Why I Give Thanks to Aamir Khan

It’s Aamir Khan’s birthday today (yay!), and I want to mark the occasion not by giving him a gift, but by finally thanking him for the gifts he has given me.

16 years ago, my cool older sister read an article about this movie from India that was nominated for an Oscar.  She tracked down a copy at our local blockbuster and brought it home, the same way she had tracked down copies of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Tampopo, and Eat a Bowl of Tea.  We watched it at our family movie night, and we all enjoyed it.

Image result for lagaan vhs

(I think it was on VHS.  That’s how long ago this was)

A few weeks later, there was an article in the local paper about a new Indian grocery store that had just opened and which rented movies.  We went there to check it out (our town was pretty boring, visiting a new grocery store was an exciting thing to do on a Friday night), and my mother asked if they had any movies with the same actor from Lagaan, and they gave us Rangeela.  I watched it with my mother, and enjoyed it, and started to realize there was more to Indian movies than the overwrought period drama of Lagaan.

And then, a year later, I was in college and looking for something to do on the weekend and I saw that an Indian movie, Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, would be showing at a local art theater and decided to check it out.  After all, I had already seen two other Indian movies, it wasn’t completely unknown territory for me.  So I watched DDLJ and my life changed forever.

DDLJ is the movie that made me fall in love, with Indian cinema and with Shahrukh Khan, but I wouldn’t have even known about it if it hadn’t been for Aamir Khan.  Aamir is the one who said “look, there is a teenage girl in a midwestern small town who deserves to see Indian movies.  I am going to do whatever it takes to make sure our films reach all the way across the ocean and through the cornfields and onto DVD shelves and finally into her hands”.  My whole life now is a gift he has given me, my friends (found through Indian movie nights), my spiritual solace (from watching movies), my home (three blocks from my favorite movie store), even my brother-in-law (met my sister at an Indian movie night).  And this blog of course, which fulfills me in so many ways, is also a gift from Aamir.

Image result for aamir khan lagaan

(Look at him reaching through the screen directly to me!)

Lagaan was unique in how it expanded the Indian film audience.  It was one of 3 films that released around the same time, Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham and Devdas being the other two, which helped to bring Indian film to an international audience.  But Lagaan was the most targeted, the most calculated in its goals.  K3G and Devdas reached an international audience almost by accident, but Lagaan was on purpose and it knew exactly who it was trying to reach.

Scholars, when writing about Lagaan, talk about attending a critic’s screening at which they received a pamphlet explaining a bit about the film and providing context for everything.  I’ve read articles which quoted the pamphlet and the information within it, but didn’t seem to realize how very unusual this whole experience was.  In 2001, Indian films didn’t have critic’s screenings, either at home or abroad.  And the idea of providing an introductory pamphlet steering the critics to an appropriate appreciation for the film is very unusual.  Especially the exact way this pamphlet was crafted, to help the audience treat Indian films with respect, while also not expecting them to fully understand all the subtleties of the Indian film experience at this, their very first movie.

Lagaan was not a massive hit, not among the traditional Indian film audience.  If you look at the traditional audience, and even the industry audience, Gadar, Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham, Dil Chahta Hai were the films that changed everything.  But Lagaan changed everything for me, and for the audience like me.  People who didn’t watch movies in Indian theaters, who found movies through film festivals and newspaper reviews and what was in the foreign section of the DVD rental store.  Our small subset had never seen an Indian film before, were cut off from an entire industry.  And Aamir used all the force within his power to push a tiny little hole in the wall and let us peak through.

And then he did it again with 3 Idiots.  A movie which was a hit int he traditional audience.  But also overseas.  3 Idiots broke into the American box office top ten on Christmas week, a week when it was competing with major Hollywood releases.  Maybe the critics didn’t notice it, the crowd that Lagaan was targeted at, but the movie theater owners did.  After 3 Idiots, suddenly, Indian movies were playing at more and more theaters around me.  Thanks to Aamir I was able to see Ra.One, My Name is Khan, Don 2, and dozens of other movies opening night at a mainstream theater easily accessible to me, instead of waiting for the DVD release, or begging a ride to the one Indian movie theater near me.

