This is fun, doing these little over view posts! The lists help me from getting all tangled up in my own thoughts, and let you join the discussion, because everyone has an opinion on what wasn’t included and should have been, and what was included and shouldn’t have been.
1.1. Ashok Kumar
The first star. The brother-in-law of an editor at Bombay Talkies, he came down from Calcutta to work with him. And after a last minute very dramatic casting change (the hero ran off with the married heroine/studio co-founder, she came back, the hero was fired), Ashok was pulled from the editing room to become a Star.
Ashok’s biggest gift was his charm. He smiled at you, and you just had to smile back. He began as a handsome young man type lead, but quickly transitioned to more of an elder statesman mature charmer. He was suave, he was urban, he was the New India. Beautifully tailored suits and stylish fedoras, walking down city streets or in dark nightclubs. Singing a hopeful promise for a better future.
He was the first true Star of Indian film, someone that people came to rely on as a guarantee of a certain kind of quality, who they would follow film to film, and through out his life as well. And Ashok was the first Star to be smart enough to use this following. He learned everything he could about the machinery of Bombay Talkies and then briefly took it over before starting his own studio. He created a family dynasty, launching his 2 younger brothers and cross-marrying into all the leading film families of the day. The elaborate connections of marriage and blood, with the Stars at the center of the net pulling the strings, which are how the industry runs today, that was all started by Ashok.
2. Raj Kapoor
The first second generation star, and one of the 3 fathers of a new era of Hindi film. Raj’s father Prithviraj was a star of the 30s and 40s. Raj was launched without much fanfare at age 21. By 23, he was a Star in his own right and wanted to produce. By 27, he had essentially invented Hindi film with his 3rd film as a producer, Awara. Raj Kapoor gave us the fantasy song, the rain song, the childhood flashback, the mythology turned modern plots, and so much more.
Raj’s onscreen persona was “Chaplin-esque”. In some ways he was an imitation of “the Little Tramp”, walking the roads in worn out clothes. But his characters never had Chaplin’s innocence and simplicity. They were complicated, angry, ambitious, but clothed in a love for the people. Raj’s last great role was in his film Mere Naam Joker, playing the clown who cries, and that was essentially his onscreen persona. Laughing, happy, bringing joy to others, but hiding his own heartbreak.
You can’t possibly overstate Raj’s influence on the industry as a whole. He founded one of the major studios lots, RK Studios, where a good percentage of films are made to this day. He made the top record breaking hits for 30 years, movies that did 3 or 4 times the business of films from any other producer. And he served as the cheerful head of the new film community. RK Studios hosted the massive annual Holi party that brought together every part of the industry, Raj himself was there to help at every wedding, every awards show, bringing the party with him and making people feel like the really were part of a film “fraternity” not just a film industry.
3. Dev Anand
Dev was good friends with Raj, and began his career around the same time. But he was an outsider, who came to film simply because he knew he was handsome and thought he might have a future. He began in films made by his good friend Guru Dutt in the 1950s, and then launched his own production house with his brothers and went on to be the king of twisted thrillers with heart through them. His greatest role was unarguably in the film Guide, in which he played his usual urban sophisticate type, who slowly is worn down and changed by circumstances into a religious guru.
Dev was shockingly handsome as a young man, debonair, “cool” in every way. He was the urban detective, the conman, the lover. He was also the “Evergreen” star, working literally until the day he died in his 80s. He played romantic heroes in hit films all the way into his 40s, launching generations of actresses opposite him. Old age was anathema to him, he always wanted the most modern, the newest version. He went from films about night club singers and bootleggers in the 50s through to the ultimate hippy film in the 1970s (Hare Rama Hare Krishna) without a stumble.
Dev brought a new brightness to Indian film, both on and off screen. His social message films of the 50s gave way to the happy colorful films of the 60s in which all problems, no matter how complicated, were solved in 3 hours or less. And he was always encouraging, always happy to bring in new bright young things to film. The list of actresses he discovered and launched opposite him is legion and includes most of the top female stars of the 1950s-70s, everyone from Waheeda Rahman to Zeenat Aman.
4. Dilip Kumar
The last of the 3 kings of the 1950s. Raj was called “The Showman”, Dev was “The Evergreen Star”, and Dilip was “The Tragedy King”. Dilip was also generally considered the greatest real actor of the 3. He spent endless time working on his characters, the language of the dialogue, the look, the mannerisms, everything. His two greatest roles, the title role in Devdas and Prince Salim in Mughal-E-Azam were both tragedies. But then, his 3rd most popular role was in a comedy, the double role in Ram Aur Shyam. Truly, an amazing range.
