DO WE LOVE our stars more when they crash and burn, fall to the earth, and seemingly self-destruct? In his last movie before 2023, Shah Rukh Khan was flying high, so high that he had reached the moon. In what seems like a lifetime ago, audiences rejected both him and Zero, the 2018 film that put him there. It took two movies, one where he plays a Pathaan, and another where he is a jawan, to endear him to India again. In Pathaan, which made ₹1,050 crore at the box office in January this year, he is neither Hindu nor Muslim, merely an orphan found abandoned in a cinema hall, In Jawan, which has made ₹574 crore at the box office in five days, he is Bharat ka nagrik (a citizen of India), a soldier in one avatar and an IPS officer in another, teaching us to ask questions before we cast our vote. As he says, before uttering the all-important Jai Hind, ungli karo, sawaal pucho.
At 57, after an early start in Hindi cinema as a psychopath, and a long career as a romantic hero, Shah Rukh Khan has recast himself as an action hero, who provides equal opportunity offence to the women in his life—after first duly losing to them in fist fights. He is selling the idea of himself as its perfect citizen. Onscreen, he fights villains who don’t believe in Bharat Mata, and tattoos Maa Jagat Janani (Mother of the Universe) on his shaven head. Off screen, he praises Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s achievements, from the new Parliament building to the successful G20 summit. Onscreen, he threatens terror so farmer loans can be waived, and government hospitals can be properly equipped. Offscreen, he endorses voting in the General Election and criticises social media polarisation.
Filmmaker and long-time friend Mahesh Bhatt says when political, economic, and religious leaders no longer offer any solutions to the crises that the nation confronts, the entertainer feels that it’s time to take over and reimagine who we are as individuals and as a nation. “Shah Rukh has done exactly that, and it is why Jawan has touched a chord in the people of not only India but all over the world,” he adds.
But it is more than that. The professional resurrection is shadowed by a personal narrative. Shah Rukh Khan has also endured the most public of humiliations—a drug charge against his son, played out on 24×7 news channels, treated as a spectator sport. It is an allegation he fought legally, silently, uncomplainingly and won, but not before his son had to spend more than 20 days in jail. As the nation watched a helpless mother visiting her son in jail on Diwali, it was not how the script was supposed to be written for a man who cheerfully calls himself the best and declares quite confidently that he is the last of the superstars. He had been called “anti-national” before and had been asked to go to Pakistan, both deep wounds for the son of a freedom fighter, but he swallowed that poison pill. When it seemed that agencies were after his son, it was a crisis of faith for him. It is no surprise that the loudest applause in a movie studded with smart one-liners is reserved for the older Shah Rukh saying to the villain: “Bete par haath lagane se pehle, baap se baat kar (Speak to the father before laying a hand on my son).”
The resurrection is all the better because the vilification seemed so complete. Professionally, the chinks in the golden armour had begun to show in a stellar career stretching over three decades. The films, after Chennai Express in 2013 (Mumbai film industry’s first “south” movie) had ceased to work their magic at the box office. The famous ability to articulate sharply would get him into trouble, whether he was asked about growing intolerance in the country or whether he made rude jokes about his colleagues at film awards events. Even the romantic hero onscreen, the lifeline of many women around the world, was looking a bit jaded, and when he repeatedly called himself “ganda” (dirty) in Jab Harry Met Sejal (2017), as he romanced a much younger Anushka Sharma, it evoked sniggers rather than admiration at his ironic self-jab.
It took a four-year absence from the big screen, peppered only by glimpses in My Next Guest with David Letterman on Netflix and in some desultory ads, for the country to long for him again. As Shrayana Bhattacharya, author of Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh: India’s Lonely Young Women and the Search for Intimacy and Independence, says: “The love for Shah Rukh is not new, it was always there. He means too much to too many people in different ways. The way of expressing love in public has been invigorated thanks to his new films that speak to our contemporary anxieties about the country. Earlier, fandom would show its strength at birthday celebrations outside his home, Mannat. Now it is in the movie halls. Fans and fan clubs really organised themselves and banded together through the 2020s.”
