This week’s big release, Dangal revolves around female wrestling but its commercial prospects hinge entirely on its male star Aamir Khan’s broad – maybe not so broad after all, what with all the extra beef on the bone gone – shoulders. Aamir’s reputation as ruthless media strategist is an open secret.
Whether an over-bloated foil in a film (CC: Taare Zameen Par and Dhobi Ghat) or an item song eye-candy (Delhi Belly), he overshadows everyone in media outreach. Even in a Raju Hirani film, Aamir Khan is Raju Hirani. An Aamir film may not always belong to Aamir but is still pitched as an Aamir Khan vehicle. As anyone even remotely familiar with Hindi cinema would know, contrary to other stars who are on media radar 24/7 Aamir gets active on the limelight circuit barely weeks before the crucial release and withdraws in short order once he has ensured the film’s dash to the 300 crore-dom. It is this absence between the films that feeds and sustains the audience’s interest in Aamir.
Of the three Khans, including Shah Rukh and Salman Khan who have ruled Bollywood for more than two decades, Aamir is physically unremarkable (though he retains his youthful boyishness) and the least star-like. When Salman walks into a room, he once remarked, heads turn. “I lack that star quality,” he admitted, sounding genuinely self-deprecatory than ironical. It is why you’ll always find a throng of SRK-stalkers outside Mannat, the superstar’s palatial mansion in suburban Mumbai and fans who stand for hours in the heat outside Galaxy Apartment to get a glimpse of Salman Khan but with Aamir, you’ll struggle to even locate his home on a fanzine map – forget mobbing his building. Why is it like this when, in fact, the Khan triumvirate are bona fide A-listers in their own right? The truth is, the Khans occupy different slots in the audience’s mind space. They represent different aspects of the Indian desire machine. What people want in SRK and Salman is different from what they expect from Aamir. SRK exists to fulfil their romantic fantasies. Salman has a Peter Pan appeal –a bad boy with golden heart, a misunderstood man-child whose transgressions are eventually forgotten and forgiven by a motherly India.
Aamir, on the other hand, speaks to our minds. If SRK has made a career out of playing SRK, Aamir has made a career out of playing non-Aamir Khan. Over the years, he has distanced himself from the other Khans and built a legacy as a discerning man’s superstar. He’s an every-man, not a star. What sets him further apart from other stars is that when you watch a film starring him, you come back intrigued not of his performance or starry aura but of the singular power of the story. (Though, as we go into print, critics are raving about his performance calling it significant and extraordinary.) With Aamir, you get a feeling that every Bollywood film would be slightly tolerable if he was in it and it may be so not because of his acting or performance but due to his overall involvement.
Many are expecting the eagerly-awaited Dangal to be a monster hit. It is Aamir’s return to the screen after a gap of two years. His last, PK, was a controversial blockbuster but left the critics wanting for more. Based on the first family of Indian wrestling, the Phogats, Dangal, his latest film features a lesser-known star cast and is in line with themes we have come to associate Aamir with in recent years. Relevant storylines, edgier ideas, fresh cast and lesser-known directors. The star reveals a talent for plucking stories that are either topical or have the capacity to become a conversation-starter. Ever since the film’s trailer was released, comparisons with Salman Khan’s Sultan
became inevitable. Both films are about wrestling set in a Haryanvi milieu. But being an Aamir Khan film, Dangal obviously looks credibly well-researched and more realistic than the masala Sultan.
Aamir, who can work with any director he desires, has a tendency to hire filmmakers no one has heard of. Dangal is directed by Nitesh Tiwari, an award winning but little-known filmmaker whose previous credits read such smaller films as Chillar Party and Bhoothnath Returns. Another trend established over the years is that he never works with a director twice, except Raju Hirani. This adds to a growing perception that he ghost-directs his films. Which self-respecting filmmaker would want to work with an obsessive star whose involvement in the film is – as rumours go – like that of an absolute monarch?
Watch: Aamir Khan’s Dangal wins audience’s heart
Talking admiringly of Aamir to Tehelka magazine a few years ago, the usually caustic Naseeruddin Shah noted, “Aamir is the only star I can think of who is not producing films only to make money. And the same directors have fallen flat when they have attempted similar films without him. That says a lot about him.” One part of Shah’s statement rings true but the other is wide off the mark. Commercial success matters to Aamir, just as much as critical hosannas. The box-office has been kinder to him than most stars because of his promise of something new each time he returns to the marquee. Unlike Salman Khan whose glory run at the box-office is a recent phenomenon, Aamir has been a consistently successful star for years. Highly competitive, he tops the numbers race.
Call it competitiveness or insecurity, Aamir rarely shares screen space with another Khan or a Kumar. In Dangal, he has once again teamed up with an ensemble of small-time actors who appear in key roles. If it’s in the interest of the film, he even lets them steal his thunder. Think: Rang De Basanti, his biggest cultural moment. How he stepped back and allowed Siddharth to deliver the climax. Or, Satyamev Jayate, his apology for corporate social responsibility, which put journalism and social issues at the forefront with AK as the maudlin host taking a backseat.
From his media interviews, Aamir emerges as a man whose mind works like a filmmaker or scriptwriter. He speaks repeatedly of the need for simplicity in storytelling. In the Fat to Fit promotional video for Dangal, he said he didn’t want to wear prosthetics to look fat because, “maza nahin aayega.” No interview of Aamir is complete without him using the term ‘maza’ (entertainment) as a point of reference. It is tempting to wonder if his understanding of ‘what is entertainment’ owes in part to his influential uncle Nasir Hussain, the maker of such frothy money-spinners as Dil Deke Dekho, Caravan and Yaadon Ki Baraat.
Mr Hussain was committed to the service of entertainment. Aamir is following in his footsteps. At least in the last decade, Aamir’s dedication towards turning boring subjects into something interesting and engaging for the masses has become his signature. Who would have thought a satire on education (3 Idiots) would become one of the highest grossing Hindi hits of all time? He takes an underground film like Delhi Belly and turns it into box-office gold. Look at some of the subjects he has tackled as an actor, producer and director in recent years – media circus over farmer suicides in Peepli [Live], a complex, intersecting narrative set in Mumbai (Dhobi Ghat), dyslexia in children (Taare Zameen Par) and Bombay noir (Talaash). Aamir makes “social issues” entertaining to watch. Those who know the 51-year-old star say he trusts his instincts above everything else. Several media reports call him a risk-taker who is equally smart at reading the pulse of the audience. Is this magical connect with the audience the secret to his success? One guess could be that Aamir is the First Audience of his films and it is in this ability to put himself in place of the viewer that helps him strike a chord with moviegoers. The other guess, though, is simpler. That he makes movies only to make them a hit.
(Shaikh Ayaz is a writer and journalist based in Mumbai. He also paints.)