Bollywood star-kids these days are a lot like their regular, normie peers: the latest generation makes Instagram reels set to Shah Rukh Khan songs and Madhuri Dixit routines, they endorse preppy brands and happily accept sponsored holidays at the same resorts, they strike the same poses at all the same awards shows. Years before they join the Bollywood- Assistant Director- to- Romantic Lead pipeline, you can catch them preparing for it via whatever is trendy at the moment to grab maximum eyeballs – back when lip-syncing to 90s songs and dialogues was a thing (remember that one halcyon summer when Dubsmash was big?), you could find Ibrahim Ali Khan, son of actor Saif Ali Khan, doing pitch perfect impersonations of the superstars he’s probably known his entire life. Janhvi Kapoor has weathered some severe nepotism attacks by posting her kathak practice sessions set to old-school Bollywood songs – a strategy adapted by cousin Shanaya Kapoor as she prepares for her Bollywood debut, although she prefers belly dancing, which is absolutely on trend for the newer and hipper Instagram Reels.
Indeed, in Bollywood as in Hollywood, a robust social media presence has become de rigueur for the savvy star or star-to-be. Memes, funny videos, and performative evidence of hard work have become the young person's strategy to building a runway for their star aspirations. Meanwhile, more seasoned stars such as Kareena Kapoor Khan have integrated their brands into their personal account for that influencer cachet that will outlast their years as leading cast members in Bollywood extravaganzas. Male stars of a similar pedigree from that generation have typically been more reticent - they’re either still working superstars who primarily use social media to update their fans, such as Hrithik Roshan, or also-rans who pop up here and there for a bit of witty repartee and general goodwill, like Abhishek Bachchan on Twitter, or, they are diligently offline as in the case of Fardeen Khan.
Screenshot from Hrithik Roshan’s Instagram
But there are a few star children who have managed to hew their own path: Abhay Deol, for instance, who blazed an indie trail for a few glorious years before retreating to Goa and refusing to say another word; Sonam Kapoor, who (as Twitter user @Salandthebadpun has pointed out) all but invented the multi-billion-dollar relationship between Bollywood and fashion. And then, of course, there’s Rahul Khanna.
As the elder son of Vinod Khanna, once Hindi cinema’s biggest star, there was a well-worn path ready for him to take: an apprenticeship on the sets of one of his father’s films (or the films of his father’s friends, choose your poison), followed by a glitzy launch as a youth sensation, and at least five or ten movies thereafter to sink or hopefully swim. Raj Kapoor did it for Rishi, Sunil Dutt did it for Sanjay, Amitabh Bachchan did it for Abhishek - heck, even Vinod Khanna himself did it for younger son Akshaye! Yet Rahul chose something different.
Nothing about his career has been very typical as compared to his peers. He was a VJ on MTV Asia (kids, ask your parents). He went to the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute in New York City, whose alumni include a lot of people you’ve heard of, such as Alec Baldwin, Scarlett Johansson, and Ranbir Kapoor. His first film role was in Deepa Mehta’s Earth alongside Aamir Khan. Winning the Filmfare Best Debut for this distinctly un-Bollywood movie is the only normal star-kid thing on his resume. For those who haven’t seen it, Earth is set in Lahore during Partition, with the imminent violence simmering in the audience’s mind and eventually in the film as well, and observes an interfaith love triangle amongst other dangerous grownup issues, from the point of view of a young Parsi girl.
Film poster for Dil Kabaddi; India Film Company, Paramhans Creations, Studio 18
In the following decade, Khanna’s films include this mind-boggling list:
international projects produced by Spike Lee (3 A.M.) or starring Kevin Kline (The Emperor’s Club)
a terrible remake of Sholay with John Abraham and Arjun Rampal (Elaan)
another Deepa Mehta film whose cast includes a future star of Mad Men and his own brother in a cameo as, you guessed it, a Bollywood star (Bollywood/Hollywood)
one of the most self-consciously Woody Allen-ish films to ever be made in Hindi (Dil Kabaddi)
a pair of gentle mainstream Hindi love stories in which he plays also-rans so ridiculously attractive that their biggest demand on suspension of disbelief is that the heroines chose Saif Ali Khan (Love Aaj Kal) or Ranbir Kapoor (Wake Up Sid) over him.
