The Rachel Papers

Eye of the Tiger

Rachel Dwyer is Professor of Indian Cultures and Cinema at SOAS, University of London
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What Salman Khan’s stardom says about sexuality and ageing in India

INDIA’S LIFE EXPECTANCY has almost doubled since Independence, and has now reached 65, though it remains much lower than in the richest countries (in China, it is 76). Even if we factor child mortality into this, India’s population remains one of the youngest in the world, with about half being under 25 and two-thirds under 35.

If the majority of the film audience is drawn from this youth segment, then why are most of Indian cinema’s major male stars so old?

Looking at unreliable statistics of the biggest box office successes of all time gives slightly different figures. All these films came out in the last 10 years, and the most popular stars are Aamir Khan (born1965), Shah Rukh Khan (1965); Salman Khan (1965); Hrithik Roshan (1975); Prabhas (1979); Ranveer Singh (1985) and Ranbir Kapoor (1982).

Whichever group of statistics we look at, the lead is held by Salman Khan, who has enjoyed massive successes in Tiger Zinda Hai (2017), Bajrangi Bhaijaan (2015), Sultan (2016), Prem Ratan Dhan Payo (2015), Kick (2014) and Ek Tha Tiger (2012).

The female stars of those top 20 films (Kareena Kapoor Khan, Priyanka Chopra, Katrina Kaif, Anushka Sharma, Jacqueline Fernandez, Deepika Padukone, Sonakshi Sinha) are all born after 1980, with only Kareena, Priyanka and Katrina being older than Ranveer.

These age profiles are similar to those of Hollywood, where women peak before 40 and men afterwards. In both industries, there are few roles for women over 40, with notable exceptions like this year’s Academy Award winner for Best Actress, Frances McDormand, while Meryl Streep remains a key player. On the other hand, most of the men who win Best Actor Awards have a median age of almost 50.

In Hindi films, the leading men were younger than they are today. Dilip Kumar (born1922) was a star from his twenties, but had few hit films as a leading hero after the 1960s. Dev Anand (born 1923) was ‘Evergreen’ but his golden age ended around 40 with a few notable exceptions such as Des Pardes at the age of 55. Raj Kapoor (born 1924) gave up playing the lead after Mera Naam Joker (1970).

Rajesh Khanna (born 1942) was a box office hero when young, fading soon after he was 30, while his contemporary Amitabh Bachchan (born 1942) had little success at the box office during the 1990s but bounced back in the 2000s as a senior figure. Rishi Kapoor (born 1952) was a leading man from his teens until his forties. The two are acting even older than they are in Umesh Shukla’s 102 not out. Their longevity may be compared to that of senior figures in Hollywood, such as Clint Eastwood and Jack Nicholson.

The story so far seems clear. Heroes are getting older, similar to what happens in Hollywood. Yet there are some differences which will become clear as I look at Salman Khan, who dominates the box office today and was a lead star in the late 1980s and early 1990s, to ask what his stardom says about Hindi cinema and male stardom and ideas of middle-aged men today. What does it say about ageing and sexuality in India?

Salman’s career needs to be set alongside that of his contemporaries, Shah Rukh and Aamir, who became stars within a few years of him. There have been recent films in which they haven’t played the romantic lead, taking more ‘age appropriate’ roles, such as Dear Zindagi, and Dangal.

These three heroes have evolved their images since their early stardom. I wrote about Salman’s stardom in a recent issue (‘Being Salman Khan’, April 23rd, 2018) so won’t repeat myself here, but he still plays a romantic hero, though he is famous for his action sequences and comedies. Shah Rukh was the top star of the Bollywood diasporic film, but his star is waning, as he is most popular as a romantic hero, not an action hero. Aamir is a major figure as a producer as well as actor, showing a knack for knowing what will work in more reflective films, though he still can play an action hero as well as an alien and a father figure. They have found new fans in the youth, often in their sports movies (Chak De! India, Dangal, Sultan), where sportsmen give ground to a new generation of sportswomen, while many of their old fans remain loyal.

