My big complaint about Shah Rukh Khan, king of romance, was that he didn’t elope with Simran.
While moviegoers gushed over Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, I wanted the young lovers to show the patriarchal, overbearing father figure the proverbial middle finger. Instead, when Kajol’s Simran wants to elope with Shah Rukh Khan’s Raj, he refuses. The way to true love, it seems, was through daddy’s heart. That seemed like a slap in the face of real romance. Romeo was meant to woo Juliet, not her father. This was a paean not to heart-stopping romance but heartwarming domesticity. It irritated me that instead of rebelling against the sexist inequality of Karva Chauth, he merely softened its edges by fasting with the woman. But as the nation swooned over Shah Rukh Khan, I was clearly in a grumpy minority.
It took over 25 years for me to understand what was going on. And that came about because of Shrayana Bhattacharya’s book Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh—India’s Lonely Young Women And The Search For Intimacy And Independence. She told me in an interview this year, “This is where the economy comes into mediating our love because a Simran cannot live on her own if she chooses to live in India.” She had interviewed a woman who had run away from her marriage and found out the hard way what life was like for a woman in north India living on her own. She told Bhattacharya she understood what Raj was doing. What if they had run away and then things had soured between the two as love wore thin under the pressure of humdrum domesticity? In a way, Raj was ensuring Simran would still have a home to return to. He didn’t want her to burn that bridge. “In a world where the market, state and public space are so loaded against women, particularly in the north, suddenly that act of compromise doesn’t seem like cowardice any more,” said Bhattacharya. “It almost seems like it’s consideration.” Romance can fade. But consideration is a lambi daud ka ghoda (for the long haul).
Thirty years after he began, Shah Rukh Khan is still running. He recently said, “I never thought I will last 30 years.” His dream was to come to Mumbai, work for a year or two, maybe do five-seven films.
It sounds like typical self-deprecating Shah Rukh Khan. But indeed there was no reason for him to have become a superstar. He was not tall-dark-handsome or tall-fair-handsome in a conventional sense. He certainly wasn’t the best actor around. He wasn’t the best dancer. Even his position as the King of Romance was far from clear from early films like Deewana. Aamir Khan with Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak and Salman Khan with Maine Pyar Kiya seemed way ahead in the romantic sweepstakes.
I was not quite a fan although I could see his appeal spanned generations. My mother and my niece both adored him. I found him too aquiver with emotion. He seemed to be jumping out of the screen pleading “Love me, love me”, flashing his dimples the way other men flexed their muscles. He felt like a bit too much of everything, hamming till kingdom come to bring home the bacon.
As Salman Khan beefed up, I could see the niche he was sculpting for himself and understood why his picture would hang on the walls of roadside gyms where young men pumped iron. I watched Aamir Khan talk about his films and philosophy on stage once and marvelled at both how articulate he was and how tightly controlled, laser-sharp in his focus. There was never a word, nor a hair, out of place. Shah Rukh Khan was not just the boy-next-door, he was the Labrador puppy-next-door. A puppy named Rahul splashing around in a giant puddle of emotion.
At one point, it seemed as if he might drown in that puddle. He looked like someone having a mid-life crisis in full public view. He gave a rambling interview to Barkha Dutt in 2011 where he appeared to bare his soul and said, “I am detached and I lie.” He was involved in an ugly fracas in Wankhede stadium in Mumbai the next year. There was a dust-up with Shirish Kunder at an Agneepath party in 2012. He suddenly started sporting a new body, complete with six-pack (soon upgraded to an eight-pack), and it was not just acquired for a film, like Aamir Khan’s Ghajini body. Shah Rukh Khan seemed to have acquired a new body the way a mere millionaire might acquire a two-seater Porsche to stave off that mid-life crisis feeling.
Many rolled their eyes, me included. Shah Rukh, of all the three Khans, had the best chance to age gracefully. Instead, the boy-next-door had turned into bionic man. Superman had cannibalised Clark Kent. Looking back now, I realise that was Shah Rukh Khan at his most vulnerable. He was never more human than when he seemed to be trying so desperately to turn back time. Deep down, we all want to do the same and we turn into one of the lost boys even as we want to become Peter Pan. We mouthed platitudes about how he needed to age gracefully because secretly his abs felt like a betrayal of our own middle-aged pot-bellies.
It is only now that I slowly and dimly begin to understand the cultural importance of Shah Rukh Khan, a story that carries with it both the steely discipline of an eight-pack and the out-of-control messiness of a party brawl. He comes across as human in a way superstars almost never are. His off-screen persona does not have the same calculated sheen of other stars.
This is a superstar who gets stopped by US immigration but somehow manages to view it with detached irony rather than throw a starry tantrum. His interviews, even when he’s just plugging a Ra-One, always have the potential of throwing out a curveball, statements that sometimes land him in a soup. It’s hard to remember this now but once Uddhav Thackeray, now the darling of many liberals, and the Shiv Sena tore into Shah Rukh, defaced his posters, burnt his effigies, all because of comments he had made about Pakistani cricketers not being selected for the Indian Premier League. But he still came across as a guy who spoke his mind, not someone peddling a carefully calculated agenda. Likewise, when he gave Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee a peck on the cheek on stage, he was not just mugging for the cameras. And when his son was arrested on drug charges last year though none were found on him, Shah Rukh was stoic but quiet, playing neither superhero nor victim, somehow coming across as both resolute and vulnerable, a dad any youngster might want by their side. Shah Rukh has been the poster boy of many things, but, most of all, of being human.
He is, I have to admit, a rare kind of star. There have been other romantic heroes and there will be more. But loving Shah Rukh came easy, writes Takshi Mehta in Vogue India, because “he doesn’t wish to conquer (women), as most men in films and reality do; instead he wants to be conquered by them”. More importantly, he is not just someone they might aspire to have as a partner, but someone they can aspire to be. And most importantly, he is a throwback to a time when three men named Khan could steal a nation’s heart and it was not seen as a story of love jihad.
Once he could wear his faith lightly. Now he can neither perform an Islamic ritual at Lata Mangeshkar’s funeral nor sport a tilak during Diwali without it becoming a deliberately stoked Hindu-Muslim social media firefight. In her book The Three Khans, Kaveree Bamzai says academic Ashis Nandy told her he doubts whether such a moment in India’s history—where three Muslims could be unparalleled cultural heroes—will ever come again.
Whether or not that is true, it also makes me grateful that we experienced the age of Shah Rukh Khan. On the cusp of liberalisation, anxious yet excited about the adventure ahead, this was India looking out at the big world out there with its arms stretched wide open, just like Shah Rukh Khan.
We will never be that innocent again.
Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.