In theory he must not like it very much. He is in a line of work where he is usually a bachelor at the beginning of the story seeking out a beautiful woman. He has to be young. He is a Hindi film hero. All old men who make money here are called Amitabh Bachchan. That slot has no vacancy. But Shah Rukh is not worried. An entire dream factory that was built around virile boys and their unquestionable love has exchanged brimming youth for what is called "character role". That's because there are no good young men these days who can be profitably cast as young men. The predicted tidal wave of a new generation that would demolish aging heroes never really came.
Some fathers put their sons at the top. And the sons found their way to the bottom. Hrithik Roshan was a sensation. And as fleeting. Once he was textbook handsome. Today there are people who suspect he is an alien. Vivek Oberoi was truly loved. Till puppy love happened to him. Abhishek Bachchan cannot help looking as though he is still apologising for being a grand sperm that never grew up. Fardeen Khan of Coke to Pepsi fame is too insignificant to dislodge the tried and tested products with whom we have grown up for 10 years or more. They are aged between 37 and 43 today but Shah Rukh, Aamir Khan, Salman Khan, Sanjay Dutt, Sunny Deol, Anil Kapoor and Suneil Shetty will not go quietly into the night. They have slowed down to ask pointed questions about their roles. Some of them even read scripts these days. They have carefully structured a road towards survival. They remain our big ones. "You can't get rid of us," Shah Rukh says. "We are deeply rooted in your psyche."
He doesn't dance at marriages for money anymore, he has come to the conclusion that he doesn't "know everything", he wants to meet every person who has seen his films "and say thank you", though the guard at his Bandra residence is paid to sabotage any unsolicited help in this matter. He wants to "understand Islam, understand the Palestinian conflict". He wants to forgive everybody who has said unkind things about him including Outlook (despite a brief threat to send the correspondent to Salman Khan). He will not play a college kid ever, "maybe in a flashback sequence? Maybe not". He lights up one of the 60 cigarettes he smokes every day and looks at the roof of the car again and introspects. "What else has age done? I have become ruthlessly practical when it comes to business." That's how Aishwarya was evicted from his home production Chalte Chalte.
Many stories have been woven around the Malshej Ghat episode when Salman visited the sets of the film, fought with Shah Rukh and went away with Aishwarya. "It's not true that I told Ash if she left she would be out of the project. In fact, we requested her to leave in Salman's car or in my car or in any combination possible. But yes, we could not risk such disruptions again. The stakes are too high. So, a decision was taken to cast Rani Mukherjee instead. I know I have hurt Salman. He took care of me when I first came to Bombay. We have not spoken to each other since that day. I am in touch with Ash though.I don't regret that decision. There is no room for emotions in this business. I think that's growing up."
Maturity has also cast doubts on whether there is truth in "and they lived happily ever after". Girl chases hero departing in train. Girl catches up. Film ends. "What if he pushes her off at the next station? I want to do films that go beyond the conventional end," says Shah Rukh. But there will not be many such attempts. He will not work in more than two films a year. "Then suddenly I will be old. I think I am one of those guys who will be young till one day I wake up and find myself old." He will not ease out of stardom slowly. He will fall from the peak and vanish down below where the rest of the world always was.
Till that happens, "he will not be out of work," says filmmaker Subhash Ghai. Audiences have forced films to grow up. "The onus of being the fountain of youth has shifted entirely to our heroines while the hero has become a strong, deep character. A 40-year-old man always has a more interesting story to tell than a guy half his age. He appeals to both young and old women." This is not Ghai's secret hope but a probability that is supported by the way films are behaving today. Says trade analyst Komal Nahata, "Bollywood's audience everywhere has separated the men from the boys."
Being a "real man" was one of Sanjay Dutt's favourite pastimes till he was arrested in the Bombay blast case for possessing firearms. Now the 43-year-old is a "real man" only when he is at work. He is on the sets of Vidhu Vinod Chopra's production Munnabhai MBBS, wearing a shirt that a woman describes as "not green, it's parrot green". Like Salman, he too addresses any male as "brother". He looks old and haggard despite the make-up. "Been worried, brother," he says. Two more suspects have been arrested in the blast case. "So it's going to drag on. I want my freedom. Fast."
Dutt: 43 yrs/Rs 1.5 cr; Deol: 41 yrs/Rs 2.5 cr;
Shetty: 42 yrs/Rs 75 lakhs;Aamir: 37 yrs/Rs 3 cr;
Salman: 37 yrs/Rs 3 cr; Kapoor: 43 yrs/Rs 3 cr
Even as the blast case was moving in the court, his phone conversation with Chhota Shakeel from a Nasik hotel room was intercepted and taped by the police. Dutt was presented as a witness in the Bharat Shah case. Why would a man already caught in a serious criminal case risk talking to the underworld? "Because he is stupid," says assistant commissioner of police Shankar Kamble who investigated the Shah case. "You will not understand Sanjay Dutt if you try to be logical. Everything becomes clear once you understand that no matter how old he is, he doesn't know what he is doing."
