Out of the well and into the ocean: a superficial book on Aamir Khan
Date: 5/9/2012 2:42:00 AM
Faced 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 themes 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]