Exploring what Bollywood has given to and taken from actor, producer, and item boy Shah Rukh Khan, who completes 25 years of being Bollywood’s busiest multi-tasker this June.
By Neha J. Bhatia on February 11, 2017

Because it happened mid-song, Shah Rukh Khan’s first word in Hindi films was ‘koi’, literally translated as ‘somebody’. To his credit, Khan has been a somebody in the Indian film industry for only three months less than I’ve been alive – and I’ve been around for a while. 

Deewana (1992) is the box office success that launched Khan’s career and nabbed him a Filmfare award for the year’s best male debut. I’m told I was still learning to hold my head up when the movie launched that June. The 25 years since 1992 have naturally brought changes. While his appetite for emotion- and action-intense films appears to be intact, Khan isn’t quite as boisterous as his nineties’ self anymore – neither on screen nor off it. The man that starred in seven films in 1995 – nearly one film every two months of the year – had only one release in 2015. Meanwhile, I hold my head up just fine nowadays. 

Khan’s 25 years in the industry have seen him achieve notable success on the global film landscape and demigod status in India. He was among Newsweek’s December 2008 list of the 50 most powerful people in the world, despite his blink-and-miss performances as actor (Krazzy 4 and Bhootnath) and narrator (Shaurya and Kismet Konnection) during the year. However, 2008 was also the year of Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi, an acclaimed production that reiterated Khan’s timelessness in an industry where the line between fame and failure is – to put it mildly – intensely soluble. 

Shah Rukh – the man and the brand – has avoided this chasm for more than two decades, and almost effortlessly so. Despite claims of his lateness, oversized ego, and tendency to overact, Khan commands a level of respect in the industry that makes some of his contemporaries and juniors look ridiculously incapable of managing their careers. Notably, Khan takes ownership of his work, cinematic or otherwise – when he fractured his arm in 2009, he strapped a gold-colored sling on it and energetically danced for the promotional video of his cricket franchise instead of outsourcing the jig to someone else (be warned, that’s one catchy song). On some days, he’s even publicly vulnerable and philosophical about what he does. 

Some of the alliterations that have been ascribed to him over the years – especially King Khan and Badshah of Bollywood – seem overused, but his list of awards – honorary and competitive – appears to justify the tags. Shah Rukh Khan is a species of orchid in Singapore; a wax statue at Madame Tussauds’ museums in London, Los Angeles, Hong Kong, and New York; one of the two Indian actors that can claim to have rung NASDAQ’s opening bell for the first time; and, believe it or not, even an ambassador for an Interpol anti-crime campaign – and that’s just the honorary awards. Perhaps the most telling feature of Khan’s largesse within his country, though, is his collection of 15 Filmfare Awards – eight of which are under the ‘Best Actor’ category. I vaguely remember deferring dinner until Khan had been awarded a trophy at the awards’ 1996 ceremony – broadcast live back then – which he eventually did well past my bedtime for Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (DDLJ; 1995). I celebrated with pasta that night.

Khan’s vast expanse of fans is often attributed – and misattributed – to his ability to pander to female audiences (and his deep set dimples), considered to be emotionally vulnerable enough to appreciate his roles and acting performances that are vastly different from the testosterone-fuelled selections of his peers, like Salman Khan, Ajay Devgan or Akshay Kumar. For a considerable part of Khan’s golden years as the golden boy of Hindi-language romance cinema, that stereotype has held sway in reviews of both, the man and his brand. 

But Khan’s temerity as the lovestruck Romeo that’ll charm the socks off the film’s female lead – and her family and siblings and neighbors and friends – stems from a self-awareness of his ability to project a romantic grandiose that is hard to replicate in reality. The assumption is that Khan cashes in on this ability but quite honestly, his scriptwriters, producers, and directors do so just as much.

And so you have Khan’s Raj in DDLJ, appearing to maneuver and soften his lover’s ironclad father into accepting him as the future son-in-law; Khan’s Amarkant Verma in Dil Se (1998) quite literally dying with a terrorist that he’s passed Sufi ideology’s seven stages of love with; and Khan’s Raj Aryan Malhotra in Mohabbatein (2000), the rebel professor out to change a school after its rigid constitution deprived him of his first love as its student. It is because producers and directors know Khan’s ability to act out the seemingly strange and unbelievable depths of romance like many of his peers can’t – and there are some truly unwatchable films in Hindi cinema to prove this – that Shah Rukh Khan is the star of large-budget superhits like Devdas (2002) and Veer Zaara (2004).

