Released in India on January 25, 2023, Hindi-language action thriller "Pathaan" is Bollywood superstar, Shah Rukh Khan's, first film after a four-year hiatus.
At the time of writing, it has grossed $122 million (€115 million) at the global box office, breaking several records in the process. Besides currently being the highest grossing Hindi-language film of all time, it is the seventh highest grossing film of 2023 worldwide to date.
In a scene from the film, the 57-year-old actor, popularly known as SRK, and his co-star Salman Khan in a cameo role, allude to the lack of worthy successors in the Hindi film industry.
Though meant as a joke, it is not that different from reality. To date, the Hindi film industry or "Bollywood" has seen no other star attain the level of the "Three Khans." Comprising Shah Rukh, Salman and Aamir Khan — all in their late 50s and not related to each other — this trio has ruled the industry for decades.
Dying era of Bollywood?
"There is definitely a sense of nostalgia attached to them, the sense of them representing a gradually dying era of Hindi cinema. They have also spent decades building a solid foundation of admirers," Rosheena Zehra, editor and curator at Shorted, a short-film curation platform, told DW.
Zehra further explained how each Khan carved a niche — Shah Rukh as the romance king, Salman as the "bhai" or brother and Aamir as the intellectual — for a very particular brand of cinema that none of the actors after them have established.
All three began their film careers around the same time but had different journeys. Aamir and Salman hail from acting dynasties in Bollywood, while Shah Rukh was an outsider from India's capital, New Delhi. Aamir gradually fell behind the other two in terms of quantity and popularity of films.
Regardless of how their films fared in theatres or critics' opinions, the Khans enjoy immense popularity among the audiences. With their charisma and larger-than-life presence, they have fans from all ages and walks of life.
Shah Rukh and Salman Khan often come out and stand on platforms erected at their respective residences, namely "Mannat" and "Galaxy," and wave to their fans especially on occasions such as their birthdays or festivals like Eid. Tourists to Mumbai also often come by to see their homes.
"For someone to be considered a superstar, there has to be an element of delusion that if I climb up a viewing platform, there must be hundreds of people waiting for me to wave to. Everybody else is an actor, a star, but being a superstar requires delusion. There is also the belief that 'If I make a film, people are going to come watch me'," Abhishek Mande Bhot, writer and former digital editor of GQ India told DW.
Shah Rukh targeted by Hindu nationalists
College student Rashi* and her group of friends have watched "Pathaan" twice within a month. "We’re going to watch it a third time, and maybe a fourth!" While she doesn't find the film that great, they are all going to watch it for Shah Rukh Khan. "After what he’s been through with his son’s arrest and the polarization in the country, he has remained nothing but positive and we want to show him our support," she told DW.
Shah Rukh’s son, Aryan Khan, was arrested and detained on drug charges last year, though many believed the actor was unfairly targeted for being a Muslim star in a country with rising anti-Islamic sentiments.
Some fringe Hindu groups had also protested against a song in "Pathaan," in which actor Deepika Padukone is seen wearing a saffron bikini. The color saffron bears significance in Hinduism, and has been adopted by some Hindutva groups as the color of their flags.
The popularity of the Khans often attracts the ire of extremist Hindutva trolls on social media, with increasing attacks against Muslims in India. Shah Rukh and Salman have largely refrained from openly expressing their political views.
"A superstar is also someone who gives the nation hope during these dark and polarizing times. Through all these difficulties, SRK maintained a dignified silence. And then through his movie, he gave us all one weekend of hope. Can you imagine anyone else doing that?" asks Abhishek Mande Bhot.
What makes a star 'super'
As Indian films became slicker and more stylized, the Khans have also adapted to changing times and thus now appeal to younger generations too.
"The Khans are also among the first to recognize the importance of fitness. All three of them worked on getting six packs, and look believable as the heroes. This is what separates them from the previous generations, who couldn't play the lead of a film because they looked old," explains Abhishek Mande Bhot.
While there are talented younger actors, like the hugely popular Ranbir Kapoor and Ranveer Singh and also female actors like Deepika Padukone and Alia Bhatt, industry observers feel that they will not reach "superstardom" status because the concept will not exist for much longer. The global pandemic and lockdowns served as a setback to several Bollywood stars. With the rise in online streaming services, Indian audiences are now able to access entertainment that goes far beyond mainstream cinema.
"The newer actors have also over-exposed themselves over social media, taking away much from the myth of a superstar, the mystery and aura that pretty much made them who they are. Now I've to simply open Instagram to see what an actor's workout or last meal or vacation looks like. Where is the 'super' in that?" asks Rosheena Zehra.