Aamir Khan’s films constantly redefine the parameters of mainstream

Aamir Khan like wine, refuses to age, at least his cinematic commitments and films show no sign of fatigue. As the ‘methodical actor’, not to be confused with a ‘method actor’ completes 57 years, Subhash K Jha looks back at his sparkling career.

The first time that I spoke to Aamir Khan was on a Diwali night sometime in the 1990s. I can’t remember the exact date. But there were no cell phones back then; at least I didn’t own one. The landline rang at around 9 pm and the voice on the other said, “This is Aamir Khan. Asha Aunty (Asha Parekh) told me to call you.”

Asha Parekh is of course my dear friend whom I had requested for introducing me to Aamir Khan. From that point onwards Aamir and I had long conversations—on and off record. When I met him for the first time, Aamir spent the entire conversation telling me about a script he had written with Sridevi in mind. He also told me about this star daughter who wanted to have a relationship with him. This confession shocked me. I presumed Aamir trusted me. But later when I spoke to him about our friendship, he chided me for presuming that we could be friends after meeting just once.

During my first visit to Aamir’s residence his then-wife Reena walked into the room with their son. During that time Aamir Khan was getting Lagaan ready for release. During the entire procedural before during and after Lagaan, Aamir and I were close. The phenomenal success of Lagaan had Aamir very excited: “I knew it was going to be a very expensive film. And in the short run it would make a dent in any producer’s resources. Secondly, I didn’t want to deal with a producer to whom the corp team of actors, director, cinematographer etc would have to be constantly answerable. For the sake of creative autonomy, I decided to produce Lagaan myself. So, I could be the person in a position to provide creative freedom to my entire team.”

Rani Mukherjee was the first choice for playing the leading lady in Lagaan. Gracy Singh came in much later. Mukesh Rishi dropped out just days before shooting and had to be replaced by Pardeep Rawat. On top of all this trouble there was the impending divorce. Aamir has never been averse to challenges. In his launch as a hero in Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak the ‘Boy Next Door’ image which became the reference point for Aamir’s image in future. He was the dependable guy next door who’ll come to your rescue if your wash basin gets leaky or your child goes missing.

Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar (1992) gave a mainstream sanctity to sports films in Bollywood. Prior to JJWS sports films didn’t work. Andaz Apna Apna (1994), the situational Tom & Jerry comedy came out of the closet with this one. Aamir had a ball both on and off the sets.This one set the tone for two-hero bantering films like Dil and Gunday. Lagaan(2001) broke many myths: that period films don’t work, that he wouldn’t be able to carry off a dhoti, that the West cannot be won by Bollywood. Lagaan went on to become one of the most beloved Bollywood films abroad. To this day it remains the only successful cricket-based film.

In Dil Chahta Hai (2001) released during the same year as Lagaan, Aamir played a character 10 years junior to his real age. This film directed by debutant Farhan Akhtar marked the advent of the youth film. Rang De Basanti (2006) one of India’s most influential films it created a new heightened social awareness about corruption in politics. Again, Aamir played a character at least a decade younger than his real age. Taare Zameen Par(2007) marked Aamir’s directorial debut, and created a special space for films dealing with problems pertaining to impressionable minds. This film is a textbook on the sacred guru-shishya relationship. The other side of the teacher-pupil equation seen in Whiplash.

3 Idiots (2009) is arguably one of Bollywood’s highest grossing films. It re-defined the parameters of the education system. It pointed out the faults in the faculty and assumed that an individual’s destiny needs not be shaped in the classroom. Delhi Belly (2011) was producer Aamir Khan’s salute to smutty cinema. It created a special space for the sex comedy that was not there in mainstream Hindi cinema. Lekin kya aisi ‘niche’ hakatein Aamir ko shobha detin hain? The debate rages on. Raju Hirani directed blockbuster PK did to organized religion what 3 Idiots did to formal education. A bold fearless trendsetter is how we can define this Khan.

29 years after Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak, Aamir Khan let us know why he is who he is, and why audiences consider him as bankable now as they did during the pre-monetization era. But one of my favourite Aamir performances is in Raakh(1989). Just before Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak and its silly boy-next-door promotional campaign, Aamir Khan proved himself an actor of volcanic intensity in Raakh, a vigilante film about an angry frustrated young man named, ahem, Aamir whose girlfriend (Supriya Pathak) is gangraped on the street as he watches helplessly. The film deconstructs Aamir’s rage and constructs the character’s revenge in scenes that play themselves out like chronicles of a police confession: broken, disjointed, seething in injustice. I’ve never seen Aamir scale these heights of implosive indignation ever again.

Basu Bhattacharya’s son Aditya who directed Raakh told me Aamir was his first and only choice even though Aditya had not seen much of Aamir’s work. Gut feeling for a character who is gutted from inside. I also love his performance in Deepa Mehta’s 1947: Earth (1998). Aamir argued and battled with director Deepa Mehta all through the making of this film. He hated the way his character shaped up. He hated everything to do with the film. But as Dil Nawaz the ice-cream seller during those troubled months of Partition, who has the hots for the ayah Nandita Das, Aamir gave the most controlled performance of his career, bringing out the communalization of a perfectly sane and reasonable man during the unreasonable insanity of communal riots. More than the spoken words we saw the change from gentle soul to hardliner in Aamir’s body language and his incandescent eyes. What a performance! Deepa Mehta still thinks this is Aamir’s best performance to date.

My other Aamir favourite is Rangeela (1995). Munna(Aamir Khan) the tapori in yellow pants, knitted vests, stubborn stubble and cocky caps. It would be seriously wrong to call Munna a goonda. He is more the neighbourhood rowdy Rathore in anything but khaki. Arguably the finest performance of Aamir’s career Munna gave Aamir a chance to let go, to simply have fun with a part without bothering with the earlier and future history of the character. The scenes where he coaches Urmila to memorize her dialogues for her shooting the next day, show the actor’s gaze melting in unrequited love as he gets ‘in character. Aamir actually played the all-giving Chandramukhi from Sarat Chandra Chatterjee’s Devdas with a sex change. He didn’t have to perform a Mujra to entertain love. The lovelorn looks when Mili isn’t looking (she has her eyes trained to a distant dream) kept Munna’s character on the level of a street-smart lover-boy without reducing him to a caricature. Munna’s hurt when Mili excitedly walks off in the middle of a lunch date to be with the superstar, was so palpable, we were inclined to shake Mili by her shoulders and point her to the obvious love that flowed out of Munna. Says director Ram Gopal Varma, “Aamir’s character was based on a street goonda I knew in Hyderabad. When I narrated Rangeela to Aamir he immediately agreed. He is an incredibly passionate performer.”

As Aamir prepares to release his next ambitious opus Laal Singh Chaddha I have only two pieces of advice for him: do not take yourself too seriously and please don’t cry at every movie screening.


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