Jab Harry Met Sejal: Imtiaz Ali's cinematic love versus Shah Rukh Khan's on-screen pyaar
At the launch of the song 'Hawayein' from Imtiaz Ali's upcoming romantic comedy Jab Harry Met Sejal, Shah Rukh Khan candidly — and aptly — admitted that he is synonymous with love, in Bollywood. "I do not believe in love, darling. I am love."
It is a bold claim to make, as 'love' encompasses a thousand feelings. As Shah Rukh spells out at the end of the song, 'Kuchh Toh Hua Hai', in Nikkhil Advani's 2002 romantic comedy Kal Ho Naa Ho — 'Pyaar mein zindagi khoobsurat lagne lagti hai, har sapna sach lagne lagta hai, har manzil badalne lagti hai, hawa ka rukh bhi badalne lagta hai, Rango par nazar padne lagti hai, har pal, har waqt hamesha, ek hi naam hothon par aata hai."
Marveling at the beauty of life, realisation of dreams, spotting every colour on the palette (red, for sure) around you, chanting the name of the special one — these are all cringe-worthy clichés attached to love. But the naysayers have to take into account that it was Aman, his character and not Shah Rukh, who came up with the list.
Shah Rukh, on the other hand, has symbolised love on the silver screen, in its wide variety of forms, over the years. The overriding image of the superstar today, is that of Rahul/Raj, who stretches his arms wide open, in either a sarson ka khet in Punjab or the posh locales of a European city, to invite his love interest in for a warm, cosy embrace.
But even in that pigeonholed niche, he has displayed diversity. If character traits are taken into consideration, one cannot really slot the self-respecting Vir Pratap Singh from Yash Chopra's 2005 film Veer Zaara and the boisterous Rahul from Karan Johar's 1998 directorial debut Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. It is tough to imagine the uptight Vir flaunting his 'COOL' bracelet and similarly, the brash Rahul striking a perfect salute.
However, those can be argued to be minor alterations in characters tailor-made for him. It will be tough to proclaim that he has, on more occasions, taken a character written for someone else and made it his own. What then, of the characters he played in the initial years of life? Since he was not a superstar back then, roles were not written for him. Instead, they came to him.
Take, for example, the streak of out-and-out negative characters he portrayed onscreen. These include that of a cold and calculating lover, though for different reasons altogether, in Yash Chopra's 1993 psychological thriller Darr, Abbas-Mustan's 1993 crime thriller Baazigar and Rahul Rawail's 1994 revenge saga Anjaam. In all these films, the romantic intensity of his eyes, which stared comfortably out of a bruised face, reflected the state of mind of a man who has little to lose.
But gain he did from that, a year later, when Aditya Chopra's 1995 directorial debut Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge catapulted him as the A-lister in the romance genre. The string of negative characters that preceded the classic is probably why his portrayal of a die-hard romantic felt like a breath of fresh air.
Both these categories — of a swashbuckling romantic and of a psychotic avenger — lie on the polar ends of a spectrum that boasts of very few films in the middle range. To his credit, he has shown versatility at both ends. Anubhav Sinha's 2011 superhero flick Ra.One can be a good inclusion in the all-white roles that dominate his career. On the other end, there is Farhan Akhtar's Don franchise that characterises his dark side onscreen.
He has dabbled in the grey zone too, given films like Shimit Amin's 2007 sports drama Chak De! India and Rohit Shetty's 2015 family drama Dilwale. But those cannot entirely be put under the bracket of romantic films.
His early days of a psychotic stalker and followed by those as an idealistic hero have one common ground — obsession. He has either given it all to love or taken everything from it. His heart is either wholly black or spotlessly white.
There has been only one instance when Shah Rukh Khan has risked a grey character within the framework of a romantic film — Johar's 2006 film Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna.
Fans were appalled to witness Shah Rukh, in the character of a dejected husband Aman, sleep with 'the other woman' Maya (played by Rani Mukerji), and thus enter into an extra-marital affair. To see the man who swore by family values in Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge overstep the boundaries of holy matrimony was unpalatable to ardent followers of the Shah Rukh Khan brand of romance.
But he did it because of his ability to completely surrender to his director. Instead of playing to his larger-than-life image, he chose to put himself in the shoes of a bitter man who falls in love with a woman a tad bit too late in his life. While some related to the conflict and lauded him as a performer, a large chunk of his fan base criticised him for the immoral act.
With one film, Shah Rukh Khan went from immortal to immoral. But he has not conveniently returned to his comfort zone. Clearly, he has been experimenting with his roles, adding more shades to his character while doing away with one or two in every film. He has also struck a balance by playing the aspirational romantic card time and again.
Now, as he is about to put himself to the acid test in Imtiaz Ali's next, the audience is skeptical, and also excited, about this rather odd collaboration. While Shah Rukh's brand of romance is legendary, Imtiaz Ali is known for his edgier romances, marked by relationships that oscillate from generous to parasitic.
Imtiaz's romance is often like a messed up bedroom after sex. There is a chance that not even an ounce of love was there during the sex but love eventually blossoms after the two partners clean up the room together. It slowly trickles down from the external to the internal rather than the other way round.
Shah Rukh has often distanced himself from this side of romance. But he announced it loud and clear in the first mini trailer of Jab Harry Met Sejal, that he has once again shed all his cushions of convenient romance and bowed down before the vision of the director. "Main ladkiyon ko gandi nazar se dekhta hu. Cheap hu, cheap (I look at women through a perverted lens. I am quite cheap)," goes one dialogue from the film.
With the first glimpse of Ali's directorial, Shah Rukh made it clear that he is not playing the archetypal Shah Rukh Khan that he is made out to be. He is merely lending himself to the character of Harry — who is a 'characterless prick'.
The ensuing glimpses of the film carried hints of the rosier Shah Rukh Khan but this writer believes that those are just a few drops in the ocean. Thanks to Imtiaz Ali and the conflicted romance that he brings to the table, Shah Rukh Khan is all set to play a grey character yet again, within the parameters of what he knows. He is a stranger in the familiar town of love.