One glance at Hrithik Roshan today and it’s hard to believe that this is his 23rd year (!) as a Hindi film actor. I don’t just mean the chiselled greying, the wild beards or the ageless physique. (Or maybe I do. A little.). But it’s also the fact that Roshan was the last bonafide Bollywood superstar, a nationwide phenomenon that bridged the old to the new at the turn of the millenium. His barnstorming debut in Kaho Na…Pyaar Hai (2000) changed the way the commercial Hindi movie hero looked, moved and grooved: The era of the thirst trap was officially upon us.
He struggled to keep the brawny flag flying during his initial boom-or-bust phase – OTT (over-the-top) was still an adjective back then, thanks to his ultra-hyper turns in a clutch of infamously dreadful romantic dramas. But Roshan soldiered on, reinventing himself with timely old-school potboilers, somewhat preserving the sort of vintage big-screen panache that had all but disappeared with the advent of the ‘content’ age. Once newer generations of biceps emerged, Roshan's value as a multiplex-mass hybrid, an action hero who could act and a specialist all-rounder dawned on audiences grappling with the intellectual demonetization of masala entertainment. His looks may have prevented many from taking him too seriously as an actor, but his reputation as a performer was shaped by the school of hard knocks.
Roshan's 25th film, Vikram Vedha, seems like the perfect excuse to take stock of a career that has blown hot, cold and everything in between. At the risk of sounding like a nostalgic boomer, they don't make (or break) 'em like him anymore. On that note, here are eight of my favourite performances by Hrithik Roshan, ranked in ascending order of preference:
Kaabil is just as irritating as some of the actor’s more celebrated hits like Super 30 (2019) and Agneepath (2012). Its rape-and-retribution template is as unoriginal as most of director Sanjay Gupta’s filmography. But hear me out. Roshan, his pulsating forehead vein and trembling cheeks are perversely effective as the visually impaired dubbing artist who avenges the death of his wife. He throws everything at the wall, and quite a bit of it sticks – there’s not an emotion he leaves unexpressed in this glorified showreel of a movie. It’s an old-school performance, one that has no qualms manipulating the viewers and turning them against every particle in every frame of the film. Kaabil is exploitative Hindi cinema at its crassest; Roshan knows it, which is why he milks the mayhem for all its worth. His character’s journey from lover to murderous vigilante is rooted in the sort of righteous bloodlust that most Indians are born to lap up. Of all the rubbish Roshan has managed to (partially) dignify over the years, Kaabil is right up there. And right down there. I remember being pushed to the brink during the film and praying for Roshan to explode. Only, I wasn’t sure whether I wanted him to end the villains or the film itself.
Rakesh Roshan’s E.T.-inspired superhero origin story became the father-son pair’s second blockbuster in a row, one that resurrected Hrithik after a string of poor post-honeymoon-phase flops. His turn as a differently-abled boy who is ‘cured’ by the spells of a non-creepy, sun-powered alien is the sort of commercially aware and playful performance that is remembered more for the risk it took than the rewards the movie reaped. Roshan’s science-fiction-for-dummies journey as Rohit Mehra became a cultural touchstone in terms of franchise-making, leading to the spate of kitschy Krrish movies. Yet, as a newly-imagined family entertainer alone, Koi…Mil Gaya surpasses the rest for the clean slate it flaunted. Roshan’s readiness to push the envelope in a genre-averse film industry is evident in the way he turns sympathy into an aspirational feeling. All the physicality and flamboyance that had defined his image until then was undone, making the audience believe that only Jadoo the alien could turn the boy into a newer, slicker Hrithik Roshan – a far cry from the one who was trying but failing to become a dreamy romantic hero. It worked. Koi mil gaya, in more ways than one.
