Kabir Khan, Raj Malhotra or just Vijay?

Aditya Mani Jha | Updated on October 24, 2019

Mark the man: In Chak De! India, hockey coach Kabir Khan (played by Shah Rukh Khan) loses the tag of a traitor by leading the women’s team to World Cup glory

Soft skills: In his Raj-Rahul avatars of the late ’90s, Shah Rukh Khan ruled the screens as the king of romance. A still from Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge

The name of the hero in a Bollywood film is not just a name

A passable drinking game is always on the menu if you’re watching a masala Bollywood film. The game goes like this: Every time a particular catchphrase or a refrain pops up, you take a swig. In Siddharth Anand’s espionage thriller War, released a few weeks ago, the leitmotif is the word gaddaar — the Urdu/Hindi for ‘traitor’.

War, for the most part, strings together some well-shot action setpieces. It then pads what’s left over with a raging, lovey-dovey bromance between its good-looking (and intermittently shirtless) military protagonists, Khalid (Tiger Shroff) and Kabir (Hrithik Roshan). It is also, in its fixation with Muslims-as-gaddaars, a gigantic dog whistle of a film.

It’s worth noting that in a film obsessed with Muslim characters undergoing loyalty tests, the patriotic certificates are being handed out by a man called Kabir. Since the turn of the millennium, the name Kabir has been popular among Bollywood’s leading men — Ranbir Kapoor in Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani (2013), Arjun Kapoor in Ki & Ka (2016), Abhay Deol in Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (2011) and so on.

The source, of course, is the eponymous 15th-century Bhakti poet who declared he was neither Hindu nor Muslim. Though there isn’t really a consensus, it is believed that he was almost certainly either a Muslim julaha (weaver) or a Hindu kori (a Sudra sub-caste), thus making him the perfect vessel for narratives underlining Hindu-Muslim harmony — or ‘rewriting’ acts of communal violence.

Consider the gaddaar’s trajectory in War. In its present-day timeline, Khalid heads the R&AW (Research and Analysis Wing) team tasked with hunting down Kabir, his former teacher and mentor who appears to have become a gaddaar. Through a series of flashbacks, we concurrently see how Khalid is, in fact, the son of a gaddaar. As a boy, Khalid was kicked around by schoolyard bullies for being his father’s son.

The ‘rewriting’ of communal violence plays out this way: The beating Khalid received from his classmates as a boy represents majoritarian violence against Muslims. It’s a ritualised act, a public humiliation. But even though our sympathies are with the bullied Muslim boy momentarily, we see that this traumatic incident spurs young Khalid to join the army, fight terrorists (and, of course, gaddaars) and ultimately martyr himself fighting for the State.

Pretty much the same cycle was on display over a decade ago, in Shimit Amin’s Chak De! India (2007). Here, the protagonist is a Muslim hockey player named Kabir Khan (Shah Rukh Khan), the captain of the Indian men’s team. Kabir and his mother are hounded out of their neighbourhood after he’s accused of throwing away a game to arch-rival Pakistan. Losing to Pakistan, of course, makes Kabir an alpha gaddaar. By the end of the film, Kabir has coached the once-hapless Indian women’s hockey team to World Cup glory. “Kabir Khan’s Muslimness is set in motion by this film’s statist mode precisely to rewrite the event of anti-Muslim communalism as the potential starting point of communal integration,” writes Nandini Bhattacharya in her 2013 book Hindi Cinema: Repeating the Subject.

Game plan

Bollywood pairing stars with certain names is nothing new, of course. Prakash Mehra’s Zanjeer (1973), written by Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar (or Salim-Javed), saw Amitabh Bachchan playing a character called Vijay for the first time. It marked the beginning of his iconic ‘angry young man’ phase — intense, brooding characters fed up with corruption and criminality. Among the most memorable films of this phase were Deewaar (1975), Trishul (1978), Shaan (1980) and Shakti (1982) — all of them written by Salim-Javed, all of them with protagonists named Vijay.

Romance exacted its revenge a generation later, with Shah Rukh Khan ushering in the Raj/Rahul era. The floodgates opened, of course, with Raj Malhotra in Aditya Chopra’s Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995). Aziz Mirza’s Yes Boss and Karan Johar’s Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998) consolidated Khan’s image as Bollywood’s king of romance. In both films, and several others that followed, Khan’s character was called Rahul. The Raj/Rahul films were all about pretty people in pretty places, holding hands and declaring their love to the heavens. They became the aspirational heroes of a newly-globalised economy.

An abundance of Kabirs

What of Bollywood’s ongoing obsession with ‘Kabir’, then? A possible answer is perhaps to be found in the filmography of John Abraham. His career took off in the early 2000s with two major hits: Jism (2003) and Dhoom (2004). In both films, he played glamorous anti-establishment figures named Kabir — in the former, he was an alcoholic playboy and in the latter, a superbike-riding master thief. In true Bollywood nudge-wink fashion, Abraham returned to characters called Kabir in two 2016 films: Dishoom and Rocky Handsome. But these Kabirs are the ultimate authority figures — a super-cop and an R&AW/Special Forces soldier, respectively.

Could it be that the evolution of Bollywood Kabirs is taking its cues from India’s very visible push towards majoritarianism and strongman culture? Before the current ruling party came to power, after all, the best-known Bollywood Kabir was Ranbir Kapoor’s character from Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani — a somewhat irritating conformist in revolutionary’s clothes, but largely non-violent.

Today, however, the definitive Kabir is Shahid Kapoor’s eponymous protagonist from Kabir Singh, Bollywood’s reigning incel overlord, a coke-sniffing, girlfriend-beating toxic swamp of a man. The old weaver would hang his head in shame, one feels.

Published on October 24, 2019

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