The Three Khans And The Emergence Of New India by Kaveree Bamzai; An Excerpt

Kaveree Bamzai
The Three Khans by Kaveree Bamzai: While exploring the political and social circumstances in which the Khans rose to fame, The Three Khans and the Emergence of New India maps the movies that marked the turning points in their careers and examines their social and emotional impact on Indian audiences. An Excerpt:

Some of the new streaming devices and several production houses are headed by women, which means that women’s voices are becoming a lot more audible. Women’s stories are also being told with a vengeance, partly because there are only a few male stars who can open a movie wide. Crafting smaller movies around interesting stories can be worn as a badge of honour, and on top of that, they now make commercial sense. The story has increasingly become the star, especially in the so-called indie film, and the characters are often true-to-life. You can find many examples, including Alankrita Shrivastava’s Dolly, Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare with Konkona Sen Sharma and Bhumi Pednekar (who is emerging as a champion of sisterhood movies). Or Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari’s Panga where Kangana Ranaut plays a young mother who takes another shot at life. Or Taapsee Pannu’s roles in movies from Thappad to Haseen Dilruba.

Filmmaker Rahul Dholakia loves the fearlessness of the current generation of young women in the industry, their can-do attitude and their sistas-over-mistas style. Plus, there is a strong audience of young women with dreams and aspirations that match those of their on-screen heroines, who are often seen playing real-life women: take Janhvi Kapoor, who played a Kargil war pilot in Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl, a character based on a young, small-town woman. Or Deepika Padukone, who played Laxmi Agarwal, an acid-attack survivor, in Chhapaak. It is the same with long-form series, whether it is the racy Four More Shots Please on Amazon Prime Video, the stark Bombay Begums on Netflix, or the intriguing Aarya on Disney+Hotstar. All three have ensemble casts led by strong women.

Data supports the hypothesis that progressive tales about women are the rising stars on the story telling firmament. Zee5 found that their content was dominated by women-centric shows in 2019, at 34 per cent of the total content produced, followed by thrillers at 25 per cent, ‘edgy, young adult’ series at 24 per cent, crime at 11 per cent and experimental movies at 6 per cent. Viewers seem to be willing to experience greater range, and like the traffic on Indian streets, are indicating their ability to cohabit several platforms, whether it is cinema screens, TV or digital screens.

Therein lies the problem.

At the core of the current power struggle in cinema between the old establishment, still largely run by families, and the new India is the question of who gets to be the storyteller, the influencer of the future. As actors become brands, standing for varieties of social values, they are expected to have a worldview. This worldview is disseminated not only through their movies and social media, but also through the issues they choose to add their names and support to. As long as such opinions coincide with those of the establishment—as in the case of most cricketers, Bollywood’s only rivals in terms of popularity—there is no outrage.

At the core of the current power struggle in cinema between the old establishment, still largely run by families, and the new India is the question of who gets to be the storyteller, the influencer of the future.

So far, Mumbai cinema’s hold on the collective imagination of the nation has been unparalleled, as has the ability of its heroes to define contemporary India, beginning with the Nehruvian triumvirate who embraced the romance of post- Independent India. There was Raj Kapoor’s wide-eyed socialism, Dev Anand’s smooth urbanity and Dilip Kumar’s deep-seated sense of tragedy. Cut to the ’60s, when Shammi Kapoor, with his raw sexuality and even bolder mannerisms reduced the polite ’50s to cinders. Here was a hero who was not afraid of winning, warring and wooing with energy, one pelvic thrust at a time.

As India changed, so did the hero who articulated its angst. Suddenly, nothing was good enough—there was unchecked crime on the streets, the politician was morally corrupt, families were becoming dysfunctional, and there was poison in the air. All of this had to be channelled through the evidently posh persona of Amitabh Bachchan, but then, Hindi movie audiences have never been hung up on realism. Even in his darkest moments, we (and the camera) looked up to him to know how to negotiate our modernity in the ’70s and ’80s, from the width of our flares to the length of our sideburns.

Cut to three decades later, a time dominated by three men with a common surname, each appealing to a different constituency with consistency and charm. The evolution of the three Khans, their personal lives, public spats and professional accomplishments have held India spellbound. But the nation has changed, unleashing forces both positive and pessimistic. Where there were easy definitions, there are divisions; where there was a definitive national identity, there are multiple diversities; and where there was one kind of audience, there are as many as there are platforms.

As we enter the third decade of the century, will Ranveer Singh and Ayushmann Khurrana become the superheroes and everymen of our paradoxical times? India is not the country it was when the Khans burst on to the screen, or even when they were at their peak.

Extracted with permission from The Three Khans and the Emergence of New India by Kaveree Bamzai, published by Westland Non-Fiction, July 2021.

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