I spent most of the year 2000 feeling jealous of Hrithik Roshan, the new ‘Greek God’ on the block and a national sensation who had stolen the spotlight from Shah Rukh Khan. Being an SRK superfan, I had bought into the rivalry between the (real-world) fan clubs, spending weeks trashing Roshan as a one-hit wonder. But distance makes the heart grow fonder. So it wasn’t until a few years later – when Roshan’s flops made him more fallible and human – that I noticed just how corny-clever his landscape-altering debut really was. I had grown up on the brand of masala Rakesh Roshan made – and his son’s double act as Rohit and Raj in the blockbuster felt like a neat ode to Khan’s duality as a homegrown talent and an NRI icon. There’s no denying Roshan’s ease and elasticity on screen – those instant-classic dance moves, those light eyes, the almost-aristocratic voice, the physical commitment to charisma. But the reason his KNPH performance matters even more today – even if the film hasn’t aged as well – is because it signified the beginning of the “full package” age in Bollywood. Sculpted physiques, bronzed looks, freaky fitness, protein shakes and six packs were added to the Superstar’s job profile. No longer was it enough to be a chocolate-boy hero. Dance, action, romance, muscles, you had to have it all. Roshan’s arrival changed the way audiences aspired in turn, leading to a film industry that misinterpreted his success as a ‘formula’ that most newcomers were expected to wield. The Khans built their bodies (after him) at different points, but the OG will always be Hrithik Roshan, even if his impossibly perfect looks have often worked against his own ambitions as an artist.
Directed by film critic Khalid Mohammed, Fiza is the kind of title no A-lister would touch with a bargepole today. But the Hindi film industry of the 1990s and 2000s was a braver and politically expressive universe. Centered on a Muslim woman’s search for her brother in the wake of the 1993 Bombay riots, Fiza marked Roshan’s keenly anticipated follow-up to Kaho Na…Pyaar Hai. On paper, the two characters couldn’t have been more different. But the essence is the same. His ‘double role’ here is not literal but allegorical: Amaan’s identity as a terrorist consumed by jihad is at war with his identity as a caring brother and son. The mega success of his debut makes Roshan’s supporting role look very much like a lead role. Despite ceding the stage to Karishma Kapoor and her career-best performance, Roshan’s off-screen image makes his character’s absence from nearly half the film feel like a lingering presence. The film is richer for the wait it enforces on an audience desperate to see the actor again. There’s a sense of newcomer striving about the way he plays Amaan – a boy whose love has adopted the facade of hate; whose face is as haunted as it is human – particularly in the search for artistic vitality so early in his career. It isn’t an eye-catching turn, but it’s an important one in hindsight, not least because it suggested the arrival of a star who wasn’t afraid to explore the narrative of a nation. For further context, his next film was Mission Kashmir (2000).
Hrithik Roshan gives ‘ageing like fine wine’ a whole new meaning in War, Siddharth Anand’s criminally entertaining and glossy action thriller. The film winks at Roshan’s life-long reputation as an enormously attractive big-screen hero by casting him as a ‘veteran’ Armyman opposite a self-aware Tiger Shroff. It helps that everyone – including and especially Roshan – buys into the meta revelry, playing beautifully to the camera as it sets about quasi-objectifying the greying Greek God. There’s something sly about the slow-motion homoeroticism of Roshan’s Major Kabir Dhaliwal, which aren’t words you usually associate with a character who opens the film as an alleged traitor. You get the sense that not even the filmmakers realise how much self-reverential glee Roshan manages to infuse in this role. Thanks to Roshan’s fury-weds-farce performance, War marked one of the rare instances I rolled my eyes at myself for rolling my eyes at the screen. Not to mention my newfound admiration for Roshan – and his ability to renovate a body of work that wasn’t quite expected to evolve like his body.
One might argue that Roshan is being a version of himself in this film. Arjun – the hunky workaholic who reconnects with his college friends, and himself, on a Spanish road trip – sounds, moves and speaks like Roshan. He even slaps like Roshan (I think). But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a performance; it’s just a refreshingly reflexive one. Knowing how much to act is also an art, one that Roshan took a while to understand, especially given his prolific first decade in the industry. Up until ZNMD, his acting was never invisible. He made sure it showed, every grain of his body did, irrespective of the characters he played. But Arjun altered that grammar. He plays a pressure cooker that bursts early in the film, after which he recedes into the setting, loosening up and finding peace without flaunting it. Arjun’s scuba-diving moment – where he sheds silent tears after his first dive – is evidence of just how fluid Roshan can be when the lead-acting pressure is off him. It also demonstrated just how far he had come in terms of multi-starrer acting: For once, he wasn’t trying to cash in on a limited role. Instead, he relied on the ability to occupy and exist in most frames. (Read this in Arjun’s rage: Filmfare putting him in the lead actor category is not okay. Making award distinctions based on reputation is not okay). Most of all, Roshan shares an easy, and distinct, chemistry with the two other men. His equation with both is different and private – thus turning a standard buddy movie into a pretty confluence of three individual journeys.
