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.Part I of the series is here.
A black & white image of Pran, one of the prominent actors of classic Bollywood era, flashes against a black screen, followed by other prominent actors such as Raj Kapoor, Nargis, Amitah Bachchan, etc. This picture show is viewed by a girl in a portable vintage stereographic viewer. As the picture show gets over, the girl pays the vendor and goes off screen. A singing voice booms in the background, followed by a blast, as the street vendor turns and sees the girl singing and dancing from the excitement of being a Bollywood fan. This was the opening of Rangeela (1995) (Flamboyant, Colorful), which marked the beginning of Aamir Khan’s (AK) method acting career.
AK had dropped his squeaky clean, groomed, shaved, stylized image of chocolate hero and picked up the challenge to exhibit his acting skills by flaunting thug couture classified by dirty rags, uneven stubble, no shower and torn shoes. Moreover AK picked up Mumbai-style rowdy slang in his first scene in Rangeela as a black market movie ticket seller. The aforementioned girl is his friend next door, aspiring to be an actress. Given her background which was more acceptable in social norms compared to AK’s street persona, when AK’s character falls in love with her his ways of wooing her were almost unheard of. This was an unusual love story for AK, compared to any of his earlier movies, but it indeed was the ease with which he played the character was arguably the reason behind the instant approval by audience. Two scenes stand out. First, AK invites his love to an upscale restaurant in an outfit which would put the big bird’s yellow suit to shame. As he is about to open his heart to her, she gets dragged by her film fraternity. The start of that scene was designed purely for comic indulgence, but ends up with teary eyed melancholy. What was great? AK was wearing dark sunglasses but his body language is enough to convince the heart break[i]. Second scene is when he attempts for the second time to open up to her on her birthday party, however with the same exact end result of distraction by film fraternity. AK hides the ring in his fist quietly. Both the scenes spoke volumes, without much dialogue, about how his character understands the limitations, about how AK as an actor wanted to graduate to the level of method acting, about how AK wanted to take the risk of convincing the audience that street rowdies can have a heartfelt moment as well.
Rangeela was a huge pay off for AK’s method acting experiment. However the success of the movie did not entirely rest upon AK’s shoulder. There also was a fantastic score by A. R. Rahman, the bold attitude by Urmila Matondkar, the aspiring actress, who herself broke the shell of her 12 year younger image from Masoom (1983, Innocent) and most importantly it was the director Ram Gopal Verma (RGV). If there were no movies released under RGV production after Rangeela, Satya (1998), Kaun (1999) and Sarkar (2005) and if there was a Hollywood Boulevard in Mumbai, RGV would have had his name carved in a stone. The scrolling black & white images of actors in the opening scene of Rangeela were a metaphor for the classic Bollywood era which was now left trapped in a vintage picture viewer and a new colorful Bollywood era was about to begin and its arrival was ushered by AK. Above all, the key aspect to be noted was AK’s ability to read the market trend post success of Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikander (1992). After Rangeela AK wanted push the envelope even further.
The same year as Rangeela AK starred in another movie which became practically non-existent in the wake of Rangeela’s success but could be termed as a flagship of AK’s acting intentions. Baazi (Bet) was perhaps AK’s most variety performance in any movie ever. Baazi was directed by his old buddy Ashutosh Gowariker, who also co-starred with AK in Holi (1984). Even though the primary role was a cop, AK put on many faces in Baazi. Starting from posing as a servant to his own house maid, to a beetle leaf chewing-eye liner wearing Hyderabadi loafer, to perhaps the most outrageous of all the performances ever in his career AK put on a wig of shoulder length curly hairs, colored his lips red, and slipped into a cabaret gown and sang at a gentleman’s bar. Although personally his cop was most memorable, the variety of performances that he exhibited was an experiment purely in the realm of physical appearance. Later AK tuned up his rowdy-thug-Mumbai slang act from Rangeela into a boxer, in Ghulam (1998, Slave). The movie was a rip-off of On The Waterfront (1954), for which AK build up his muscles, sang a song, danced like Rocky Balboa to the tune of punches of local gangster and flaunted his face barely held together by shiners. Although memorable, that performance was nowhere close to the effortless acting display of Rangeela. A friend of mine noticed AK’s trimmed eyebrows in Ghulam[ii] which resembled the bows of Jack Nicholson or yet even Shahrukh Khan (SRK), who at the time of Ghulam was already enjoying super-stardom from the successes like Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995) and Dil To Pagal Hai (1997). Did AK blow the horn announcing his intentions to reach super-stardom? It is tempting but it may not be worthwhile to make a mountain out of a mole and besides, this topic is beyond the scope of this series. Yet, what should be noted is that Ghulam marked second incidence where AK had made any adjustments to his eyebrows. In Holi it looked like AK had a unibrow. Not that it mattered back in 1984 because Holi was a student film project and stayed buried until the birth of internet. But when 4 years later AK made an official debut in Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak (QSQT) the unibrow was gone and what remained was a chocolate hero image. What is even more interesting is that the trimmed eyebrows from Ghulam now can be noticed even today[iii].