In that again, perhaps Shah Rukh was one of the earliest adapters to the ways of the southern film industries, where film stars let their fan clubs do the marketing for them. There is an SRK Universe Fan Club, which organised first-day-first shows of Pathaan in over 200 cities in India. There are Teams SRK in 12 cities in India and elsewhere in the world. These are all organised displays of love, designed for cameras, whether it is boys creating a gymnastic pyramid or another set bathing his film poster in milk.
It took a four-year absence from the big screen, peppered only by glimpses in my next guest with David Letterman on Netflix and in some desultory ads, for the country to long for him again
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But that is also not the complete story. Shah Rukh Khan is a tale that has been told several times over. A young man from Delhi, known for portraying Captain Abhimanyu on television, descends on Mumbai, and takes it by storm almost instantly, terrorising viewers with a trifecta of roles where he played a disturbed, reclusive young man consumed by obsession or hatred. Baazigar, Darr, both in 1993, and Anjaam in 1994. And then just as India was discovering its diaspora, he played the good NRI boy, following the good NRI girl all the way to her pind in Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge in 1995, setting up India’s obsession with Punjabi weddings and Swiss holidays for the next decade.
But more than an actor, he also became a smart entrepreneur, notes author Balaji Vittal, whether it was his movies, his production house, or his cricket teams. His marketing strategy was precise, notes Vittal. “Target the mass market who would get satisfied by the loud and the beautiful, the superior technology, exotic locations and the extras—cameo appearances of other stars. The star line-up in the Om Shanti Om (2007) title song was just the beginning. Practically every film had superstar cameo appearances—Priyanka Chopra and Rajinikanth in Ra. One (2011), Hrithik Roshan in Don 2 (2011), a host of his female co-stars in Zero, Salman Khan in Pathaan, and Sanjay Dutt in Jawan. This was just like the chef delighting you with a complimentary glass of champagne. Or a clothing store giving you am unexpected gift voucher.” Add to that was the financial muscle. Simultaneous releases in hundreds of theatres using financial clout squeezed smaller budget films out of the theatres. Jawan released across 4,000 screens globally, 700 more than Pathaan.
“This love for the new Shah Rukh Khan is not merely about the actor who tiptoed into Bombay 30 years ago. This is the awe for the brand that is dazzlingly global and yet very much made in India,” says Vittal. Or as Bhatt says: The movies are a byproduct of the brand.
What is a hero, after all, asks Bhatt. Someone who dares to speak and do the things we cannot. In a world where everything is crumbling, he makes you believe that something is right with the soul of India, says Bhatt. “History is not important, mythology is,” says Bhatt. His character, Azad, is a Krishna-like character who is crusading for the victim, telling her the power lies within her, not in a self-serving way, but for the greater good. The villain, played by a menacing Vijay Sethupathi, is a creature of our times—a greedy corporate tycoon who profits from the miseries of common people.
Globally, ageing actors do indeed gravitate towards becoming action superheroes, and a franchise with the possibility of sequels, as both Pathaan and Jawan indicate. And he is pitting himself against the very best. As he cheekily tells Amitabh Bachchan in a new masala ad, he is both “action hero and the king of romance”.
With the forthcoming Dunki, about illegal immigrants, in a saga that criss-crosses the world, directed by Rajkumar Hirani, expect the star to burn brighter. Expect the hero to become more mythic, as he performs his various roles for us the audience in real life as well—the devoted father who battles for justice for his son, the playful dad who watches his daughter bloom in the spotlight, the husband who supports his wife’s creative endeavours, the helpful co-star who makes sure everyone on set feels valued, and the actor who resurrects himself, from a deshdrohi to a deshbhakt, from a victim of hate to an ambassador of love.
And above all, the son who writes a love letter to his freedom fighter father, long gone, and a father who sends a reassuring message to his son, that he will stand by him, no matter what.