The name Khan advertises its Afghan ancestry, but none of Bollywood’s Khans looks Pashtun and all are quite short. A few years ago the newspaper I then worked for measured the popularity of the three Khans. Who had most fans, most charisma?
It learnt this by asking the post office who got most mail. The man who got twice as many letters and parcels as the other two was Salman Khan. This did not surprise us because a demonstration of his popularity is found outside his house in Bandra every day. I often took a walk down that road, called Bandstand. Salman’s flat in Galaxy Apartments is at the beginning of the road as it sweeps left for the ruins of a Portuguese fort. Towards the end of the same road is the façade of Mannat, Shah Rukh Khan’s bungalow. There is almost never a crowd here. Its high walls discourage the onlooker.
In contrast, there is always a group and often a crowd on the road opposite Salman’s flat. Their patience is frequently rewarded by the sight of Salman cycling out, or some other Khan family member who strolls out to the terrace-balcony. The Salman crowd is often dotted by young Muslim men in their caps. His charisma is raw, and I am always curious to know something about the real men behind our stars.
Few know where Aamir Khan’s house in Bandra is, and he likes it so. He carries with him few trappings of his stardom.
I once saw him being driven down Pali Hill, sitting in the front of a Maruti 800 with his wife Kiran Rao in the back.
Aamir is the thinking man’s hero in India. Who else to breathe life into Chetan Bhagat’s writing?
In the last 10 years, he has played hero in only six movies. Shah Rukh has had 17 releases in this time and Salman a remarkable 27.
This reflects their positioning as discerning man’s hero, slightly less choosy middle-class hero and indiscriminate mass hero. This positioning has come out of their personalities, and is therefore accurate. Family brands that do cars, pens and biscuits go to Shah Rukh to get themselves endorsed. Dollarbanian (vest) and Dixcy Scott banian are Salman’s domain. Coca-Cola got earnest Aamir to approve their bottling plants after reports of contamination with pesticide. He looks the part in doing such things.
But when Aamir tried his hand at real activism by supporting those displaced by dams on the Narmada, it brought trouble. He hadn’t known how strongly Gujaratis felt about this and did not anticipate their boycott of his movieFanaa. He has since dropped the issue.
Because his serious side lacks depth and commitment, Aamir is boring to write about. There isn’t much to say because the quality expected of a thinker is missing. It’s unfair to expect a Bollywood star to be profound, but that’s the image he has put out.
The most interesting, most charismatic of the Khans is Salman.
At one party a couple of years ago, he sat with his glass for the entire night on his toilet’s pot, inviting guests to visit him there.
In 2003, Salman was on Vijay Mallya’s yacht the Indian Princess for the Kingfisher calendar launch. I observed him, and noticed that he had repose, like Dick Diver in Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night. He was wearing a white shirt and jeans, and held a glass of vodka. At one point he reached for a cigarette. Seeking to free his hand and light it, he casually slipped the glass into the hip pocket of his jeans in one motion. It was the sort of thing a star might do in a movie.
He can also be funny. When a reporter asked him where he had picked up his accent from, Salman replied: “From sleeping with so many foreign chicks.” He used another word for sleeping with.
Sitting once with a group of chamchas, he flipped through a film magazine. He classified the heroines on its pages, stabbing his finger at their photographs: “Iski li, iski li, iski li(I’ve done her, and her, and her).” And then, stopping at an ageing actress, “iski nahin li(Not her)”, to laughter.
On Saturday, 28 September 2002, Salman was drinking at a nightclub in Juhu called Rain. He then drove down St Andrew’s Road in Bandra, and did not turn where the road hit a dead end next to the lane I lived. His Land Cruiser crashed into the workers of A1 Bakery, sleeping on the steps of a shop. He killed one man, Noorulla Sharif, and wounded or crippled four.
Salman, ever the hero, ran away, leaving those migrants bleeding and dying. They testified to seeing him get down from the driver’s seat. He surrendered 8 hours later, still with 62 mg of alcohol in his blood.
His police guard, constable Ravindra Patil, was blamed by Salman for driving. Patil lost his job and was disowned by his family. A newspaper published a photograph of him sitting on the floor of a bare room, skeletal from tuberculosis he had no money to treat. He died alone and bankrupt, at the age of 30 in 2007.
