Shah Rukh Khan turns 53 today. For a star as ruthlessly ambitious as he can be, there’s no greater satisfaction than to have a working birthday. King Khan will spend the day peddling a new film, Zero — his much-awaited turn as a dwarf that’s worked social media into a frenzy. At some point, the star is expected to climb up the terrace of his palatial sea-facing Bandra home, as is the norm, to greet thousands of cheering fans. Later in the evening, there’s talk of a mega bash for fellow Bollywoodians. But it’s Zero that’s the trending point of today. Early Twitter buzz seems to hold out a promise that the fallen star will climb back to numero uno status with a film ironically named Zero.
Seldom in the recent past has Shah Rukh Khan himself been so excited about a new film. Most of his projects, if you will notice, are produced under wife Gauri Khan’s name, a proxy for expensive home productions. Raees, Jab Harry Met Sejal and Dear Zindagi all bear Gauri Khan’s name on the producer’s credit and yet, Khan — a consummate public jester, especially when it comes to movie promotions — didn’t seem to be walking the extra mile for any of these films. Why does it look like with Aanand L. Rai-directed Zero Khan is not just putting the full force of his lean weight behind but also seems confident at scoring it big this time? Mind you, his numbers are big by any measure but so far, King Khan has been a notable absentee at the Rs 300-upwards crore box-office that is a new shorthand for star wattage (even the much younger Ranbir Kapoor has one, in Sanju).
Talk of SRK’s image transformation
Terribly ambitious and ferociously kept under wraps, Zero is not such a new territory for SRK as we might think it is. Except the bits of dialogue and posters that he released yesterday, the only detail anyone knows is that Khan, who has launched hundreds of romantic fantasies as a lover-boy, has been washed off all the glamour to become a dwarf in Zero. Here’s a fun fact: Kamal Haasan played one memorably, way back in Apoorva Sagodharargal in 1989. Hindi audiences know it better as Appu Raja. That this film is an experiment or a gamble for Khan doesn’t hold water, for this is one superstar whose recent characters run the whole gamut. Yes, Zero’s SRK is an anomaly. He’s not the exalted lover who can make impossible things come alive with the mere glint in his eye, dimpled smile, street boy wisecracking or the signature open arm pose. It works every single time for the star.
The first of his unusual recent films was Ra.One. Though it eventually backfired, it was positioned as Bollywood’s first comic book sci-fi with references to gaming, superhero and SFX and all this was aimed at the family audiences that Khan has assiduously targeted over the years. More elaborate than any of his previous films and often touted as one of the most expensive productions at the time, Ra.One released exactly around the same time, in high Diwali season, in 2011. Some would argue that Khan’s real game-changers were Swades and Chak De India. Both pursued a patriotic streak and both celebrated the personal and micro victories instead of a grandiose national narrative. In Swades, SRK plays a successful NRI (a demographic that made him a huge star in the West) returning to roots to make the change he wishes to see while Chak De India follows the story of a disgraced Muslim coach of a women’s hockey team awaiting redemption. Shah Rukh Khan’s more recent CV, with the exception of Chennai Express and Jab Harry Met Sejal, attests to his inclination towards diversity, subject-wise and how he’s not afraid of having these films come at the cost of his image. He need not be afraid, the SRK-sceptics might say. After all, in a Shah Rukh Khan movie, Shah Rukh Khan always plays Shah Rukh Khan. While that’s true of any massy star, from Amitabh Bachchan to Salman Khan, a line up like Fan, Raees, Dear Zindagi and now Zero, points at an inherent determination to present the actor, long saddled with the Raj-Rahul image which some say he’s unable to shed fully even now, in a new light to the audiences.
Recent films and their wide diversity
Yash Raj’s Fan is the most daring SRK film in recent memory, consistently questioning, twisting and playing with the star’s image in what has been described as SRK’s ultimate tribute to himself. In Raees, the actor turns to mafia, in a throwback to the ’70s that ends up more as a Milan Luthria mass-bomb than as Manmohan Desai’s power-packed showmanship. Dear Zindagi didn’t rack up the numbers and was dismissed as underwhelming but no one can deny that it stands out as a rare SRK vehicle where he let a younger actor (Alia Bhatt) take the spotlight. Finally, critics mumbled, SRK is playing his age! But if you look at his filmography starting from Ra.One onwards, you will realise that a process of transformation had already taken root as early as 2011, and had been underway probably much earlier. Glance, for a moment, at the directors who made these films — Imtiaz Ali, Gauri Shinde, Maneesh Sharma, Rohit Shetty, Rahul Dholakia and Aanand L. Rai. Where’s Karan Johar, Aditya Chopra, Farah Khan and Sanjay Leela Bhansali? All the top names are missing from that list. Of these, Chennai Express was arguably a low point, but it somehow dawdled its way to success. The point is that this is an actor who is aware of the gauzy nostalgia he produces in the ’90s generation and the smart ‘baniya’ in SRK senses that, at 53, the audiences are now ready to see his son Aryan over him any day. A serious reinvention is the only answer.
Will Zero be the elusive hit that SRK’s been so craving for? Big success has eluded him. All the Khans, even the minor one like Saif, have reassembled their careers skillfully. Faced with Aamir Khan’s calculated, smart strategies and Salman Khan’s steady stream of blockbusters, Shah Rukh Khan has been mocked for his modest box-office achievements. If the initial media response to Zero’s trailer is anything to go by, it may be the culmination of his reinvention that began more than a few years ago — or possibly, the beginning of another long struggle of trial and error. But SRK’s not going away anytime soon. Neither are the audiences who will be more than happy to indulge his screen experimentations.
(Shaikh Ayaz is a writer and journalist based in Mumbai)