In a recent interview, Aamir Khan revealed that save for the last name and the fact that they were born in the same year (1965), there is actually very little common between the trio that has been ruling Bollywood for more than two decades. And that contrast, in his opinion, has been a big factor in the longevity of their success, as each of them has managed to connect with the audience in very unique ways.
For a greater part of their careers, Salman Khan has been seen as the larger-than-life, mass superstar; Shah Rukh Khan as the king of romance with an undisputed supremacy in the overseas market; and Aamir Khan as the risk-taking, intellectual actor who has never allowed himself to fall into the trap of his stardom and those mega-box-office-records.
Interestingly, in their initial years they began with characters far removed from their current on-screen image. Salman Khan debuted as the ideal lover-boy and sansakaari son who all of India wanted to hug; Shah Rukh Khan disrupted the notion of a leading man by playing the dark-anti-hero; while Aamir Khan aced as the innocent-looking but naughty rogue by lacing his parts with an undercurrent of anger and intense passion and aggression.
"[T]heir ascent has coincided with India's growth story and in their own distinct style the trio have (film after film), lived the hopes and aspirations of a post-liberalisation India, cleverly re-inventing themselves with the ever-changing trends in the country."
But fan feedback, box-office performance, on-screen experiments and some off-screen antics too led to a change in audience perception and the kinds of films they associated themselves with from the late 90s.
Over the years, the three have carefully carved a unique space for themselves (in the hearts and minds of India), which only they can own.
You may speak their names in the same breath, but take any of their films and you will realise that it is impossible to swap one with the other.
Which is why even though everyone has their "favourite Khan", the anticipation levels are same for the films of the other two as well. And that is why most of their movies continue to record numbers which are in a different league altogether.
In many ways their ascent has coincided with India's growth story and in their own distinct style the trio have (film after film), lived the hopes and aspirations of a post-liberalisation India, cleverly re-inventing themselves with the ever-changing trends in the country.
While each has had to face that occasional dry patch of successive flops, or been challenged by the arrival of fresh faces, there has never been a serious dent in their stardom.
In an industry where one bad Friday or a lapse of judgement is all it takes to throw someone out of the race, the Khans have stomached it all; right from big ticket flops to polarising controversies, only to come out stronger each time.
Unlike their predecessors, the three have not only been box-office superstars, but have transformed into individual brands with an influence on just about every aspect of the country. From sport to business to politics, the Khan endorsement has a special kind of impact and pull.
I wonder if Dev Anand, Raj Kapoor and Dilip Kumar were ever asked to rate Pandit Nehru's performance as PM, or whether Rajesh Khanna was urged to give his inputs on the socioeconomic state of the nation when he was inspiring an entire generation of Indians to fall in love.
The Khans, on the other hand, are expected to have an opinion on every single issue -- right from the proposed beef ban to the price of dal in Delhi!
At some level, the Indian fan (and perhaps even a section of the media) has lost the ability to separate their on-screen avatars from their real-life identities. A quick scroll on any of their Twitter timelines will reveal how many Indians are eager to know what the Khans feel about the promise of Prime Minister Modi's achche din!
An important factor that drives their connect with the people is the fact that the trio achieved their stardom at an interesting point when both society and the media were experiencing a transition.
While their predecessors were completely inaccessible and carried a certain aura of unattainability around them, the post-Khan brigade have been made available for consumption all over the place right from day one.
"[P]eople engage with them in a way that runs the gamut from awe to "apnapan"."
From page 3 to social media, the last decade and a half has seen celebrity culture move from the lifestyle segment to the primary news beat. But the Khans have neither been out of reach nor totally in your face.
They have enjoyed the exclusivity and highs of stardom as well as established a human connect with fans by adapting with evolving media platforms, be it ads, interviews or direct communication on the internet. This has led to the people engaging with them in a way that runs the gamut from awe to "apnapan".
If brand SRK entered our dining tables and living rooms with his brand endorsements, his mansion in Mumbai continues to be a symbol of the great Indian dream.
By touching the gates of Mannat and posing near that name plate, or by queuing up at bandstand outside Galaxy Apartments, many Indians get a momentary escape from their otherwise not-so-rosy reality. This is a level of stardom which most trade analysts feel will never be replicated.
We are halfway through 2015, and by the end of this year all three will have turned 50. But year after year, the industry continues to pin its hopes on the trio to smash past old records and create new ones.
Two generations of leading men have debuted after them, but fans continue to save their love for that annual Khan festival release. There have been other stars who have tried to adopt similar strategies of festival release dates and marketing muscle, but none have ever been able to recreate the Khan magic.
Movie watching has moved from single screens to multiplexes, M-tickets have made the thrill of an advance booking redundant, candid selfies have replaced fancy portfolio shoots and karaoke has made way for dubsmash. But Aamir Khan, Salman Khan and Shah Rukh Khan continue to rule the scene... and are in no mood to retire anytime soon.
Indeed amidst all that has changed in our popular culture, there is only one constant... Or should I say Khanstant?