No particular reason to do this, I just find it interesting to look back at the past 25 years of film through the career of one man. And, I guess, it is also good prep work for the Thugs promotion campaign that is about to start, reminding us all that the road to “perfect untouchable Aamir” was a bumpy one. (part 1 here and part 2 here)
Mangal Panday (2005)
Well, this was a disappointment. 4 years without an Aamir release, the reunion of Aamir and Rani Mukherjee after she had gone from being his “Khandala Girl” to the most respected actress in the industry, and a massive historical plot with a massive cast. And somehow it just did not land. Maybe the story was too tragic, maybe it was too big and confused, maybe it was just not the right role for Aamir, but for whatever reason it didn’t work. 10 years earlier, Aamir had plenty of flops and no one noticed, but then he had plenty of movies in general, one mid-sized film that didn’t do well was no big deal. But this was the new era, an era he helped found, when stars made one movie at a time and it had to last in the minds of the audience and the pockets of the investors until they were ready for their next film.
Rang De Basanti (2006)
This was not supposed to be a big movie. Mangal Panday had flopped and so, perhaps, Aamir was in a receptive mood to some strange idea presented to him by a second time director. And willing to be in an ensemble movie with a bunch of young actors no one in Hindi film had ever heard of. But then, sometimes that is how the best movies happen. People have low expectations and are ready to experiment, and something wonderful is the result. Perhaps with Mangal Panday and Rang De Basanti Aamir was trying to recreate the magic of his 2001 streak, Lagaan for the classy international audiences, Dil Chahta Hai for the cult audience back home. But instead he ended up with a film that went beyond cult popularity and another film that was just too old-fashioned for anyone, at home or abroad, to enjoy. The audience had shifted under his feet, the multiplex crowd was beginning to rule India and the overseas audience was over the whole “Bollywood” thing.
Aamir’s first Yash Raj film. Not his first film with the Chopra family, but his first film with the Chopra studio. Yash Raj and Aamir Khan are a match made in heaven. Or hell, potentially. Aamir is interested in moving the films forward, making them more acceptable to a wider audience, making the industry as a whole more acceptable to a wider audience. And he is a perfectionist willing to do whatever it takes to match his marketing vision for a film. And that is the Yash Raj attitude as well, state of the art studio facilities, marketing strategies, everything. Which means the products they make together are brilliant and beautiful and also somehow just a little bit flavorless. They are both looking at making the “perfect” product instead of the “interesting” product. It’s obvious with this film if you compare it with the only other film Aamir and Kajol have made together, Ishq. That movie was illogical and impractical and ridiculous and also so very fun to watch. This one is tragic and destiny and fate and meaningful and yet somehow not quite as fun.
Taare Zameen Par (2007)
Aamir’s cautious return to producing. And his first film as a director. It’s a movie with the sweet spot of a story that needs to be told, but at the same time told in such a way that no one can object to it. He is saying children should be loved, all children. But he isn’t blaming the parents for being bad parents, or society for failing them, he is just making a nice inarguable statement. And doing it in a very small careful way, keeping the images real and simple, and keeping his own performance as un-starry as possible. The real groundbreaking part is that Aamir turned official “director”. Amol Gupte wrote the film and started the direction of it, but Aamir as producer and star found what he was doing unsatisfying and took over. What is not said is that Aamir, and most other major stars, have done the same thing many many times before but avoided taking the formal credit for it. This incident brought into the open what had been talked about within the industry for years, Aamir’s extreme perfectionism and desire for control over his films. No one, including Amol Gupte, necessarily thinks it was a wrong decision. But it was a groundbreaking decision, in earlier years Aamir might have just put in a mediocre performances and moved on from the film without thinking about it instead of pushing to fix it. Or he might have allowed Amol to retain at least token credit as director. But this was 2007, Aamir was trying to build a production house and he couldn’t afford another flop, and he was trying to define the industry as a place of professionals and specialists, he couldn’t have a director-in-name-only attached to a film.