This is what Aamir does, he finds the audience that has been ignored, never considered, and he breaks through to them.  It’s not just me, with Rang De Basanti he hit a chord with the youth of India, gave them a rallying cry which has carried through to today.  Recently, with Dangal and Secret Superstar, he reached out to those forgotten audiences in Turkey, in China, in places in the world that Indian film had never before thought of reaching.  And once he punched the first hole in that wall, everyone else followed through.

There’s another audience he has grabbed and held within India.  Those middle-class families who would never consider watching a mainstream Hindi film, would think of it is beneath them, would prefer to watch satellite TV or “English” films, they will still turn out for an Aamir film.  It’s an audience that has been drifting from Hindi film at an increasing rate, and Aamir is holding them back almost single-handedly.  He broke through the wall and let the art flow out to America, to China, to other places; in India he is being the wall, struggling to hold back the escaping audience.

It’s hard to remember that far back, but Aamir was the one who started to bring the audience back all the way in his first movie.  Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak came after a decade and a half of action film dominance.  There were always the young romances in the background, the occasional hits, but action was the main message of the 70s and 80s.  And the audience was dying away, women and families increasingly leaving theaters and leaving them to the young men.  Until Aamir helped to bring them back, giving a young romance which wasn’t just romantic, but also thoughtful and thought provoking.  All of those romance movies of the 90s that I love, those are another gift of Aamir, Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge would not have existed without Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak, as much as I would not have been in the theater watching it without Lagaan.  The two halves of that match, Aamir brought them both together.



So on his birthday, I just want to say thank you.  Thank you Aamir for bringing Indian film to billions of people around the globe, for keeping Indian film in the hearts of those at home, for all you do to keep this wonderful beautiful fragile world of film alive.  And thank you for myself personally, for reaching out to a teenage girl in a small town and giving her her whole life.

31 thoughts on “Why I Give Thanks to Aamir Khan

  1. I love your emotional thank you’s. So nice, and still with plenty of brain in them too!

    In January hubby and I finally got around to watching Lagaan, and then watched Madness in the Desert, about making it, because it popped up in our Netflix suggestions. I enjoyed it–mostly the secondary Indian characters. In particular I loved seeing Rajesh Vivek, whom I also love in Swades. So cool how actors and directors develop a stable of character actors and actresses who show up in their movies again and again. Though, I get how that makes it hard for newcomers to break in, also.

    The songs were wonderful, and I’m glad they hired English actors who can more or less act, for a change. Couldn’t help noticing Kiran making an appearance in Madness in the Desert.

    Oh no, I just googled Rajesh Vivek and saw that he died in 2016. How sad.


    • I’ll give you some bonus info, around the same time that Lagaan came out, K3G was broadcast on European television channels, bringing in a new mass audience for Indian film (especially from Germany). I’ve never heard anyone say “we wanted the European audience so we lobbied and bullied and paid to have the film shown on TV”, it just kind of happened like that. Devdas, kind of similar, Bhansali wanted to go to Cannes but I don’t think he was planning to bring Indian film to a world audience or any big picture thinking with it, it just sort of turned out that way. Shahrukh and his regular collaborators had been reaching the NRI audience for years through the content of their films, not a super planned campaign. Internet, satellite TV, DVDs, all kinds of reasons for Indian film to just sort of fall into the global consciousness in a new way. But Lagaan was special because Aamir actively sat down and planned how he was going to reach a new audience, the same way he broke through just recently into China and Turkey, nothing was luck or an accident.

      On Wed, Mar 14, 2018 at 2:30 PM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:



      • Oh yes, I can confirm – the K3G succes was quite accidental, at least in Poland. Somebody show a copy in some random lecture, people liked it, and then they thought: why not try show it in cinemas? But nobody, and surely not Karan or SRK (I’m sure thet didn’t even know in the beginning) planned or could foresee how this will end.

