The reason Shah Rukh Khan (SRK) is Bollywood’s most endearing superstar of the last century is his humour and vulnerability—a sense of humour as much about himself as about us Indians, on and off screen.
SRK, 56, has spent 30 years perfecting a screen image that’s difficult to pin down. The Rahul, the good son, the attentive boyfriend, funny but uncompromising about grand romantic gestures—that’s an easy generalisation of his oeuvre of 30 years.
Okay yes, the come-into-my arms gesture, which began rather precariously over moving vehicles in Raj Kanwar’s Deewana (1992), specifically the song "Koi Na Koi", stuck and became synonymous with him. It does capture an essence of his uniqueness as a male superstar. He is beyond his ego. The wide open arms aren’t just an invitation for a romantic embrace to the woman he is wooing, but also captures a generosity of spirit. Unlike Dev Anand’s head tilt or Amitabh Bachchan intense stare, Shah Rukh chose a less egotistic signature: I have love to give you.
But Shah Rukh Khan is also a star who knew early on that self-deprecation is a powerful tool to win hearts—especially the hearts of women. In 1989, in his television debut in Doordarshan’s Fauji, a serialised drama about the life of Indian Army recruits, he played Abhimanyu Rai who romanced an officer older than him. He was the lead character, but somehow all the guys made fun of him—Abhimanyu had an easy-going, scatterbrain charm about him.
After lead roles in Aziz Mirza’s Circus (1990) and Mani Kaul’s mini series Idiot (1992), the big film debut came with Deewana (1992) in which his character Raja falls obsessively in love with a woman after her husband is murdered. The obsessive stalking lover becomes villainous in Darr the following year—the same year that he plays a murderer in Baazigar.
He wears his heart on his sleeve again as a struggling Everyman musician wooing the girl next door, Anna, with seriously goofy moves on bicycles and flailing inside fishing nets in Kundan Shah’s Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa (1994)—“Jhootha hoon ya sacchaa hoon, jane saara zamaana” was a line in the hit song from the film, "Anna Mere Pyar Ko Naa Tum Jhootha Samjho Jaana".
Shah Rukh has said in some of his early interviews that Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa was one of his most favourite films as far as a role goes. Between this phase and Aditya Chopra’s Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (DDLJ, 1995), which cemented his image as Bollywood’s face of a new, globalised India, without much gravitas or ego, but someone with a new-found sense of freedom to break rules, he romanced an older woman in Ketan Mehta’s Oh Darling Yeh Hai India (1995) in which he was filmed nude for a sex scene—no, it didn’t make it to the final cut.
Even Raj in DDLJ is shallow, playful and ditzy, and unapologetically self-deprecating—remember the close-up of his face, contorted to simian proportions, thick bangs covering his forehead, in a Harley Davidson jacket and baggy pants, banging on a grand piano with his legs and hands like it was a kick drum, or fumbling to feed pigeons next to the film’s terrifying Punjabi patriarch? He played to the gallery to make us laugh. Remember, also, his face and body scrunched in mortal fear when Deepika Padukone’s character tells him on a moving train that her father was a don in Rohit Shettty’s Chennai Express (2013)?
Shah Rukh isn’t angry, pent-up or saving the world in his most memorable roles, he has a whale of a time being gawky and goofy.
It isn’t until much later that he got the flat board abs for a role—not until Om Shanti Om (2007), which was also the first film in which he danced to the precisely choreographed beats of Farah Khan. His most memorable dance moves are really just jumps. Even in his last film, Zero (2018), he played Bauua Singh, an unusually short man, a role that was different from all his previous characters, but here too, his arms leave his sides and assume the iconic come-to-me pose when he is romancing a scientist with cerebral palsy. The mandatory hand gesture, which has acquired a note of parody in the last decade, works best in the title track from the blockbuster romance Kal Ho Naa Ho (2003), in which the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City forms the backdrop for Khan’s musings on love, accompanied by the appropriate soulful expressions and the mandatory hand gesture.
The generosity, his ease in professing love—of course, in his signature acting tropes, which has reached a plateau of hamminess now—spilled over to his off-screen, social-media image in the 2000s.
In 2017, the All India Bakchod (AIB) gang of comedians interviewed him. Shah Rukh was at his best—possibly the funniest interview he has ever given. It was irreverent, self-deprecatory, satirical and easy. He had he AIB boys eating out of his hands.
In anodyne, apolitical Bollywood, Shah Rukh has spoken his heart out. He has offended some Indians with monolithic views about nationalism. He has shown dignity when the establishment has tried to harass him or trolls have asked him to “go to Pakistan”. He stood by his son when an errant policeman accused the young man of being in possession of dangerous narcotics with dignity and grace.
His career is at an all-time low. His last two films have flopped. His next film, Pathaan, which Yash Raj Films recently announced, is a story of revenge—the parents of Pathaan are killed and the boy grows up to find the killers and kill them. It sounds like a new wiring, a newly-adopted maleness—perhaps a hangover from Raees (2017), in which he played a gangster with kohl-lined eyes.
It remains to be seen what will sustain Shah Rukh Khan as a superstar in the coming years—playing to his age, changing his style of acting or just playing to his strengths. But because of the way he carries his stardom, and manages his offscreen life, there is no doubt that if there is one star from his generation who can appeal to old and new fans—old fans like me, who reached adulthood in the '90s, in the throes of a newly globalised nation’s dichotomies, and new Generation Z ones for whom the politics and vibe of a performer is as important as his or her talents—it is Shah Rukh Khan.
I like to hold on to the simian contortions of Raj, to the loud, sentimental, no-holds-barred love that he so iconically represents.