We are all familiar with the story of the boy from nowhere. Over the past 22 years, it has been recounted so often that it has become myth. He is the ordinary young man who goes into a big, bad world and, against all expectations, conquers it. The story of Shah Rukh Khan is as outlandish as any plot in his most successful films. Much like Raj in Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, his is the story of the outsider who wins against the odds. And again like Raj, Shah Rukh has been the poster boy of liberalised India, a metaphor for both progressive and traditional values, idealism and aspiration, the harmonious blending of East and West. But that was 18 years ago. Now Shah Rukh is Rahul in Chennai Express, with the same story arc, inspiring a few laughs but largely an object of ridicule. Critics who expected more, demanded more from a man at the very peak of his career, have expressed only disappointment, but this has done little to stop the film, a juggernaut if ever there was one, from steaming to Rs 100 crore in record time.
Caught between the complaints of critics and the validation of the box office, Khan is still drumming up publicity for Chennai Express more than a week after its release. On a recent Sunday evening, he met journalists at Mannat, his palatial mansion by the sea. It is a rare opportunity to meet surely the last superstar of this kind, a one-man movie industry. Outside, the crowds are thicker than ever, taking photographs of his super-luxurious vanity van, which cost a few crores and is supposed to be the biggest in Bollywood. Inside the house, which Khan likes to call his Taj Mahal, the plush library-cum-office is lined with acting awards and bookshelves stocked with an impressive collection of fiction and non-fiction. On a side table is a copy of the Quran, amongst other, scattered books, including a collection of love poems. He says he is currently reading the Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano.
King Khan is dressed in a distinctly unregal T-shirt and jeans and a pair of white sneakers. He wears shoes indoors even if he’s meeting people. It’s his thing, just like never being seen in a pair of shorts. Khan puts it down to his shyness, though ‘shyness’ is not a trait that comes immediately to mind when you’re in his presence. For a diminutive man, he really fills out a room with an indefinable star quality. It’s an effect he knows he has on people. Later in the interview, he says: “I want to be a feeling that cannot be denied.” Nasreen Munni Kabir, the documentary filmmaker who made The Inner and Outer World of Shah Rukh Khan in 2005, describes him as “someone who is utterly present when he is with you and utterly gone when you say goodbye. This quality is in his films too. When the camera is switched on, Shah Rukh belongs to the viewers, and that creates a tight bond.” Shimit Amin, who directed him in Chak De! India, feels Khan performs from an “almost intuitive sense of what the audience would find entertaining”.
Though his publicist has allotted 30 minutes for the interaction, Khan spends more than an hour and a half talking about himself, his films and his family, despite the people massed in another room awaiting an audience. In his world, time starts and stops when he says it does. He gives long, well thought-out answers as if this is the first and not the millionth interview he is giving. Mushtaq Sheikh, his friend and biographer, calls him an alien with untapped reserves of energy who can get by with no food and no sleep for days. Part brazen, part defensive, his hands busy with cigarettes and black coffee, Shah Rukh addresses the criticism Chennai Express has generated. “I’ve been in the business long enough to predict the response of critics. I wanted to do something that I felt like, because if I do it with a lot of feeling and love, chances are a lot of people will like it. Whether you appreciate it or not, whether you believe in it or not, whether you live your life by it or not, you’re going to like it if I love it. I live in an unreal world like that. It comes from the heart, and it will touch some chord with you. It does not mean I play to the gallery, it does not take away from the intellect I may have about filmmaking. It does not take away from the fact that I study cinema in my alone time, or that I appreciate Woody Allen, or go bonkers when I see this outstanding film called Flight. I’ve been in the business too long to get swayed or waylaid by the opinions of a few.”
An interview with a star can be the most lacklustre of experiences. Almost without exception, stars will speak as if from a script. Khan, however, conducts his interviews like a keen chess player, always one step ahead of your next question. He’s a shape-shifter, constantly moulding himself to the expectations of the person in front of him. He will tell TEHELKA he does not believe in figures and wants to talk only about the creative aspect of a film, but for the business reporter who follows, he begins to spew numbers like a trade pundit. He acknowledges his strategising: “Most of what I want people to know about me, they know. My modus operandi is to tell people so much about myself that they never ask me the pertinent things, so they never find out who I am. You know, the people closest to me say, ‘We don’t know who you are at all.'”