        I love how your story started. Finding the news in the paper, and looking for a movie, sounds like something I did years ago.


        • I forget sometimes that I didn’t always live in a big city, it used to be that we would read about these things and then have to hunt and wait to be able to see them, and only know about them if there was an article somewhere. Now, it’s more like I have every option in the world spread out in front of me and I just have to find the time to enjoy them all.

          On Wed, Mar 14, 2018 at 3:35 PM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:



  2. Long time ago I read an article by people involved the making of QSQT, saying here was this upstart new actor, and from the very first meetings, his primary focus was on who to and how to market the film, even more than talking about the character or the production logistics. And he kept presenting homespun original ideas on how to market the film. He even donned sandwich billboards and walked middle class shopping areas to get ppl to the theater during release. (I’m not sure I have all the facts straight on this, I read the article decades ago.) Acting and filmmaking may be Aamir’s craft, but marketing and evangelism is his soul.

    But the article reminded me of the early days of American hip hop, when the most successful artists were the ones with the most innovative marketing schemes. Like MC Hammer (not quite hip hop, and not quite early, lol) handing out tapes of “Can’t Touch This” in the streets of LA barrios for free, predicting that Hispanics would be the tastemakers / ambassadors that would legitimize black street music to the whites. These early musicians moved the needle not only on their own work, but on the hip hop genre itself.

    Btw Turks have always watched Hindi films, just like the entire middle east and Africa and southeast Asia. But they’ve possibly never had Hindi films marketed to them, or distribution channels to their cinema halls. I think a part of the Abhi/Aish movie Guru takes place in Turkey, and Malika Sherawat does a great item number Maya Maya which sounds very Turkish. I wonder if Guru was specifically marketed to Turks at the time.


    • I feel like I heard that same story about early Aamir. Maybe QSQT, maybe Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikander, something in there that was way before the current era. He was also the first to realize that awards shows and interviews were a waste of time. I know he doesn’t like them, but it feels like more than that he has an awareness that they actually aren’t needed to promote his films, he can do other things that work better.

      Poor “Maya Maya” ended up all cut up in the final film, one of the early signs of Mallika’s career downturn. But still a great song!

      On Wed, Mar 14, 2018 at 3:58 PM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:



    • Oh her poor family! Mahesh Bhatt is one of the few openly recovering alcoholics in Hindi film, and got clean for his daughter (there is a great movie about it, “Daddy”, in which Pooja plays herself and Anupam Kher plays a fictionalized version of Mahesh). I hate to think of him going through all of that only to watch it happen again with the same child who saved him. Although, on the other hand, at least she was surrounded by people who really understood what alcoholism and recovery look like.

      On Wed, Mar 14, 2018 at 4:37 PM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:



  3. I’ve been wanting to write something for a while about how which Khan you like is a class signifier. Keeping in mind that I am new to all this:

    Aamir is a marker of refined but respectable taste. Bourgeois taste if we’re being honest. It’s not art house, it’s not scandalous (usually). But it’s well made enough to make people feel good about seeing the films. It’s a form of self-flattery and a way to reinforce your membership in a certain economic and educational class.

    Salman is the masses, the common people, Bhai. Famous but still one of us. Seeing his movies is kind of thumbing your nose at the middle and upper classes, spitting on the idea of respectability. Heart and loyalty are far more important than having refined tastes.

    Here’s where I fumble: how does SRK fit into the picture? What does watching his films tell the audience about themselves?

    Liked by 2 people

    • Sounds right to me!!! I think you got it very well right from the start. Aamir is the “respectable” choice, Salman is the “I don’t care about being respectable” choice.