This had no effect on Salman’s popularity, and in fact his best period was ahead of him.
In a civilized nation, his audience would be repelled as Americans were with Errol Flynn after he was accused of statutory rape. Fortunately he’s popular in a culture with low morality and he can laugh off his behaviour. His charisma is intact.
Asked by The Times of India in 2007 why he had so few endorsements, he said he didn’t get them: “Arre, milte nahin hain endorsements. Karna kaun nahin chahta (I don’t get endorsements …who would not want to do them)?”
His explanation was that the cases against him put advertisers off, but that’s wrong. Nobody cares about that. It’s his image as a mass—that is, lower class—star.
Jailed for poaching, Salman appeared in court wearing a skull cap. He claimed this was not for sympathy, but it’s hard to dismiss the feeling that it was. He’s almost never seen in one otherwise and the Khan family prides itself on its pluralist traditions.
All three Khans are inclusive and none particularly devout. Shah Rukh and Aamir are married to Hindus.
Shah Rukh’s charisma is enigmatic in the sense that the inner man is hidden. He engages fans and the media easily, and enjoys, or says he does, the burden of celebrity.
SMS jokes refer to his flirting with homosexuality, but that does not ring true. He shows little sign of being effeminate.
When he clashed with Salman at a party (over the pressing question of who was the better game show host) he did not back down when Salman threatened to use his fists on him. Shah Rukh turned menacing: “Tu kya marega? Tu haath toh utha, main maroonga tujhe. Woh bhi teri party main, aur tere doston ke saamne,” he snarled. Salman, for all his musculature, kept sitting. I read somewhere that Shah Rukh refers to himself as a Dilli ka goonda, and though he doesn’t look it, perhaps he is.
The most charismatic of our stars ever, and the most fascinating to observe is Amitabh Bachchan.
On his blog Bachchan often complains about the media. In his movies he was angry, in life he is sulky. That this man, so adored by India for 40 years, can be resentful about a little criticism in an otherwise fawning media, reveals a disturbing insecurity.
In the 2009 elections, the Bachchans voted together and then came to face the media.
In a choreographed moment, the family showed off their voting mark by flipping their middle fingers at those filming and photographing them. Doing this into camera lenses meant their audience and fans would also receive this gesture. This does not seem to have occurred to the Bachchans.
In India, something read aloud in a grave manner will pass as literature. This is true for Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s and Narendra Modi’s poems and it is true for Harivansh Rai Bachchan’s most famous work.
Those who brave their way through Madhushala’s clichés will be struck by how vapid it actually is. My copy has an introductory essay by “Manoranjan”, former professor of Banaras Hindu University. The essay is embarrassingly shallow.
One evening, a couple of years ago, I attended a show at the Bandra Fort. Pakistan’s Zia Mohyeddin was reciting from Faiz and Bachchan was reciting, or rather singing, from Madhushala. I reported that Faiz’s heavily Persianized verse was inappropriate and went over the audience’s heads, and that Bachchan’s act was poor.
Mohyeddin wrote to me: “Your observations on Bachchan’s rendition are absolutely spot on… You have been kind enough not to mention that he is—and this surprised me—besura as well—As for Mr Bachchan’s recital, the less said the better. I listened to the first few phrases of his poorly inflected sing song—and bolted. As for the quality of his father’s poetry, Firaq Gorakhpuri’s comment, made over fifty years ago, was the ultimate.”
I don’t know what Firaq’s comment was, but it could not have been polite.
Chicken heart Salman, shallow Aamir, thuggish Shah Rukh, insecure Amitabh. What a fascinating reflection the mirror offers our stars.
Kipling wrote in Kim that India was the only democratic society in the world. Perhaps it is, but it’s not meritocratic. Birth privileges people in India more than any other nation, but this isn’t entirely true for Bollywood. You get an opportunity easily if your family is in the business, yes, but the audience decides who is charismatic.
The Khans, and Bachchan before them, have triumphed in the toughest market in the world, and that reveals something else about them.Aamir Khan Amitabh Bachchan Salman Khan Shah Rukh Khan