In the cult classic ‘Matrix’, Carrie Ann Moss’ Trinity tells Keanu Reeves, a.k.a Neo, - ‘It is the question that drives us’. My question is what drives two 43-year olds? I am referring to the Shah Rukh Khan versus Aamir Khan joust for supremacy in B Town. It is an obsessive rivalry for primacy. One seeks awards, the other shuns them. One is a popular star, the other a people’s star. One the very embodiment of B Town pulp, the other a thinking actor who experiments with his cinema and looks constantly. Aamir wants to change the goalposts with every film pressurising SRK to do a ‘Chak De! India’.
In this battle for the number one slot, both stars decided to release their films in December within a fortnight of one another, an unprecedented event. Aamir Khan has a very interesting history, which is intertwined with Sunny Deol’s fortunes. They released ‘Dil’ and ‘Ghayal’ the same day and both became mega hits. Then again, years later ‘Gadar’ and ‘Lagaan’ were released on the same day. The verdict the same, both huge hits at the B.O. So, this time SRK with his usual elan and chutzpah began his marketing bombardment for ‘Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi’. The timing was all wrong given that the ugly events of 26/11 had cast a pall of gloom on Mumbai and B Town. But if Sachin Tendulkar and Virender Sehwag lifted the mood of a despondent nation with their heroics on the cricket field, then SRK and AK were supposed to do the same on celluloid.
And the opening weekend box office returns from ‘Rab Ne…’ have been most encouraging as families have come thronging back. I, too, went and saw the movie on Saturday, liked it, but wasn’t completely taken in by it. It was a cute film, a fun film, but something was missing. It didn’t leave you satiated. SRK went to the same school as me, he was a year junior to me. I don’t remember him and I am sure nor does he. I have met him just once and we exchanged pleasantries and the years of our passing out. His has been an amazing story, a story that could have only been scripted by Salim-Javed. A TV actor, who strode movie town like a Colossus. A romantic star whose endearing image is of Raj from ‘DDLJ’. The man with the golden touch. Smart and intelligent, SRK is also known as Khan Market (a tony market in South Delhi) for he has leveraged his craft sensibly and made truckloads of money. Someone who understands what the audiences want, someone who courts media when he has to, someone who can only be described as a showman. But the quintessential romantic hero has had to change because of AK. So, ‘Swades’ and ‘Chak De! India’ and the nerdy Punjab Power Surinder Sahni in ‘Rab Ne…’.
It is a pity that top of the line producers in India have not thought of a casting coup on the lines of ‘Namak Haram’, which featured Rajesh Khanna and Amitabh Bachchan. In ‘Sangursh’, Sanjeev Kumar took on Dilip Saheb. And he did it again many years later in ‘Vidhaata’. A film featuring SRK and AK would be a treat, just as ‘Mohabattein’ and ‘Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham’ pitted SRK with the presiding deity AB. It is ironical that whatever SRK does, Ak does better. SRK turned producer, created Red Chillies Entertainment pulled out all the stops in ‘Om Shanti Om’. The reclusive Aamir produced ‘Lagaan’ very successfully and went one better by producing and directing one of the most sensitive films of all time – ‘Taare Zameen Par’. Then for good measure launched his nephew Imraan successfully in ‘Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na’.
At the turn of the 1990s, my boss Pritish Nandy had asked me to do a cover story on Aamir Khan for the ‘Illustrated Weekly’. It was an interesting assignment, for Aamir was a Tom Cruise type of boy next door with some big hits in ‘Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak’, ‘Dil’ and ‘Dil Hai Ki Manta Nahin’. As always, Pritish was prescient, he reckoned that the young man would be the next big star. I remember that when we did the cover, people scoffed at it (just as the hoi polloi scoffed at Pritish when he put Kanshi Ram on the cover of the Weekly a couple of years earlier). Both times he was right. I met Aamir, a regular kind of guy while he was shooting for ‘Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikander’. His idiosyncracies were not part of folklore then. I am talking of close to 20 years ago. He was more or less my age, and appeared cerebral even then. While SRK, the anti-hero had successfully walked into the pantheon of fame with ‘Darr’ and ‘Baazigar’, AK was the chocolate hero, romancing the girl of his dreams. And he had a flair for comedy – ‘Hum Hain Rahi Pyar Ke’ and ‘Andaz Apna Apna’.
Anil Kapoor with movies like ‘Tezaab’ and ‘Mr India’ was the reigning star then. The Weekly was the pre-eminent magazine and Kapoor wanted to appear on the cover. Pritish, always game for the unconventional, plumped for Aamir. It is Aamir’s amazing evolution since those days, which is most pleasing. A thinking actor, an interfering actor, a sensitive filmmaker, but completely reclusive. Though he began his career with ‘Holi’ in 1984 and even earlier acted in his uncle Nasir Husain’s ‘Yaadon Ki Baraat’ as a child actor, his coming of age began with ‘Lagaan’. Despite reverses like ‘Mela’, ‘Parampara’ and ‘Mangal Pandey’, Aamir Khan has gained cult like status with films like ‘Rangeela’, ‘Dil Chahta Hai’, ‘Rang De Basanti’, ‘Lagaan’ and ‘Taare Zameen Par’. People expect the unexpected from him. And he delivers by changing his look and feel in practically every film.
But back to the biggest rivalry which is being played out in B Town at a subterranean level. Two days after ‘Rab Ne…’ was released, AK organised a presser in Mumbai on a Sunday afternoon unveiling his ‘Ghajini’ look officially. Star News and News24 were quick to show it live. AK then talked to the media, discussed his training regimen et al, timing it strategically within days of SRK’s big ticket launch. Matter of factly, he was marketing his film very aggressively. There was news that the ushers and others who man the food counters at multiplexes and cineplexes would be sporting the AK hairdo from ‘Ghajini’. It was a quick counter punch to SRK’s blitz on various telly channels. And it was high decibel. At the presser, AK spoke of how he didn’t want the audience to remember his physique, but the film ‘Ghajini’. It was AK playing his mindgames, after showcasing his body to the world at large.
The two stars dominate the mindspace of the people. They are different and yet actors. Their style and method is different. They are dissimilar and yet the same. Both have one common trait, they know how to market their films. On the penultimate day of the Chennai Test, Sunny Gavaskar, while commentating described the Viru-Gambhir opening duo as ‘Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi’ and Viru’s impetousity through the lyrics of the same film – ‘Zara Sabar To Kar Mere Yaar, Zara Saans To Le Le Mere Yaar’. It showed how deeply Hindi cinema’s footprint has become embedded in our consciousness. Two great stars at the revival of sentiment, not just in a beleaguered B Town, but in a nation whose psyche has been brutalised by the terror attack of 26/11.
And these mega stars are brands with salience that exudes power, resonance and charisma. They know the game and they are playing it with utmost ease. They are the wonder boys of B Town who have left their contemporaries behind. Except one man who threatens their suzerainty. His name Akshay. But more about him another time.