Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Out of the well and into the ocean: a superficial book on Aamir Khan

Confronted with a book whose subject matter he has strong opinions on, the honest reviewer should show his hand, or at least try to examine his own biases. So let me touch on a passage in Christina Daniels’ I’ll do it My Way: The Incredible Journey of Aamir Khan where it is said of the 1990 film Dil that “it excelled in the use of light-hearted comedy”, that it was “a complete entertainer” and “a path-breaking film”.

How to say this politely: I disagree. Dil was among a handful of movies that had me fleeing, at the age of 14, from Hindi cinema (and I stayed away for over a decade). I remember it now as a tacky, cliché-filled romance featuring defiant lovers and bickering parents, all of whom lived in a state of comical hyper-intensity. Aamir Khan’s nostrils flared continually, Madhuri Dixit endured one of the most impressive sartorial crises of her career, and there were Anand-Milind songs that might loosely be described as tuneful (in the sense that I could hum them today if someone held a gun to my head and told me to) but not memorable in any proper sense of the word.

This is, of course, just a difference of opinion about a single film, but more generally I’ll do it My Way reads like a motivational book built around a pre-formulated thesis. The myth-making begins with the first chapter, which has vignettes from Aamir’s childhood, including an anecdote about the 12-year-old practising alone on a tennis court, turning down an offer to hit with another boy on the grounds that it would spoil his game. Such an incident, at such a young age, can be interpreted in many ways (and one doesn’t have to read deep meaning into it), but Daniels uses it to buttress a narrative about the perfectionism that Aamir would later become associated with. “Aamir focussed on his goal, be that tennis, chess, the Rubik’s Cube (sic), clearly showing the beginnings of his later single-minded pursuit of excellence.”

She then examines his career via approximately 20 movies, beginning with Qayamat se Qayamat Tak and the under-seen Raakh, and a theme emerges: nearly each of these films is “unique” or “significant”, and a step forward in Aamir’s relentless evolution as an actor who has done innovative/offbeat things while continuing to be a popular mainstream star. Naturally, this means that every film has to be discussed in portentous terms. I almost fell out of my chair when I saw QSQT being described
as “the unusual story of a great love cut short”. (The story was hackneyed enough in the 16th century when Shakespeare plagiarised plot elements from Ovid for Romeo and Juliet, but even in the context of the action-dominated Hindi cinema of the 1980s it wasn’t all that radical. Narcissistic-tragic-young-love had already been a tradition in recent hits like Ek Duje ke Liye and Sohni Mahiwal.)

In the past decade or so, Aamir’s movie choices have entailed an increased self-consciousness about doing “message-oriented” cinema (or introducing speech-making into even light films). Little wonder then that things get more fraught in the sections about the recent movies. One telling passage goes: “His projects at this time like The Rising and Rang de Basanti were not just films. They were driven forward by powerful themes that made them milestones in their genres.”

Apart from there being no obvious link between the second sentence and the first, the phrasing "not just films" reveals a distinct attitude: what Aamir does is more important and transcendent than mere movie-making. The implication is almost that one must admire The Rising and Rang de Basanti for the heft of their t
hemes and ambitions, irrespective of their cinematic worth. In this view of things, a film like 3 Idiots becomes most “significant” at precisely the point where I personally would find it most tedious: when Aamir’s character turns into the voice of conscience and catharsis, speaking nobly against a flawed education system.

But by now, it’s clear that this book is a worshipful tribute to Aamir Khan, and one can argue that there is nothing inherently wrong with such a venture – if Daniels honestly sees his career as an unbroken series of triumphs, well-judged image makeovers and inspirational films that have altered the landscape of Hindi cinema, so be it. But one would expect such a thesis to be backed by rigorous analyses of the films themselves – or at least by the personal gushing of an unapologetic fan. Instead, the author’s own voice is absent from large swathes of the book; in its place are quotes from old newspaper reports and magazine articles, and long transcripts of the inputs she got from Aamir’s colleagues. The latter make up the bulk of the text, and while some of them are informative, too many of them say the same things over and over again, in increasingly florid language.

Without wanting to underestimate the true fan’s resilience, I imagine that some of these quotes would try the patience (or tickle the funny bone) of even Aamir’s biggest devotees. Indra Kumar must have felt that the line “I saw Aamir turning from a larva to a beautiful butterfly” wasn’t adequate to express the full scope of his feelings, so he continues: “He can transform himself into a beautiful evening or a brilliant sunset with clouds of magnificent colours. He has the capacity to be the moon shimmering in the water below. He is such a powerhouse of talent that he can transform his personality into all these things and look beautiful [...] now he has acquired the capacity to create a spectrum of his own. That is his evolution.”