To some extent, however, Khan’s early success with the largely tried-and-tested romance genre came because his characters were the anti-thesis of the society that preceded them. Hindi cinema in the late-1970s and 1980s was centered on the action and drama genre, mostly in a bid to attract and retain family audiences while spending power was being redefined following a State of Emergency that lasted between 1975 and 1977 – eventually ousting India’s oldest legacy political party – and the Asian Games 1982, when color televisions found their way into the country. It’s little wonder then that films like Zanjeer (1974)Sholay (1975)Deewar (1975)Karz (1980)Shaan (1980)Coolie (1983)Mashaal (1984), and Karma (1986) – besides countless Mithun Chakraborty-starrer action flicks – ruled this period. The national mood was inclined towards toppling the bad guys, and it extended from politics to Bollywood.

But a new wave, one that would lay the foundation for Khan to soar a decade later, was finding its feet in the country. The 1984 election of Rajiv Gandhi – the grandson and son of famed personality politicians, child of a dysfunctional marriage, a London-educated salaried pilot, devoted husband and father of two, and a good-looking reluctant politician – changed the equation. 

Gandhi’s ascension made him India’s youngest prime minister at age 40, indicating a national revamp both politically and economically and therefore, cinematically as well. Investments in technology, while mired in controversy, were increased under his tenure, with the private sector’s wider economic role simultaneously amplified. As India neared the peak of her youth, so did Bollywood. Perhaps fuelled by Gandhi’s melodramatic claim to power hours after the country’s prime minister – his mother – was shot on 31 October, 1984, the late eighties saw a renewal of family- and romance-oriented Hindi cinema through films like Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak (1988)Chandni (1989), and Lamhe (1991) – the last two produced by Yash Raj Films honcho Yash Chopra, who would go on to champion Khan as Hindi cinema’s quintessential romance hero until his very last film, Jab Tak Hai Jaan (2012). In contrast to their predecessors of two decades, Hindi films’ lead male characters in the nineties were generally happy campers that fell in love with a girl – or wooed one until she did with them – rebelled against their parents’ wishes and/or unexpected circumstances to be together, and eventually had their way after a groundbreaking family confrontation that may or may not include a fistfight. The nineties changed that.

Between 1990 and 1992, Hindi film posters went from hues of flaming orange, with the lead actress’s face on the top corners for posterity, to bringing the male and female lead together – front and centre, even if not always literally – amid backdrops of cities or stills of the supporting cast. Social justice and action plot lines, while not relegated to being the exception just yet, were no longer the only rule that promised box-office success. While the heroes of the seventies fought for justice and those of the eighties for the greater good, the nineties saw Bollywood’s heroes fighting for love – to have, claim, savor, and enjoy love. 

Khan’s career was birthed in this environment and unsurprisingly, Deewana saw him play the character of a selfless, endearing, and almost-obsessive lover that he would go on to perfect over the next decade with films like Koyla (1997)Yes Boss (1997), and Pardes (1997). As Raja Sahai, he woos and eventually marries a widow, Kajal (Divya Bharti), and is seen giving her the space she needs to grow into their relationship. There is merit in asking why his character marries someone before she’s fully ready for the arrangement – and a lot more merit in criticizing the widow’s mother-in-law, who invokes the Ramayana to point out that Indian society, with all her wayward men, is too cruel for a woman to live in “alone”.

What’s disappointing is that the movie does not mete out similar treatment to the idea of emotional consent, which is why Raja wears down Kajal – despite her repeated refusal – and compels her mother-in-law (Sushma Seth) to support the marriage. The scene with Seth has since been replicated more than once by Khan, who has also laid his head and cried as his character seeks the blessings of his lover’s mother in DDLJ and Veer Zaara. Khan’s directors would, in the years to come, rarely deviate from modeling him as the ideal man – be it Karan Arjun’s (1995) ideal son or Dulha Mil Gaya’s (2010) ideal boyfriend – but Deewana sees Khan violently smack his 5”7’ frame into a wall when his character Raja comes to the realization that he’s fallen in love. In fact, the first half-hour-odd of Raja’s post-interval entry in the film is a succinct showcase of the obsessive darkness Khan would later flesh out in Darr (1993)Baazigar (1993)Anjaam (1994), and Hum Tumhaare Hain Sanam (2002). Even in Deewana, there is an angry and heinous aura around the then-27-year-old Khan, who flares with an intensity that takes years to master for the screen. With rage and helplessness conquered, Khan would showcase more of his emotional versatility in the next three years.