Dilip was a handsome young man, yes, but that wasn’t his main appeal. It was the shadowed eyes, the refined Urdu influenced pronunciation, the willingness to throw himself utterly into a role. He brought a new realness to performing in Hindi film, a level of depth that actors today still look up to.
It was his acting that was his greatest influence on the rest of the film industry. He was there as a resource and a mentor for dozens of young actors. And directors and songwriters and scriptwriters. Dilip brought his experience and talent and knowledge to bear on every aspect of filmmaking and influenced others to be as professional and dedicated as he was. He is today considered the beloved “Dilip Sahib”, grandfather of the industry, with new generations of stars still gathering at his feet to learn from him.
5. Rajesh Khanna
The first SuperStar. The early stars, their following built up film by film. But with Rajesh, his movie Aradhana came out in 1969 and he was the biggest star India had ever seen overnight. He had an unbroken run of 15 hits after that, still a record. And then he began to fade, losing his stardom after less than 5 years on top. He still acted for another dozen years, still had a following and hit films, but that magical SuperStardom was brief for him. Brief, but important enough that he deserves his place on this list.
Rajesh was the first real heartthrob hero. The previous stars, they had their handsome face and charm, plenty of women followed them. But Rajesh literally drove women crazy. They would faint or go into hysterics on seeing him, or even just watching his films. He had a particular way of cocking his head to the side and half-smiling that just devastated the audience. And then whatever that indefinable thing was that he had, it started to go away as he got older.
Rajesh’s place in film history is as that first superstar, the one who blazed the path and proved it was possible to be that popular. But he never really gave back to the industry as a whole. He didn’t found a studio, or mentor other actors, or even act as a genial host and head of the community. And, I think, it is partly because he kept himself so aloof that his stardom was so brief. His one big impact was agreeing to be in the film Daag, which helped launch Yash Chopra’s independent banner, thus the “Raj” in “Yash Raj Films” is for Rajesh.
6. Amitabh Bachchan
A new era begins with Amitabh. An era we are still living in! Son of a poet, he began as a sophisticated drawing room comedy type of actor. And then with Zanjeer in 1973, he found his voice as the spokesperson for the angry underclass. Amitabh went from strength to strength, he had the acting ability of a Dilip Kumar with the charisma of a Rajesh Khanna, the timelessness of a Dev Anand, and the personal dedication to maintaining the industry community of a Raj Kapoor. He was firmly on top for over 10 years, and then had a slow slide for another 10, before finally being reborn as a character actor and revered Father of the industry.
Amitabh is tall and intense with a beautiful deep voice. He recites dialogue like it is his father’s poems, and moves like he owns the earth. As a young man, he wasn’t so much attractive as magnetic, man or woman you could not look away from him. As he aged, that level of appeal lessened, but his acting only went from strength to strength, he can break your heart now with a mere raise of the eyebrow.
Amitabh briefly founded his own company in the 90s, Amitabh Bachchan Corporation Limited (ABCL), but it never really took off. His influence on the industry wasn’t through those official channels, but unofficially. He modeled for everyone else a level of professionalism, class, and care that was an inspiration. He has worked with new young directors and actors his whole career, lending a helping hand to bring them to the notice of the audience. Most of all he has taken the lead in showing how to interact with fans. He goes out every Sunday to wave to the crowds gathered around his house, he is active on twitter, he calls them all his “EF” (extended family).
7. Aamir Khan
Son and grandson and nephew of minor film producers, Aamir grew up in the industry but not in the wealthy famous powerful side of it. He started in a young romance, Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak, and made an immediate impact. He worked steadily in a whole variety of young romances after that (his baby face made it hard for him to play anything beyond “young lover”), but then started to slowly transition to more a “serious actor”. He was the first star to declare he would only work on one film at a time, and to take an active interest in making sure that film would be of the highest quality. He was the first star of the new generation to found a film studio, “a. films”. He also became a loud voice for social reform in the country, with his successful talk show Satyamev Jayate. His rare films (one a year or every 2 years) are always an event, and he is still the top box office earner in his 50s.
Aamir’s appeal is shifting. When he was young, it was his innocent look and earnest manner. As he aged, he experimented more and more with his look and personality, becoming known as a perfectionist, different in every role, dedicated to never doing the same thing twice. He went from being a popular young romantic star, to being popular among the overseas audience and the upperclass educated audience, the kind who wouldn’t normally watch Hindi films, because his films were a step above in quality.
