There are so many Khans around! Because it is a very common name/title in the northern regions where Urdu is spoke and men are tall and handsome and refugees fled in droves to Bombay in the 1940s. But there’s only one Khan family in Hindi film, all the other little Khanses aren’t actually related to each other. Isn’t that interesting?
Usual Disclaimer: I don’t know these people, I have no special knowledge, this is just how it appears to me based on publicly available sources.
“Khan” is a Pathan name, from the region that is now Afganistan. It designates a particular ethnicity, and a class within that ethnicity. Salman Khan’s family were mercenaries from Afganistan who settled in a northern Indian region in the 1800s, worked for the British, then quit their British jobs and were landowners, and finally baby of the family Salim Khan came to Bombay to seek his fortune. Dilip Kumar (born Yusuf Khan) came from a family of fruit merchants in north India, his father left the family home to come to Bombay in the 1930s as Bombay was becoming the merchant center of the country. Most Khans in Bombay, film industry or otherwise, have similar stories. From a higher class (soldiers, merchants, etc.), at some point in the past 5-6 generations settled in North British India cities, then moved down to Bombay to seek their fortune.
The Feroz Khan family has a bit of a different story. His father’s side was the usual North Indian Khan come south, but he came south to Bangalore, not Bombay. And on his mother side, they are Iranian. Not Parsi, not the Iranian Zoroastrians who came hundreds of years ago, but recent Iranian. It gives the whole family, from Feroze down to Suzanne, a unique look.
Feroz came to Bombay on his own in 1960 at age 20, and immediately was offered roles in movies. Back in the day, getting into the movies wasn’t hard, it was staying, and having a good chance of surviving that mattered. There were loads of cheap movies being made, and they needed loads of cheap actors. Including a weird little cheap Hollywood Tarzan film, Feroz being one of the few Bombay actors who actually was in a Hollywood production. Not that it made any difference in his career. Feroz was tall, very pale (Iranian), and could speak good Hindi (Khan). He quickly got a foothold and regular work and sent for the rest of his family, brothers and sisters and parents, but he couldn’t seem to move up to a higher level of fame in the industry. There were a lot of young actors like that, either they kept working in the film industry their whole career and lived a modest hardworking life, or they took their savings and tried to turn it into a business of some kind, flowing into the film industry and then out of it again in a few years. Feroz did that but the business he chose to try for was the movie business, starting a tiny production house for films starring himself, run by his brothers.
I read an interview years ago with one of the Khan wives, Sanjay’s wife Zarine, talking about what a stir these young men made in the neighborhood. They were so handsome, they were so different, all the girls fell in love with them. Feroz married first, in 1966 at 26, and then Sanjay a year later.
Sanjay and Feroz were both working as actors by now and trying to get their production company going. They brought in their youngest brother Akbar as director. It was years of working before finally, in the mid-70s, they hit the big time. Dharmatma, a Godfather remake, was the first big hit of the Khans. Feroz had found the perfect formula for a hit, take the cheesy silly flavor of those early movies he was in as a young man, and blow up the budget, blow up the cast, make it feel epic even though at heart it was just fun.
Dharmatma was a hit when Feroz was in his mid-30s, but he was 40 when he starred in Qurbani, a movie he also produced, one of the bromance action films that were popular in those years. It was a lightening in a bottle moment, the Bappi Lahari disco sound, the sexy Zeenat Aman heroine, Feroz and Vinod as macho manly heroes, and of course teenage singer Nazia Hassan and her amazing “Aap Jaise Koi” song. This film was such a stupendous hit that it forever established the family fortunes, and the family fame.
The family fame also came from scandal. Not the sexy fun scandal of other film families, but something a little harsher and realer. Divorce of course, Feroz divorced his wife after 20 years in 1985. It’s not really discussed, but it is a fact. And then Suzanne and Hrithik in the next generation (Suzanne being Sanjay’s daughter). Next slightly bigger scandal, Feroz’s son Fardeen was arrested for drugs. Obviously loads of movie stars have used drugs and been rumored to have used drugs, but Fardeen was actually caught with cocaine and went to rehab. Besides that minor scandal, Fardeen is remarkably un-scandalous. He went to Amherst for a business degree before coming back and having a solid little movie career, derailed by the drug scandal. And then he married and had a couple kids. So, divorce, drugs, all formal and official and legally written down. Finally, there is Sanjay’s scandal, which isn’t legally written down but was so widely reported that it might as well have been.
Feroz married and had children, including Fardeen. Sanjay married and had children including Zayed and Suzanne. And then in the late 1970s he started a serious relationship with Zeenat Aman, rumored to have even lead to marriage.
