The Khans have helped us look at ourselves, says writer Kaveree Bamzai

The author speaks of her latest book, The Three Khans and the Emergence of New India, which examines the legacy of the three stars over time in Indian cinema.

Sonal Pandya

The narratives of the three stars Aamir Khan, Salman Khan and Shah Rukh Khan have been intertwined almost from the time they came into the film industry. The three actors, all of whom were born in the same year, have enjoyed enormous success and popularity since they made their debuts.

Numerous books have been written on the trio individually as well as on the star power they have enjoyed for the past three decades. The latest book to examine and narrate their journey is Kaveree Bamzai’s The Three Khans and the Emergence of New India, published by Westland Books.

A former editor of India Today and now an independent journalist, Bamzai told that she has written the book on her observations on the trio’s careers and her personal interactions with them. “In a way, my own journalistic journey is coterminous with theirs,” she said.

While Bamzai notes the stars’ decline over the decades in this new India, she also hopes she can write another book five years down the line where her examinations in this book can be debunked. She also shared her hopes for what she would like to see from the trio over the next few years.

In a telephone conversation, the writer spoke about her process, the appeal of each star and their popularity, and why they have grown silent these past few years. Excerpts:

When did you start writing the book?

Technically I began writing it in 2018. I took it seriously in 2019 after I quit full-time journalism. I was at India Today for the last few years. The rigour of a daily journalistic job doesn’t really have too much pace or place for long-form writing and thinking. I think I needed to take that big leap of faith.

As a middle-class person, you always want your job security [and] something to cling on to, before you do something else, but then I thought if I don’t it now, when will I do it? I decided to become a freelance writer. There were a few book offers as well. One of them was this that I had suggested and there was a previous one called No Regrets, which was about women.

How much of the book has changed in the last year and a half, during the pandemic? Did it influence your book?

Not too much. I’ve tried to keep it updated and I think the last chapter especially discusses whether we are seeing the end of the Khans and seeing the end of that kind of enormous stardom, which is, of course, measured by the box office as well. I tried to assess the impact of that, the advent of streaming, the creation of a far more democratic playing field, the creation of many more stars who are playing characters, who are beloved for those characters, and the rise of the younger generation as well. Some of them have tried to model themselves on various aspects of the Khans, but some of them are unique. I’ve also tried to assess that in the context of the work that the Khans themselves are doing.

After a period where I think Shah Rukh’s holiday extended up to three years, he is back with Pathan and one hears of many more interesting films which I hope will be the return of Shah Rukh as we know him, as someone who is a risk-taker, who bet on the most outrageous characters and succeeded. I think that element of risk is something we saw missing in the last few years in his choices.

In Salman, we see the continuation of his many franchises from Radhe to Tiger to many more Chulbul Pandeys. Maybe diminishing returns, which may also sort of cause him to stop and think and see what else he can do, maybe return to a little to the performance-oriented work in Bajrangi Bhaijaan (2015), which I thought was an exceptional film.

And for Aamir, I think it really is more of the same. He marches to his own tune. He does his own thing. He makes choices that, at that point, seem maybe absurd and not very saleable, to put it in quotes. But then it turns out to be the best movie of the year and a commercially more successful movie of the year.

We’ll see in the next two years where their careers go, but as for your question, did the pandemic change the way I was writing the book, no. Because I could see that their decline did begin somewhere around 2014. When I say decline, I mean in the popular space, in the political-social-cultural landscape of our country, for a variety of reasons which I’ve explained in the book... a rise of a more assertive Hindutva, the rise of the othering of the Muslim, the rise of vitriolic troll armies that police every thought and every speech of theirs which can be a very difficult place to be in. Not that I’m very prophetic, I think everybody could see that.

But I think they are all three very bright people and will look at how things have changed and incorporate that as well. While the decline might seem quite imminent, something new will also emerge and I think that will be exciting to watch.

Would you say the changing business model of the Indian industry has been a factor in that as well?

For the longest time both Aamir and Shah Rukh tried very hard to create that crossover film, with Laagan (2001) and Asoka (2001), and then with Mangal Pandey: The Rising (2005), as well as with Ra.One (2011). [They] tried to make that one universal film. That didn’t quite work.

So instead, what emerged was from Andhra, a fantastic spectacle like Baahubali (2015) which expanded the box office to a thousand crore, which made the Khans' Rs300 crore club look puny in comparison. While they were looking at the global market and competing with each other to see who has expanded 100 to 300 crore, there was an industry in the South that was looking at something truly risk-taking, truly spectacular, investing in it and investing in the art and the craft and the science of making truly epic blockbusters. I think that took everybody by surprise.

