning of a clarity in Khan's choice of films. His conscious choice of films that has a supporting cast with technical excellence also stands out. Since Ram Gopal Varma's film, the actor embarked on a conscious choice of ethical films. Between 1995 and the watershed moment of Lagaan (2001), Khan acted in and produced films like Raja Hindustani (1996), Ghulam (1998), 1947 Earth (1998) and Sarfarosh (1999). Each of these was a courageous choice.

Khan agreed to star in 1947 Earth after the controversy of Deepa Mehta's previous, Fire (1998). In 2014, Khan clarified his creative stance, saying, "One of the most damaging things that is happening today is that a lot of successful actors, filmmakers and actresses are only focusing on what they think would be a Rs100 crore or Rs200 crore film. They are selecting scripts based on that. When I say they, I am including myself. We really have to stop looking at the numbers. This is a field of creativity. I should have a story to tell."

Each of these films had a different director, storyline, even setting. They had only one thing in common, Aamir Khan. 

Since Lagaan's Oscar sojourn, the actor's conviction about experimentation and a departure from staid films has grown stronger. The actor has managed to find the balance between his experimentation and commercial success. While he became one of the most successful box-office stars with films like Dil Chahta Hai (2001), Fanaa (2006) and Ghajini (2008), he did not shy away from picking films like Rang De Basanti (2006), Taare Zameen Par (2007) or Dhobi Ghat (2011). Even in his production values, Aamir Khan continues to espouse the same values as his choices. The failures of his experiments have not dissuaded him from similar attempts; instead they have goaded him to refine them better.

In 2010, Khan spoke to film journalist Rajeev Masand on the need for Hindi cinema to match up to Hollywood, saying: "First, we have to be free enough to imagine things which are amazing and bizarre, then we can try and get there to execute."

With his recent success of Dangal, the actor has found himself capable of fine-tuning performances to tell ambitious stories. 

As an actor who calls Guru Dutt, Bimal Roy and Hrishikesh Mukherjee his influences, Aamir Khan understands the secret to successful filmmaking. He picks stories that find resonance among the masses but tells them in his own way.

At 52, he is now on course to change gears to playing a rock star in the upcoming Secret Superstar (2017). He seems to have adapted the adage from his own blockbuster comedy, 3 Idiots (2009), "Baccha, kaabil ban. Kaamyabi to jhak maar ke tere peeche aayegi [Son, become capable. Success will follow automatically]."