Aamir generally avoids industry events. He doesn’t attend awards shows, or weddings, or many funerals even. But once a year he throws a massive Diwali party, he is a dedicated mentor to his younger costars, and he is always respectful and courteous to all his acting contemporaries. He has had a huge impact in driving the industry forward on the world stage, starting with his massive efforts to get Lagaan noticed at international festivals and awards shows. And he has had a big impact on the industries public face, making it acceptable to speak out on political and social issues, so long as it is done in a balanced and careful manner.
8. Salman Khan
Son of Salim Khan, brilliant scriptwriter of the 1970s, and stepson of Helen, the greatest Item Dancer of Hindi film history. Salman had film connections, but he didn’t use them to get his break, he worked hard on his body and his abilities and eventually was cast in the young love story Maine Pyar Kiya (1989). From there, he signed a string of love stories, some hit and some flopped but he kept working. He tried a variety of genres starting in the mid 90s, comedy and action, and slowly evolved into an all around star with a devoted following of vocal fans. He is still one of the top stars now, in his 50s, and has founded his own small production house and begun to produce.
Salman’s appeal is hard to explain but easy to see. He just has so much heart in everything. Whether it is a love story or an action film or a comedy, Salman is there 110%. It’s an odd career path, young lover to action star, but it makes sense because that heart is always there. When he was young, it was devoted to romancing the heroine. Now it is devoted to protecting the heroine and the people of India.
Salman is in some ways the heart of the industry too. His family home is renowned for its hospitality, no one is ever turned away from their door or allowed to leave without a meal. Salman is the most public figure in his charitable endeavors as well, his habit of just giving money to people who asked has morphed to a foundation, Being Human, which receives a large proportion of all his film profits and is heavily promoted in every public appearance. He has made a lot of mistakes in his life, very public mistakes, but everyone can somehow forgive him because you can’t not forgive him.
9. Shahrukh Khan
The 3rd Khan! And the last to be launched, in Deewana in 1992. He was the “different” star, theater trained and likely to take the darker roles that everyone else turned down. But he began to swing more and more towards romance, eventually becoming known for that around the same time the other 2 Khans started to abandon it. He also became known for his international fame, he is the Khan most likely to appear on talk shows or be given international honors (Legion of Honor from France, doctorate from Edinburgh University, etc.). He has less box office success than the other 2 Khans for the past 10 years, but has been more present in the world through brand endorsements, public appearances, and so on.
Shahrukh is the least handsome of the 3 Khans, but the most charming. In his early films, he had a sort of puppyish desperation to be loved which was very endearing. Crossed with his willingness to take offbeat roles (stalker, murderer, loser in love), it helped him make his mark. Once he found his place in the industry, he became known for having a very firm genre location, a “Shahrukh Khan Movie” was something distinctive and sure, the audience could rely on it. And the audience can rely on Shahrukh, he will give them the same old charm and confidence and everything else, film after film. If anything, his personal charisma and appeal is even stronger now than it was when he was young.
Shahrukh’s influence on the film industry has been primarily in terms of branding. He is the face of Indian film overseas, and has greatly expanded the international fan community. Within the film community itself, he has been more of a guest than a host, more likely to attend someone else’s party and be the life of it than to host his own, to build a community around himself. He has a few close friends, but in many ways still seems to be a bit of an outsider. Not an unfriendly one, but still an outsider. He has had a huge effect on how the industry functions, has gone after more ad campaigns and public appearance opportunities than any other star and made that an acceptable source of income. And now his Red Chillies company, especially their FX wing, is slowly becoming a leader in a variety of ways. A production deal with Netflix, FX work on most of the films made in India today, and co-producing a variety of interesting films that otherwise would not be made. In terms of India as a whole, Shahrukh is a bit of a controversy lightening rod, likely to be named in any random news story just to get views.
The thing is, no one knows if there will be a 10th star!!!! Until the 1990s, Hindi film was a very fly by night operation, the Star of a film was the best mark of quality and genre and everything else. And Stars and their popularity were important defenses for the industry against government interference, public opinion, all sorts of things. They kind of held it all together.
Hindi film didn’t need stars, not like this, until the breakdown of the studio system in the late 1930s. That’s what gave so much power to Ashok Kumar, and then Dev, Dilip, and Raj. But now the studios are back, and international corporations are moving in. There is less need for a star to represent it all, and the Star (and individual in general) is a threat to this system. There is a real possibility that if a talent like these appears again, the studios will do everything in their power to squash it before it can blossom.
Or, maybe not! Corporate run studios have been going through a bad stretch, they may not succeed in moving in to the Indian market at all. Maybe we are just waiting for that 10th star to appear, someone with the talent and charm and personality and ambition to drive Indian film to a new era.