Recently, megastars Aamir Khan and Shah rukh Khan appeared together at an event called ‘Fair Rights for Friday Night’ to explain the Bombay film industry’s stand on profit-sharing with multiplexes. As many remarked, it would be wonderful to see the two stars together on-screen. However, it would be considerably difficult. To understand why it requires exploring the cine-mythic spaces of both and delving into the recent history of the nation.
Both actors have redefined the idea behind ‘filmstars’. Their characters wander the world with the wonder of a traveller, returning to a soul that believes equally in the divine, the individual and the social.
Aamir Khan appeared on-screen in late 1980s and was an overnight sensation. He carved out an extraordinary filmic space, playing ‘everyday underdogs’, organising work through path-breaking moves new to an entropic film industry. In 1993, however, the unthinkable happened. After two notable filmic beginnings, SRK burst onto the screen powered by the force of psychosis. His manic thirst for revenge in Baazigar held a strange but strong attraction for audiences.
Against a backdrop of social unrest, SRK portrayed more screen villains, an insane stalker, a demented lover. With each successive psycho, he endeared himself more to viewers who loved his stammering deliveries, his shaky laughter and tightly-controlled overacting.
Then, DDLJ happened and it removed ‘Bombay’ from Bombay cinema. SRK was a Shammi Kapoor-like lover-boy cavorting against Swiss hills, New York nightclubs and the Thames. Bombay cinema now féted cosmopolitan mobility alongside conservative ‘Hindu Punjabi roots’. SRK encouraged a new cult of filmic personality, exploiting bodily appeal, engineering film gimmickry and boasting a love of money that broke all notions of brashness. SRK played unabashedly to India’s newly-moneyed middle class. In all this, Aamir Khan’s brand of cinema dug its heels deeper into Indian soil. His most noteworthy screen character was Bhuvan. Lagaan’s nomination at the Academy Awards took Aamir to a new, cosmopolitan viewership. Then, with an ‘airy’ Akash in Dil Chahta Hai, a rich Bombay playboy in a ‘business class’ world, Aamir’s range of characters dealt with the marginal, peasants, sportsmen, drop-outs and terrorists who challenge the system with varying results.
Around his 2006 blockbuster Rang De Basanti, India’s honeymoon with liberalisation was beginning to wane. With farmers’ suicides, soaring crime rates and crumbling infrastructure no longer easily swept under mall sales, Aamir’s ‘DJ’, advocating the vigilante killing of corrupt politicians, clicked. SRK’s lover-boys remained entertaining but rang a tad hollow against reports of the ill-treatment of Indian brides wedded to NRI grooms, limits closing on Indian emigration and indeed, the quiet appearance of the global recession.
Recently, the two stars have attempted switch-arounds with their roles. SRK’s portrayal of a Muslim hockey coach in Chak De India and later, a stodgy, small-town husband display his attempts to break out of his own glossy mould. Aamir’s ‘smash-hit’ portrayal of a millionaire seeking violent revenge in Ghajini displays his moving away from characters grounded in the social, legal and mundanely sane. They reflect the twists and turns India is taking as its new history unfolds. Its popular culture mirrors its emotions and mischievously suggests its dreams. The movements of its stars reflect changes in audiences, driven by transformations in experience, politics, landscapes and ideas.
Casting Aamir and SRK together would be an enormous filmic feat. Two diametrically opposed meta-characters, rooted in deeply contradictory socio-cinematic terrains, might be reconciled. Perhaps some of the biggest divergences in recent Indian history might find common ground. Until then, we-the-viewers can only be grateful for ‘Friday nights’ and their promise.
Srijana Mitra Das is with the Department of Social Anthropology, Cambridge University, UK.