What has made the three Khans such enduring stars, so adaptable to the changed India, and so relevant even thirty years on? It is because they have, along with their audiences, constructed myths about who they might be and, in particular, who their audiences would like them to be. These myths were by-products of their movies.

‘Middle-class hero’

Aamir Khan, the boy next door from QSQT, later emerged as a middle-class hero, reinventing himself virtually every year in a different kind of role. It began in 2001 with the irreverent and youthful Dil Chahta Hai and the epic Lagaan. As Akash in Dil Chahta Hai, he was the archetypal young man sleepwalking through his father’s money until he’s woken up by love, signifying the ‘friends as family’ dynamic for the youthful audiences who were increasingly studying and working in places far from their homes and reminding them of their ‘chamkile din’ (salad days).

With Lagaan, set in 1893, he told the story of a group of diverse villagers (including the Muslim Ismail and the ‘untouchable’ Kachra) taking on the might of their colonial masters by playing better cricket. Lagaan tried to reinvent patriotism for the Noughties, consciously assembling a team that cut across all social divides and celebrated a newfound confidence in India’s soft power.

With these two very different films, Aamir Khan re-established his credentials as the thinking man’s superstar, making films that invariably carried a message, whether it was Taare Zameen Par (2007) about a dyslexic child, 3 Idiots (2009) about the futility of the straitjacket educational system, or women’s empowerment in Dangal (2016). Satyameva Jayate (2012), his provocative TV show about real-life issues ranging from domestic violence to toxic food, only burnished his reputation as a thoughtful man interested in making a difference to society.

Lagaan (2001). Courtesy Aamir Khan Productions.

‘NRI hero’

Shah Rukh Khan’s emergence as the NRI hero dates back to the iconic Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (1995) and the less-celebrated Pardes (1997) with its ‘I Love My India’ ethos. Both films marked a distinct change for the actor’s persona, created by Baazigar (1993) and Darr (1993), which broke through the clutter of the early Nineties with the emergence of the ‘psychotic as protagonist’ (‘From Subjectification to Schizophrenia’, Ranjani Mazumdar, in Making Meaning in Indian Cinema). As Mazumdar writes, the psychotic hero of contemporary cinema no longer speaks the broad social language of the earlier ‘angry man’ but remains within a world of seemingly unrelated individual obsessions.

From there to the individualism of the overseas Indian was a swift leap, and the theatre-trained Delhi boy who came to Mumbai with ₹10,000 in his pocket and a shovel-full of dreams, was the perfect vehicle for this transition.

In many ways, Shah Rukh Khan made the passage to the West, with its attendant traumas of racial adjustment, worth the pain. His subsequent roles have been varied but they always underline his level of comfort with Western ways even while retaining his innate Indianness, most clearly seen in Swades (2004), where he plays a NASA scientist driven by the ambition of improving conditions at home. In his travels between India and America, between building a hydroelectric power generation unit for his ayah Kaveri Amma’s village and completing his project in NASA, Shah Rukh Khan’s Mohan Bhargava embodies the NRI’s increasing ease with living in the West while being happy to embrace his roots.

Kal Ho Na Ho (2003). Courtesy Dharma Productions.

This new take is a far cry from Manoj ‘Bharat’ Kumar’s Purab Aur Paschim (1970), where the West is shown as a deeply corrupt place that turns good Indians like Preeti, played by Saira Banu, into smoking, drinking, immoral creatures with dyed blonde hair. Preeti soon sees the errors of her ‘immoral ways’ but not before we are made to acknowledge India’s intellectual superiority as the land which pioneered everything from the zero to the decimal system and where every man is Ram and every woman is Sita.

There was no such conflict, however, in the development of the NRI hero. What we are fed is a celebration of his success. In his off-screen life too, Shah Rukh Khan has reiterated this, saying, ‘I am just an employee of the Shah Rukh Khan myth.’ He has revelled in the material wealth he has acquired, often saying, ‘Don’t philosophise until you’re rich first. I used to be poor, and I can tell you there’s nothing romantic about it.’

‘Working-class hero’

In the third Khan, Salman, one finds the working-class hero, a reinvention that happened with Tere Naam (2003). In this remake of the Tamil film Sethu (1999), he plays Radhe, a college rowdy who becomes obsessed with the local priest’s daughter to the point where he abducts her and loses his mind over her.

In the 2009 film, Wanted, he played another Radhe, this time a mysterious killer-for-hire, who stalks the woman of his dreams while terrifying the local police inspector and generally hanging about the city. This set the template for a series of Salman Khan movies, from Dabanng (2010) to Bajrangi Bhaijaan (2015), where he is the simple, good-hearted man who would do anything for a friend.

Bajrangi Bhaijaan (2015). Courtesy Salman Khan Fiolms/Rockline Entertainments.

This late career remaking followed Salman’s iconic portrayal of the naughty but nice Prem in Maine Pyaar Kiya (1989) and Hum Aapke Hain Koun (1994). The latter established Salman Khan as part of the story of the Indian family as a ‘form of imagined community’ as well as an ‘icon of national society’.

But with Tere Naam and Wanted, he acquired a new audience, the ordinary working-class Indian who wanted to watch a stylised version of his own self on-screen. Salman Khan was able to connect with the anxieties of the working-class male, about work, love and life, which explains the popularity of the crooked but loveable police officer Chulbul (Robin Hood) Pandey of Dabangg (2010).

It is interesting to examine how the Hindi film hero has changed, from the Five Year Plan (FYP) hero, a term suggested by Sanjay Srivastava, and exemplified by the Nehruvian heroism of Dilip Kumar to the Modernists (typified by the Nasir Husain hero) to the Angry Young Man brought to life by Bachchan, to the emergence of the three Khans, representing the middleclass hero, the NRI icon and the working-class champion. The FYP hero represented, in a broad sense, a particular formulation of Indian masculinity where manliness comes to attach not to bodily representations or aggressive behaviour but rather to being scientific and rational.

Excerpted with permission from The Three Khans and The Emergence of New India, Kaveree Bamzai, Westland Publications.