Recently I fulfilled a long-standing ambition to see a Bombay film in a Bombay theatre. I bought a ticket at the Regal in Colaba for a late-night screening of Luck By Chance, which is the thinking man’s Om Shanti Om with Farhan Akhtar playing Shah Rukh Khan’s role: the struggling actor set on becoming a hero. Like Shah Rukh in OSO, Farhan’s character, Vikram Jai Singh, makes it big; even more creditably, he manages to pull this off without the bother of reincarnation.
Watching Farhan Akhtar in this film (and this was the second film of his I’d seen in quick succession, the other one being the first-rate Rock On!!), it seemed truer than ever that the most successful and interesting male actors in Bombay cinema are Muslims and, the odd Akhtar apart, they’re nearly all called Khan. We have Aamir, Shah Rukh, Salman, Saif, Imraan and Irrfan, and if Farhan Akhtar had re-invented himself as Farhan Khan, he might not have had to wait till his early thirties for stardom. (Even the Khans who don’t make it — Sohail, Arbaaz, Fardeen — get a lot of press by failing in a newsworthy way.)
The importance of being Khan is made in a tongue-in-cheek way within Luck By Chance, via the character played by Hrithik Roshan. The film is full of guest appearances by major stars, including Aamir and Shah Rukh, who play themselves. Ironically, Hrithik plays his real-life role as the established megastar, but he doesn’t play himself: he’s a fictional star who is called…you’ve guessed it, Zaffar Khan!
So how is this significant? Well, you could argue that it proves that if you want to be a star in Hindi cinema, it’s worthwhile investing in a surname that begins with K. A great deal has been written on the way in which all the television serials made by Balaji Films begin with K, from Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu thi to Kkusum, but the fact is that K has been crucial for male stardom for more than half a century. Apart from maverick exceptions like Amitabh Bachchan, being a Kumar, a Kapoor or a Khanna was virtually a necessary condition for being a successful hero. Dilip Kumar took no chances on the K front; a Khan in real life, he covered his bases by being a Kumar on the marquee.
But trivia apart, does this harvest of Khans tell us something about Hindi cinema? A friend of mine claimed, only half-jokingly, that there was a story of Muslim empowerment to be found in the history of Indian cinema from Dilip Kumar to Shah Rukh Khan. First, he argued, you had Yusuf Khan who, starting out in the troubled Forties, used the camouflage of a Hindu name. Then, twenty years later, many years down the road from Partition, came Abbas Khan who started his film career as Sanjay and then reinstated his surname and came to be known as Sanjay Khan. And now the Hindi film industry is home to a whole crop of Khans who are proud to be known by their real names.
This is a plausible thesis but it misses the point. Yusuf Khan didn’t become Dilip Kumar on account of the ill will generated by Partition; he began his career before that traumatic division in 1944. And while there were many Muslims, men and women, who chose non-Muslim screen names like Madhubala, Meena Kumari and Johnny Walker, there were others like Mehmood, Rehman, Talat Mahmood and Nargis who didn’t. No, the real lesson that Khans, past and present, hold for us is that despite the large and powerful presence of great Muslim stars in Hindi cinema, the default identity of the heroes they play is Hindu.
Looking through the characters Dilip Kumar played through his long and distinguished career, I found that while he had been Jagdish, Ramesh, Ram, Mohan, Ashok, Manoj, Vijay, Shankar, Devdas and even Gunga, he had never played a Muslim character except once and that once doesn’t count because Prince Salim in Mughal-E-Azam is a historical character who happens to be Muslim.
This is not to suggest that this is born of bad faith or to imply that the Hindi film industry is, in some subtle way, ‘communal’. On the contrary, no professional world in India has been more open to talent and less concerned with ascriptive origin or identity than Bombay cinema. Anglo-Indians, Jews, Muslims, Parsis, Germans, Americans, people of every sort have come to this world with change in their pockets and have prospered. So it isn’t malevolence or discrimination that’s the issue; rather, a concern that Hindi cinema has become lazy, that it has been content to mine a narrow vein in a terrain that’s bursting with rich and various ores.
It can be reasonably argued that all commercial film cultures produce stock hero personas which reflect dominant cultural types and with which a mass audience can identify. Thus Hollywood was dominated for decades by the WASP hero: regardless of their own ethnic origin, actors like Gregory Peck, Charlton Heston, Rock Hudson and Paul Newman played variations on the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant theme. So if Hindi cinema produced a standardized hero called Raj who was Hindu, generally upper-caste, preferably light-skinned and subtly Punjabi, it was merely doing what all mainstream cinemas do to sell tickets and turn a profit. So if Sanjay Khan, like Dilip Kumar, never played a Muslim character in a long career till he produced and starred in a television serial about a historical figure, Tipu Sultan, it shouldn’t be cause for worry: it’s in the nature of the beast: commercial cinema is like this only.
What this argument neglects is the fact that as time passed, Hollywood became more diverse, not only in its personnel, but in the roles its heroes played. Brando played a Pole in A Streetcar Named Desire, Al Pacino and Robert De Niro played Italian gangsters, Will Smith pulled on a cape to play a black superhero, and a varied bunch of actors played a range of Jewish protagonists in Hollywood films. Paul Newman himself, whose father was a Jew, played the ardent Zionist, Ari Ben Canaan, in Exodus. The Chosen, Marathon Man, Funny Girl, Bugsy, Private Benjamin, The Way We Were and The Jazz Singer were films centred on Jewish characters of every sort: comic, heroic, scary and ordinary.
Contrast this with Bombay cinema where sixty-five years after Yusuf Khan, aka Dilip Kumar, made his debut, his Khan successors are still playing Vicky, Raj, Ajay, Karan and Vijay to the exclusion of any other sort of character; where Shah Rukh Khan plays Raj Mathur, Anil Bhansal, Ajay Sharma, Rahul Mehra and Vijay Agnihotri when he essays everyday Indians and, very occasionally, Amjad Ali Khan and Kabir Khan when a film wants to address communal harmony or discord and where Aamir Khan, after bravely playing a contemporary Muslim in his second film, Raakh, never played a Muslim character again till Fanaa, 17 years later, where he played Rehan Khan, a terrorist.
It can’t be healthy that in a film industry where the A-list of heroes is dominated by Khans and in a country inhabited by a 150 million Muslims, there are barely any films centred on ordinary Muslim characters going about their lives in a matter-of-fact way. Iqbal comes to mind and then…nothing.
But there’s hope yet: Shah Rukh Khan is currently shooting a film that is forthrightly called, My Name is Khan. It’s about “a Muslim man who suffers from Asperger syndrome”. Here’s hoping that by the time this remarkable bunch of Muslim actors are done with their careers, Khans might figure in the storylines of Hindi movies, not just on the marquees.