Now in this second chapter of AK’s career there were three[iv] notable performances which did not need any blatant physical transformation. The first one was Akele Hum Akele Tum (1995), which was loosely based on Kramer vs. Kramer, in which AK played the father fighting for the custody of his child. Second was 1947-Earth (1998), which was second in the series of trilogy directed by Deepa Mehta, in which AK played one of the vertices of a love triangle set in the period of India-Pakistan separation and third was Sarfarosh (1999) where he played a cop investigating prime suspects in an arms trade spread over thousands of miles. None of those three characters had any significant physical layers to display. But just like Rangeela it was the effortless acting that made his characters believable. Although 1947-Earth did not have any major canvass for AK to paint his acting shade but it was the scene of his true love slipping away from his hands and the subsequent betrayal which became the coup-de-grace. This arguably was the best anti-hero performance AK ever played. On the contrary in Sarfarosh he was a patriotic officer who could easily pummel anybody twice his size. Out of those three, Sarfarosh enjoyed biggest commercial success and praise from critics. Admittedly just like Rangeela AK was not the sole reason behind Sarfarosh’s success. First time writer-director John Matthew Mathan wrote an extraordinary spy story which did not hesitate from putting a finger on the cause of then prevalent terrorism fueled by Pakistani organization Inter-Services Intelligence in the southern corners of India. Sarfarosh broke the norms of sugar coating political issues by displaying cold hard facts. This was AK’s last memorable acting performance which did not require any physical transformation.
Now consider the following plot of a movie about friends who grow up in the same town. Just like any childhood buddies they savor every moment of their youth by partying, taking vacations, chasing girls. One of the friends falls for an older woman. Also they get into a fight over a girl to the extent of never talking to each other and then one day one of the friends visits the school, remembers his lost friendship and goes back to his old buddy to reconcile. Sounds familiar? Well these were some of the pivotal moments of The Last Picture Show (1971), which stands amongst the top films of 1970’s Hollywood New Wave. Directed by first time director Peter Bogdanovich and based on a novel by Larry McMurtry, The Last Picture Show was about male bonding, friendship and fleeting time. Luckily for Bollywood audience 30 years later all of those elements of male bonding, friendship and fleeting time were recreated by first time filmmaker Farhan Akhtar in Dil Chahta Hai (DCH) (2001, A Heart Desires). Although not as commercially successful as Rangeela or Sarfarosh, DCH brought to the screen AK in yet another new avatar. This time he had shortened his hair, his prominent ear lobes now showing, and a goatee. AK maintained trimmed eyebrows from Ghulam. DCH was a cult success, courtesy of flawless storytelling by Akhtar and brilliant performances by AK, Akshaye Khanna and Saif Ali Khan. Personally the scene which stood out was the one where AK’s character mis-dials his lost friend, without even realizing. This was male bonding and friendship right there.
AK’s new image now had set him off in a new direction, because inspite of the success of Sarfarosh which did not demand any physical change, almost every single role that AK chose after DCH exhibited either moderately or significantly different physical transformations. Given AK’s ability to read and predict the market did it work? Yes and no. Because in addition to his market reading ability AK now learned about a new skill, advertising. It was his appearance on Kaun Banega Crorepati (India’s Who Wants to be a Millionaire) when AK first displayed his transformed look for DCH and suddenly every entertainment article was talking about it. That appearance worked like a charm to draw in people, including myself, to theatre. But before AK could improve advertising skills he chose another step in his acting career, and that brings us to the next chapter. In DCH his character introduces a college graduation party, just like AK’s character did in QSQT. Watching that scene today seems like DCH was a full circle which ended his acting career as AK picked up the tools of production with a long-time collaborator Ashutosh Gowariker for the most ambitious project of his life. We know how that project fared critically, commercially, domestically and internationally, but that very project infected AK with a resilient parasite, the Oscars.
– Jateen Gandhi
[i] Private conversation with Sachin Bhople
[ii] Private conversations with Sachin Bhople
[iv] Raja Hindustani (1996) was also a ‘no physical change needed’ performance by AK, and the highest grossing film of 1996, however the author wants to refrain from commenting due to the impression of what appeared to be a stroke of luck.