“He’s not swimming in the well,” says director Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra, channelling Master Yoda and Paulo Coelho, “He is out there in the ocean ... Aamir does not belong to a particular time and space. When we look back 20 years from now, he would have defined this era [...] Sixty years from today, when you look back, it will not even matter that he was in this era. He will become even bigger.”

Other transcripts are tediously long-winded, with no attempt made to render them crisp, or to even make them seem truly personal or relevant to the subject. Thus, after rambling on for eight pages, Raja Hindustani’s director Dharmesh Darshan says, “The only other actor in consideration for Aamir Khan’s role was Shahrukh Khan. But I had finalised on Aamir Khan. Of course, it would be a pleasure to work with Shahrukh Khan also.” That last sentence reads like part of a more general PR exercise, accidentally included in this book.

Given all this, it is unsurprising that Daniels herself can’t resist sun imagery in the mysterious final sentences, “For him, today’s peak becomes tomorrow’s sunset. Aamir Khan follows the eternal sunrise.” I’ll do it My Way is a good-looking book: well-produced, neatly structured, with a nice collection of photographs (but, it has to be said, some sloppy editing. At one point Mann is translated as “heart”. Um, no, that’s Dil). It passes muster as a history lite of one of the major movie careers of the last quarter-century. But it is best read – or rather, flipped through – by someone who already deifies Aamir Khan and who prefers mixed metaphors to in-depth analysis.

[Did a version of this review for Business Standard]


  1. Okay, consider one copy of the book sold.

  2. Abhishek: ha ha, yes, I'm often told my negative reviews are more useful that way!

  3. As much good work Aamir Khan has done in the mainstream scheme of things, I find it funny when he is paraded around as the savior of Indian cinema, the beacon of hope for our cinema and all that. It's obviously from his great talent and business sense to balance a little bit of ambition with a little bit of crowd pleasing sensibilities. Respect that.

    But even a little awareness of other branches of Indian cinema will reveal that he is not the only one. We were once in a dinner when this lady asked us (I admit it was a Tamilian dominated group), "Oh Kamal Haasan is probably the Aamir of the South right?" I think all of us had spilled our beers.

    I missed the first episode of Satyameva Jayate. Did you watch? Thoughts?

  4. Gradwolf: KH as "the Aamir of the South" - that's hilarious. What next? Rajinikanth as the Salman of the South?

    No, haven't seen Satyameva Jayate but have heard mostly good things about it.

  5. Gosh, I love Aamir more than most and my first movie memory is watching QSQT whwn I was five, but this is too ridiculous even for me. Aamir has been in plenty of trash -- Love, Love, Love, Daulat ki Jung, Mela... I could go on. I am kind of tempted to go through the book just to see how these movies are hyped up.

  6. Szerelem: well, in fairness movies like Love Love Love and Daulat ki Jung are definitely not hyped up here - only selected films are written about at length. But personally my mind boggles even at something like Raja Hindustani being treated like a cinematic milestone. And like I said, the bigger problem is that the book reads like a pastiche of newspaper quotes and press releases in places.

  7. Does it have a commentary on the bad films that he's done? or is it just fandom turned into a book? Ideally, biographies should include the crests and the troughs of someone's career, not just the supposed high points.

  8. ha ha ha ha ha, thinking man's actor. i dont understand why even people like Naseer have said good things about him. He would say Lagaan was a milestone such a tough film to produce. Seeing Lagaan in the context of films like Utsav, Bandit Queen, Junoon, (other real or period dramas) one would feel like laughing at Lagaan and someone has to tell Aamir to learn English. He said at an Economic Times's event, "I came first" he doesnt know its "I stood first"

  9. Pessimist Fool: not sure why you say "even people like Naseer". Naseer has appeared in as many mediocre films (and given bad performances in them) as nearly any other Bollywood actor. Unless you meant it's surprising because Naseer never has a good word for anyone!

    Also, what does "learning English" have to do with anything?