      I am sure people here will have a variety of answers, but it seems to me as though Shahrukh is the star for the NRI, and for the women. Which is confusing, because those categories overlap with the other two. Women of all classes can/have loved Shahrukh, and NRIs from all classes back in India (although primarily middle-class once they are overseas) can/have loved him. Just throwing this out there, but perhaps Shahrukh’s current fall is because of this conflict? Liking Salman means you are proudly lower class. Liking Aamir means you are comfortably upperclass. But liking Shahrukh is neither, the upper classes look down on him, and the lower classes don’t see him as one of “them”.

      And that “class” effect seems to be overruling the female and NRI audience trends right now. I am seeing more and more articles from women saying “I used to like Shahrukh, but then I realized how damaging he is/how trite his new movies are/etc. etc.”. Essentially claiming a status as better than that, as “Aamir” fans, even if they aren’t outright saying it. And I am seeing more and more box office trends in the NRI box office slanting towards Salman type films, towards the more grounded earthy Indian feeling films.

      Shahrukh is still enormously popular (as you can tell from this blog) among those who are removed from the Indian class structure, the non-desis. His appeal to a global audience isn’t just NRIs but all sorts of people who live outside of India. And his appeal to women crosses ethnic boundaries as well. But I don’t feel any particular social pressure to dislike his movies and claim a higher level of sophistication in order to identify my class, or to like other harder rougher movies in order to re-affirm my Indian identity. So I can just enjoy Shahrukh with his witty global sensibility and feminism in a way that, perhaps, the desi audience as a whole no longer can.

      On Wed, Mar 14, 2018 at 4:55 PM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:


      Liked by 1 person

      • I haven’t seen a lot of movies with SRK so my judgment may be off but what he feels like to me is old fashioned. An old fashioned romantic hero in a way that isn’t in style anymore. I think that’s what some women may be reacting to. The new romantic heroes are rougher or amoral or in some way anti-heroes. I don’t think his movies are damaging or trite but they aren’t in line with how the culture has evolved.


        • That feels half right to me. You’re right, his romances are old fashioned but i think the problem is that romance altogether is now out of date. He used to be the hero woman bonded over, you affirmed your female identity by being a Shahrukh fan. But now it feels like that affirmation comes from being a priyanka or deepika or alia fan. The romantic hero is passe.


          • Fun question! First, in terms of romantic heros, I was thinking about it and every major recent romance film has been a riff on SRK! So Ranveer’s successful romance Band Baaja Baarat, Shahid’s Jab We Met, Ranbir’s Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani, Varun’s Humpty Sharma, have all played with the SRK dynamic, specifically the DDLJ dynamic. There have been plenty of less successful romances that had different dynamics but no big different hit.

            In terms of what it means to be a fan, I have discovered that Ranbir has a deep deep connection to sensitive young men. Or at least, young men who like to think they are sensitive. I had no idea about this before I started blogging, but the only fans that have been offended enough by my reviews to comment to the point that I didn’t actually print the comments, were Ranbir fans! Which might explain why Ranbir is resisting playing more grown up roles, both in films and his public persona, if he is aware that his most devoted fanbase might not be comfortable with him switching from the troubled genius trying to grow up to the successful confident married man. His fans are also definitely a subset of Aamir fans, the young male subset.

            For Ranveer, he is hard to figure out. I’m not sure what his fandom means or who his fans are. He may not even have a fandom in the way the other actors do? It feels like his film performances are so all over the place that he doesn’t have a firm film identity. And his public persona is so totally ridiculous that it feels fake, like you want to watch the show rather than fall in love with him.

            (oh wait, I also had to not print Priyanka Chopra comments! Which is when I discovered that the young professional upper middle class young woman community really really love her!)