An odd pick for Aamir, which is kind of the point. He needed a big hit if he was going to be able to keep experimenting and keep his production house afloat. And he needed to prove that he could do anything, he could still reinvent himself 20 years after his break out role. And most of all, that he could still carry a movie. His last solo hero hit had been Lagaan, and even that had only been a qualified success. Ghajini did that in spades, bringing him back in an action avatar, and breaking records worldwide with its release. Perhaps most importantly, it was also the first major hit for Reliance Entertainment, following up the modest success of Singh is King and 1920 with a legitimate record setting blockbuster. If you are wondering where the massive simultaneous international releases are coming from, and the drive towards big big opening weekends, it goes back to here. Ghajini and Reliance Entertainment in a demon’s alliance.
Luck By Chance (2009)
A fun little cameo appearance, only worth mentioning because his cameos were so very rare. He was the only Khan not to help with Farah Khan’s epic “Om Shanti Om” dance number, but this was a movie launching and produced by Farhan Akhtar. Who had saved his career by giving him Dil Chahta Hai after Mela failed. He owed him. Most people now may have forgotten how low Aamir had fallen post-Mela, but Aamir himself clearly has not based on his continued loyalty to the Akhtar family.
3 Idiots (2009)
Another Reliance record breaker, and Aamir’s first collaboration with Rajkumar Hirani. And the perfect mixture of Taare Zameen Par with the easy non-judgmental social message and Dil Chahta Hai with the new youthful take on the three hero film. And just a hint of the bite of Rang De Basanti in those few flashes were you see the true tragedy that results from blind decisions by elders. Of course those elders are ultimately forgiven, but at least that hint of tragedy is there. 10 years earlier, Aamir and the film industry weren’t pulling any punches, Raakh and Holi and others from his early years were blistering indictments of the blindness of age and power. But now Aamir was old and powerful, and so was Hindi film. Reliance wasn’t going to distribute a film about campus strikes and violence, and the multiplex audience wouldn’t line up to buy it. Rang De Basanti wasn’t going to happen again.
Dhobi Ghat (2011)
After tasting massive commercial success, Aamir retreated to something different. A movie written and directed by his wife Kiran Rao, featuring him as part of an ensemble of characters living in a neighborhood in Delhi. A small film that was neatly targeted at the art film circuit and would keep up any artistic cred Aamir may have lost through his recent big budget hits. Most importantly, introducing Kiran Rao as a talent in her own right with skills and knowledge, not just another star wife.
Delhi Belly (2011)
A brilliant gamble of a movie. Aamir had introduced his nephew Imraan through a film he produced 3 years earlier. And now he wanted to try something different, an explicit sexual comedy complete with jokes about oral sex and a song too dirty to be played on the radio, featuring his nephew and two actors no one had heard of as the three leads. And the biggest gamble of all, Aamir himself in a ridiculous over the top spoof of classic disco era songs in the end credits. It was a massive success, reading like a loving tribute to an older era of film instead of (worst case scenario) reminding the audience that Aamir himself had come from that era, had worked with the director of the same disco film he was spoofing back in 1989 in Love Love Love. No, Aamir clearly was never like those actors, he is lowering himself to do a fun loving tribute to them. Oh, and it was also a brilliant gamble in opening up a different market. Lagaan opened up the film festival circuit, Delhi Belly opened up the urban male youth market which had been lost to English films and proved they would come back for a Hindi film if it was made to their taste.
Satyamev Jayate (TV) (2012)
Aamir had a big gap between big films, 3 Idiots in 2009, and then a series of small films and small appearances that could be shot over the course of a few weeks. So, what was he doing with all his free time? Partly he was working on building his production house, Dhobi Ghat and so on weren’t just things he starred in, he had to be part of all the pre-production and post-production too. But he was also developing a new kind of TV show. A way of bringing the same message of soft social change to the masses that he had provided through his films, but with a little more focus and specifics. Each episode focused on a particular issue, selected certain guests to provide human faces to the problem, and highlighted one or two particular people working to solve it. And these were not necessarily the easy to swallow crowd pleasing issues. He looked at medical graft, honor killings, and forced gender preference abortions. He held a mirror up to some of the uglier sides of the Indian world.
