Updated: March 14, 2021 1:56:45 pm
Think of a sobriquet for Aamir Khan and ‘the man of many firsts’ can easily take the top spot. And for good reason. He was the first high-profile star to openly shun award ceremonies. This was no ordinary time. It was the golden age of awards. Despite having much to lose he followed his heart.
For a superstar, Dilip Kumar had a relatively small (if, diverse) output way back in the 1950s. But Aamir was the first among the 90s’ batch to make a one-film-a-year rule and stick to it doggedly. A gifted promoter, he was the first to possess such marketing savvy that one wonders why the media schools haven’t yet called him for a masterclass on branding and advertising.
Aamir Khan turns 56 today but as far as his recent box-office performances are concerned, he’s way beyond a ton. Again, he was the first to enter the 100-crore club with Ghajini and then hustled relentlessly to surpass that magic figure. These days, if an Aamir hit doesn’t cross Rs 300 crore then it’s a flop. Too bad!
Last but not the least, he was the first to scale the great wall of China — with the same skill that he showed in 3 Idiots to break into Kareena Kapoor’s fortress — to give us access to the Red Dragon’s fast-growing market. Based on the real-life story of the Phogat sisters, Dangal (2016) was a box-office juggernaut. It also broke new grounds in China. The Chinese, it seems, see in Aamir what Indians do. A gentle uncle, tough dad, sensitive teacher, college topper, a big-eared alien lost among selfish earthlings, a superstar who’s no secret to the millions of Indians. Probably, what the Chinese may not have seen is the charming romantic matinee hero that Aamir was back in the 1990s, a part of an emerging generation of male superstars many of whom are still going great guns today and have stayed relevant: Ajay Devgan, Shah Rukh Khan, Salman Khan and Akshay Kumar.
In hindsight, the 90s wasn’t too bad for Aamir. Even though his cinema, like that of any other star of the time, was a standard fare, viewers with a keen eye could see flashes of brilliance hidden in plain sight. Born into a film family and trained by the veteran Nasir Hussain, it would have been obvious for Khan to take the easy route. But from the beginning of his career, he wasn’t afraid of taking radical steps. Case in point: the blistering Raakh which cast him as a lover desperate to seek revenge for his girlfriend’s rape. Far from being a typical Bollywood potboiler, it was very nearly an art film and was made even before Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak (1988). Also featuring the fresh-faced Juhi Chawla, their star-crossed love story in QSQT ends on a tragic note but it turned both her and Khan into overnight sensations. Then, there was Andaz Apna Apna (1994), Rangeela (1995), Earth (1998) and Sarfarosh (1999), all cementing his status as a star with a difference. But Aamir’s second innings begins circa millennium. He may have followed the trend in the 90s but certainly, after 2000 he was the one creating them. It started with a major makeover post Dil Chahta Hai, Lagaan and Rang De Basanti. As some critics have noted, these films helped him take a leap from the pond to the sea. They proved to be a game-changer not just for its so-called ‘big fish’ but also for the industry as a whole. Arguably, Ashutosh Gowariker’s Lagaan (2001) could be credited with ushering in the ‘blockbuster era.’ It’s hard to imagine that Aamir was initially reluctant to come on board this Oscar nominee, disregarding the very idea of a cricket match between Indian villagers and the British regiment as “outlandish,” according to ‘The Spirit of Lagaan’, a book on its making. Lagaan was instrumental because it transformed Aamir from “actor for hire to shaper of cinematic destinies of his projects,” as critic Baradwaj Rangan has put it.
Today, Aamir is more than a star. He’s a filmmaker with a very strong taste for mixing entertainment with meaning. Looking at the auteurs he admires — Raj Kapoor, Guru Dutt, V Shantaram, Bimal Roy and Hrishikesh Mukherjee — you can tell the kind of films (of humanism and optimism suited to present Indian realities) he’s aiming for. Whether it is the emotional tug of Taare Zameen Par, the educational commentary of 3 Idiots or Dangal’s parental pressure, he takes up subjects that tear into the nation’s conscience but do so in a fun way (sometimes, he falls into the high-handed trap but that’s for another day).
