One imagines it isn’t easy being a fifty-plus Hindi film hero. The ravages of age become tougher to hide; romance, dance and action, the hitherto easy-scoring stuff, suddenly starts looking unconvincing, if not unbecoming; younger audiences demand new tricks; and, even loyal fans seek freshness. The phase can be challenging and even the mighty Amitabh Bachchan couldn’t escape it unscarred.

The Khan triumvirate that has ruled Bollywood for over two decades is now in the phase and it is tempting to speculate on what paths they may take going forward. (That they will continue is near-certain. From politicians to cricketers to film stars, a voluntary exit from the limelight is rare.)

Yesteryears’ luminaries from Raj Kumar to Rajesh Khanna to Govinda tended to flog their successful screen image till they became caricatures of themselves and some like the irrepressible Dev Anand and Manoj Kumar went so far as to indulge themselves in home productions. Those who managed to resurface generally found themselves in side roles, slotted as cool or strong patriarchs.

If a similar trajectory appears likely for any of the Khans, it is Salman. Sultan (2016) and Tubelight (2017) have seen Salman gingerly put up a foot outside his Kick (2014) and Ready (2011) comfort zone but the impulse to go back to the tested and successful will be strong after the Tubelight debacle – moreso since his limitations as an actor are unlikely to inspire meaty, tailor-made scripts in time.

Salman’s career, then, will soar as long as his good looks last and smart treatments like Ek Tha Tiger (2012) and Bajrangi Bhaijaan (2015), which played to his strengths and papered over his weaknesses, are possible without getting repetitive. Beyond that, he may find himself in the Dharmendra zone – with a life-long, hardcore fandom but signed up mostly to boost indifferent vehicles with signature moves and statements. Dharmendra, interestingly, is someone that Salman shares much with: good looks, earthy humor, a certain on-screen earnestness and vulnerability, and broadly similar strengths and weaknesses as a performer.

Aamir seems future-ready. He has worked hard to avoid an image trap, choosing to play unconventional characters in engaging, content-driven films – and, in the process, raised and cultivated a following whose affections aren’t contingent on the kind of things (looks, mannerisms) that lose appeal with time. In fact, the audience awaits an Aamir release for the newness it promises, with the confidence that the star wouldn’t deliver an unwatchable film. It’s an enviable position to be in. The audience is prepped to embrace the unexpected; the star stands insured against age. The only danger to such a performer is hubris.

The less-settled issue concerning Aamir is whether he takes up direction at some point. He has directed before (Taare Zameen Par, 2007), been charged with ghost-directing on more than one occasion, and it would be interesting, if and when he takes up direction, to see whether Aamir, the director, will break the kind of ground that Aamir, the actor, has. Personally, one would welcome at least one tribute to the breezy entertainers his uncle Nasser Hussain delivered.

Of the trio, it is Shah Rukh who appears most tested currently. His fan following, large as it is, isn’t perhaps as rabid as Salman’s and his attempts to try something different with Fan (2016), Dear Zindagi (2016) and Raees (2017) haven’t received the kind of box office approval he is used to.

Having said that, it is Shah Rukh who, at one level, presents the most intriguing possibilities. At one end of the spectrum, he could become the current-day Amitabh – continuing to attract awed writers and directors, sprinkling lazy performances with sparkling moments in interestingly-premised but ultimately average films, hosting TV shows and peddling things and causes on it.

All of that isn’t a bad thing to settle for - till one recognizes what could lie at the other end of the spectrum. Shah Rukh’s charm, charisma and media savvy may not place him apart from Aamir, Amitabh or Salman but his infectious and spontaneous energy, articulation and ability to seize the unscripted moment do – and suggest there could be life beyond cinema for him. As a new age guru or politician perhaps? That should cause a few ripples!