Note- Aamir Khan Decoded is a 6-part series encompassing the Bollywood superstar’s journey in the last thirty years through different phases of being a heartthrob, a method actor, an Oscar hunter, a media contributor and a money-maker.
Here is a question for anyone acquainted with Bollywood cinema history: Which face is more likely to strike a chord as a Bollywood star, is it (a) with stubble cheeks, unkempt hair, sweaty clothes, holding a gun or (b) clean shaven, perhaps with rouge, styled hair, designer wear and holding a guitar? As much rhetorical as this question may seem the truth is painfully undeniable. Choose any Bollywood star and dig up their most popular ventures in the early part of their careers. There is something eerily similar about all of them, e.g. Salman Khan in Maine Pyar Kiya (1989) and Hum Aapke Hain Koun (1994), Shahrukh Khan in Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995), Akshay Kumar in Khiladi (1992), Saif Ali Khan in Yeh Dillagi (1994). The eerie similarity of being a ‘chocolate hero’, a term wildly popular during late ‘80s and early ‘90s Bollywood era, is prevalent in all of them. That trend continued even later in 2000 for Hrithik Roshan in Kaho Na Pyar Hai. It definitely appears that you had to be a chocolate hero to become a star in Bollywood, and Aamir Khan (AK) was no exception.
A young guy is ‘rocking’ on a stage, his back to the camera, wearing a vest, dark pants, leather shoes, suddenly he turns his face to the camera, the clean shaven face, with rouge, styled hair and holding a guitar. A small ooooh! in the background as he introduces the event and begins a song about himself that goes along the lines of a young man living under the pressure of his father to make it big in the world while at the same time acknowledges that no one knows what his destiny is. This immediately struck a chord with then primary audience of college graduates as they began their journey into the real world. Someone said that for a character with no destiny the name of the movie was apt, Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak (1988) (QSQT) (literally speaking Doomsday to Doomsday). Later in the movie the face again shows up as the character runs and appears from the edge of a hill against the background of dusk, yet even again sitting outside his girlfriend’s house that chocolate hero face wearing sunglasses in a Leone-esque zoom fills up the screen. These became the most memorable images of AK in QSQT, as the audience unanimously awarded him the status of Bollywood star.
Three years later, in 1990, AK starred as another college dude who meets a girl in a chocolate hero romance of Dil (1990) (Heart). Dil was the no.1 box office hit in 1990[i]. Two commercial successes put AK’s cart in the top spot in the race for ‘superstar’ of Bollywood. So what did AK choose was streams of movies that could stand on the entire curve of commercial cinema from poor (e.g. Awwal Number, Tum Mere Ho, Afsana Pyar Ka, Love Love Love) to moderate (Daulat Ki Jung) to significantly successful (Dil Hai Ke Manta Nahin, Hum Hain Rahi Pyar Ke), including cult success like Andaz Apna Apna. Luckily for AK the commercially success of QSQT and Dil had a long lasting memory on the audience and provided sufficient cushion to survive commercial flops.
In this first chapter of AK’s career one notable venture was Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikander (1992) (JJWS, Only He Who Wins is King) which was loosely based on Breaking Away (1979). AK’s character had some of the chocolate hero elements from his other commercial successes; however there was one scene that almost broke the shackles of that goody-two-shoes image. It was during the third act when his elder brother gets into an accident and falls into coma and AK’s character assumes his brother’s responsibilities. The scene begins with AK’s friend running towards his father’s café as she yells out to AK and the fear of losing elder brother takes over as AK drops dishes. The scene continues as the audience watch from his brother’s point of view looking at AK who is standing next to the hospital bed. The naughty, procrastinating, girl chasing college dude from the first two acts is transformed into a new face as a responsible adult. This was the scene in AK’s list of commercially successful films that stood out and introduced him as a serious actor. The word serious is strictly used as something that was anything other than a ‘chocolate hero’. The audience embraced this face.
But was JJWS AK’s first serious role? No. Before QSQT Aditya Bhattacharya directed his buddy AK in then unknown film called Raakh (1989) (Ashes). This was an urban-noir setup for an anti-hero fuming with revenge for the injustice that the love of his life had suffered. Although flawed, the film was beautifully shot by Santosh Sivan (his first film) and presented AK with an opportunity to exhibit his acting skills for which he received a special mention by the jury of 1989 National Film Awards[ii]. Now there is no parallel between the stories of Raakh and JJWS. Raakh began filming before QSQT but was released after AK was awarded the Bollywood star status and did not strike a chord with the audience. It is tempting to blame that failure on the lack of chocolate hero image, since AK’s character in Raakh had stubble, unkempt hair, worn out clothes while holding a gun. But what is similar between Raakh and JJWS is the presentation of AK’s character who either was already or later in the film became serious. Moreover, both characters underwent physical training to acquire the necessary skills for the final act. Only in JJWS the audience accepted that ‘no-more-chocolate-hero’ image who went through physical transformation on screen. Question is why now in 1992 the audience accepted that serious face when they had turned their back against him in Raakh back in 1989? Maybe two opposite characters, from QSQT and Raakh, within one year was too much to cave in to in 1988-89, maybe the transformation in JJWS was only marginally different than chocolate hero. Now personally the later seems more reasonable since that transformation was not a fundamental change but one baby step for AK. What is important is that the trial experiment of JJWS worked and AK should be credited for pursuing that acting option 3 years after Raakh.
So here is a follow up question. What will you do next if you were AK? This 6-part series attempts to answer that very question via the following hypothesis: Aamir Khan has a talent to read the Bollywood market trend and that is what makes him successful. It may not be foolproof but it is sufficient to put him where he is today. I would like to believe that after JJWS AK utilized that talent for choosing acting roles farther away from a chocolate hero image and later utilized the same talent for harnessing the skills of directing and producing. That ability to recognize the market trend is AK’s primary skill, which turned out to be more useful than any other he either had inbred or would later instill. For starters it can be safely assumed that AK was cognizant of the fact that after JJWS audience awaited to see new shades of his acting. Bollywood film history is a witness to what followed in the year 1995, when a black market movie ticket trader who adorns thug couture falls in love with the girl next door aspiring to be an actress. That movie was Rangeela. AK’s character was more than a baby step away from the chocolate hero image. In the same year AK had starred in another movie called Baazi, directed by Ashutosh Gowariker, who also co-starred in AK’s adult acting debut Holi (1984). Both Rangeela and Baazi marked the beginning of a new chapter where AK took the challenge of method acting. How much of that challenge turned out to be merely a physical transformation, we will find out.
– Jateen Gandhi
[i] Box Office India (1990) webpage, retrieved from web.archive.org
[ii] “The jury desires to highlight the imaginative, innovative and promising performance of Character Roles in Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak and Raakh by Aamir Khan”, taken from the announcement of 36th National Film Awards. http://dff.nic.in/2011/36th_nff_1989.pdf