(Two Triumvirates, separated by four decades – give or take – hold sway over the Bollywood jungle. The parallels between the two are uncanny.)
In Peshawar, British India, two young men played football together. One of them, Yusuf, was lean, athletic, with bright eyes and a swiftness to match. His friend was rather hefty for his age, slightly sluggish, extremely fair, blue eyes – if they didn’t know better, passers-by could very well mistake Ranbirraj to be European. Though a butt of jokes at school due to his weight, Ranbirraj was known to be a skilled goalkeeper.
Those days, Ranbirraj, whose father Prithviraj was making a name for himself in Bombay creating waves in both the theatre and film scene of the day, kept insisting on his friend Yusuf coming with him to Bombay to work in films. Back in the day, films were anathema, to be looked down upon with a sneer. Yusuf’s father, Ghulam Sarwar, who was closely acquainted with Ranbirraj’s grandfather Dewan Basheshwarnath, kept mocking the latter on sending off his son to fool around with the ‘naachnewaalis’. Yusuf, in the same mocking tone, asked his friend to go take a walk.
Destiny beckoned and Raj Kapoor,having shed the Ranbir prefix and quite a bit of the bulk that characterised his childhood, began working on the sets of Bombay Talkies. He started as an errand boy, his father hell bent on making him learn things the hardest way possible. He swept floors and worked as a clapper-boy, harboring dreams of one day, not only acting in, but making films of his own. On the side, Raj had already started doing bit roles in films like Debaki Bose’s INQUILAB (1935) as a ‘child artiste’.
Meanwhile, lady luck brought young Yusuf to the shores of Bombay, too. Ghulam Sarwar arranged for him to work in an Army canteen at Pune. It was there, in that canteen, that Devika Rani, the ultimate diva of that era in Indian cinema, spotted him. She and her Bombay Talkies colleagues inquired whether he could act. Yusuf replied with an emphatic but polite ‘no’. Devika Rani was not one to be bogged down by the antics of a freshman. She persisted, and finally, the ice melted and young Yusuf relented. As was the norm those days, he had to be rechristened with an ‘acceptable’ screen-name. Dilip Kumar was born. The film was JWAR BHATA (1944). As fate would have it, Raj Kapoor had just graduated to an assistant director by then and was assisting Amiya Chakraborty on this one. The friends met again… did Raj give him a ‘I told you so’ look?
Raj and Dilip were born within two years of each other, Raj in 1924 and Dilip in 1922. Squeezed between them, in 1923, was born a man destined to complete this trinity of sorts. Dharam Dev Anand was born in Gurdaspur, undivided Punjab, to a prominent lawyer named Pishorimal Anand. Unlike his contemporaries, it was neither family nor fate that brought him to films and stardom. Anand discovered, quite early in life, that his looks and demeanour were quite irresistible to members of the opposite sex. One day, as he would mention in his autobiography years later, Anand had an epiphany – rather than be admired by a handful of girls, he wanted to be adored and loved by the teeming millions of India! To that end, he boarded the Frontier Mail headed for Bombay – it was 1943.
For the next couple of years, Dev Anand lived on the streets, ‘struggling’ and doing his best to obtain an entry into the world of films. Hearing of the renowned Prabhat Studios casting actors for its new venture, Anand decided to try his luck and barged into the office of Baburao Pai, the owner. Pai was impressed with his confidence and introduced him to P.L. Santoshi, director of the film and father of ace filmmaker Raj Kumar Santoshi. The film, HUM EK HAIN (1946), sank without a trace but Dev Anand caught the people’s fancy. Two more small films, MOHAN (1947) and AAGE BADHO (1947) were made in quick succession. Around that time, he got his first big break in ZIDDI (1948).
Ashok Kumar, the producer of the film, took an instant liking to Anand. Legend has it that while coming back from the meeting with Ashok Kumar, Anand bumped into a friend from his struggling days, Nasir Khan. Nasir was hoping to bag the lead role in ZIDDI and had auditioned accordingly. Anand had met Nasir in Pali Hill some time back and they had become friends. Nasir had also introduced him to his elder brother Yusuf who was, by now, known as Dilip Kumar.
After his debut, Dilip Kumar did two films, PRATIMA (1945) and MILAN (1947) that went largely unnoticed. Like Anand, he hit the jackpot with his fourth film, JUGNU (1947). JUGNU was a huge success and his very next film was a multi-starrer – SHAHEED (1948). During the respective shoots of ZIDDI and SHAHEED, Dev Anand and Dilip Kumar became fast friends, travelling together on local train everyday from Bandra station, conversing on their favourite topic – films.