In the 1990s, these three male stars represented a new type of hero, shifting from the action masala films of the 1980s, as the hero became more romantic and the bright and sunny films focused on love as friendship as part of the consumerist globalising Indian family. Perhaps there was a rise in the female audience as the multiplex appeared, or perhaps younger people had more cash in post-liberalisation India.

Yet, Salman, who was Prem of the Barjatya films, began to take on some of Sanjay Dutt’s image with the bad boy reputation, the muscles and an unapologetic masculinity of an old- fashioned type, rather than the modern metrosexual man.

It is striking that Salman plays the action hero more than the others of his age, the famous meme of his shirt coming off being part of his stardom. In Bajrangi Bhaijaan, the joke is that he is a failed wrestler not because he isn’t fit and muscular but because he is ticklish. As an action star, Salman is no older than many of his American counterparts, and like them he is A-grade whereas earlier action stars were often seen as somewhat B-grade and not romantic, though producing much-loved figures such as Dara Singh.

Akshay Kumar (born 1967) was one of the first romantic action-hero stars who has now moved into making films on social concerns such as Toilet: Ek Prem Katha and Padman.

The action heroes of Hollywood are often dubbed ‘geriaction stars’, but their age adds to their stardom. These men are fit and mature, but importantly they look good for their age, dubbed by Mike Featherstone as ‘heroes of aging’, even if we know that lifestyle is supplemented by surgical procedures, wigs and so on. They are admired for ageing successfully, even for denying the process. They don’t show the physical, mental and social decline of us normal people, seeming to be more star-like than the young.

Agring in India is culturally very different from the West. A reverence for age is a well-known feature of Indian society, but it has taken a while for an older person to be the lead character in a film, although the stardom of Amitabh Bachchan has helped pave the way.

Middle age in India might also have different meanings from that in the West. In the four stages of life (varnashrama dharma), the householder is a key figure. As he becomes older, he is more stable and less flighty. He is experienced, more powerful and wealthier. He is no longer a child who is looked after, but someone who looks after his parents and his children. This seems an extension of this stage of life, although perhaps Salman’s extended bachelorhood and his father speaking up for him makes him seem somewhat younger. This stage of life portrayed by these stars marks a peak in life before ageing and decline.

Audiences may be changing, but they have lived in a dynamic relationship with these stars. In the 1990s, they changed many people’s ideas about a good life, and this audience is now full of parents of younger audiences. It is usual for families in India to watch films together and perhaps the different generations and genders have different views of these stars. They also watch their old films and the star’s image is a composite across the decades. The star accrues more stardom, so Tiger is also Prem is also Chulbul Pandey while Shah Rukh is forever Rahul.

The rising stars today are also capable of being action heroes, but they have their own images. Ranveer is super- muscled, and mixes his fighting with romance as well as humour, the latter backed by his role in the AIB roast. Ranbir brings the image of the Kapoor dynasty, taking an unusual choice of roles, often a suffering and wounded man whose songs have strong Sufi associations.

Yet, it is an emerging star, Tiger Shroff (born 1990) who seems to be gaining popularity with the youth. Son of Jackie Shroff, whose saucy swimsuit pictures are remembered by the older audience, he has an unusual face and a super fit body. He is one of the best dancers and is trained in martial arts. He brings the image of Jackie, and is showing how he can become the star of sequels—as Baaghi was followed by Baaghi 2, to be followed by Baaghi 3. He has been snapped up by big producers and he is to appear in another sequel, Karan Johar’s Student of the Year 2, and a film by Yash Raj featuring Hrithik, the great dancing and fighting hero whose stardom began almost 20 years ago.

While Salman’s ageing and muscled body continues to define Hindi film stardom and ideas of masculinity, it is clear that the next generation is following in his footsteps. It is surely just a coincidence that the stardom of the eponymous hero of Ek Tha Tiger and Tiger Zinda Hai is now being pursued by another Tiger.