I once had a dream about Shah Rukh Khan, when I — and I guess he — was in my 20s. I dreamt I had gone to meet a friend, an assistant director on a film starring Shah Rukh. She was busy, so he kept me company. It was like talking to your college crush — excited inside, effortlessly chatting outside. As I was leaving, he said, “Wait, what’s your number? I’ll give you a missed call so you’ll have mine.” Our eyes met and I woke up. In those days, I could not afford a cell phone. Whenever it came, though, it would have Shah Rukh’s number in it. What better reason to buy one?
This is a quintessential SRK dream. SRK is the bright star who has illuminated the skies over 25 years of liberalisation. Mixing the everyday and the romantic, he has created an appetite for opportunity and a readiness for consumer goods — in this dream, for instance, a cell phone, as symbolic of Indian liberalisation as SRK. Through his on-screen and off-screen persona, SRK has helped middle-class India navigate liberalisation — its possibilities, its cultural and emotional puzzles, its anxieties and desires.
Visibly, SRK has danced, romanced, risen and fallen, married, divorced, cheated and even died against the backdrop of Punjabi mustard fields, an abbreviated New York, a thumbnail version of London, and several Eurail stops, offering a new imagination of being Indian, and where those Indians can go.
He has also provided the uneasy NRI safe cinematic passage to an immutable India, as in their nostalgic memories, and individualistically driven, as were their immigrant journeys. Where earlier films grappled with the tensions of Partition, his films have overwritten the Partition of resident Indians from NRIs.
Integrating desi-ness with global mobility, SRK not only heralded the arrival of the global market to India, he also helped create a new global market for the Bollywood film. His own life is a remarkable fairytale: a middle-class boy, with no connections to an older order, rising to dizzying financial and cultural heights, on the basis of some individual gifts and a lot of get-go. He has also played such characters on screen, exhorting Indians to shed codes of chivalric honour and embrace new cultural and emotional selves.
To track the on-screen journey of SRK is to track the journey of a certain middle-class India, which has not partaken of Nehruvian India’s structures for mobility. Those who have not gone to IIT or IIM, or joined the armed services or IAS, who have limited engagement with public life, and do not adhere to older proprieties. Their entrepreneurial energies, frustrated by older systems, took centre stage in the new regime of liberalisation.
But this narrative alone is insufficient to explain the persistent meaningfulness of SRK to liberalised India, because it is too literal. Perhaps, it is more fruitful to understand SRK as one does a dream — a mixture of the explicit, reflecting social and economic currents, and the implicit, a mix of unconscious feelings that infects our consciousness and transforms it.
SRK suggests this in interviews himself, where he presents success as a thing to be worked hard for, but also as something intangible,“something which connects with people in a way that you can’t describe. I always tell people that if it was describable, (then anyone could do it).”
Until then, glamour was something television received from cinema. And cinema’s glamour, as we knew from our avid consumption of one of pre-liberalisation India’s great cultural institutions, Stardust magazine, was a seamy mix of feudality and sex. Star sons were launched — Sunny Deol, Aamir Khan, Salman Khan — and star daughters married off. On screen, star sons romanced lower-status girls, as zamindars do.
SRK took the middle-class avenue of television and opened up a different route. He also did what only art and love can do. He made the ordinary extraordinary. With his baggy pants and dimples, his roomy irreverence and crooked smile, his Top Gun glasses and brash flirtation, coupled with a Dilli University vibe, he gave the TV screen — till then, worthy, nation-building and instructive — an electric, youthful makeover.
Most importantly, he gave us someone to love. Teenagers of the 1980s had been making do with hand-me-down loves of older cousins and even parents, from Rishi Kapoor to Dev Anand, Amitabh Bachchan to Dharmendra. Sanjay Dutt and Kumar Gaurav had been unconvincing blips on the radar. SRK gave us someone to love our way, someone to long for, someone to conceivably be. Our parents could not understand this — “He looks like a monkey! He can’t act!” they exclaimed. There lay his charm — he was ours alone. We were willing to run away with him.
In films like Baazigar (1993) and Darr (1993), early SRK was many unpleasant things — a fixated lover, a stalker, a killer, qualities previously embodied by villains. Except, he was called an anti-hero. His misdeeds were contextualised by the injustices of social (not economic) class. We feared him but helplessly empathised with him, and so, loved him – complex, ambiguous emotions not normally engendered by Hindi cinema for central characters.
A social outsider, wounded by rejection from the club of adarsh men, he lashed out in anger. But he also eventually killed off this persona. From its ashes emerged a softer version — the goofball of Yes Boss (1997) and Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman (1992), with that same libidinal energy and flexible morals in the truth and lies department. Before his good-natured, pragmatic charm, rich, pedigreed men came off badly (Deepak Tijori, Aditya Pancholi). It was no longer déclassé to want money and advancement. What option did you have but to game a system invisibly rigged against you by an old boys’ club?
