Aamir Khan, The Iconoclast

We factory-produce a thousand plus movies in India every year and we’ve dozens of icons. Yet, a few iconoclasts!

We’ve been religiously adding our quota of thousand-plus movies to the list of movies made everywhere around the world. Yet, when I started watching the movies as a movie fanatic in 2009, and scrounged the net for the list of great movies to watch, I found only a dozen Indian movies classified as great movies by venerated publications and top critics. Most of the good movies were made by people in the distant past by names like Satyajit Ray, Bimal Roy, Guru Dutt, Raj Kapoor, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Shyam Benegal, Mrinal Sen, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, K. Balachander, Vijay Anand, Ritwik Ghatak and others. In the recent years we’ve had names like Vishal Bhardwaj, Anurag Kashyap, Shekhar Kapoor, Mani Ratnam, Rituparno Ghosh, Rajkumar Hirani, making good cinema. After binge watching a thousand plus great movies in the last few years, when I tried to make a list of the movies I genuinely respect and love, I could hardly find a lot many movies which we can call world class. Why mediocrity thrives in Indian cinema? Nepotism, little respect to originality, suffocating star system, writers relegated to a third class citizenry – these are among the reasons advanced by the critics. I agree with all of these. Period. Indian film industry believes in inbreeding, stars are egocentric maniacs, we copy a lot, it is awfully tough to enter and survive in the industry. Undoubtedly true. I won’t talk about all these reasons. I’d rather talk about the way, a big star has broken the mould to bring some kind of magic into Indian cinema, bridging the gap between commerce and art.

Aamir Khan is that iconoclast.

Aamir started as a cliched teen heartthrob, and graduated to comedic/dramatic roles. Right from the beginning of his career, he  was recognised for his doing-one-film-at-a-time habit. In this respect, he was like the great thespian Dilip Kumar. He was always accused of meddling in the film-making process, and imposing his vision on the Director of his film. He spent a decade-and-a-half making regular potboilers, that were like the countless other movies made by countless other stars of Indian cinema. Bollywood, the Hindi cinema, is known for stars who follow the trend and stay trapped in the image they project. There was no one like Mammootty or Mohan Lal in Bollywood, who mesmerised the masses and the classes, and straddled the two realms of commerce and art. The stars were always expected to be perfect. No grey strands, no pot belly, always playing the same version of themselves, playing safe by signing movies with established directors, following the director’s vision to the hilt, self-referencing themselves in a mock-meta manner. Even Amitabh Bachchan, the greatest star actor of Hindi cinema, mostly played safe, by signing films with established filmmakers and doing many movies simultaneously.

Aamir broke the unwritten rules applicable to the big stars. The rules were:

  1. Do more films, after all only quantity matters,
  2. Find your reel image, and stay trapped in that image,
  3. Give award worthy performance, buy them if you can’t do that,
  4. Stay insecure by signing more films of the same kind,
  5. Camp is good, join one when small and start one when you become bigger,
  6. Go solo, don’t share your stardom with other lesser stars,
  7. Social message is for the Art House filmmaker, &
  8. Don’t meddle with the director’s vision.

Aamir broke all these rules. 2001 was the year, Aamir burst forth as an original movie maverick, an iconoclast. Lagaan(2001) was a project no Indian super star would have ever attempted at that point of time – a revisionist history film about a bunch of nobodies playing cricket in rural India during British time. Aamir did, and produced the film. It clicked, and that was the start of his era of iconoclastic super stardom. Dil Chahta hai(2001) followed the same year. It was again a risky venture – a director making his debut(Farhan Akhtar), an ensemble cast. It clicked. After this glorious year, Aamir spent the next few years in doldrums, growing a moustache to play a rebel soldier from 1857 in Mangal Pandey(2005). The film was weak and it flopped. But Aamir, the method actor, continued with his madness. In 2006, he again erupted on screen in the twin roles of DJ/Chandrashekhar Azad in Rang De Basanti, an ensemble drama. Indian stars generally refuse to share screen with other actors, and if they ever do, they manipulate the director to chop the role of the lesser stars. But Aamir, despite his stardom played the role of one among equals gamely. Rang De Basanti was followed by Fanaa(2006), a routine movie. Taare Zameen Par(2007) washed out the relative mediocrity of Fanaa. It was a pet project of Amol Gupte, who wrote this film about a dyslexic child. The film broke new ground by embedding a social message in the medium to entertain and enlighten the common Indian moviegoers. In 2008, he acted in an action thriller Ghajini which emerged as the biggest money grosser till that time. the movie was an unofficial remake of Memento. The noirish horror thriller Talaash(2012) was another uncommon choice; it misfired. Dhoom 3(2013) is that rare Aamir starrer which followed all the rules which a non-Aamir mainstream star is expected to follow – big production house, rehashed scenarios from Hollywood, larger than life hero, illogical plot.

Aamir started acting in movies that seamlessly blended social comment with entertainment, art with commerce. He acted in Rajkumar Hirani’s 3 Idiots(2009), which talked about the malaise in the Indian education system due to emphasis on grades and rote learning instead of original thinking. He produced Peepli Live(2010), a satire about farmer suicides and media circus. PK(2014) was another blockbuster from Aamir-Hirani team. It was a satire on hypocrisy of religion in the garb of science fiction comedy. It was the highest grossing Indian film till Dangal(2016) broke its record recently.

Like the last few years, Aamir starrer Dangal arrived just before Christmas/New Year holidays and shattered all existing records. This time Aamir tackled a Sports Biopic about the struggle of a father to make his daughters achieve success as wrestlers in a patriarchal  society. He gained and lost weight and entered Robert De Niro’s Raging Bull territory by growing a pot belly to play Mahavir Phogat. He took method acting to an Indian extreme, a rarity. The movie proved all predictions wrong by beating the effects of demonetization and cash crunch.

Indian film stars are a vulnerable, insecure lot. This reflects not just in their choice of movies, but also their running away from socio-political issues. Most of the Bollywood stars, avoid commenting on issues, for fear of offending someone somewhere. Aamir Khan broke another rule by creating Satyamev Jayate(2012-Present), a TV Talk Show based on the frank discussion of social issues afflicting millions of Indians. Another act of iconoclasm. He has been an outspoken star, who has sometimes stepped into issues leading to a cauldron of criticism.

Aamir is that rare Indian film star who plays a character and avoids (faux) award shows like a plague. He is unafraid of sharing screen space with relative newcomers and being directed by young filmmakers. Most of the filmmakers who’ve directed Aamir have given their best work with him. Perhaps it shows his meddling, his perfectionism has rubbed off on them too.

Aamir Khan remains an enigmatic star – both an icon and an iconoclast.

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