Everyone has a Shah Rukh Khan top 10. Some will be packed with his Karan Johar romances, some will make room for the prescient Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani, some will claim love for Don 2. With Jawan hitting theatres this week, here are my ten favourite Khan films:
Earnest as the checkered shirts he wears, Mohan Bhargava is one of Khan’s most admirable heroes — a man leaving his prestigious and cushy job in order to make a difference, back at home, at a grass-root level. Ashutosh Gowariker’s film is overlong and includes a few public service subplots too many, but to many a young Indian, this character defines patriotism.
Santosh Sivan’s visually sumptuous film stands unique among historical epics, with Khan playing a sensualised version of the eventually peace-loving emperor — but also wielding one hell of a sword. It is a visually ravishing film that takes on the philosophy, morality and futility of war, and while it doesn’t quite scale the intended peaks, it must be hailed for its ambition. As the best emperors are.
Suhana Khan will debut in The Archies later this year, but well before she was born, her father had already played the definitive underachiever in this beloved film. The romance, the lies, the failure… this Kundan Shah film is one of the most charming depictions of a loser in Hindi cinema, and when it came out in 1994, it set Shah Rukh Khan apart from actors around him playing more conventional heroes. (Remember the line from that other Khan hit about those who win after losing?)
Khan’s bravest film, this Maneesh Sharma project was an evisceration of the superstar’s own increasingly rabid fanbase, while also exposing the hollowness of those deified by audiences. As starry-eyed West Delhi boy Gaurav, a de-aged Khan demonstrated how toxic fans claim ownership of their idols. As Aryan Khanna, a star who dances at weddings and has a bungalow filled with his own movie memorabilia, he showed how stars are propelled by narcissism. The film goes off the rails, but it is spectacularly audacious for the biggest hero of his generation to critique heroism itself.
Khan, legend among self-made stars, deconstructs the nature of Indian celebrity here as well, playing a lowly extra who can’t come close to stardom — until he dies and is reincarnated, not only as a star-son, but as a Kapoor. Farah Khan’s comedy doesn’t dwell on grander themes but instead celebrates cinematic clichés, playing to the gallery yet eccentric all the way. How can we ever forget Khan dressed in a desi cowboy outfit, pirouetting with a stuffed tiger while reciting “Pussycat pussycat where have you been?”
Stalking was a long-accepted part of Hindi film hero behaviour till Khan — stammering and quivering, balanced precariously on the edge of evil — showed how scary it was. He played the type memorably in Anjaam and Baazigar, but in Darr he perfected it to an alarming degree. Khan is somehow both nightmarish and wistful as he relentlessly pursues Juhi Chawla’s Kiran in this tight Yash Chopra thriller, pausing only to make telephone calls to his dead mother. It’s as iconic as it is psychotic.
His name is Khan. Shimit Amin’s drama about a disgraced hockey player was also one of the first films where Khan played a Muslim protagonist, and this doesn’t feel like a coincidence. The narrative that Kabir Khan, former center forward for India, didn’t just flub up a crucial penalty but had actively betrayed his nation — a supposition based on his last name — feels repulsive and, increasingly, too real. Khan, known for his expansive and screen-conquering performances, reins it in hard, keeping it tight, believable and so damn inspirational. Coaches win matches.
The biggest hit in the history of Hindi cinema happens to be the film where Shah Rukh Khan spelt out a new kind of coolness to a newly liberalised generation. Raj Malhotra taught schoolboys how to wear their shirts (half-tucked in), he taught girls that cognac is not alcohol (even though it is), and taught other Hindi film heroes that they do not have to elope with the girl. There is a lot in Aditya Chopra’s stupendous hit that hasn’t aged well, but Khan’s character — and his doggedness that love will wear out all odds — transcends all of it.
There are two Shah Rukh Khans in Paheli, and both are deeply in love — one is a lovelorn accountant who misses his wife, and the other is an impassioned ghost who kisses the accountant’s wife. Amol Palekar’s underrated take on Mani Kaul’s Duvidha is enchantingly colourful, sexy, wicked and fantastical. Khan brings the fable to life. The lyricism is constant, and the ghostly Khan, shapeshifting till he settles on his own Shah Rukh shape, has a blast rearranging rose petals with a snap of his fingers. Magical.
The rain is hard. A boy, enchanted by a girl at a railway station, talks her into having a glass of tea. By the time he returns, glass in hand, she’s gone — she repeatedly informs him she has no time — and he can’t stop longing. This poetic Mani Ratnam romance features Khan at his most incendiary and his most besotted. Featuring one of the finest soundtracks in all of Hindi cinema, Dil Se aches with the messiness of romance. Khan has never played a hero this helpless — this willingly, gratefully helpless — as he embraces someone he knows he shouldn’t. He goes on about her nose, the children they’ll have, their life together. Love, however, is a ticking bomb. This is a film for those who know how it feels to run out of time.
The Dutch romantic comedy Happy Ending (Netflix) offers a sharp and insightful take on modern relationships and dating. Luna and Mink have numerous insecurities — including Luna’s faked orgasms — and decide that maybe a threesome would help them. Nothing goes as planned.