But nothing, not imprisonment for about a year, not alleged involvement in the death of hundreds of people, not suspected underworld links, not overt claims in the past of using drugs, nothing has changed the fact that he is one of the most endearing heroes of our times. With LoC, Munnabhai MBBS in which he plays a gangster who goes to medical college, Rudraksh which is a supernatural drama and Sanjay Gupta's Plan, all impending releases late this year or early next, Dutt is far from unemployment. He even mutters to a nearby shrub: "Some people make me work too hard, they are pushing me, brother." But age is teaching him "the art of not running away from life". A fan recently told him that he wanted to live life the way he did. Dutt told him: "Brother, never do that." The fan corrected the compliment by saying what he meant was that he wanted to fight against the odds like he did".Maybe I am a fighter," Dutt says. "I should have been ruined by now. But this industry is based on good human relations. I have that gift. I don't lose friends."
That's something 37-year-old Salman Khan learnt from him. It takes a certain mind to call Dutt a role model. Salman has that intellect. He may be faulted for his choice of master, but building close friends in the industry, even if it involves calling most of them "brother", is a craft that he has learnt very well.Despite his famous temper that once made him hit Subhash Ghai, Salman has survived through an intricately woven network of friends which includes Sanjay Leela Bhansali. The director even sacrificed Aishwarya to persist with her former boyfriend in Bajirao Mastani.
Leading ladies are dispensable here, even if they are part of the Cannes jury and on such occasions are dressed splendidly like a sofa as a designer commented recently on Aishwarya. Popular Hindi cinema seldom writes or lifts stories keeping a woman in mind. It's the men the industry has been creating. "It takes time to build a brand and no one would like that to be destroyed fast," says film distributor Shyam Shroff in a brief analysis of why the familiar men simply won't go away. Ashutosh Gowariker, director of Lagaan, gets into these "brands". There are four stages, he says, in the evolution of a star: "Introduction, acceptance and time-tested success are the first three phases. The last phase is superstardom. That's when they assume an aura. They work towards sustaining it." It's also called 'image'. It's the time in their lives when they influence epitaph writers with strong suggestions on what to write about them after they are gone. "Here lies Aamir Khan. First he was cute. Then he was brave."
There is one man whose epitaph has been written many times till they quit the effort with one final line—"He just won't leave." Forty three-year-old Anil Kapoor, who says he was once teased by Mahesh Bhatt for "working too hard", used such unfashionable ethics to survive with even his centrally partitioned coiffure intact. "I feel bad for the young guys," he says, looking at a world that is writing beyond college love and reunion in Switzerland. "I can do so many, many things." He is in Anurag Kashyap's Allwyn Kallicharan which is about a man who was conceived on top of an Allwyn refrigerator. In the film that shows Delhi 15 years from now, after it has been renamed Hastinapur, he plays a cop who wears only black. He doesn't sing at all. "That's the kind of film I want to do now. I am ready to fail." Director Kashyap doesn't think he will. He is among the many people who have learnt to love Anil Kapoor, the superstar who brings food for fresh junior artistes so that they are not intimidated. Kashyap took just five hours to convince the actor that this was a film he should not miss. "He kept asking me questions about the role," he says. "I had not thought of the answers but when he kept asking, I kept answering."
But not all stars ask questions. Some make final statements. When a director went to narrate a story to Sunny Deol a few weeks ago, the actor looked into his eyes and said. "I cannot die in the end. The Deols don't die." It's not arrogance. It's a business proposition. The man who of late has become the singlemost efficient abuser of Pakistanis and skillful planter of the tricolour in any hostile territory, knows the mind of the people who have sustained him for so long. He remains one of the most successful action heroes in recent times.
On the sets of Jaal in which he plays a cop, his co-star and fellow action hero 42-year-old Suneil Shetty comes to the conclusion: "I cannot jump off the 20th floor anymore. I cannot embarrass my daughter." When he first entered the industry, over 10 years ago, he used to shoot for 46 films in a single year. "Many were not released but that was the amount of work those days." Now it's not more than three films a year. "The rats have left," he says about particular individuals. He has stayed on because "I have got better. There is something about 40 that makes you do things better."
That part is clear, but what is it about this age group that makes these men talk more fondly about their children than their wives?