A very interesting film to make. Yet another cop film from Aamir, yet another cerebral intellectual cop character. And also a film that dealt with social issues, the vulnerability of sex workers. A film that was still mainstream, just barely, but small and exquisite instead of big and big budget. And a film that confirmed his old connections, produced and directed and written by the Akhtar family (including their unofficial daughter-in-law Reema Kagti) and with Rani Mukherjee as his co-star. Although it was also another time there were rumbles of public power struggles between Aamir and his director. The release was moved back and rumors started flying it was because Aamir was insisting on re-edits. He was too big for these rumors to make much of a difference in his career, they just became something people expected an accepted when working on an Aamir film. And usually the success of the film meant that no one really cared about the pain of making it.
Dhoom 3 (2013)
And back to Yash Raj! For a nice safe big film, like a cruise ship to Talaash‘s elegant little sailboat. And a nice safe hit, it had been 4 years since 3 Idiots, Aamir needed to make sure he brought in a new big film safely to shore if he was going to keep his value in the market, and be able to make the kind of risky films he really wanted to make. Not to mention more seasons of Satyamev Jayate. Interesting to look at this film compared to his earlier action films, while those movies had amazing casts and dark scripts, this one has a so-so cast and script and lots of money spent on big song numbers and action sequences.
A very successful film and also a very small film. Small meaning that it is all about Aamir. His character is the only through line in the film, while Anushka has a strong part, it is definitely a supporting role, not a co-star. This was the trend of the time, if it was a big budget movie no one wanted to risk an unknown quantity, it was all focused on that one big name star. A trend that Aamir helped start with Lagaan and Ghajini although, interestingly, his real breakthrough hit was a multistarrer, his performance balanced with Madhavan and Sharman Joshi’s in 3 Idiots.
Dil Dhadakne Do (2015)
Aamir only did the voice over for this one. Another sign of his loyalty to the Akhtars, doing a voice over for the first time in his career for Zoya Akhtar’s film. It’s an interesting choice, he had a gap year and didn’t want to be completely forgotten. He’d done item songs before and guest appearances, along with just being a nice thing to do, he might have chosen to do the voice over in order to create a little buzz and do something a bit new.
And he’s back! Re-inventing himself again. And re-inventing film. This is kind of the big budget version of Talaash. Aamir with multiple co-stars, sharing the film generously with them. Not to mention a grounded realistic filming style, no fancy stunts or big song numbers. Something new and different for a new era of film and a new era of Aamir, an older Aamir who accepted his place as a mature man and a father figure. Well, mostly. He made sure to include a youthful sequence for himself, just to keep his options open. Make sure the audience remembered he could do young and attractive as well as older and wise. The very interesting part, Aamir picked up the mood of the times and promoted the film on the shoulders of his very talented young co-stars, presenting them as actors chosen by merit and experience instead of nepotism. Trusting that we would all forget his previous attempts to launch his brother and his nephew, very non-merit based decisions.
Secret Superstar (2017)
And Aamir’s final film! Well, for now. A small smart one before a big dumb one. Thugs is set to confirm Aamir’s position as a major star with the ability to make a major hit. Secret Superstar was there to confirm his willingness to deal with tricky subject matter and tell “real” stories. And Secret Superstar was also there to hit the sweet spot of a new market Aamir had quietly discovered, the success of Dangal in China told him that female focused non-glamorous films could lead to big international success in new markets. And in a lowkey way, this was another instance of Aamir helping along his connections, Zaira Wasim got another starring part. And now she has a third starring role, in a movie from the Akhtars. Aamir got a lot of help along the way, and now he is paying it forward and helping others. His whole filmography is a web of connections stretching back to Dev Anand and forward to Zaira Wasim.