    1. Hi. Have visited your blog after a longish gap. Plan to check out your place more regularly now.

      About this book of Christina Daniels--I understand that it is an unauthorized biography, not personal, basically a half-baked personal blog extension, about the actor's career. A net-friend and I interacted with Christina on her blog and gave the author some info we (Aamir 'fans' both) had collected ; my friend interacted more, and learnt that the actor was not co-operating with the writer-- who planned to go ahead anyway. Later my friend read the book and said that it was a mish-mash of stuff collected from the internet, plus a few conversations with a few film folk.

      I decided not to buy the book, since it was clearly not worth it. In any case I have read some really good stuff through the years -- books about Hollywood legends, mostly; have also read a few books on Indian (Bollywood) cinema. Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri's 'Icons from Bollywood ' is pretty good.I have also read The Spirit of Lagaan by Satyajit Bhatkal. It's all about making a film with an international team, through six harsh summer months in the desert sands of Kutch. An inspirational read, really good.

      I am a book and film person in that order-- and my return to Hindi films happened in 1999 after watching Aamir Khan's Sarfarosh, one of his best films, also one of my favourite Hindi films. Anyway, the film and the male lead impressed me enough, to lead my exploration of Aamir's work, thru' videos, and later the theatrical releases. Since then I have been also following the man online, so to say....and am quite puzzled by the vituperative contempt he receives, especially among the book-reading cum world cinema watching 'elite'. Anyway, that's how it is. People need to put down others all the time, especially on the internet. My point here is-- why should Aamir's relatively 'unfluent' English, prove such a joke? The man speaks terrific Hindi, fluently, far better than his contemporaries like Salman and SRK -- and that is all that should matter. He is an Indian, a Hindi film actor, and he speaks mellifluous Hindi,far better Hindi than his contemporaries Salman and SRK. And Aamir's English is all right, even if it lacks the superficial polish of a Karan Johar.

      Incidentally I interacted with Aamir on his blog ( from mid-2007 to mid-2011) and we found ourselves exchanging notes on favourite books ; he wrote about loving my recommended book (Dalrymple's Delhi book). And I even ended up buying one of AK's favourites, something he was always raving about , 'A Confederacy of Dunces', by John Kennedy Toole.

      I guess my words here may provoke some more merriment from the usual quarters. Ah well, so be it.

    2. lalsub: well, I can't speak for anyone else's feelings about Aamir, only my own. I have no doubt there are many good things about him (good intentions and seriousness of purpose being among them), but I think he's overrated as an actor, and some of his most celebrated films are often too pedantic for my taste. Agree about the silliness of Pessimist Fool's comment about the English, of course.

      am quite puzzled by the vituperative contempt he receives, especially among the book-reading cum world cinema watching 'elite'.

      These things are usually a matter of perspective, usually determined by one's own biases: for instance, I am just as often puzzled/annoyed by the attitude of this "elite" to popular cinema in general, and I personally find that many of them are perfectly happy to celebrate what Aamir does (even when it is startlingly mediocre, like Dhobi Ghat) over genuinely good commercial films.

    3. Thanks for your prompt reply. Agree about the good intentions and purpose. And the occasional pedantry. I was probably the only one who did not sniffle thru' TZP. Have never considered him the greatest of actors, just adequate. And yet...there is a purity in many of his films... my favourite Sarfarosh, 1947Earth, HAHK ( a genuine children's film), Akele Hum Akele Tum, RDB (despite its questionable ending), even the more commercial films like Ghulam ( about a father too weak, a questioning younger son, an elder brother gone astray), the mad and entertaining Rangeela (one of the few RGV films that has stood the test of time), even Mangal Pandey. And I'm ok with 3 Idiots; like Talaash too. D3 was weird, and the forthcoming PK...could be in the Munnabhai tradition, but why advertize the one risque scene?

      See, fans can be supportive, but we also question.

  10. Most heartened to read this piece. Forget about the book - it seemed suspect even going by the jacket - but am glad to know someone shares my views about Mr. Khan's contentious genius as actor, businessman and messiah rolled into one. He was actually better when still running around trees and dying for love in B-movies like 'Dil'. But the past decade has been a relentless exercise in manufacturing fame and glory beyond stardom by someone whose acting (or directing) work scarcely justifies his reputation, and crowned by the inexplicable Padma Bhushan.

  11. As always great article,
    But one thing struck me: this article coupled with one of your earlier post where you compared Amir's "faux" gaze to blue peoples... .. might be read as a light gibe.

    I wonder of the reason,

    Anyways, as a fan of Amir, I loved some of his movies, liked some .. and think some are just too much over the top like 3 Idiots. While Dhobi Ghat was a delightful treat.

