The highly public alliance between Salman Khan and Shah Rukh Khan is more just about than two middle-aged men finding their respective inner Buddha. Every time Khan and Khan embrace on camera, as they most recently did for Bigg Boss, they not only boost television ratings but also send out an important message to that part of the world that watches their films (the other does not matter). Whatever their individual frailties, faultlines and troubled personal histories, together the superstars are a bit like comic book superheroes – formidable and almost invincible as one. In their attractive camaraderie, the two Khans play out a perfect Bollywood script with its highs, lows and explosive silences in between.

No matter how many times they hug it off, some followers and journalists still remember the day in 2008, when they had a bitter spat at a private party at Mumbai’s Olive restaurant. Insults traded over mysterious causes animated tabloids for several days. In 2013, local politician Baba Siddiqui gained enormous media mileage by bringing the two Khans together at an iftar.

The bitter aftertaste of Olive now seems to be a thing of the past. Both stars headlined the Rakesh Roshan blockbuster Karan Arjun in 1995, and they have since relived the moment in numerous television shows.

Shah Rukh Khan and Salman Khan recreate Karan Arjun for Bigg Boss in 2015. Courtesy Colors.
Shah Rukh Khan and Salman Khan recreate Karan Arjun for Bigg Boss in 2015. Courtesy Colors.

The two Khans could not be more different. One is to the manor born, the other is a hardworking outsider. If one is adept at courting serious controversies – and, for a while, seemed to have had blood on his hands – the other is destiny’s favourite child. If the happily single Salman Khan is shielded by his clan, Shah Rukh Khan is the benevolent patriarch who goes to great lengths to protect his wife and three children from gossip. Salman is not known for his felicity with words, while Shah Rukh possesses quicksilver wit and uncommon erudition.

While Salman Khan is enjoying the best phase of his career and has emerged as an unstoppable box office force, Shah Rukh Khan is trying to fine-tune his new avatar after recent setbacks. The stratospheric success of his recent films seems to have taken the edge off Salman and made him something of a gentle giant. The mixed responses to his recent marquee outings appear to have made Shah Rukh more introspective and vulnerable.

If Salman’s latest celluloid avatars have turned him into what Superman was to disillusioned Americans in the 1930s, Shah Rukh is the deeply conflicted, self-doubting Spider-man for the millennials. Is there anything not to like about their bonhomie then – one bro complementing the other?

United we stand

There is another aspect to the camaraderie, a strategy perhaps to counter critics and troublemakers who work the more sinister communal lines.

Both Salman and Shah Rukh have been the poster boys of diversity and tolerance. Salman holds an annual Ganesh Puja and has members of different faiths in his extended family. Shah Rukh has a Hindu wife and has frequently aired his views on multiculturalism and secularism. But Salman has also been careful to follow a script that steers clear from baiting religious fanatics while kowtowing to those who matter. Shah Rukh has been less careful and more candid, sometimes at a great personal cost.

Shah Rukh earned the wrath of right-wing trolls over his comments after no Pakistani players were selected for the Indian Premiere League team in 2010 (Khan argued that his team Kolkata Knight Riders, like other teams, should have been given the freedom to pick players from the neighbouring country.) Khan’s January 25 release Raees, which stars Pakistani actress Mahira Khan, has also endured protests by fringe groups. It makes sense for Shah Rukh Khan to have an influential ally in order to ensure a smooth release for Raees.

Salman, on the other hand, has gotten away more easily, even after making insensitive comments on rape while promoting the 2016 wrestling drama Sultan. After a well-timed photo-op in Gujarat with Narendra Modi during the Lok Sabha election campaign in 2014, Salman has been piling up the right kind of endorsements, from being a goodwill ambassador for the Rio Olympics to supporting the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation’s campaign on open defecation. Salman seems to have a very important message for his peers, especially Aamir Khan, who survived a horrendous backlash to his remarks on intolerance in 2015 – keep calm and fly kites in Gujarat.

Fans have always been divided between the two Khans. It is time they came together to celebrate the yin and yang of Bollywood as one. If there is any way to counter the Aamir Khan juggernaut, it is by invoking the Karan-Arjun avatar of yore.