I was five when Dil Toh Pagal Hai (1998) released, and my parents took us to watch it in the theatre. Sinking into the seat I was barely big enough for, I sat perplexed at the idea that Rahul (Shah Rukh Khan) was stuck in a love triangle between Nisha (Karisma Kapoor) and Pooja (Madhuri Dixit), who in my five-year-old mind were identical twins.
Of course, that absurd confusion was cleared up over multiple at-home viewings of the film on Sony Max (then called Set Max), but I continued to remain perplexed by the logic of Shah Rukh’s rom-com universe, and more so by Shah Rukh himself.
Here was a scrawny, not conventionally handsome man, who would ham through every emotional scene. He was no chocolate-boy Aamir, nor was he a celebrated star son like Salman. So what made Shah Rukh Khan (SRK), the “Muslim son of a broke freedom fighter,” such a massive phenomenon?
I was never a big fan of Shah Rukh’s. I was too young to find him endearing when his boyish charm exploded on the silver screen (early 90s) – and by the time I was entering my teens, there were other, younger male actors who I found attractive: Hrithik Roshan crooning Mein Aisa Kyun Hoon (teenage girls make questionable choices); Farhan Akhtar who suddenly became a poet-heartthrob; and unexpectedly, there was a long and loyal Saif Ali Khan phase.
While Shah Rukh was always around just by virtue of being a superstar, I was never quite invested in him. It’s only recently, while switching between television channels that I settled into watching Dil Se (1998).
His character Amarkanth Verma falling in love with Meghna (Manisha Koirala), a mysterious woman he keeps running into while on a journalistic assignment in the north east, is no ordinary Hindi film hero wooing a girl (albeit it is behaviour that can be categorised as stalking). But there’s something almost other worldly in their interaction – it’s pure, heightened romance. Of course, that is the tone director Mani Ratnam intended to set, but a lot of the credit goes to the exuberance Shah Rukh brings to the screen.
The same streak of maverick energy is what surges through in Darr (1993), where he plays an obsessive stalker, in Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa (1994), where he plays a sweet, 20-something boy – navigating love and its disappointments – and even 24 years later in Raees (2017), where he plays a Muslim bootlegger in 1980s Gujarat.
SRK’s Stumbling and Bumbling Masculinity
It is only in retrospect that we can fully grasp what SRK had set in motion. His brand of romance may be corny and clichéd (and like any true Hindi film, actively encouraged male entitlement).
But SRK also offered a certain vulnerability that broke away from the brooding masculinity of Amitabh Bachchan’s ‘angry young man’ of the ‘70s and the ‘80s. With Shah Rukh, the Hindi film hero could become a bumbling, stumbling, stuttering lad, with scruffy hair on his head, and none on his chest.
Even the gaze of the camera shifted from capturing Bachchan’s gait or Sanjay Dutt’s ‘bad boy’ tresses, to often uncomfortable close-ups of Shah Rukh’s face crumpled into sobs, and his eyebrows forming the trademark ‘S’ shape.
More importantly, his films had room for female characters who did more than simply adorn the frame. Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge’s (DDLJ) Simran could sing about her dreams in the rain (and not have it be an item song), Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa’s Anna could turn down the hero (and have her decision be respected), and 16 other girls in Chak De! India could be in the same frame as Shah Rukh Khan (and still have individual sub-plots).
Make no mistake, there’s a LOT that is problematic about how much agency actually rests with the women in his films. Regardless, these are all memorable female roles in films that could have been hi-jacked by a male superstar. It’s no coincidence that SRK seems to have undeniable on-screen chemistry with all his female co-stars. The same has hardly ever been true for Salman Khan.
The Reel and Real Life of SRK the Star
By his own admission, Shah Rukh is not a great actor. He plays exaggerated versions of himself, and his audience has come to expect nothing more of him. On the contrary, images of his real life often reinforce the characters he plays in reel life.
The story of Shah Rukh chasing after his now wife Gauri is well known. He has spoken widely about showing up to Bombay penniless, and sleeping on railway platforms while looking for her. These narratives come together to form a mega image of a Raj Malhotra (DDLJ) or Rahul Raichand (Kabhie Khushi Kabhie Gham) – dilwalas fighting against all odds to be united with their dulhaniyas.
In some ways, much of Shah Rukh’s body of work in the phase post his super stardom, is an experiment in self-awareness. This is reflected in Om Shanti Om (2007), where he plays a caricature of himself, delivering silly, hammy dialogues that work simply by virtue of Om Kapoor aka “OK” saying them. The film also plays on the idea that both OK and SRK make formulaic films that are differing versions of each other, explicitly made for an NRI audience!
Billu (2009) has a similar film-within-a-within-film milieu, where he plays superstar Sahir Khan – someone who rose from rags to riches through his own perseverance, and the kindness of friends.
He appears as himself in a cameo in Luck By Chance (2009), and is candid about the highs and traps of his glamorous life.
Perhaps, the most daring was his recent experiment Fan (2016), which fluttered slightly on the Indian box office, but unlocked a new phase of what the superstar could experiment with.
Shah Rukh ‘Being a Khan’
The most political intersection of the reel and real by a generally non-partisan Shah Rukh, are in films that are centered on his faith.
While a bulk of his characters are Hindu upper-caste males – Raj (Malhotra, Mathur, Aryan) or Rahul (Malhotra, Khanna) – there are about four distinct departures from this trend – Amjad Khan in Hey Ram (2000), Kabir Khan in Chak De! India (2007), Rizwan Khan in My Name is Khan (2010) and Raees Alam in Raees (2017).
As a Muslim man who has decided to stay in India, Hey Ram’s Amjad Khan tackles questions of his Muslimness and Indianness in post-partition India, while Chak De!’s Kabir Khan deals with the same questions 50 years later, in post-independence India.
In My Name Is Khan, Rizwan engages with his Muslim identity amid post 9/11 Islamophobia.
Each of these portrayals seem to be how SRK engages with his own Muslimness in real life – open, yet deeply personal, and without declaring himself the brand ambassador for secularism.
It is in Raees that he plays his most explicitly Muslim character to date. In the past, his Muslimness manifests in subtler details like in his name, or in using Urdu parlance or reading the namaz – all ‘palatable’ displays of Muslim culture and identity.
Raees, however, picks images of Muslimness that are unseen in recent Hindi cinema. In his introductory scene, Raees is shown practising self-flagellation during a Muharram procession, while another scene shows an extended fight sequence in a meat market – all telling visuals in today’s political climate.
But though Raees himself is an orthodox Shia Muslim, he’s not bothered with what faith anyone else practices – a truly secular Muslim hero, not unlike the man who portrays him.
Shah Rukh has famously remarked in interviews that he created a category for himself that did not exist before him, and will never exist after. As pompous and arrogant as that claim may be, it is undeniably true. SRK’s stardom is about as old as I am, and while in the last 25 years I have not been able to see his stardom for what it is, I think I’m beginning to wrap my head around what it’s not – usual or explicable.
It is, at best, described as one of his movies – fantastical, larger than life and feel-good.
(Suhasini Krishnan is a writer, TV buff and avid over-thinker. She tweets at @suwasknee.)
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