Then it was on to TV dramas: 24: India, The Americans, and Netflix’s Leila. We can’t think of any of his contemporaries with a career as varied as this. Some of his choices even have a distinctly Shashi Kapoor-like flavor to them. Think about it: they’re both sons of famous film fathers and have brothers who are more mainstream-minded actors. Both sought out roles in international and art films. And both built secondary professional personas outside of film acting: Kapoor with Prithvi Theatre and Khanna with social media. Each presents a public persona imbued with the kind of soft-spoken, jet-setting, erudite masculinity that is truly a timeless classic. However, Shashi Kapoor was always just as busy in big-budget, or at least big-name masala films in his multiple decades on screen, which seem to hold no appeal for Khanna. Khanna’s post-Khan, pre-Ranbir/Ranveer generational peers include other second-gen film industry progenies like Abhishek Bachchan, Ajay Devgn, and Saif Ali Khan. But these men became much bigger names, mostly through tweaking various masala formulas, a process in which he appears to have no interest.
If you follow him on social media, you’ll have a particular, if incomplete, picture of what Rahul Khanna spends his time doing when he’s not acting in his next completely unpredictable project. He goes to the beach, plays with dogs and saves turtles, arranges items in his flat just so, appears in various fashion-related events or advertisements or advice columns, and packs bespoke luggage full of neatly folded, neutral-coloured, very expensive-looking clothing. Even his foodie posts are niche - he’s seemingly obsessed with breakfast, endless delicious combinations consumed all over the world from Las Vegas to Mumbai.
And he somehow manages this luxurious lifestyle without being an influencer. The few commercials he’s appeared in, especially of late, evoke shades of the old Nawab of Pataudi advertisements - a seamless blend of his personal brand with the sadly lucrative goals of corporations. He comes across as the kind of friend whose taste you admire deeply but don’t remotely comprehend how to assemble for yourself. It’s a kind of delicate quality, sensed more than uttered, that carries over into his roles from time to time. For example, in Wake Up Sid it makes perfect sense that Konkona Sen Sharma’s character, trying to strike out on her own in the big city, would fall for the charming boss who seems to be exactly what she wants, especially in comparison to the man-child roommate who makes a mess of her adorable flat. Unfortunately, that taste in jazz that seems so foreign, it just isn’t who she really is – but Rahul Khanna is just born with it.
Screenshot from Rahul Khanna’s Instagram: Image Credits: Rahul Khanna
Even if you religiously followed all the lifestyle tips word for word, you’d never be able to carry it off the way he does. He’s the Lord Peter Wimsey of Bollywood scions: odd but attractive, careful but relaxed.
We can’t forget the thirst trap aspect, either. Showing off muscles is a part of celebrity culture for most male actors in India, but there’s still something softer and more sophisticated in how Rahul Khanna does it. It’s unbuttoned linen, fluttering gently in the night breeze. Remember Shah Rukh Khan’s timeless, relaxed look in Dear Zindagi? Rahul did it first. Rarely does he post the mirror selfie, or a straight up vanity shot - everything is tasteful, complete with arty angles and black and white filters. It’s a sculpture in a fine arts museum. It’s not naked, darling: it’s nude.
Or is it? We still don’t know. What we do sense is that both the Khanna brothers have their personal lives on the strictest lockdown in the country. After a combined 40+ years in and out of the limelight, both as stars in their own right and as the children of someone who made waves in his own professional and personal lives, no gossip and no scandal has ever stuck to either of them. We know what the as-yet-unemployed children of actors who appeared in a handful of films thirty years ago are doing on any given Sunday, but we have no idea who these two men are dating, who their friends might be...or anything, really. Rahul and Akshaye both seem to have comfortable lifestyles, probably helped by the privilege they inherited with their surname, but they display them so much more quietly than their star-kid peers who are blatantly showing up and showing off for paparazzi and endorsements.
Indeed, Khanna is probably doing exactly what we would do if we were born to Bollywood royalty and the world was our oyster. He creates the impression of doing precisely and solely what he wants to do, not giving much of a fig about the more typical paths of Indian film and TV actors, whether or not they’re industry insiders. He makes a virtue of idiosyncrasy in an industry where it is assumed that safety lies in following the conservative norm. Perhaps it helped to have the example of a parent who famously chose to follow his own drum, or maybe Khanna just can't be bothered to participate in the polite fiction that the movie stars are just like (the middle class) us.
And maybe that’s what his social media presence is all about: choice. He demonstrates that it is possible to be exactly who you want to be online if you choose your words and pictures thoughtfully. He promotes his work without shrieking, he’s intriguing without manufacturing drama, and he’s funny without ruffling feathers. His social media bio reads “Boutique Bollywood Actor” and as gently self-mocking as that is, it also seems to be utterly precise: he’s a celebrity, but he’s also an individual in a way that no one else can match.
Screenshot from Rahul Khanna’s Instagram: Image Credits: Rahul Khanna, GQ Archives