Once the golden boy who could do no wrong, Khan has found himself floundering over the past few years. Ra.One, the last film by his production company Red Chillies, was a vanity project that bled at the box office. Don 2, a slick-looking thriller, was high on gloss and low on thrills. Jab Tak Hai Jaan was a dated romance that tested the patience of an audience that chose to forgive Yash Chopra his last film. Khan’s decision to sign a Rohit Shetty film at first seemed bewildering. The director’s world is a far cry from Khan’s urbanity. But Shetty is the one director who has cracked the Rs 100-crore formula with each movie. “Big stars cannot afford big failures,” says film critic Shubhra Gupta, “so they keep to the safe and narrow.” They pander to the system, propagate it, but are also trapped by it.
“You know what it is,” Khan explains, in his usual digressive, self-contradictory fashion, “I’m a bhand, a simple actor, there is nothing more intellectual to it. I just do what I feel like doing and the world follows, the commerce follows, what doesn’t follow? I am very self-deprecating and keep joking about the work I do, but I have done it for 22 years and eight years before that in theatre. I was very highbrow. I did Mani Kaul’s Ahmaq, a remake of Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, the first book my dad gifted me. I looked down upon certain kinds of acting. It was all Stanislavsky and method acting for me. But I came to realise that the things you have to do in Hindi films are more difficult than what you have to do in serious cinema. It’s very difficult as a person who’s extremely shy to expose myself the way I have to in my films. It’s so strange that my most classical pose is the most open pose you can have, when I’m such an introvert. I can easily absolve myself of this by signing a film with Anurag (Kashyap) just now, but it should be a world he wants me to be a part of, something he wants to do with an actor like me. It’s your world and if you want me to be a part of it, I’ll come and give my best. I tell Rohit Shetty the same thing. I’m very proud of my films. I’ll promote them, over-the-top, good, bad, ugly, whatever they are. I’m extremely humble, but when it comes to acting, I can be arrogant. I do this, I know this, I’ve learnt this, slept this, awakened this, and one day it’ll be last shot and I’ll go away.” This meandering answer is classic Shah Rukh. He throws you off with the depth and width of his knowledge, tossing out casual references to everything from nuclear fission to Usain Bolt’s muscle fibres. It’s a performance but you buy it, believe that this man, this superstar is being honest, opening his heart to you.
It’s the (perceived) vulnerability that is at the heart of his appeal. Shah Rukh, of course, has more reason than most to be guarded with the media. He has been particularly dogged by controversy of late, some of it unfortunate (accusations of a sex determination test for his third son AbRam; people taking offence at his Outlook magazine essay), some avoidable (the fracas at Mumbai Cricket Association last year during the Indian Premier League), and some blown out of proportion (the public fights with Salman Khan and Shirish Kunder). Even his family life, a no-go area for two decades, came under scrutiny. For much of last year, gossips talked of little other than his alleged affair with Priyanka Chopra.
With the constant bad press, he has seemed to become a touch more abrasive, at least in public. There is a little less ease, less evidence of the sense of humour which was always his recourse against attacks. Now everything seems to get to him more. “People think I get angry very fast,” he says. “There’s no doubt about it, I have a temper which I lose about twice a year.” But the raw hurt at the rumours and the criticism is evident. “It bothers me a lot. There are some things people should know about me by now: I won’t do sex determination. How could you even think I would? It’s really sad that I have to clarify this. There are days when I don’t want to clarify, and I don’t want to tell you it’s not true, because sometimes it’s extremely humiliating to explain your truth.”
Insiders from the advertising world say that the controversies have dented his image of the middle-class-boy-come-good and affected ‘Brand SRK’, which stands not just for the actor and his movies but also his diversified business interests, including the IPL team, Red Chillies — one of the biggest visual-effects studios in the country — and Kidzania, a new venture in children’s entertainment. Of his numerous endorsement deals, he has already been dropped by Pepsi and Airtel, though his roster still includes Sona Chandi Chyavanprash, Navratna, Emami Fair & Handsome, Link Pens, Lux Cozi innerwear, and bigger brands like Tag Heuer, Nokia and Hyundai. Novelist and former advertising executive Anuja Chauhan, who worked with him for 10 years on Pepsi, doesn’t approve. “When you move from Tag Heuer to ‘thanda thanda cool cool’, you’re making yourself way too accessible and losing exclusivity,” she says. “Though all stars can be accused of this, Shah Rukh stood for this edgy, movie star glamour, and it’s a pity to see that squandered. He is one of the coolest people to work with, but it would be nice to see him redefine and push himself more.”
