Don’t think of this as “a list of Aamir Khan’s films”, think of it as a case study of a successful journey to stardom, and a way of studying the changes in the films and film industry in the past 25 years. (part 1 here)
Another Ashutosh Gowarikar film! An over the top police action movie of exactly the type you would not expect from Aamir Khan and Ashutosh Gowariker. It also starred Kulbhushan Kharbanda, another Lagaan team member. Today it is mostly remembered for including Aamir’s first lengthy drag sequence, an early sign of his willingness to go above and beyond for a performance. But it’s interesting to think about how a co-star in Aamir’s first movie, a forgotten art film, turned into a director who asked Aamir to cameo in his first forgotten terrible movie, and then into a director who made a semi-decent cop film with Aamir that solidified their partnership, and finally brought him the script of Lagaan. The team that took a risk on a crazy venture like Lagaan was not forged over night, but over years.
Aatank Hi Aatank (1995)
Aamir Khan co-starred with Rajinikanth! In a movie that has been almost completely forgotten. A bad ripoff of The Godfather, with Aamir as Al Pacino, Rajinikanth as Robert Duvall, and Juhi (of course) as Diane Keaton. Aamir’s career was making a turn this year but it hadn’t turned all the way yet. He was still making odd films with odd casts that have been forgotten by history. Probably benefited him in the end, he got to work with and learn from people like Rajinikanth. But at the moment, it meant he was stuck in a bad movie that was supposed to be carried by the cast.
It’s all up hill from here! Well, except for one still pretty terrible movie. But this one is straight up brilliant and classic and features a performance like Aamir had never done before. A good hearted street thug, not boyish and yet with a boyish innocence. The kind of performance that takes years and experience and learning from others to accomplish. All those bad movies and strange co-stars came together into this, his first truly Great performance, not just youthful and spontaneous talent, but true mastery of his craft. 11 years after his first film.
Akele Hum Akele Tum (1995)
My goodness Aamir likes remakes! Godfather, Breaking Away, and now Kramer Versus Kramer. Or maybe it’s Mansoor Khan who likes remakes? Aamir’s cousin, who launched him as an actor and kickstarted his own career as a director with Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak, followed that up with Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikander. And now this film, Aamir and Manisha Koirala playing an estranged couple. This is also the first time Aamir played a father onscreen, a father and a mature responsible successful man. It’s not as great a performance as Rangeela, but it is another leap forward in his onscreen persona.
Raja Hindustani (1996)
There is no logical reason for this film to work. And yet it does! Aamir isn’t playing that boyish innocent from his earlier films, the one who was a man in a boy’s body, he is playing more of a boy in a man’s body. Or something like that. It’s just strange, is what it is. But Aamir sells it, makes us believe that he can both be so innocent he doesn’t know how to wear a suit, and so mature he can overwhelm a woman with one kiss, and so passionate he can woo her with a song. And also able to get drunk, have sex, and father a child. And build a house. But still be so innocent he can barely function in the world. It’s definitely an Aamir film and definitely an Aamir performance in that unique “no one else could manage to make this work and be charming all the while” kind of way. It’s also definitely a 90s film, ridiculous romance, regressive social message, and all the rest of it. Very far from his early angry young man social issues films, now he is running around enforcing the patriarchy.
Oh Ishq! It’s so lovably terrible. It is also famous for being the final film Aamir and Juhi made together, after 9 years and 8 films (more if you count cameos). I find the Aamir-Juhi break-up fascinating. Because there was no scandal to it, but it also wasn’t without acrimony. Aamir was a prankster and went too far constantly and Juhi just got sick of it. Or, more generally, they just got sick of each other. Two people without much in common in temperament or interests who were forced to work together over and over again in close quarters. Today this would never happen, because you wouldn’t have to work together so much. Partly because there are fewer films made by each actor, scheduling alone would preclude 8 films in 9 years. And partly because the process of filmmaking is so much more formal now, you wouldn’t be spending weeks in Shimla goofing off and getting on each other’s nerves.
Juhi is out and Rani is in! Exactly 10 years after Aamir and Juhi were launched together, he launches another brilliant young actress. And short, she is also very very short. As is Juhi. Aamir has particular needs in a co-star. Anyway, this is an interesting movie for him to make. Another remake, his favorite kind of film. Directed by Vikram Bhatt, who had assisted on Hum Hain Rahe Pyar Ke a few years earlier and was backed by Mukesh Bhatt (confusingly, no relation) who had directed Dil Hai Ke Manta Nahin. Aamir was now in the phase of his career where he was working directors who were below him in experience, revisiting old connections in a new way instead of taking complete risks. And this is also a film, like Rangeela or Raja Hindustani, that is distinctly “Aamir”. The same directors have made similar films with other stars in the years since and they were not the same. Aamir wasn’t directing the films, but he was pulling together every element related to his character in the exact way he wanted it and steering the film in a direction that would work for him.
