Will the idea of stardom die with Shah Rukh Khan, as Karan Johar recently suggested? Not everyone agreed. A week after that comment was made, Anil Kapoor, who’s one of the protagonists of Johar’s newly-released film Jugjugg Jeeyo, riposted, “Everybody said the same after Elvis Presley but along came Michael Jackson.” There’s some truth to that. Movie stardom won’t end so much as it will change and evolve, to echo the times we are living in. But it’s equally safe to assume that superstars like Shah Rukh Khan are a rare and (unfortunately) fast dying breed that have transcended the realm of cinematic fantasy to become soft powers in their own right. The same is true of Amitabh Bachchan, Rajinikanth, Aishwarya Rai, Aamir Khan, Salman Khan, Rekha, Madhuri Dixit and Kamal Haasan to name a few. Shah Rukh Khan stands out precisely because of what he represents to India and the Indian audience.
The Shah Rukh story starts in the 1990s. Though it was TV that gave him his first break, he’s truly an integral product of the post-liberalisation middle-class boom who made a splash on the big screen as the economic mood was rapidly changing and instantly won over the Coke/Pepsi-swilling children of the globalised India. The Khans are generally credited for ushering in the era of romance in Hindi cinema after the long and largely uninterrupted action extravaganza of Amitabh Bachchan but it is Shah Rukh alone, who with his signature romance and easygoing charm, came to be known for his incredible connect with audiences, especially women. Author Shrayana Bhattacharya’s recent Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh reaffirms the way the beloved star has infiltrated the lives and hearts of modern Indian women. In the book, Bhattacharya, a star-struck fangirl herself, studies SRK as a fantasy figure who’s symbolic of Indian dreams. With his genuine warmth and familiarity, King Khan seems to be the most ideal of men (Hey Siri, play the song ‘I am the Best’ from Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani) on whose outstretched arms are pinned a million desires and hopes.
The 1990s India was undoubtedly more ambitious than the previous generation. Articulate and even philosophical, King Khan embodied that self-starter and go-getter attitude. It’s a quality millennials like to have in themselves and envy in others. You can accuse his son Aryan Khan or daughter Suhana Khan for being nepo kids but how can you ever fault the genius of the ultimate outsider who took showbiz by storm and rewrote every rule that existed? All new-age outsiders, from Rajkummar Rao to Kartik Aaryan, have acknowledged their debt to SRK. He’s a self-made man who came from Delhi with no film connection. He was a part of the middle-class that wanted to get rich quick. Within a short period of time, he minted a fortune and continues to enjoy the position of being one of the wealthiest stars in Bollywood. Now, he has a mansion by the sea (with a lifestyle to match) that he had always dreamt of where legions of fans line up every morning to pay their obeisance. Who doesn’t like this mythical story? Except that SRK gets to live this every minute of his waking life. He was consumerism’s gift to mankind. According to Anupama Chopra in the book King of Bollywood, he made us realise that an “Indian could be a hybrid who easily enjoys the material comforts of the West and the spiritual comforts of the East.”
Some say Shah Rukh’s larger-than-life persona harks back to the phenomenal mass appeal and star power of Rajesh Khanna. Only difference being that Shah Rukh managed to hold on to that success. Another aspect of Shah Rukh’s appeal is the way he has cultivated his brand. Being Shah Rukh is serious business. Whether it is owning a cricket team or being a brand ambassador for states and countries, SRK has extended his influence far beyond Bollywood.
But for the first time in decades, Shah Rukh’s supremacy as a box-office badshah is being challenged. While his brand value remains much the same, his last few films (Dear Zindagi, Raees, Jab Harry Met Sejal and Zero), despite attempting to be different than his usual fare, have been duds. Forget SRK, Bollywood as a whole has been battered, first by the Covid-19 wave, then the rise of OTT and finally, deadly face-off from Southern stars and their better packaged content that seems to have resonated well with all-India audiences in the post-pandemic era. Then, there are anti-Bollywood trolls that are working overtime to further torment an industry already struggling to reimagine itself.
For decades, Shah Rukh wore the crown of King Khan. For the first time in years he might be feeling the weight of that throne. At a time when the country and its movie-going habits are fast changing, how can SRK bounce back? Is there even a place for him and the cohort of 50-plus male stars who have reigned over Bollywood for close to three decades? When he recently announced three upcoming films (Dunki, Pathaan and Jawan), it sent cheers among his fans. If these movies don’t work, they will seriously dent King Khan’s image. But come to think of it, now 56, Shah Rukh needs more than just a hit. He needs a miracle. Shah Rukh needs to harness all his aura and power to say those three magic words to bring the fans and naysayers back to the box-office — ‘palat, palat, palat.’
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