The business model has changed, insofar as the world is something the Khans have expanded for 'Bollywood'. They have created markets where none existed. Germany, for instance, [with] Shah Rukh or the US, the UK, and the Middle East for Shah Rukh and Salman. These are enormous markets that didn’t exist even, say, ten years ago.

I think they will have to look at what is that one big thing that they will do that can expand the market, which I feel is hugely underserved right now. People are talking about the hybrid model and I’m glad that, whether Salman was coerced into it or not, he took that leap of faith to release Radhe on pay-per-view as well as a few theatres that were still open. He knew there was no box-office revenue collection at the end of the day to justify whether his stardom was worth the money spent by Zee. But it was a big commitment for a big star. When you see Scarlett Johansson, for instance, suing Disney for releasing Black Widow (2021) on streaming without her consent, you realize how important the box office is to superstars.

A hybrid model could be the way to go, especially given the fact that we don’t have enough theatres for the kind of population we have, when you compare it to America and China even. A big star like Salman backing [and] endorsing that is a very big move. It’s not that they are not changing with the times, they are trying, but the times are also changing very fast. Nobody could have predicted the pandemic. I don’t think Shah Rukh would have wanted to stay away from the big screen for three years. It just happened.

You have interviewed them separately over the years. How would you say their legacy has been?

Their legacy has been a continuation of the Nehruvian secularism, a kind of faith in India, in good, clean, family values. Of course, there have been digressions. They have all made movies where they may have stalked heroines and that’s a terrible thing, but I think now they are more or less aware that those are things that are not socially acceptable. Maybe the 1990s were a very different time.

I think their legacy has been to give India and people of their generation a way to negotiate the changes that were happening within the country. Whether it was the mandir, whether it was Mandal or whether it was the markets, these three forces of liberalization, social mobility, the upward caste mobility, and a more assertive Hindutva were [all] things that were changing even as we were. All three of them gave us a way to understand a new way of being.

In the case of Shah Rukh, he allowed men to be a certain way, a kinder, gentler masculinity. With Salman, it was really the working-class male who was perhaps always condemned as an underachiever, who saw in him someone who could still be happy and could still be a role model in a way, by transforming his body and the whole gym culture that he unleashed. That gave a huge outlet to a lot of young men searching for something.

With Aamir Khan, I think it was again to help us appreciate some of the changes that we should bring about. His movies have always been [informative], this is what the social norm ought to be. In each very different way, the Khans have helped us look at ourselves and helped us negotiate the changes we have been living through. It’s very important to see yourself in some way being reflected on screen and I think that’s why they are so successful.

During the time that it took you to write the book, was there any portion that was difficult for you to put together?

Not really, I had a good editor in Nasreen Munni Kabir. She immediately threw out things that she felt were irrelevant. I was very lucky to have her. Both [VK] Karthika, my publisher, and Kartik Venkatesh, my editor, and Nasreen Munni Kabir, who is a friend but very kindly agreed to edit this book for me. Having been an editor for so many years, I was just happy to just be a writer for once (laughs). I was very docile and did exactly as told.

You have also said that the relationship of the Khans with the press has changed over the years. Do you feel they have become more reticent?

Well, I think not just with me, in general, they have become far more reticent. The kind of access that all of us journalists had with them at certain points, we don’t have that kind of access any more. There were times when all of these actors would pick up the phone and answer your call. There are all kinds of doors that you have to knock on now to get access. It wasn’t so difficult in the early 2000s, it was much easier to go on the set of the movie that they were in and just sit around and talk to them while they were shooting, or while they were goofing off.

But that is because the industry itself has changed and they themselves are far more reticent. I mean, who would not be? Nobody wants to be pilloried day in, day out.

For every comment that they make.

It’s a tough spot to be in. And this is a bit of a paradox for me. While I do criticize them for their silence, I also understand why they have to be silent. I do understand, but at the same time, they are heroes. We do expect our heroes to be larger-than-life as well. They all have families and films and commitments, financial [and] otherwise. I don’t think anyone wants to end up like poor MF Husain, exiled for life and never able to return to his homeland.

Where do you think the Khans will fit into today’s India?

I think they find themselves at loggerheads with today’s India, which is why I think they are just keeping their heads down and doing their work. And that, as I keep saying, is the tragedy of the new India that we live in. There are three men who have given us so much joy, love, laughter and so much emotion, and for us to now scrutinize every word they say for political import, or every action of theirs... it’s very sad that we have bullied these people into silence.

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Indian cinema