1947: Earth (1998)
This was a very interesting choice for Aamir to make at this moment! He had moved firmly into the mainstream top star position since 1994. And since then he had also been trying to drag “mainstream” into interesting directions, making successful movies like Ghulam that challenged the audience. This was one of his rare returns to straight art films, and in the part of a character with shades of grey who has to share the lead male role with Rahul Khanna. It’s a challenging complicated dangerous difficult role, part of a string of such roles from Aamir in this era, Andaz Apna Apna to Rang De Basanti, not quite a hero and not quite a villain either. Something very very different from his early naive young heroes. Maybe what those heroes would grow into after surviving a little longer in the world.
A movie that Aamir would never have been able to make even 2 years earlier. There wasn’t a sudden shift from “Aamir-plays a snake charmer in a bad movie with Juhi Chawla” to “Aamir-perfect as the lead of a psychological crime film without the standard kind of romance plot or spectacular action”. This movie really is remarkable, a cop thriller that manages to be thrilling without ever becoming unbelievable. And Aamir’s character has to manage a specific kind of youthful maturity, aware of the problems of the world but still confident enough not to be afraid of them.
It would be hard to find two movies more different than Sarfarosh and Mann. At least, within the mainstream Hindi world. Aamir was staying within those bounds, but just bouncing to the farthest possible ends of them. Where Sarfarosh is subtle and unemotional and Aamir’s character is youthful but mature, Mann is as in your face and over the top as you could wish from a Hindi love story, and Aamir’s character is a classic bad boy playboy hero. And Mann was a massive massive hit. While Sarfarosh did well, but not spectacular. However, in the years since as Aamir’s mystique has grown, Mann is hardly mentioned in relation to his career (also his other hit love story Dil) while Sarfarosh fits neatly into the new narrative of his stardom.
Mela, Aamir’s attempt to launch his younger brother. Erased from the earth (as much as Aamir can manage), because it is shockingly terrifyingly bad. And ambitious. Which is so much more embarrassing than the unambitious bad movies that everyone knows are bad. This is Aamir’s first big ambitious movie and his first big ambitious flop. And again, it is something that is not spoken of today, flops are easy to hide as they lead to no streaming rights, no DVDs, no TV broadcasts and eventually are forgotten, Aamir’s career in the popular conscious neatly skipping from Sarfarosh to Lagaan.
Finally, the “real” Aamir filmography starts! That is, the part everyone remembers and speaks of today, like Salman after Wanted or Shahrukh after Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. Aamir’s first film as a producer, but he had been moving into that space for a while, taking control of his previous films such that Ram Gopal Verma refused to work with him again after Rangeela. And of course Mela featured the launch of his little brother, something that was certainly choreographed by Aamir. But now with Lagaan it is official. He is producing the film, he is starring in the film, it is big and different and massively successful. Not at the box office (Mann topped it there), but critically and in terms of the long term effects on the industry. Aamir, after lagging behind his rivals Salman and Shahrukh, shows his ability to leap forward and take control in a way they never managed. Aamir becomes a global star in a new way.
Dil Chahta Hai (2001)
Lagaan was for The World, but Dil Chahta Hai was for a very specific special Indian audience. A traditional Indian film narrative, three love stories for three friends, but told in a completely new way. And Aamir slide right into this youthful narrative in a way none of his rivals could have managed. Age 36, he made us believe he was a wise-cracking college student, and he brought to its peak the particular kind of Aamir badboy/smart boy dynamic. The real revolution was that he was willing to be in a multistar film, even at this stage in his career. Something he would do again with Rang De Basanti, 3 Idiots, and even Dangal in a different way.
And now there is an interval. For 4 years, Aamir makes no movies. During that time, his marriage breaks up, he (possibly) fathers a 3rd child outside of marriage, and then falls in love and marries again. This kind of gap in a career was not unprecedented, Amitabh had taken a similar calculated break. And in the case of Aamir, it was not quite such a shock, he had already slowed his film output to such an extent that an Aamir film was not an everyday occurrence, but something rare and special. This also meant that Aamir himself had the luxury of making himself rare and special. He didn’t give interviews, he didn’t attend awards shows, between films he disappeared. Aamir had slowly gone from being a familiar and beloved face, to being a stranger who you couldn’t predict and were excited to see what he would do next.