30 October 1997.
The streets leading to Melody Theatre near the Royapettah Clock Tower in Chennai brimmed with boys and girls in serpentine queues. My friend and I — both college ‘freshers’ — were also in that melee, which reeked of paan-parag and cheap perfume on one side and had white-salwar-yellow-dupatta-clad girls on another. My friend and I were focussed on our task: we simply had to get tickets to watch the first day first show of our new heartthrob’s latest film.
This actor had caught our fancy thanks to his stint on national television and then, films. We had seen his Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge nine times in the same theatre — each time, with a new bunch of ‘friends-of-friends’ so we could convert a different set of people into his fans.
Shah Rukh Khan arrived as a romantic hero in Chennai first, even as the rest of India was still celebrating his anti-hero roles in Baazigar and Darr, until DDLJ took over. The tickets we were gunning for that October in 1997 were for Dil Toh Pagal Hai. The title said it all, about what we felt for SRK.
He was then just Shah Rukh — our ‘pal’, our perfect ‘take-home boyfriend’ whose Guddu and Chamatkaar we watched on VHS tapes after Yash Raj Films changed his on-screen appeal. Every bit of news on ‘our Shah Rukh’ was devoured with great interest.
After Amitabh Bachchan and Anil Kapoor, it was SRK for whom filmmakers in the South industry had a soft spot.
Mani Ratnam was quick to see his spark and cast him in Dil Se (1998). ‘Chaiyya Chaiyya’, the chartbuster from that film, was being publicised on the then new broadcast channel, MTV. Shah Rukh made the effort to learn some Tamil lines to promote the song — just so he could make us believe in his character in the Tamil dubbed version, Uyire.
Two years later, he spoke Tamil dialogues in sync-sound for Kamal Haasan’s Hey Raam (2000). With this multi-regional storyline, SRK broke the language barrier between the south of the Vindhyas and the rest of India. The film may have bombed, but it is considered a classic today. To be a part of it was an informed decision on Shah Rukh’s part, as it would make him a household name in the South.
Even as the trappings of being Shah Rukh Khan — the romantic roles, the ‘arms spread wide ’ signature move, and his global superstar status — began to overwhelm his acting, SRK still managed to get in fine performances in films like Swades, Chak De! India and Kal Ho Na Ho. All of these films ran houseful in Southern theatres.
The most recent phase of SRK’s career has seen him make the same unconventional choices as an actor that he displayed when he was starting out. This year, he had Fan and Dear Zindagi; Raees will release in January 2017, and Aanand L Rai and Imitiaz Ali’s films follow.
It would appear that SRK now chooses films because he loves the script, the team and the chance to work with newer, talented co-actors. Despite the lukewarm box-office response to Fan (which again, ran to full house for more than three weeks in Chennai) he stood his ground and made further such script-based choices. Does this phase mark the return of the competent actor?
If the star has entertained us enough, perhaps it’s time we applauded his courage in backing films like Dear Zindagi? What remains to be seen of course, is whether or not SRK’s forthcoming films will beat the records set by DDLJ, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham.
Going back to that October day in 1997, we did manage to get two tickets — for Rs 6.50 each — and sat on a bench, staring up at the screen that loomed large over the hall. I craned my neck, smiling. On screen, Shah Rukh Khan opened his arms wide: It felt like all the women in the theatre could run into and be enfolded in his embrace. And experience love in the time of SRK.