It’s been 24 hours since celebrity couple Aamir Khan and Kiran Rao shocked the world by announcing they were divorcing after 15 years of marriage. No explanations behind the split have been given, yet that hasn’t stopped social media to erupt with conspiracy theories.
Right-wing groups have labelled the Bollywood couple’s parting as another case of ‘Love Jihad’, while others have labelled actress Fatima Sana Shaikh a scarlet woman.
In the aftermath of the announcement, both Khan and Rao have made a joint appearance on video to reassure fans that they are still “together as one family,” while speaking on the sidelines of promoting their charity, Paani Foundation, a non-profit that focuses on water conversation, management, and environment restoration.
“You must be sad, but we just want to say that we are very happy, and still together as one family. Our relationship might have changed, but we are still partners. Paani Foundation is like Azad for us, it’s like our child. We hope that you pray for us and our happiness,” said Khan in Hindi while speaking on video and holding hands with Rao.
The video has also gone viral on social media, prompting several fans to ask the question that is on everyone’s minds: what really went wrong with one of Bollywood’s most stable marriages?
To understand their amicable split, one has to perhaps journey back 20 years to the time when Khan and Rao first crossed paths on the sets of ‘Lagaan’ in 2001.
Khan was a reluctant candidate to star as the lead in the Ashutosh Gowariker directorial. The director had to chase Khan for more than a year and get the actor’s parents on board first to convince Khan to agree to the film. The film hit many roadblocks along the way, with Khan himself reportedly forced to invest Rs250 million of his own money to back the project when no one agreed to finance the film from Bollywood.
With the situation already strained, coupled with the extreme conditions of filming in Kutch and Bhuj where even electricity was scarce, Khan recently revealed that he frequently intervened as a “referee” between director Gowariker and Khan’s former wife, Reena Dutta, who were frequently at odds over the conditions and creative approaches. Khan revealed on one occasion that they had to cancel the shoot despite the fact that the director had initially asked 500 people to show up for filming.
It was during the very isolated shoot of ‘Lagaan’ that the then 38-year-old actor first met Kiran Rao, who was assistant director to Gowariker. According to stories, sparks flew almost immediately but it would be another three years before the relationship would get serious when the Bengaluru girl would move into Khan’s Pali Hill apartment in Mumbai.
A year after the filming, Khan announced that he was splitting with Dutta, who had been his wife for 16 years. The news took everyone by surprise at the time, with Khan reportedly romancing her since college with stories circulating in Bollywood that in order to woo her, he used to pen letters to Dutta in blood.
Whether there was any truth to the lore, Khan has said that the split was one of the lowest phases of his life, which drew him close to Rao. “In that moment of trauma, her (Kiran’s) phone came and I talked to her on the phone for half an hour. And when I put the phone down, I said, ‘My God! I feel so happy when I talk to her.’ It struck me in that instant that when I am talking to her I am so happy,” Khan had once shared with a Chinese news channel about how he fell for Rao.
While a lot had been speculated over the Khan and Dutta split, the name Jessica Hines continued to grab headlines at the time over her alleged affair with the actor. The popular author, who became famous for writing Amitabh Bachchan’s biography, ‘The Big B’, claimed she had an affair with Khan that resulted in her falling pregnant. When getting no support from the industry or the actor, Hines reportedly returned to London and gave birth to her son Jaan in 2004 that she claimed was Khan’s love child.
Even as the Hines scandal shook Bollywood, there was also talk of his alleged affair with actress Pooja Bhatt, who made ambiguous statements of her own in the press but later denied the story.
Khan was oblivious to the stories, finding love once again with Rao and planning their marriage. But it was only a year later that their marriage was sealed in court on December 28, 2005. The formal affair was followed by a two-day celebration in Panchgini, a hill resort about 250km from Mumbai in the Western Ghats. While Khan refused to divulge details of the wedding, his father Tahir Hussain did spill the beans saying his celebrity friends, including Salman Khan, Ashutosh Gowariker, Ketan Mehta, Rani Mukherjee, Preity Zinta and others were in attendance.
On December 1, 2011, the couple welcome their newborn son who they named after the freedom fighter and independent India’s first education minister, Maulana Abdul Kalam Azad. “Hey guys, most excited to share with y’all that we have finally chosen a name for our baby boy... Azad. Azad Rao Khan. I left the final choice to Kiran, and she has named him after my great grand-uncle Maulana Azad,” Khan revealed on Facebook at the time. “Azad means free or liberated. We want to thank everyone for their warm wishes and blessings, and needless to say we are absolutely overjoyed and feel most blessed. Much love.” The boy was born through IVF to a surrogate mother. He was Rao’s first baby, but Khan had a son, Junaid, and a daughter, Ira, from his first wife.
