Shah Rukh Khan has been a leading man in the Hindi film industry for 25 years. Aamir and Salman Khan have been around for 28 years each. Akshay Kumar debuted in 1991 (26 years).

Let’s play a fun game: imagine Bollywood without this fantastic four. Who would be your megastars, the ones who have the muscle and charisma to drag the whole country into packed theatres with a single release? While critics might discuss narrative and direction and misogyny, the country (and the growing clout of NRIs) unabashedly worships the four of them. Is there anyone as swashbuckling as Salman, as intense as Aamir, as eclectic as Akshay and as passionately romantic as Shah Rukh?

These are the men the biggest production houses have always put their money on, leading to the symbiotic growth of a movie industry, fighting through the creative limbo of the 1990s and the commercial-parallel confusion of the 2000s. Today, they’re successful producers themselves, striking a commendable balance between film production and technological development and acting projects. It is not like they have not seen slumps in their careers, but even at 50, they’re still the most important players in the industry.

 

Unfortunately, in the last 25 years, no new addition has been made to this league. Their contemporaries have either fizzled out or are trying really hard to stay relevant. The likes of Ajay Devgn struggle to stay afloat with Salman-like, testosterone-fuelled potboilers, while another ‘90s favourite, Suniel Shetty, has not had a release in 4 years (he hasn’t had a hit in 10). Kumar’s compadre in Main Khiladi Tu Anari was Saif Ali Khan, whose last hit was in 2008. What worked for the three Khans and Kumar was the creation of distinct archetypes, which dictated their character choices, public identity and production outlook. Shah Rukh has been “the guy you take home to your mother” for two decades, Aamir became Mr. Perfectionist/Mr. Activist, Akshay decided to retire his wandering eye and became the conscientious family man (“The Idealogist”) and Salman realised that it would be most profitable to cash in on his jilted-lover-bad-boy antics. Interestingly, their individual connotations are extensions of the Hero archetype — each warming up to the different emotional and aspirational needs of the Indian audience, at home and abroad. While Salman woos the front benchers, Shah Rukh romances the diaspora. The country has stayed enamoured for over two decades and counting.

 

No one enjoys the kind of following these four leading men do. Interestingly, when Hrithik Roshan came into the industry, people thought that he was someone who could take on the Khans. I remember him doing a bunch of cross-country live performances after the release of Kaho Na Pyaar Hai. He was suddenly the industry’s golden boy, the whole package — outrageously good looking, “hero” material, a good actor and a brilliant dancer. When he came to Kolkata for his performance, the ticket sales were higher than those for Shah Rukh’s appearances. And that’s saying something, because the Bengali capital has always been a SRK fan (it must have something to do with his “bhalo chhele” vibe).

Overnight, everybody became a Hrithik fan. People started trying to perfect the Ik Pal Ka Jeena hook step, gyms filled up and even fishnet tanks came back in fashion for men. While Salman has always been the poster boy for shirtlessness, he was seen as one of the masses — the rickshaw drivers and galli da laundas aped him. Hrithik was about aesthetics, while Salman was about rakish street cred. Hrithik moved on to get the country talking about abs and deltoids, while Salman remained relevant only to those who cared about doley-sholey and thought bhaigiri was the biggest achievement of their lives (which is a huge chunk of the country, no doubt).

 

Ironically, Salman’s bhaigiri still reigns (unfazed by arrests and allegations) and Shah Rukh rules as the Love Guru — but Hrithik’s beauty has waned a bit. In 17 years and 21 films, Hrithik has had just eight hits, three of which were ensemble films, with one starring Shah Rukh Khan. What exactly did Hrithik have then, which was appealing in the 2000s, but seems to have fizzled out in a decade?

For starters, it was the narcissism. The Indian man was slowly becoming a richer, more confident version of himself. He had started grooming and taking care of himself. He paid attention to how he looked at the beach, what he ate and how his hair was cut. He was going out more, hitting the clubs and had to impress women and find himself a girlfriend, because he didn’t want to cower under the previous generation’s pressure of arranged marriages. He had to become a peacock, and Hrithik Roshan was the best role model for the urban Indian man — but along came other peacocks.

 

You see, what Hrithik had to offer was difficult but not unattainable. If you found yourself a personal trainer (which, with the booming gym culture in India, almost everyone was able to), attended dance classes and groomed yourself, you had most of the qualities Hrithik did. Hordes of north Indian men flood Mumbai every day, abs and pecs in tow, dreaming of making it big in the movie industry, and being good looking was not a rarity anymore. Soon, there were actors like Shahid Kapoor and John Abraham, who had the same things to offer. On the other hand, audiences were warming up to Abhishek Bachchan’s Average Joe vibe. There was a sudden surge of models turning into actors and the Dino Moreas and Arjun Rampals of the world debuted to solid success. While Dino might have faded out, Arjun has been able to survive in the industry, with experimental roles and improved acting chops. None of them became big enough to be a Khan or a Kumar, though. The same teenaged girls who cooed for Hrithik and Shahid, were holding up “I love you SRK” posters outside Mannat on his birthday. India had still not found a reason to give up on the megastars and move on.