            On Wed, Mar 14, 2018 at 7:31 PM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:



  4. That’s some fascinating thoughts on the subconscious fandom of the Khans & the younger lot. I think for the younger lot, it’s too early to peg them in a particular slot while they are experimenting & building up theirs portfolios. Except for Ranbir -who had found his comfort zone. Ranveer is a shapeshifter who isn’t tied down by onscreen images to maintain..yet. Just when I had him pegged down as the Anil Kapoor of this generation, he surprised with Dil Dhadkne Do & Lootere. Then when I labelled him as the general guy for younger roles, he surprised with Baajirao. I haven’t seen Padmaavat but seems like he made the audience dislike him one way or the other. I can’t wait to see what he does next. He doesn’t have a fixed fandom and still manages to get lauded for his performances. I even feel that he doesn’t get appreciated in the way Ranbir used to for his ‘sensitive’ performances. I can imagine Ranveer in any of the other younger actors’ roles(Badlapur, YJHD, Haider)but can’t imagine anyone else as Bajirao. He is uninhibited in a way that none of the other actors are-onscreen & offscreen. I feel if he keeps doing what he is doing now by mixing things, he can be the perfect Aamir/Salman midground.


  5. The Lagaan story is so cool. I was like 7 or 8 when it released, and I thoroughly enjoyed watching it in the theatre. Even for a child like me the story wasn’t hard to follow. We watched it whenever be it was on TV, like a family event. The songs were such a rage and was everywhere including my school bus.

    Liked by 1 person

    • My Lagaan watching story is embarrassing. I was 9 and did not understand the concept of movies where the heroes generally win. I remember being terrified and sobbing uncontrolably after Aamir accepts the match proposal. If the farmers lose, they had to pay “Teen guna lagaan”. What the hell, Aamir!?
      Like yours it was a family affair too, except I grew up in a joint family and the weekend plan to go watch Lagaan. We were about 15 people and I ended up making an utter fool of myself. Thanks Aamir!
      I grew up (of course!) and I didn’t get a chance to watch it again, but this and Taal have to be my all time favourite sound tracks.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Haha!! I was too young to even understand the dialogues. All I knew was that the Indians had to win. I didn’t get a chance to watch it again too. I might try to watch it over the weekend.


        • Give yourself permission to fastforward, if you do watch it. It’s a good movie watched straight through if you are in the right mood, but sometimes you are in the mood to just see the good bits and fastforward the rest.


        • I didn’t catch most of the dialgues either, but Paul Blackthorne’s “Teen guna Lagaan” in English accent was hard to miss. I was also depressed by Ghanan ghanan’s anti-climactic ending immediately after which the villagers are asked to pay tax.
          I might have caught on to the wrong details in this movie.


          • I’m wondering if you might have just been sleepy! I’m picturing a 9 year old who is fully alert and invested for the first hour and a half and then gets lulled to sleepiness/boredom as the film goes on.

            On Fri, Mar 16, 2018 at 10:20 AM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:



          • I just remember rain after the end of ghanan ghanan. I just remember Rachel Shelly singing ” I’m in love for sure” 😀 Was my favourite song.


          • Not really. I didn’t get a lot of dialogue. I speak Telugu at home and I wasn’t that fluent in Hindi back then. I’m sure I might have asked one of my cousins what ‘Lagaan’ meant while watching Lagaan. But the plot points weren’t difficult to catch even for a 9 year old. I got that Yashpal was a traitor and there was a confrontation where he explained his motives and started being decent after that, but I didn’t get that he was in love in Gracy. I can actually separate the huge cast in spite of not seeing them in many other movies. Which is probably a testament to the visual film making and giving each character a distinct personality.
            “I’m picturing a 9 year old who is fully alert and invested for the first hour and a half and then gets lulled to sleepiness/boredom as the film goes on.” The opposite actually. I’m surprised you found the movie was boring. (At least the 9 year old me didn’t. The adult me might forward through stuff) I was terrified through out the first half, “Chale Chalo” was what got me energized and optimistic. I still remember the general situation after each of the 6 days of the match.
            Phew! A rollercoaster of emotions, that one was!


      • That’s not embarrassing, that’s sweet! It reminds me of when I saw Superman Returns, there was a little boy in front of me who was in a panic the entire movie that something bad was going to happen to Superman and his father had to keep reassuring him that, you know, it’s Superman! He’ll be fine.

        On Fri, Mar 16, 2018 at 9:17 AM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:


        Liked by 1 person

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