Despite presenting a united front, their reality was shaken in 2015 when the couple faced backlash after Khan spoke out against the growing intolerance he was seeing in India and his wife had even suggested that they should probably leave the country.
“As an individual, as part of this country as a citizen, we read in the papers what is happening, we see it on the news and certainly, I have been alarmed. I can’t deny. I have been alarmed by a number of incidents,” he said while speaking in New Delhi at the Ramnath Goenka Excellence in Journalism Awards.
The actor said he also feels that the sense of insecurity and fear has been growing in the past six or eight months. “When I chat with Kiran at home, she says ‘Should we move out of India?’ That’s a disastrous and big statement for Kiran to make. She fears for her child. She fears about what the atmosphere around us will be. She feels scared to open the newspapers every day. That does indicate that there is this sense of growing disquiet, there is growing despondency apart from alarm. You feel why this is happening, you feel low. That sense does exist in me.”
The words ‘Love Jihad’ reared their ugly head, with Khan being blamed for leading Hindu girls astray.
Under fierce criticism from a top Indian political party and its allies over his remarks on intolerance, Khan soon asserted that he stood by what he had stated and that neither he nor his wife had any intention to leave the country.
The couple stuck to their words, drawing praise and criticism from quarters for holding their ground with dignity. In his statement, Khan said: “First let me state categorically that neither I, nor my wife Kiran, have any intention of leaving the country. We never did, and nor would we like to in the future. “Anyone implying the opposite has either not seen my interview or is deliberately trying to distort what I have said. India is my country, I love it, I feel fortunate for being born here, and this is where I am staying,” he said at the time, adding: “I stand by everything that I have said in my interview. To all those people who are calling me anti-national, I would like to say that I am proud to be Indian, and I do not need anyone’s permission nor endorsement for that.”
Even as the controversy around an ‘intolerant India’ started to die down, Khan was heading into a new one when signing on for the wrestling drama ‘Dangal’ that same year. The film open to applause from critics and the masses in 2016, but even as the box office numbers grabbed headlines, so did stories of Khan and his growing fondness with ‘Dangal’s lead star Fatima Sana Shaikh.
The couple united once again on screen in the Yash Raj Films produced ‘Thugs of Hindostan’ in 2018 with rumors circulating at the time that it was Khan himself who pitched Shaikh’s name to the filmmakers.
The film went on tank at the box office but stories of the affair refused to die down. It was finally in 2019 when Shaikh finally addressed it during an interview with Filmfare magazine, saying: “Earlier, I used to get affected. I’d feel bad. Because I’ve never dealt with anything of this sort at such a big level. A bunch of strangers, whom I’ve never met, are writing things about me. They don’t even know if there’s any truth to it. People reading it assume that I’m ‘not a good person’. You feel like telling that person, ‘Ask me, I’ll give you an answer’. It disturbs me because I don’t want people to assume wrong things.”
Shaikh’s name is being dragged into the news once again as Khan and Rao announce their divorce. In a joint statement, the couple said they would continue to co-parent their nine-year-old son Azad, but had come to the decision to split after a trial separation.
“In these 15 beautiful years together we have shared a lifetime of experiences, joy and laughter, and our relationship has only grown in trust, respect and love. Now we would like to begin a new chapter in our lives — no longer as husband and wife, but as co-parents and family for each other,” the statement read. “We began a planned separation some time ago, and now feel comfortable to formalise this arrangement, of living separately yet sharing our lives the way an extended family does. We remain devoted parents to our son Azad, who we will nurture and raise together.”
While Shaikh has maintained her silence, Khan appears to be facing the brunt of social media’s wrath with #BoycottAamirKhan picking up steam on Twitter, a day after #LoveJihad heated up the timeline with several fans accusing the actor of marrying Hindu women and divorcing them for fun. Others have accused the actor of giving Muslim names to his children even though their mothers, both Dutta and Rao, are Hindus.
Irrespective of the hatred gathering steam online, Khan and Rao continue to show a united front especially with several projects lined up together, including the actor’s ‘Laal Singh Chaddha’, which is scheduled to release this December.
Fans may never really know what went wrong between the star couple, was it an affair, the pandemic, or the strain of producing a huge film that was similar to how Khan and Dutta fell apart nearly two decades ago, but it will be interesting to see how the split plays out in the spotlight with the actor’s net worth playing a factor in the divorce settlement.
In 2019, Khan ranked 15th on the Forbes India rich list, earning Rs850 million that year without a single film release. That explains a lot about the money he would have raked in over a career spanning 33 years.