While John Abraham is still very much a part of the industry (and is best buds with Akshay Kumar), he has realised that his acting chops are limited. John has been a maverick producer for a while now, backing interesting projects which he does not necessarily act in, and he chooses to stick to action flicks to star in — something he is undoubtedly good at. It seems like John Abraham might just settle for becoming a full-time producer after an acting career of only 13 years. Shahid, on the other hand, has had an interesting journey. His first 10 films were flops, with a spark here and there with Jab We Met (starring Kareena Kapoor Khan in her most memorable performance) and Kaminey (which did average business at the box office), and then a slump of eight consecutive flops. Only recently, with R…Rajkumar, Haider and then Udta Punjab does he seem to have found his footing. His next two releases, Rangoon and Padmavati, seem good enough to be looking forward to, but what does Shahid have to offer that no other leading man does? Nothing, really. If you compare him to Hrithik, they have the exact same qualities —acting chops, dancing toes and abs. And like Hrithik, even Shahid has more misses than hits (4 hits out of 25 films) in a 17-year career.

 

And that brings me to the question: would the Indian audience be aected if a Shahid or a Hrithik stopped doing films? Not really, because movies are consumed like popcorn these days. Earlier, a film’s success was defined by how long it ran. Today, it is just the opening week that matters. Funnily, even the race to the 100 crore and 300 crore clubs were started by the Khans and Kumar. Currently, they hold those records (one upping each other continuously) too, which just goes to prove that no other actor has been able to become as commercially successful as them.

Then there are Ranbir Kapoor and Imran Khan, who were touted as the new golden boys, backed by the industry’s first family and Aamir Khan respectively. It seemed like they could do no wrong, but that was not the case. While Ranbir might be breathing easy these days, thanks to the success of Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, Imran has disappeared from the industry. In a career of eight years and only 12 films, he has delivered just two hits. Ranbir, on the other hand, has always had an eye for offbeat projects, which worked in his favour. Rocket Singh and Wake Up Sid have become cult favourites, and he even stood out in an ensemble like Rajneeti. But after the massive high of Rockstar and Barfi!, he had a lull for about four years till ADHM happened last Diwali. Quite honestly, ADHM’s success cannot be credited to Ranbir alone, even though there is no denying that he is possibly the best actor of his generation. His next film, Jagga Jasoos, might help him prove that he is still able to shoulder a commercial film all by himself.

 

Which might be exactly what the three Khans and Akshay Kumar can do — promise producers and the audience that they are wholesome celluloid experiences. An Aamir Khan film does not need anything or anyone to make it better. The best thing to have happened to that film is already its leading man. A Dabangg or a Wanted is a Salman Khan experience — you are buying into everything the Salman Khan package has to offer. No one other than him can offer that to you. Everyone else is replaceable, and that is why other leading men run out of gas, because whatever little nugget of movie magic they had to offer, someone else came along doing the same or got better at it. Just when Ranbir became the new age lover boy, Ranveer Singh appeared. 

Ranveer started riding the industry’s sudden desi high. There was a need to find material in the middle class, the gallis of small towns, in the unabashed Indianness of India. He became the poster boy for dil hai Hindustani. He wears his love for Bollywood on his sleeve, confesses his love for the Khans and Kumar profusely (making fan videos before their films release) and does not behave like Bollywood royalty, because, well, he knows he isn’t. Along with his ex-BFF Arjun Kapoor, they became the industry’s cool boys. They behaved like any one of us would if we suddenly had the opportunity to live a movie star’s life. I remember Ranveer gushing over an expensive watch at one of our cover shoots, and telling us how he used to own a first copy of it, which, unfortunately, got smashed in a road accident. Arjun, on the other hand, is perpetually obsessed with his uncle Anil Kapoor and does not seem to take himself seriously enough to create an independent brand identity. They have endorsements, money, movies, girlfriends, regular people screaming at them at malls and airports — what more could one want?

 

Having said that, it must be noted that Ranveer has quite the impressive score sheet — seven years, nine films, seven hits. Even though he had just one release in 2016 (Befikre, which was a colossal disappointment), he has become a favourite with the country and producers. People want to see more of him, and this might have to do with the fact that Ranveer understands brand positioning. He has created an image for himself (which he need not necessarily be as a person) and people seem to be enjoying it. He is the crazy one — desi, boisterous, loud, party-all-night, the naughty one whom everyone scolds yet dotes on, the maa-ka-dulaara, the crazy friend who has zero inhibitions on the dance floor and flirts with all the girls. Everybody knows someone like Ranveer Singh. He is one of us. And, that package is working out for him right now. He might be the next Khan. Or, someone might oust him — who knows?

Reinvention is the key to staying relevant, they say. It is not necessarily the road to success. An Ajay Devgn shifted from sensible, understated cinema and tried to own the crass-massy-Telugu-remake niche but, after some initial success, started losing the race. Hrithik is trying to do that too. After Bang Bang tanked — it was his usual shirtless-dancing-fighting-wooing aair — he tried to do something different with Mohenjo Daro, and Kaabil looks like a very novel effort. While Mohenjo Daro proved to be the year’s biggest disappointment, here’s hoping that Kaabil boosts the Roshan morale. With his age being on the scarier side of 40, Hrithik might just be realising what actresses do at 30 — if you base your career on how you look, they’ll move on after your pin-up days are over.

But then again, the Khans and Kumar are still doing a grand job at looking good too. Akshay Kumar is the fittest man in the industry at 50, Aamir’s Dangal bod is #fitnessgoals, Bhai’s biceps still rule and Shah Rukh just gets himself an 8-pack whenever he feels like it. There’s just no beating these men.