Raj Kapoor didn’t have it that easy. After assisting a number of directors like Kidar Sharma and Ameya Chakraborty and working in seven films over 12 years, Kapoor got his first major break in a lead role opposite Madhubala in NEEL KAMAL (1947). After doing two other films, GOPINATH (1947) with Tripti Mitra and AMAR PREM (1948) with Madhubala again, Raj decided to realise his dream – he set up the legendary RK Films at Chembur. At the age of 24, he became arguably the world’s youngest director by making AAG (1948), with Nargis and Prem Nath.
Until the arrival of these three, the Hindi film industry had only ever known two major male stars: Kundan Lal Saigal and Ashok Kumar. But their impact as leading men was confined to a certain era. Over the next two decades-plus, this Holy Trinity of Hindi cinema ruled the box office, till a meteor named Amitabh Bachchan broke in. In the 10 years following their respective debuts as leading men, Dilip Kumar worked with Raj Kapoor in ANDAZ (1949) and Dev Anand in INSANIYAT(1955). Anand and Kapoor never shared screen space. On many occasions, the grapevine was abuzz with talk of a project with the three of them together, but nothing ever came to fruition. One comes across various accounts of how they met and talked movies at regular intervals, and there is that famous photograph of the three kings together, and their legendary meeting with Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. Dilip and Raj were friends till the end, as were Dilip and Dev. But Raj Kapoor and Dev Anand had a respectful love-hate relationship – the two of them went as part of a delegation to the erstwhile USSR, and also once to pay a visit to Raj’s guru: the great Charlie Chaplin. In his autobiography, Dev writes of his infatuation with Zeenat Aman after he launched her in HARE RAMA HARE KRISHNA (1971), and how she was drawn towards Raj Kapoor – the episode abruptly ended for him when Raj kissed Zeenat in full public view, Dev looking on.
The trinity painstakingly created distinct identities for themselves, each different from the other. Raj Kapoor created the simpleton who made a social commentary, on the lines of Chaplin, with AWARA, SHREE 420, JIS DESH MEIN GANGA BEHTI HAI, and JAGTE RAHO; Dilip Kumar became the first ‘method actor’ in Indian cinema, using Stanislavski’s method to portray the brooding romantic in YAHUDI, AAN, ANDAZ, JOGAN; Dev Anand played the suave, debonair, urban hero, sometimes with grey shades – BAAZI, CID, TAXI DRIVER, HUM DONO – and he went on and on and on, working till the last day of his life, in 2011.
The year 1965 was an important one for all three of them. Dilip Kumar had a lukewarm response to his LEADER. Raj Kapoor’s SANGAM was a super hit, and Dev Anand’s GUIDE was on its way to becoming a phenomenon. Little did they know that the individuals who were destined to carry the torch of being the Big Three after them, were being born that very year, in three different cities of India.
In the ’50s and ’60s, Dev Anand did a slew of successful films with Filmistan – a studio formed by ex-Bombay Talkies technicians and artistes – MUNIMJI (1955) and PAYING GUEST (1957). Both were written by Nasir Hussain, a budding writer. Nasir went on to launch Nasir Hussain Productions, himself producing and directing spectacularly successful films like JAB PYAR KISISE HOTA HAI (1961), TEESRI MANZIL (1966) and CARAVAN (1971). Tahir Hussain, Nasir’s brother, was an illustrious producer in his own right, producing films such as CARAVAN and ANAMIKA (1973). On March 14, 1965, Aamir Hussain Khan was born in Mumbai to Tahir Hussain. At a very early age, Aamir had his brush with acting while appearing as a child actor in YAADON KI BAARAT (1973) and MADHOSH (1974).
YAADON KI BAARAT was written by the pair of Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar, better known as Salim-Javed. What this duo was to Hindi cinema, is common knowledge – suffice to say that this team of two were, in a big way, responsible for the ‘Angry Young Man’ persona of Amitabh Bachchan. One half of the team, Salim Khan, had arrived in the city to be an actor and went on to act in a few films but ended up a writer. His eldest son, Abdul Rashid Salim Salman Khan, was born on December, 27, 1965, in his hometown of Indore, Madhya Pradesh.
The only one in this new trio without any film connection whatsoever, Shah Rukh Khan’s family hailed from the same Peshawar that young Raj and Yusuf had come to Bombay from. His father, Taj Mohammed Khan, was a qualified lawyer and an ex-freedom fighter. His mother Fatima is known to be the daughter of Shah Nawaz Khan, a General in the INA of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, and chairman of the eponymous Shah Nawaz Committee that investigated Netaji’s disappearance. Shah Rukh was born on November 2, 1965 in New Delhi.
