‘I am an employee of the myth of SRK’ — Shah Rukh Khan to David Letterman
Shah Rukh Khan turns 54 today. It will be hard for his millions of fans to digest that. 54? Fifty f**king four? It was only yesterday that his young and wild NRI Raj in Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge was Euro-hopping, giving middle-class Indians their first (visceral) taste of exotic Swiss and English locales and who finally returns home to India to win back his lady love Simran (Kajol) against Bauji’s (the late Amrish Puri) wishes. Besides the romantic Raj, he was also Bollywood’s beloved Rahul. As the man himself insisted in the blockbuster Dil To Pagal Hai, “Rahul, naam toh suna hoga.” That name, along with the image, stuck. “Hum ek baar jeete hain, ek baar marte hain, shaadi bhi ek baar hoti hai … aur pyaar bhi…” cooed Rahul in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. “Ek baar hi hota hai?” Anjali (Kajol) chipped well in time, to complete the famous line.
But way before the acronym-friendly DDLJs, DTPHs and KKHHs, Khan was a stalker in Darr and Anjaam, the loveable loser Sunil in Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa, a youngster on the make in Yes Boss and of course, the army aspirant in Fauji, a TV serial that was his ticket to stardom. How did Raj/Rahul turn into Harry and Bauua Singh? There, we might have to pause a moment to reflect on Shah Rukh Khan and the vast stretches he has tread in his quest for stardom. Even for SRK, as his recent Netflix interview with David Letterman reiterates, ‘Shah Rukh Khan’ is a myth, an idea, a spirit that refuses to die down.
SRK magic fading?
In the past few years, the media and fans alike have wondered anxiously why the SRK magic is fading at the box-office. Is this the last gasp of a dwindling superstar and to dust shall the magic fame return? To start with, it’s just dumb luck that his films aren’t working. Every single SRK starrer since 2016’s Dear Zindagi and Fan has been as radically different from each other as possible. Fan is probably the most interesting of the lot. It explored the fan-star relationship with the stalker angle neatly thrown in. David Letterman described it as “shockingly autobiographical.” In Dear Zindagi, he doubled up as a shrink to Alia Bhatt’s life and love problems — a role that might have resonated with him. As a father of a teenage girl in real life, he presumably plays a similar role to daughter Suhana these days, as one can understand from most of his recent interviews, which, incidentally, are becoming more and more about ‘SRK as a parent’ than ‘SRK as a movie mogul.’
Next came his gangster turn in Raees with the famous ‘Ammi’ line followed by Jab Harry Met Sejal, a typical SRK rom-com that might have worked had it released, say, twenty years ago when he was in his heydays to pull off all the romantic stuff. That is not to say that he isn’t fit or peppy enough. In fact, at 54, he’s lean and sprightly and burns more energy than many younger stars. The much-trumpeted Zero was, once again, a really fascinating fare with his midget act that should have worked in an ideal world. If the audiences constantly complain that in every film Shah Rukh Khan does the same thing, then here was something different. Why rebuff his attempt at this brilliant reinvention?
Critics say SRK needs an SRK 2.0, simply an iOS update for a dramatic new look. In other words, he needs to do something desperately to save his career. For all the criticism, the fact remains that Khan is still very much a superstar in the original sense of the world. If one measure of a star is that she/he’s mobbed and followed by millions whenever she/he sets foot into the real world, then King Khan is a legit celeb. Even today, thousands throng his home and are willing to risk anything for a glimpse of their favourite star.
What makes him a star
Here’s one simple example. David Letterman, who’s clearly not too familiar with India, accompanied SRK to the terrace of his Bandra home and there they were, a massive crowd of adoring fans waiting to catch sight of Khan. (To Mumbaikars, it’s a routine affair as well as a nuisance). When the star waved at them, they went into a frenzy chanting his name. This kind of fame is unimaginable in Hollywood. No wonder, Letterman was taken aback with what he saw. “This is beyond anything we ever imagined,” the talk show host exclaimed, in Netflix’s My Next Guest, while introducing Shah Rukh Khan who needs, as they say, no introduction. The duo shared a hearty laugh about the ‘introduction’ bit later on in the show.
After the Zero fiasco, Khan hasn’t signed on any film, yet. Stung by a string of failures of late, he may be weighing his options very, very carefully. He knows he’s in urgent need of a box-office hit, enormous enough to silence the naysayers and help him bounce back as a marquee king. These days, though, Khan, the doting dad to three, is spending time with his kids more than ever. As he pointed out in his interview with Letterman, he had lost his parents rather early, prompting him to fill that need by becoming the sort of parent who’s always there for his own children. Fatherhood, he admitted, has made him gentler and kinder. Being with children generally also inspires him as an actor, as he takes in their “unabashed innocence.”
That might also be a great way to describe Khan’s own stardom. It’s infused with unabashed innocence. That’s why kids love him. Young movie-goers adore him. So do women. He’s the kind of star who uses his stardom in a gentle manner, as if never forgetting at every step of the way that he’s also a hero, an idol and a moral figure who’s being watched and followed by billions. Sure enough, he was once a reckless and angry young man. But with fame came added responsibility and Shah Rukh Khan took it in the right spirit. People might argue that the top box-office numbers are eluding King Khan. Indeed, he lacks fellow Khans’ commercial clout. But he has entered the “hearts” of Bollywood lovers and it will be difficult to dislodge him from there. Candid as ever, he told Letterman, “I am not half as talented as I think I am and that made me realise that, listen, if I can’t do it with the skill and talent, then I better get into the hearts of people. And, if they are loving me, let me just be nice and good about it.”
That’s Mr Nice talking, with his nice stardom and nice-nice persona that Bollywood cannot get enough of. Here’s wishing him a nice birthday.