Social scientist Shiv Visvanathan describes Khan as a “keenly intelligent man” but one who “seems to be caught in stereotypes… who needs to allow himself to make intelligent choices. “Put that to Khan and he says with the brashness that surfaces occasionally: “I’ve never had a brand-building exercise. This is who I am; love it or leave it. It’s not arrogance. If you don’t like this, nobody is forcing you. Ya, I’m on television all the time, I’m on every hoarding. Close your eyes on the main road, don’t switch on your television and don’t watch my films, or switch off the radio and don’t listen to my songs. I’m everywhere; avoid me if you can. I’m a good reporting subject, I’m good copy, so if I do something like getting into a fight, I am written about for three months. So, I think now if I get into a fight, I’ll do it behind closed doors, I’ll beat up people in a bathroom.”
There was a time when Shah Rukh Khan’s star shone the brightest, when, despite his success in candyfloss entertainment, he was unafraid to take a walk on the dark side with movies like Darr and Baazigar. Though the three Khans started their careers at the same point, Shah Rukh stood the tallest, comparable only to Amitabh Bachchan in the love and frenzy he inspired in India and across the world. Debraj Mookerjee, a pop culture writer and professor at Delhi University, was a year senior to Shah Rukh in Hans Raj College. He says, “Shah Rukh was always the guy who would get somewhere. The sense of hyper urgency in the pre-liberalised India of the mid ’80s was a rare phenomenon. He would have excelled in whatever he chose, but he chose acting and came to define a singular, larger-than-life stardom.” Even now, his global presence is indisputable. A couple of years ago, the University of Vienna hosted an international conference on ‘Shah Rukh Khan and Global Bollywood’. His female fans in countries like Germany, Austria and Eastern Europe call themselves ‘Shah Rukhis’, a band of faithful groupies that follow him around the world.
Of late, his hegemony has been challenged by Salman Khan and Aamir Khan. Salman is unbeatable at the box office, while Aamir has tapped into a more socially aware middle class that is looking beyond aspiration. The generation to which Shah Rukh sold the message of liberalisation – in consumerism lies happiness – grew up. Ever since, he’s had to mould his image, align himself anew with prevailing winds and the changing mood of the nation. The rags-to-riches story is ancient history. For a new generation of fans, he has never been anything but a very wealthy man, the sort of man they see on magazine covers lauded as the richest celebrity in the country. It’s an image he plays down in his movies, careful to maintain his connection to the common man. In Chennai Express, he plays a halwai whose catchphrase, unsurprisingly, is — “Don’t underestimate the power of the common man.” In Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi, he plays a typical small town man. In Ra.One, he is the geeky Shekhar before he becomes the mighty G.One, and in Jab Tak Hai Jaan, a nerdy and poor street busker. Each successive role played to hammy imperfection, and getting away with the privilege of being Shah Rukh Khan in movie after movie. In many ways, his stardom is comparable with old-time heroes like Rajesh Khanna and Dev Anand, and unlike Amitabh Bachchan or even a new-age actor like Ranbir Kapoor, who get into the skin of the characters they play.
His embrace of the common man is a far cry from the man who landed a helicopter outside his home in Kabhie Khushi Kabhie Gham. “Movies are now aimed at the domestic market rather than NRIs, so that school of cinema petered out,” says film critic Anupama Chopra, who authored King of Bollywood: Shah Rukh Khan and the Seductive World of Indian Cinema. “The common man persona is what defines him now.” It seems, however, just that — a persona. No one believes in Rahul the halwai. What they are watching is Shah Rukh knowingly sending himself up. It’s a short step, though, from clever caricature to self-parody. A step that more than once has caused Shah Rukh to stumble. Still, Chopra marvels at his enduring connection with the public: “It’s crazy how fans line up and travel such great distances for him.”