The most memorable of these roles was in Kabhi Haan Kabhi Na (1994), where he suffers consequences lightly and losing does not make him a loser. As the amoral goofball of Duplicate (1998) and Badshah (1999), he played out themes of a counterfeit self – mirroring nouveau riche anxieties about being impostors and abandoning “authentic” Indianness. SRK’s madcap wit and lightness made us look at piracy and the inauthentic (right down to the fake six-pack in Badshah’s metal shirt) as likeable entrepreneurship – it glamourised jugaad.
Of course, he was the NRI loverboy upholding a family tradition of “Loveology mein paas, baaki sab mein fail”, from Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (1995) to every Karan Johar movie he ever did. There have also been forays into an older Nehruvian nationalist self with Chak De! India (2007)and Swades (2004), even Dil Se (1998). All of it has culminated in a phase where SRK has become, as myths do, a meme — the self-referentially remixed SRK of Om Shanti Om (2007) and Chennai Express (2013).
Playing these several versions, he has also constantly remixed past and present Indian selves, combining them in one persona as a way of managing the psychological schisms that a changing culture throws up. At least one of these internal crises revolves around ethics. When you replace loftier goals (of nation-building or social justice) with material ends, and replace codes of sacrifice and self-denial with flexible, instrumental approaches, how do you define goodness? What is your moral compass?
The moral compass SRK provided was love — the idea that threads through his films and his persona the way zari threads through silk. This was not simply romantic love, but a concept that develops individual ethical frameworks, allowing us to look at the opposition with loving eyes, that takes others into consideration. Without this capacity, we are only selfish slaves to material advancement, uncaring of the hurt we cause and the relationships we discard.
We often see DDLJ as something that made love sanskari and consumable, robbing it of radical potential. But we can also see it as love working to transform older ideas of feudality, dissolving the hard-edged patriarchy represented by Amrish Puri to make room for dreams and desires of the young — and for daughters. To be newer, more liberated beings from within.
The characters SRK played find their better selves through love, using it to find new resolutions and solutions. It creates a very different masculinity from the wounded, lonely warrior-hero of earlier films, where women and love are peripheral to the quest.
While providing a liberating ideal for men, he created space for women who were not adarsh heroines — neither noble nor chulbuli. It is impossible to remember female characters from the films of Salman Khan and Aamir Khan, so much do they overwhelm the screen, allowing women only to be objectified or uplifted by men.
But we remember SRK’s co-stars. They are women with quirks and desires, monobrows and accents, their beauty and glamour by the way. In his Devdas (2002), the impulses of Paro, Chandramukhi, and even Paro’s mother drive the film. Chennai Express ends with SRK asking Meenamma’s father to recognise her desires. Even in Chak De! India, both SRK and the women’s team are underdogs and outsiders — to rise, they need each other.
In this universe, a woman with ambitions is not weird, selfish or unfeminine, but natural and desirable. She is not domesticated by marriage but partnered through fun and sexual passion. Not for SRK the literal expression of a mouth-to-mouth kiss, that spurious example of liberation. Rather, there is his signature move — best seen in Dil Toh Pagal Hai — of kissing a woman on the curve of her neck, a move both sexual and aware of women’s bodies and pleasure.
There had to be an SRK at home with both his masculinity and femininity — whether in a Lux rose petal pool, or holding Anushka Sharma’s handbag (Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi, 2008) while riding pillion — to love a woman at home with both her feminine and masculine energy. With this fantasy of a passionate yet light romance, SRK has pleasured and ruined a generation of women, while making them open to a whole other kind of man.
Of late, though, as the flip side of liberalisation becomes clearer, as the dream reveals its violent, exclusionary side, SRK’s relationship with his audience has begun to falter. It is manifested in the flawed but marvelously mythic Fan. The fan’s fixation with the star (recalling SRK in Darr) is the greed of consumption, based on a false promise, a darshan which creates no connection. It is an empty advancement, disconnected from love and from the world (notably this is a film without important women characters). The star advises the fan to live a full life of love, work, family and community. By symbolically killing the old fan, is SRK killing an old self? Is he hoping for a new gaze that he can meet, so he may renew himself?
This question is important because if SRK’s value to us as a society was limited to his symbolic function in the era of liberalisation, he would have faded faster. His constantly shifting avatars, like Vishnu’s many shifting ones (coincidentally, perhaps, his films are always Diwali releases, a festival connected to Vishnu’s most revered avatar, Ram) speak of his importance in both expressing and defining something far more fundamental to Indianness, South Asianness, even.
SRK’s defining quality is heterogeneity. His ability to hold two ideas in one place, two selves at the same time — discernible and indescribable, public and private, male and female, desi and global, straight and queer, Hindi and Urdu, Hindi and English, intellect and passion, beauty and goodness, individuality and social commitment has an important resonance. At its most political, it is in how he wears his Muslimness — overtly, without constantly justifying it with the language of secular sameness. SRK has also played Muslim characters, foregrounding the political implications of that identity (My Name is Khan, Chak De! India), without flattening everything into that identity: an assertive claim not only to Indianness as a Muslim but also Muslimness as an Indian.
Perhaps, the answer will lie in Raees, where a new SRK seems to be rising, his sexual charge differently concentrated, his implication of having a “baniye ka dimag” and “miyabhai ki daring”, hinting at a future possibility of joining some missing Indian self, partitioned by liberalisation.