Zeenat Aman is something different. She was born of a mixed marriage, another Khan as a father, a scriptwriter in the early days of film, and a local Maharashtrian woman. They divorced, and her mother married a German businessman. Zeenat grew up in Europe, in Bombay, in and out of the film world. She even did a few semesters at UCLA. And then she won a beauty contest in Bombay, as her family was packing to move back to Europe again, and was offered a modeling contract. Dev Anand saw her somewhere and gave her an acting job in a flop movie, which lead to more roles in more flop movies, until Dev picked her again as the perfect person to play his troubled hippie sister in Hare Rama Hare Krishna, a star making role. Zeenat was immediately recognized as something different, the modern heroine, the one who hardly ever wore saris and sang disco songs and flirted and had fun onscreen, without regret. Somehow somewhere during this time, Zeenat met and fell in love with handsome young Sanjay Khan, already married.
It was hardly an issue for a pretty young actress to date a married man. Dating a single man meant marriage and commitment, an ambitious actress who was enjoying herself may not want that. And a married man who spent most of his life in the film world and separated from his wife may want a young companion to have fun with and share his world. What became an issue was when the relationship got serious, which is what happened with Zeenat and Sanjay. They were seen together so much, and so openly, that rumors started they were secretly married. It began to be understood that Sanjay’s wife, and perhaps his brothers as well, did not approve of this relationship. Having a fling with an actress is one thing, keeping it up for years while everyone is talking is something else entirely.
That was the public knowledge. The private knowledge is that the relationship between Zeenat and Sanjay had turned abusive and she desperately wanted to get out. It was hard, she had no real recourse, as it was an unofficial relationship she couldn’t get a divorce or anything like that. She couldn’t even necessarily ask for help and sympathy from the friends around her. And of course the added shame, that she was with this abusive man simply because of love, because of her own foolish choices. So she just tried to avoid him, to ease herself away from him.
Which is what lead to the moment that is so shocking, it is still remembered by all but almost never discussed. Zeenat was called to a hotel to talk about an upcoming movie the Khans were producing. This was common, instead of having stable offices where you paid rent you could rent a hotel room for a general business conversation. Zeenat went reluctantly, and arrived in the room to find Sanjay and several other film folk who were involved in the film. Somehow, an argument started, and Sanjay started beating her. Some versions of the story have Sanjay’s wife in the room as well encouraging him, but I cannot find consistency on that element, and it sounds like the kind of thing people might want to invent (“wife versus mistress, she made him do it!”). What is clear is that there were other people in the room watching, because they were shocked! Immediately multiple sources leaked the story to the various gossip magazines and it was all over town. This was not a story of whispers and titillation, this was more sort of stunned horror. For Sanjay to beat her so brutally, and so publicly, was unheard of. Hotel security finally stopped it, and Zeenat was left with permanent eye damage from where he broke her eye socket. Sanjay and his wife remain married to this day, giving Happy Family kind of news stories. Zeenat worked with the Khan family after the incident and continues to see them at film social events to this day.
Sanjay’s daughter Sussanne married Hrithik Roshan when she was only 21. It was one of those love/arranged marriages, generally agreed. They were different religions (Hrithik Hindu and Sussanne Muslim), but they were from similar film families, similar ages, everything very tidy and approved. They divorced after 14 years. Sussanne never worked in film officially (although like most star wives, she probably had plenty of useful advice and assistance for which she never got credit). She runs an interior decorating firm, and has an American degree in interior design received before marriage. She partnered with Gauri Khan in her first interior design store, and has worked with an online brand The Label Life and the school The Pearl Academy. In her quiet way, she has always pursued her own career.
Zayed is Sussanne’s brother, he had a small career inn the early 2000s, similar to his cousin Fardeen, before it faded away. He tried his hand at production briefly, partnering with his best friend Dia Mirza, but that also failed.
So, that’s the Khans. Several minor actors, a few blockbuster hit films, a lot of day to day work of TV production and hotel building and other unexciting money making techniques, a few minor scandals, and one big big incident. There are dozens of families like this in Hindi film, working around the edges of the industry, finding the small productions and tiny jobs that need doing, if Feroz Khan hadn’t been such a good businessman, and Sanjay Khan such a terrible person, the Khan family would be like any of the others, unnoticed by the world, no public record of their lives.
(one other story I feel like I should mention just because of the random tragedy of it. While Sanjay was producing and filming a TV show, “Tipu Sultan”, in the 1980s, a fire started on set. 52 crew members died before the end of it, and Sanjay was badly burned and in the hospital for over a year. This is a remarkable tragedy and I had never heard of it. A TV show, the 1980s, Sanjay the most famous person injured, all of this means it isn’t really remembered in the modern day. Again, I suspect there are many stories like this, disasters and deaths on sets of forgotten films and minor TV serials that we, the general public, never hear about or remember)