He came, we saw, he conquered. That seems to be the prevailing sentiment about Shah Rukh Khan’s appearance on American TV host David Letterman’s talk show, My Next Guest Needs No Introduction on Netflix. Since the episode aired on October 25 — the first time an Indian appeared on the show — there has been no stopping the renewed SRK adulation wave.
Indeed, there is much to like, Shah Rukh dimples and sparkles through an engaging conversation, studded with self-deprecating jokes and personal stories. Letterman is, as SRK himself said, very gentlemanly, and the two seem to share an easy camaraderie. However, through all the bonhomie and brilliance, there are sore points that stick out. Here are all the things I didn’t like in King Khan’s Letterman outing.
India and the White Man’s gaze
We get the show is meant for a primarily American audience. But can the West please change its “establishing shots” for India? The flower market, the fairground, the poor-but-happy faces, are as cliched and they are insufficient in conveying a picture of what India is. And they have absolutely nothing in common with the world that Shah Rukh Khan inhabits. This is not a whine about “West choosing to see India as poor only”. This is simply calling out the laziness of the Western lens in finding new things to show about India.
And why, oh why, did Letterman start randomly playing cricket with Prithvi Shaw? Because the show had to showcase India to Americans, and cricket is part of the package?
Shaw, a boy from a modest background who became the youngest Indian cricketer to score a Test debut century and was later handed a temporary ban on doping charges, has a story of his own that deserves to be told. If the show had to introduce him, some of this could have been touched upon. But he is used merely as a prop to establish that ‘cricket is played in India’.
God has no religion?
In one of the establishing sequences, Letterman roams down a street, meets a man named Owen, and proceeds to gift him a picture of a Hindu goddess.
This could have been merely a sweet gesture, but shows a disconnect with the times India is living in. Why should Letterman assume every Indian — even one named Owen — would want a picture of a Hindu deity in their home? At a time when powerful sections within India are vociferously claiming every Bharatiya is a Hindu irrespective of what she believes herself to be, this seeming conflation of “Indian” and “Hindu” is something the show could have easily avoided.
Stalking isn’t cute, even when SRK does it
On the show, both Shah Rukh and Gauri narrate the story of how in their early courtship days, she had once come to Mumbai to get away from Shah Rukh because he was too possessive. The “king of romance” follows her to Mumbai with a group of friends, scans the city’s beaches for her, and ultimately manages to track her down. Very filmy — and downright stalkerish.
The actor can’t change what he did in the past. But when narrating the story in more socially conscious times, the least he can do is mention that stalking is not a valid wooing technique. Instead, he tells the story smilingly, his dimples a constant parenthesis of “yeah, I was so cute, wasn’t I?” No, you weren’t. And in a country where Kabir Singh is a popular movie and domestic abuse is among the most widespread crimes, one of our “most cerebral actors” needs to stop glorifying such conduct.
Joke’s on the American President?
Shah Rukh Khan has previously spoken about the politico-cultural situation in India, and not had a very nice time of it. It is perhaps understandable he’d rather eschew certain topics. But in an interview that was apparently unscripted, it is surprising that the host did not ask him a single question on the political and social atmosphere in India, when they managed to share jokes on the American President.
Shah Rukh Khan is a Muslim man in the public eye in India. He has spoken out against the intolerance in the country, and has been asked to “go to Pakistan” by senior BJP leaders like Kailash Vijayvargiya and Sadhvi Prachi. Recently, he appeared in a selfie with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. But in the interview, these facets of his life do not seem to exist at all. In what was probably an effort to keep things non-controversial, he’s reduced to a two-dimensional figure — the star adored by 3.5 billion people. Some of whom occasionally want to boycott his movies and send him to Pakistan.
It had nothing new
For most Shah Rukh fans, the interview was a treat, but there was nothing new in it. SRK was charming, as he always is. He was witty, as he always is. The anecdotes were old. The stories repeated.
We were treated to the legend of Shah Rukh Khan, the Delhi boy who conquered Mumbai’s film world. But there were inconsistencies — the actor says his family didn’t have much money, but he grew up watching English movies. He says he grudges his parents not spending much time with him, then says his father spent a lot of time with him as he was often out of jobs. In keeping with the Slumdog Millionaire theme, he ends up exaggerating a little: at one point, he says TV had just come to India in the 90s, when shows like Hum Log and Ramayana had enjoyed huge popularity in the 80s.
These inconsistencies creep up because Shah Rukh seems to have said the same story so many times. The actor is at a crossroads in his career that is symbolic of a bigger Bollywood problem: you can’t be a star unless you are romancing 20-something women. Yet, the interview doesn’t touch on these questions. It instead gives him a platform to repeat the stories we all know about him, in great form with great flair.
Pleasant as the interview is, it ultimately doesn’t rise beyond being a stage for SRK the star, another chapter to be added to the “Myth of Shah Rukh Khan”.