Aamir Khan got to assist his uncle on films like MANZIL MANZIL (1984) and ZABARDAST (1985). Ketan Mehta – an FTII alumnus – was planning a film on student politics, with FTII students. Aamir jumped onto the bandwagon. The film, HOLI (1985) shot on campus in Pune FTII, had a stellar cast of seasoned actors – Naseeruddin Shah, Deepti Naval, Om Puri, Shreeram Lagoo – as well as some who were destined to become famous later on – Paresh Rawal, Ashutosh Gowariker, Amole Gupte, Raj Zutshi, Mohan Gokhale, Kitu Gidwani, Benjamin Gilani and Neeraj Vora. Although the maturity of Aamir’s performance shines through, the film went largely unnoticed. Nasir Hussain Productions was going through a lean phase – all their films were flopping miserably. Nasir decided to pass the reins on to his son Mansoor Khan, and launched a film entitled QAYAMAT SE QAYAMAT TAK (1988), with Aamir in the lead. Overnight, the film was a resounding success – its songs were on everybody’s lips. Aamir Khan, the ‘chocolate hero’ had made his mark.
Of the three, Salman Khan’s is probably the only career trajectory that has a certain pattern to it – one that remains largely unchanged over the last 23 years. Salman started as a model, after appearing on several TV commercials, and debuted in a modest role of the brash brother-in-law in BIWI HO TO AISI (1988), written and directed by one J.K. Bihari, who once assisted the great K. Asif on his doomed epic, GOD AND GUN (1986). Although the film was meant to be a star vehicle for Rekha, Salman was noticed for his good looks. Next thing you know, he was playing a leading man in a project launched by Rajshri Productions. It was to be a launch vehicle both for Salman, and a TV actress and princess from Sangli Bhagyashree Patwardhan, as well as for Sooraj R. Barjatya, the grandson of Tarachand Barjatya, Rajshri’s founder. MAINE PYAR KIYA (1989) was a runaway hit, and went on to be released in a number of languages, including in English as WHEN LOVE CALLS. Salman Khan had arrived.
Shah Rukh Khan was the outsider. He was more of a theatre person – working in many plays in Delhi, mostly in English. He was spotted in a play by Lekh Tandon, a director also once associated with Rajshri Productions. Tandon offered him a role in a TV series entitled ‘Dil Dariya’, which never really took off, and Shah Rukh started working on a Doordarshan series on Army cadets, ‘Fauji’ (1988). On the side, he also bagged a role in a major telefilm, written by and starring Arundhati Roy (better known today as an activist and author of The God of Small Things) – IN WHICH ANNIE GIVES IT THOSE ONES – a drama on student life in an architecture college. It was the golden age of Doordarshan and, in no time, ‘Fauji’ was a household name and Shah Rukh, a TV star in his own right. TV serials kept coming his way: ‘Circus’ (1989), ‘Idiot’ (1991), ‘Doosra Kewal’ (1991). ‘Circus’ was also very successful and the director, Aziz Mirza offered him a role in his first film as a director: RAJU BAN GAYA GENTLEMAN (1992). Around the same time, Shah Rukh got his first big break in Raj Kanwar’s DEEWANA (1992), sharing screen space with Rishi Kapoor and Divya Bharati. The movie was a success and Shah Rukh Khan had become a sensation overnight.
Through the next 20 years, both Aamir and Shah Rukh Khan did a wide range of roles. Aamir, right after his debut, did a dark, intense action thriller that showed early signs of the intense actor we see in him today – RAAKH (1989), a film that no one, Aamir included, really talks about today. Years later, he’d break the mould by coming up with films like SARFAROSH (1999), DIL CHAHTA HAI (2001), LAGAAN (2001), RANG DE BASANTI (2006), and more. Shah Rukh, quite early in his career, sparkled in roles with prominent shades of grey, like those in BAAZIGAR (1993), DARR (1993) and ANJAAM (1994).
If one were to draw parallels with the trinity of yesteryears, Shah Rukh Khan may be called a spiritual successor to Dilip Kumar – the melodramatic but versatile actor, the thespian. In the early ’50s, when Bimal Roy decided to film his version of DEVDAS, he wanted it to be as different as possible from his mentor’s adaptation of the classic. Pramathesh Chandra Baruah’s DEVDAS (1936) starring K. L. Saigal in the lead, was a hugely popular film of its time, and a young Bimal Roy had been the cinematographer on the sets. Now, with his own film, Roy wanted someone who could play the lead with a brooding intensity rarely seen before, free of the loud theatrics seen in the earlier version. Having done a good number of ‘tragic’ but meaty and meaningful roles, Dilip Kumar was an obvious choice. Kumar endowed Devdas with a lot of depth and class – the sense of impending doom; that of Devdas rushing towards a painful but unalterable fate was rendered extremely realistic and palpable by his performance. DEVDAS (1955) surpassed its predecessor many times over – to many, it still remains the best DEVDAS of all.