A sense of ownership has always defined our relationship with Shah Rukh. It is why everything he does seems to affect us personally, more so than other stars; why every little disappointment feels like a betrayal. His is a charming back story, that of the excellent student from a middle class family, orphaned at an early age, romance and marriage with the childhood sweetheart, his yearning for his parents and love for his children, his sheer hard work that made way for an unparalleled success. As Chopra says, “He’s one of us and the best side of us”, so we judge him harshly and hold him up to account. Shah Rukh is astute enough to know this and make his peace with it. “Even the smallest gesture of mine, or word of mine, or film of mine,” he says, “evokes reaction in people, a reaction you might expect only a lover could evoke. I evoke a feeling and there were years when I used to find it strange. Mere ko kyun aisa keh rahe hain, woh bhi toh kar raha hai aisa yaar. But then somebody said, ‘I think they love you.’” It’s box office magic. Shah Rukh is a pied piper. It’s his greatest strength but also, in many ways, his undoing. As Chopra points out: “He has found consistent success, which is a tough act to follow. But with every star playing the box office game, my fear is that his success may become a straitjacket.”
Still, Shah Rukh, because he is so difficult to read, somehow maintains a star’s mystery. He keeps offering different sides of himself. Sometimes, he is the arrogant star who feeds off the adoration he receives from people. At other times, he is mellower, an ageing star at 48 who senses that even stars are mortal. “Every morning, I wake up with the feeling that parts of me are lessening,” he says, “and one day I’ll have nothing more to give. I don’t even watch my films. I’ll see them one day when I don’t feel like acting. I’ll look at all these characters and see where the different parts of me belong: the happy part of me, the sad part of me, the good part of me, the pathetic part of me and the extremely hateable part of me.” His is a kind of Bollywood stardom in its last gasp. Shah Rukh may just be the last of the old-fashioned superstars. As the middle classes spread out and become more diverse, as entertainment is increasingly geared to ever more specific tranches of society, the thrall in which movies and heroes could hold the masses is dissipating.
Shah Rukh worries about the effect of his kind of stardom on his children. “I always hope that the shadow of my fame will never overpower the existence of my children. Our life at home is very basic, very simple, very unlike what it may be imagined from the outside. We chat, we do somersaults, we watch movies.” His son Aryan is interested in football and his daughter Suhana in acting and dancing. When home, he spends most of his time with the kids. He is currently watching Breaking Bad with his son. The children are clearly a source of great pride and he wants to do his best for them. He talks about how he taught them world capitals by organising treasure hunts around the house. His son is the one he turns to when he wants to be crazy, make mistakes and have fun; when he wants to be corrected, reprimanded, told what is right, he goes to his daughter.
If there is a ‘real’ Shah Rukh, it must be in his family life, in the pleasure he takes in his children. Increasingly, the Shah Rukh we see and hear in public is a man who appears tired of the show. The chinks in his armour are more visible, just like the lines on his face are visible from certain angles in Chennai Express. At TEHELKA’s THiNK festival last year, he spoke of being lonely and depressed. It’s a subject he tweets about almost compulsively. It’s hard to know exactly what it is that depresses him. There have, over the years, been broken relationships, most notably a breach with his closest friends Karan Johar and Farah Khan. “I’m not so sure there is time, or that he has the will to allow the people that he knows into the inner sanctums of his personal life,” says Kabir. “His children, yes, but friends? I think he’s moved by complete strangers and their love for him seems genuine to him. Perhaps that’s why he talks of being lonely and fighting depression. He doesn’t allow many people in.” Khan says his loneliness has been romanticised (not least by himself). In the same breath, though, he says that for him solitude is bliss, not sorrow. “Sometimes, I just sit down vacant like a vegetable for hours, with nothing on my mind, just nothingness.”
That nothingness reflects a strange kind of hollowness about the Shah Rukh he is willing to present to the world. You can fill him up as you like, project your particular fantasies onto him. He is all things to all men — the kind of man who wears Tag Heuer watches and eats chyavanprash. The key to unlocking the many sides of Shah Rukh Khan has always been his relationship with his fans, with whom he shares all of himself. He isn’t playing them for fools. “Whenever it becomes too much, whenever you’re disturbed, go to the person you’re doing it for,” he says, quoting Steve Jobs. “I go to the people and they scratch me and pull me and take my scarf off . The aunties love me and they pull my hair and they kiss me and they just hold me. If I go out of my house just now, there’ll be 100 people. They’ll hurt me, maybe, but it will feel so nice.”
The shadows are falling outside, but Shah Rukh Khan is still busy promoting his movie. He will be up all night. Outside his house, a car screeches to a halt and four young boys shout, “Shah Rukh Khan! We love you.” They look a little sheepish and drive off. If the man inside could hear them, he might give them a hug. He might feel a little less lonely.