There is some debate about this because of the variety of his work, but the turning point of Khan’s career is DDLJ, one of the seven releases Khan was part of in 1995. His controlled larger-than-life portrayal of Raj Malhotra, a London-bred expat with the moral compass of a “good” Indian wooed worldwide audiences; raked in billions for producer Yash Raj Films; carved director/screenplay writer Aditya Chopra’s impenetrable niche in the industry; and established Khan as a frontrunner in romantic Hindi cinema of the nineties and the new millennium. Thanks to Khan’s DDLJ (as well as Mohabattein in 2000 and Chalte Chalte in 2003), ’Raj’ became a synonym for intensely romantic and near-subservient male characters, and eternal attempts – as spoofs and jokes in contemporary films and stand-up comedy routines – to discredit the name’s modern popularity meet little success.

Unlike Deewana’s Raja, DDLJ’s Raj is more humble, emotionally aware, and patient. Make no mistake, Raj isquite an annoying wiseass that thinks it’s okay to lay his head in lead character Simran Singh’s (Kajol) lap and wave a bra in her face barely five minutes after he helped her past their train’s closing doors – all in a pathetic attempt to woo her. Raj’s masculinity seems to be validated when, while recounting their closed-door encounter to his friends, he claims that Simran came on to him; later in the film, Raj reminds Simran that he didn’t make a move on her – drunk as she was – because as a “Hindustani”, he knows how highly she – a “Hindustani ladki” – regards her chastity. 

My eyes hurt from all the rolling. 

Personally though, DDLJ is a favorite because the film – more subliminally than I’d have liked – empowers the female lead. Simran is unafraid to tell her mum she’s fallen in love; gets drunk when she likes (even if she thinks a man should be ashamed of drinking around a girl – this is quite inane); isn’t afraid to yell down a guy for hounding and annoying her; tells Raj she’ll dump her family-forced fiancé and elope with him instead; stubbornly refrains from wearing said forced fiancé’s ring; and coerces her father into sending her for a Euro trip by making sure he’s around when she’s completing the family’s morning prayer ritual all by her lonesome to score some righteous brownie points. A weak and sentimental moment sees her acquiescing to her mother’s plea to “forget about” Raj and marry the forced fiancé – for this I shall always detest the plot – but Simran is for most part what we call a baller in 2017; Raj, in contrast, not quite so much anymore.

Khan is an actor of the era when Bollywood’s masculinity, by then in its mellower years, was defined by how charming a character was to his lover while also retaining the testosterone-laden Type A traits that make him a man’s man. Out of choice or commercial compulsion, Khan has often been a part of films that in today’s India are easier to call out for their regressive notions of gender and morality than they might have been two decades ago. In this, he joins many of his peers that continue to be part of a cinema that is mostly unwilling to look beyond the tried-and-tested hunky-dory perfection and idealism that sells most in the country. 

But Khan is differentiated from his contemporaries by the choices he’s made when he didn’t necessarily have to; his earliest negative roles came at a time when playing the anti-hero was considered hara kiri in Bollywood. He acted in war drama Dil Se between Dil To Pagal Hai (1997) and Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998), frothy, colorful, and only mildly emotional films that were commercially and critically acclaimed. Khan – at a time when ‘superstars’ went for lead roles or nothing – played second fiddle to Kamal Hassan’s protagonist in period drama Hey Ram in 2000. Between multi-starrer family drama Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001) and Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s BAFTA- and Oscar-nominated remake of romantic period drama, Devdas in 2002, Khan also acted in Hum Tumhaare Hain Sanam as Gopal, an obsessive, possessive, jealous, and emotionally abusive husband that cannot come to terms with the rapport between his wife and her brotherly best friend until after he’s compelled her to leave their marital home, sent her a divorce notice, received a morality tune-up from the wife’s best friend’s girlfriend (thus squashing all suspicion of his wife’s faithfulness), and led his wife to attempt suicide.  

The movie is as exhausting as it sounds, even if it’s interesting in how it challenges the stereotype of a “good” Indian marriage and Indian wife. At his core, Khan’s Gopal isn’t very different in his obsession from the Deva he plays in Bhansali’s classic the same year; that this isn’t evident on first viewing of both films is testament to how Khan can harness and evoke a diverse range of feelings for two emotionally similar roles. 