His stories are universal and that’s the reason his cinema beckons the middle-class Indian families. With an uncompromising devotion to his work, artistic intensity and a little bit of sharp marketing chops, the serious-minded Khan has created for himself a triumphant career. And somehow Aamir’s stardom has not outsized the ordinary characters he wants to play. Unassuming both off and on screen, he’s the everyman who’s finally getting to play the ultimate everyman in Laal Singh Chaddha, an official remake of Forrest Gump. Here’s conjuring up five things that the Indian Tom Hanks has given Bollywood over the decades. Feel free to disagree.
Prince of Publicity: Reinvigorating Marketing
Known for his unique penchant for publicity, Aamir can teach marketing gurus a lesson or two. He’s a man who thinks out of the box. As part of promotional gimmicks, he went nude on PK poster, went missing to match his character in 3 Idiots and shaved off the audience’s hair during Ghajini. Apparently, Aamir has been a bit of a self-promoter from his early days. One story goes that he personally posted Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak posters on the back of auto-rickshaws.
Beyond Method: How to Transform For a Role
Each Aamir Khan movie is vastly different from the other. Every film, a new adventure. And audiences crave for it. This means the actor is always thinking of new get-ups and characters to surprise his fans. Some actors are into method. He’s beyond method. In Dangal, one of Bollywood’s biggest hits in recent years, he played a retired wrestler training his daughters (inspired by Geeta and Babita Phogat) to sporting glory. Secret Superstar saw him as a musical mentor, whose flashy confidence was reportedly a cross between Jeetendra and Anil Kapoor. There’s more: a Bhojpuri-speaking alien in PK, desi Jack Sparrow in Thugs of Hindostan and a cop mired in a noirish mystery in Talaash. He even agreed to lend voiceover to Pluto, the wise-cracking family dog in Dil Dhadakne Do. Khan sure knows how to transform for a role.
One Film A Year Trend
At a time when stars were doing multiple shifts churning out a blizzard of films annually, Aamir defied the norm by resolving to do only one project a year. It made audiences curious and he kept them guessing for what his next offering would be. Believing in quality over quantity, this arrangement gives him enough time to focus on the task on hand and do it better. Since then, Aamir has maintained a high standard for content. Caveat: High by Bollywood standard. Although his track record is impeccable thanks to a real rack-up of one hit after another there are times when even Aamir Khan goes wrong. Thugs of Hindostan and Secret Superstar were the occasional write-offs.
Actor As Activist
Nothing trends like an Indian movie star wading into political waters. Remember Deepika Padukone’s appearance last year at the JNU students’ protest triggering backlash? In 2006, Aamir Khan lent a voice to the Narmada Bachao Andolan and found himself instantly at the centre of a controversy. In response, Fanaa was banned in Gujarat. Years later, Aamir’s social activism was unleashed once again with Satyamev Jayate, the popular TV-friendly show that saw him as less a glamorous Bollywood star than a crusading documentary journalist. Though it’s nice to know that Khan uses his heft for public good many do not consider him as a serious activist. Repeatedly called an opportunist, he has been accused of milking publicity out of social causes. What explains his disappearance from the cause once the film is released, ask critics. Only Aamir can answer.
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Aai La, Oh Terri: Comic Perfection
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On his best day, Aamir is the kind of comic genius that can make both leading men and stand-ups jealous. Rangeela, Ishq, Andaz Apna Apna, Dil Chahta Hai, these are films that show his outrageously funny side. Andaz Apna Apna (1994), in particular, has become a cult with Aamir’s uproarious act as a brilliant bozo adding to the film’s status. In an interview with Rajeev Masand, director Rajkumar Santoshi revealed that Aamir’s character Amar (a counterweight to Salman Khan’s Prem) was based on Archie Comics’ smarty-pants Reggie Mantle. Like Mantle, Amar, too, has a quick wit and is full of vanity. Recently, it was reported that Ranveer Singh or Ranbir Kapoor might reprise Amar in a sequel. Big shoes to fill. Or aai la, should we say big “red jacket from New York?” Ranveer Singh, the floor is yours.
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