In the title announcement video for his December 2023 release Dunki, directed by Rajkumar Hirani, Shah Rukh Khan, who completes 30 years in cinema on Saturday, seems to be longing for an image makeover and an opportunity to showcase his many talents as an actor.
At one point in the video, Hirani even asks Khan to refrain from doing his trademark gesture of raising his arms romantically, which has become the subject of parody even as it continues to drive Khan’s fans crazy. Khan agrees, and even offers to chop off his arms if Hirani asks him to. All of this is done in the name of comedy, but it raises an important question: is Khan trying to reinvent himself as an actor after three decades in the movies?
Apart from Dunki, Khan has announced two other releases in 2023: Siddharth Anand’s Pathaan, and Atlee’s Jawan. The announcement videos for all three films, the star is sporting brand-new looks, raising excitement and anticipation levels.
The genres of these upcoming films are different than what people expect out of Khan, who has a very strong image as a romantic hero. While Pathaan is an action-thriller set in YRF’s spy universe, Jawan promises to be a mass action entertainer, the kind that Atlee is famous for making with Vijay. Dunki, as Khan and Hirani suggest in the video, is a comedy.
This is not to say that Khan is a stranger to experimentation. His last few releases all signalled that the star was willing to try out new genres and directors in his effort to rejuvenate his craft and appeal to a more diverse audience. Raees saw him as a calculative gangster-turned-politician; Dear Zindagi had him in an extended cameo as a middle-aged therapist; and in Fan, he played a double role as a massively popular actor and as a die-hard fan.
However, most of his outings in the second half of the last decade weren’t received as favourably as his older films, and none of them could manage to replicate their financial success. There has been speculation that Khan’s semi-hiatus was prompted by this series of films not performing as well as he had hoped.
According to Rishil Jogani, who runs a popular Twitter fan account for Khan, an actor and movie star of his stature usually ends up doing formula-driven films which are seen more as appeasement for a loyal fan base— despite this, Khan didn’t “shy away from trying different kind of movies at make-or-break stages of his career”. Jogani gives the example of movies like Darr, Baazigar, and Anjaam, which saw him playing anti-hero characters right at the beginning of his career, a time when most actors would have hesitated to do anything that cast them in the mold of a villain. Even in Raees and Fan, Khan is not playing to the gallery by acting as the hero with no flaws; in fact, it seemed like he was determined to go back to his roots, so to say, and embrace playing characters with grey shades.
Jogani further thinks that the reason Khan took a break is to “recalibrate and figure out what he should do next, and convinced himself to work in commercial films which have something for everyone”. The announcement of the three upcoming films in quick succession after a long wait shows that he is eager to appeal to the masses.
However, Umar Ali, a marketing student based in Canada and a life-long fan of the star, thinks that “Shah Rukh just does what he feels… He’s very child-like and keeps on doing weird things. I didn’t like Zero but name a film like that in Bollywood. You can’t.” According to Ali, Khan doesn’t necessarily try to “break any boundaries” or “change his image”. The fact that it is difficult to slot him in any category is probably a testament to that.
As Khan completes 30 years in the industry and prepares to make a comeback next year, it is difficult to say whether he is trying to reinvent himself or going back to what he does best— constant experimentation with his craft.