Between 2003 and 2004, Khan alternated between mainstream ‘masala’ and thought-provoking roles, indicating his first tangible efforts to enforce a real change in his career trajectory and perception. In 2003, Chalte Chalte provided a better-cooked version of last year’s Gopal, while Khan’s performance in Kal Ho Na Ho the same year opened a new chapter in his industry history. At the end of a dance-heavy song and the beginning of a deeper arc in the latter movie, Khan fell to his knees before the shot moved to one of him coughing – covered in sweat, his tongue lolling somewhere in his mouth – and modern Hindi cinema, it appeared, had finally found a man that could fluidly balance the scales between Govinda’s obnoxiousness and Dilip Kumar’s grace. The following year, thanks in no small part to director Ashutosh Gowariker’s brilliance, Swades (2004) was a standout film for Khan in a 12-month span when he’d already succeeded with action dramedy Main Hoon Na and romance musical Veer Zaara. He would follow it up as actor and producer with Paheli (2005), a fantasy film adapted from a Rajasthani folk story that Khan reportedly opined is about “the emancipation of women, the loneliness of a married woman and how women should be loved”. The “issue of a wife’s loneliness, particularly in relation to the villages of India” was “worth talking about”, he added. Paheli went on to be India’s official entry for the 2006 Oscars. In 2005, Khan also recorded a one-song appearance with Malaika Arora Khan in Kaal and to date, is the only prominent Bollywood star to frequently star in ‘item songs’ of even those films in which he doesn’t have a starring role. For many even today, Khan’s music is what a Bollywood-themed party starts with.

A year after delivering hits Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna and Don in 2006, Khan starred in Chak De! India (2007), a Yash Raj Films sports drama that reinvented his brand and reiterated his acting prowess. Reminiscent of his screen presence in Swades, Khan sheds the flamboyance of Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna and Don for Chak De, a sepia-toned masterpiece exploring the nitty gritty of India’s national – but overlooked – sport for women. Co-starring with 16 actresses – many of whom were making their film debuts with the movie – Khan brought both hockey and his career back into the limelight with Chak De, a justified hit at the box office that also drew critical acclaim.  

Khan’s count of mainstream movies – masala or otherwise – has reduced since 2008, which I suppose has a fair bit to do with the cricket team he owns in the Indian Premier League (IPL) that kicked off the same year. Barring Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi during the year, Khan had no major roles in any feature length films until My Name Is Khan in 2010, with the latter’s success a resounding reminder of Khan’s international fame and ability to essay monotone and somber characters. Ra.One and Don 2 marked his return to the masala genre in 2011 and Jab Tak Hai Jaan – the last film directed by veteran Yash Chopra and the first film where Khan would lock lips with a leading lady – was Khan’s only release in 2012. Chopra, who had teamed with Khan to deliver some of the industry’s and their personal bests like DarrDil To Pagal Hai, and Veer Zaara, passed a month prior to the film’s release.

Khan essayed full-length roles in only three movies between 2013 and 2015, and there’s no denying that neither of these – Chennai Express (2013)Happy New Year (2014), and Dilwale (2015) – did justice to his acting merit. If anything, the movies harks to Khan’s roles in Duplicate (1998) and Baadshah (1999) – productions aimed at mainstream audiences of lighthearted action comedies that Khan was praised for despite their commercial failure. That said, I’m not entirely surprised if Khan, who had a baby in 2013, was gradually prioritizing ticket sales and non-acting businesses over his cinematic endeavors. 

FanDear Zindagi, and a brief role in Ae Dil Hai Mushkil in 2016 were, it appears, Khan’s way of announcing yet another comeback. While Fan sees him play a fictionalized version of himself and a manic fan of this fictionalized self, Dear Zindagi and Ae Dil Hai Mushkil see him in roles closer to his element. As psychologist Jug Khan in Dear Zindagi, Khan is comfortable with a wisdom and sense of humor that appears unscripted and as poet Tahir Taliyar Khan defending – even praising – the agony of unrequited love in the latter film, Khan may well have channeled almost every selfless, romantic, and obsessive lover he’s played and perfected over the years. Khan’s runtime in Ae Dil Hai Mushkil is less than 240 seconds, within which, with a sweet tilt of the neck and a quality that can’t be taught – called adaa in Urdu – he does more for the movie’s plot than even one of its leads. 

Khan the actor has had many critics and will continue to do so, as is the mark of any healthy industry of art. His brand is also secure on the back of his many non-acting investments, which include film production, the IPL cricket team (which returns to action this April), and an infamous litany of wedding performances he routinely makes. Forbes’s list of 2016 Celebrity 100 earnings ranked him at #86 globally, estimating his wealth at $33m. On a similar list, the publication’s Indian edition ranked him as the country’s second wealthiest celebrity. In a country obsessed with making and multiplying money, Shah Rukh Khan’s wealth is visible not in the extravagance of a helicopter or bowl full of caviar – though I wouldn’t be surprised if he owned these – but in the crowds that hound his Mumbai bungalow Mannat and the whistles that reverberate within multiplexes – Indian and international – where his films are screened.