Almost half a century later, by the time Sanjay Leela Bhansali resolved to make his DEVDAS, the name was a part of popular lexicon, courtesy Dilip Kumar and Bimal Roy. Comparisons were bound to happen. Again, the choice was clear – the only actor that could be thought capable of pulling off such a larger-than-life persona was Shah Rukh Khan. DEVDAS (2002) was an opulent,extravagant spectacle, but Shah Rukh’s performance stood out. Some considered it as too melodramatic but the role of Devdas, as successfully depicted by Dilip Kumar once, was full of melodrama. Shah Rukh brought a similar touch-of-class and intensity to the role that was reminiscent of Dilip Kumar’s turn as the ill-fated hero. In a career of over two decades, Shah Rukh performed this and many other roles that did justice to his range as a dramatic performer. A background of theatre helped. Dilip Kumar had no significant stage career to speak of, but his adoption of Constantin Stanislavski’s ‘method’ school of acting created the desired impact.
Of the three, the one actor who has been unflinching in his bond with the gallery is Salman Khan. In a career of more than two decades, he has been consistent in his portrayal of the debonair, polished playboy. In that sense, him holding on to that persona through the years, being a veritable Peter Pan – one is tempted to draw parallels with Dev Anand. Since his debut in the late ’80s, Salman has been known for his flamboyance on screen, always playing characters in their 20s and always looking the part. In his extended career of six decades, Dev Anand had romanced leading ladies that were, on many occasions, literally half his age – he himself never aged a day. His doomed romance with Suraiya in the ’50s had grabbed the headlines – the grapevine was rife with speculation even when it was clear that they had parted ways. Salman, as is well known, has had his share of failed romances, one of them with a star who is as well known for her looks and charm as Suraiya was in her heyday.
In the ’50s, Raj Kapoor, along with Bimal Roy, K.A. Abbas, Mehboob Khan and Satyajit Ray, made a number of films inspired by Italian Neo-realism, in his attempt to address social issues by portraying stories and characters that were endearingly human – BOOT POLISH (1954), SHREE 420 (1955), JAGTE RAHO (1956), AB DILLI DUR NAHIN (1957), and many others. Many moons later, in the first decade of the 21st century, Aamir Khan presented a slew of socially relevant films, with scripts that no other star of his stature will touch with a barge pole. RANG DE BASANTI (2006), TAARE ZAMEEN PAR (2007), 3 IDIOTS (2009), PEEPLI [LIVE] (2010) were bold, unconventional stories that faced various issues head-on. Like the risks Raj Kapoor took with the above mentioned films at the pinnacle of his career, Aamir is known to take stories that, according to conventional wisdom, are certain to fail at the BO, and turn them into huge successes.
Just like the earlier trio, these three have never worked together. Aamir and Salman have always been known to be on friendly terms, both being from film families who knew each other. In 1994, they worked on a film together – ANDAZ APNA APNA (1994), which wasn’t a BO success, but gained a tremendous amount of cult following in later years. Salman and Shah Rukh have acted together in KARAN ARJUN (1995), DUSHMAN DUNIYA KA (1996, in cameo roles), KUCH KUCH HOTA HAI (1998), and HUM TUMHARE HAIN SANAM (2002). Their friendship of over a decade and the very public fallout in the recent past is well known. But Aamir Khan and Shah Rukh Khan never did a film together, apart from appearing in separate cameos in Zoya Akhtar’s LUCK BY CHANCE (2009). Besides passing amusingly sardonic comments about each other, these two never really had any relationship to talk about, cordial or otherwise.
Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar and Dev Anand were the larger than life stars. Beyond reach, with a mysterious aura around them and their relationships. Being men of the highest order, despite their differences of image and persona, ego clashes and fallouts, there was a mutual respect and admiration that was intact all their lives. Today, with the media, information revolution and internet, the stars are much more within reach, subject to closer scrutiny and analysis. Shah Rukh, Aamir and Salman Khan, equally popular stars as the earlier trio, equally great actors in their own right, have much more visibility – in advertisements, in ‘reality’ shows, on social networking sites. So the fallouts, the snide remarks, the comments are all very, very public. In the end, all stars twinkle the same – only some shine brighter than others. Time will tell whether five decades from now, DILWALE DULHANIYA LE JAYENGE, 3 IDIOTS or DABANGG will be as much a part of the collective imagination as DEVDAS, GUIDE or SHREE 420 are today.
[The article appeared in Cine Blitz, February 2012 Issue]