  12. Jai - but comeon Naseer's body of work is much better than Aamir's and a word of praise from Naseer is once in a while kind of a thing. For somebody who is known as a thinking man's actor, if his language skills or lets say the ability to articulate his thoughts is like Aamir's, then I think he should definitely get a training in soft skills. He really speaks Hinglish...

  13. I think people have the habit of blowing the intelligence of some film actors beyond realistic levels. I mean, if the hero is to be credited for everything, one starts wondering about the roles of the director, script writer, cinematographer, editor, etc. Are all these people dummy?

    Destination Infinity

    PS: I was thinking whether to buy this book or not. Thanks to your review... I have made an informed decision now :)

  14. @Gradwolf - "Kamal hassan" as the Aamir Khan of south is one of the best comments I have read in some time (Even though I should be last to agree as I lov KH's movies and hate Amir khans movies).

    In Hollywood context then I guess, Di Caprio would be the Amir Khan of Hollywood?

  15. He was actually better when still running around trees and dying for love in B-movies like 'Dil'.

    Am no expert on popular Hindi cinema. But I can definitely relate to this comment.

    From whatever few "mainstream" films that I've watched over the past 20 years, what's most upsetting is the loss of narrative tradition in Bollywood mainstream filmmaking over the past 20 years.

    Compare a 1989 blockbuster like Maine Pyar Kiya with 3 Idiots, a 2010 blockbuster.

    I don't care for either film. But in 1989 the Bollywood narrative tradition was still alive and well. The narrative skill and command of mise-en-scene that one observes in MPK is totally missing in 3 Idiots. The latter is less of a narrative and more of a hodge-podge of poor, vulgar jokes put together amidst a lot of sermonizing.

    This is worryingly similar to the loss of narrative tradition in Hollywood between the late 50s and the late 60s/early 70s. Films grew richer thematically appealing to more niche tastes. But the narrative tradition suffered to the extent that even the good films from the post studio era lacked the narrative skill and storytelling nous that we took for granted throughout the 40s/50s.

    I'm afraid this loss of storytelling skill is irretrievable, just as it proved to be in the case of Hollywood.

  16. Pretentious.
    That's one word that comes to my mind when I see or hear him talk, or act.
    I know this piece was on a book about Aamir Khan, but I am sure Aamir Khan being the perfectionist he is did go through every word in the book to make it what it is. I think the last good movie he acted in was probably Jo Jeeta Woh Sikander. Everything else he did after that were rip offs (Ghulam, Mann, Akele Hum..., Ghajini etc) or juvenile (Fanaa etc) and some were rip offs that were juvenile and then there were the hyped up movies that was BAD (Taare Zameen Par - except for the kid, 3 Idiots, Rang De Basanti etc). Dhobi Ghat was pretentious. The movies he produced (Dhobi Ghat, Peepli Live, Delhi Belly also were in my opinion hyped up cz it was from him. Though I did enjoy Delhi Belly quite a bit.
    Caught glimpses of his Satyameva Jayate...he does not have the balls to tackle real issues, he would rather pander to the lowest common denominator among us and have them weep copiously while he bats for them. But of course his PR group is amazing, for they did create the Brand Aamir over the past decade or so.
    Most of the movies mentioned above could've been harmless movies like other dime-a-dozen movies that is churned out of bollywood, but whne viewed thru the prism of Mr. gets angry.
    Aamir rant...sorry.

  17. I am about as old as you. I remember that weekend , Ghayal and Dil were released on the same day, and we saw both on the first day. Great fun, both of them -though I would certainly not watch either of them again, but its surprising how much I remember.
    The three Khans are like Tendulkar/Dravid/Ganguly. We grew up with them, and I would find it hard to be objective about them.

  18. I will really be interested in reading your reviews about the show "Satyamev Jayate"


  19. These star books are hagiographies and will remain the same. These authors lose all objectivity and neutrality while writing. Or maybe that is all they know. Pathetic.

    Thanks for the review


  20. “There are expressions from specific languages” that can enrich English, he pointed out, “capturing emotions and ideas that don’t exist.” As an example, he mentioned the Bangla and Hindi “man”, “a continuum between the heart and the mind. It’s a percentage of heart and a percentage of mind, adding up to hundred. But the point is that that continuum can be anywhere depending on the context. So when translating you find yourself using ‘mind’ when it’s more mind than heart and using ‘heart’ when its more heart than mind. But you can never capture that it’s actually a mixture of the two.”