We didn’t know it then, but the crowning glory of Hrithik Roshan’s career – the role of Emperor Akbar in Ashutosh Gowariker’s romantic period epic – signalled the unofficial end of an era: One in which Roshan did a whopping 14 roles in his first seven years, including a star-consolidating streak of hits like Koi…Mil Gaya, Lakshya (2004), Krrish (2006) and Dhoom 2 (2006). Slowing down was natural, but also necessary in his case. Jodhaa Akbar came two long and thoughtful years after his scene-stealing act in Dhoom 2, after which Roshan was never quite able to scale those dizzying peaks again. (His next two were Kites and Guzaarish in 2010). But the sheer poise and visual prose of his Akbar endured, because he was perhaps the only modern Hindi film actor who looked and sounded the part of a storied King. Roshan oozes a sense of regality – evoking the image of a statue coming to blue-blooded life – that was missing from other contemporary efforts (like Shah Rukh Khan’s Asoka). His chemistry with Aishwarya Rai as well as his ability to humanise the Mughal ruler through the narratives of love, religious tolerance and secularity revealed Jodhaa Akbar as a rare social-message drama in the guise of a big-screen historical. His assured performance boosted the progressive film’s power to practice without preaching and show without telling. We didn’t know it then, but this was also the third and final triumph by Ashutosh Gowariker (following Lagaan and Swades), a fact that only amplifies the film’s legacy in context of the brahmanic Bhansali-verse dominating the next decade.
A mainstream Hindi film about an urban slacker joining the Indian Army, sobering up, getting patriotic and winning the Kargil war might have raised more than a few eyebrows today. But 2004 was a kinder, gentler time. And Farhan Akhtar’s film, starring Roshan, was actually a wonderfully composed coming-of-age drama disguised as a war movie. Roshan’s performance doesn’t treat patriotism as an aggressive, socially-correct emotion. The transformation from spoilt teenager to simmering adult feels earned, and it’s to Roshan’s credit that they don’t feel like two different characters so much as two disparate stages of one person. But Karan Shergill’s journey felt personal because it channelled the intersection between reel and real life. It symbolised the young director’s own transition as human and artist: Akhtar’s protagonist, too, went from the post-college frills of Dil Chahta Hai (2001) to the steely resolve of Lakshya. More importantly, Lakshya mirrored Roshan’s breakout from the restrictive mould of a Bollywood superstar. The pre-Army Karan represented Roshan’s starry status – and the everything-goes complacency that triggered turkeys like Aap Mujhe Acche Lagne Lage (2002), Yaadein (2001), Na Tum Jaano Na Hum (2002), Mujhse Dosti Karoge! (2002) and (worst of all) Main Prem Ki Deewani Hoon (2003). Major Shergill went on to represent Roshan’s evolution into a quality-over-quantity actor, capable of turning a film’s quietest moment into its best one. Karan’s phone call to his distant father not only inspired a similarly tender scene in Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl (2020) years later, but also revealed a mainstream performer willing to undo his bad habits and facial tics. Many battles were lost to win this war.
Roshan soars as the smooth criminal in an action franchise that thinks it’s way more stylish than it really is. What’s more, he retains the rare distinction of being the only Indian actor to have ‘played’ the late Queen Elizabeth.
I have a soft spot for Anurag Basu’s fake-tanned romantic tragedy, much of which is derived from Roshan’s underrated ability to look great while getting beaten up on screen.
When Roshan’s hammy tryst with disability is given the Bhansali treatment, the artifice is almost addictive to watch.
Coupled with Fiza, Roshan’s terrorist-redemption arc in Mission Kashmir completed the image of the ‘thinking superstar’ – as well as the most potent first year in modern Hindi cinema.