How Shah Rukh Khan transitioned from King of Bollywood to a new metaphor for nostalgia
Something about our current cultural moment doesn’t allow us to accept Shah Rukh effortlessly as the romantic hero trotting about Europe anymore in shockingly bad films.
There is something different about all the posts and tributes that were being shared celebrating Shah Rukh Khan's birthday recently all across my feed. Nothing is ostensibly new in the outpouring of affection the fandom splashes across social media whenever a massive celebrity gets a year older. However, in 2020, these gushing tributes leave a bittersweet aftertaste.
Journalist Shireen Azam wrote on Instagram with aching honesty, "Can someone please ensure that SRK goes back to doing one semi-annoying blockbuster every year? Just so I don't have to acknowledge that real, actual time has passed since the movies I saw as a child, and that we are all closer to death." Now that we are caught in a global pandemic, we have more time to dwell morbidly and somewhat self-indulgently on our mortality and our past. We find ourselves exceedingly aware of lost time; the present seems suspended in mid-air and an uncertain future looms ahead. Binge-watching old favourites and reminiscing about days long gone, on grainy video calls with friends far away, some cultural figures stand out so sharply in our memories. After all, who else defined a generation more than Shah Rukh Khan?
I teach students who were born around the year 2003. This was also the year when Kal Ho Na Ho released; the first movie I distinctly remember crying in because I was so moved by SRK's deathbed declaration of love to Preity Zinta. My mother and older brother didn't come along, I don't remember why. It was just my father and me in a single screen theatre in a nondescript town in Jharkhand, and I noticed with some surprise, a steady stream of tears flowing down my cheeks. I also remember the pale green handkerchief my mother had handed me before I left for the cinema hall with Abba. It was the first time I had ever needed a handkerchief to wipe away my tears away while watching a movie. I am not going to pretend like I haven't cried again while watching this film or listening to the iconic Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy background theme.
During our classes on the history of desire, I often bring up the superstar as an example of a key cultural icon. The students don't latch on to a reference to him as immediately as I would expect them to. Shah Rukh was already a fading, ageing star by the time my students came of age. For them, he is an actor their parents or elder siblings love, their interest in SRK is such that he is a bit of vintage curiosity, a relic of the 90s and the early 2000s.
Although I cannot claim to know the man behind it, Shah Rukh Khan's most lasting legacy is that of being a symbol. With his rise, Shah Rukh sold to India a whole new mode of masculinity. SRK built his career playing men who were vulnerable, expressive and not afraid to cry. His public persona was gracious and unexpectedly funny. Khan began every interview with an aadaab, each sentence showcasing a self-awareness and wisdom far superior to anything we had ever seen Bollywood stars be capable of. Sure, there was perhaps Amitabh Bachchan’s dignified severity or Aamir Khan’s quietly cerebral responses, but none matched the quick-witted vivacity and warmth of Shah Rukh’s public appearances. I see him as a symbol of a gentler, more optimistic time when India seemed to be hurtling towards this post-liberalisation euphoria and we weren't so afraid of what the future held. When a Muslim man with melting eyes, dimples and pure charisma (let's be honest about his somewhat limited but somehow always earnest range of performances) was embraced with open arms by this overwhelmingly Hindu country. No sinister whispers of 'Love Jihad' lingered about him and his Hindu wife.
Interestingly enough, the 90s yuppie characters played by Khan were always Hindu; The Raj/Rahul template so stamped in our cultural consciousness is the creation of a Pathan Muslim. None of these dissonances, while always obvious to anyone who followed South Asian cinema, had seemed to me unusual or worth commenting upon, until today. In the late 2000s, Khan, pitch-perfect in uncharacteristically restrained performances in Chak De India and My Name Is Khan, perfected the patriotic Hindustani Musalman. This Muslim didn’t loudly proclaim his love for Bharat Mata, you only saw it brim through his eyes in a close up after the team he coaches wins the World Cup and the tricolour unfurls in the background. Most importantly, this Muslim felt the pain of being othered, profiled or being asked repeatedly to prove his patriotism.
At the same time, I realise that he hasn't really delivered a film worth talking about in years. Now, the tastes of the movie-going janta have changed (and not always for the worse). Netflix is producing content which is pushing the envelope for the classes. The masses seem to prefer Akshay Kumar or Ajay Devgan more; the Khans have receded somewhere into the background. Yet, the actor inspires fierce, undying loyalty from his fans, who range from my driver, my best friend's mom to my university professors. I wonder if any actor will ever amass such a wide range of ardent admirers, on that scale, ever again.
Something about our current cultural moment doesn’t allow us to accept Shah Rukh effortlessly as the romantic hero trotting about Europe anymore in shockingly bad films like When Harry Met Sejal. Even worthy experiments have missed the mark. Fan, with Shah Rukh deconstructing his own superstardom was not particularly appreciated by the audiences. Raees, in my opinion his most politically subversive film, with Khan playing an ill-fated Muslim gangster who possesses ‘miyaan bhai ki daring and baniye ka dimaag’ in Modi’s very own Gujarat, attempted to reinvent the Muslim social as a genre while maintaining its hallmarks but didn’t leave an impact. In Shah Rukh’s more recent interviews, the spark of razor-sharp wisdom and humour remains, but one can sense a tinge of bitterness and impatience.
Most heartbreaking of all, was his silence, when it had mattered so much for him to speak up, against the violence that shook his own alma mater –Jamia Millia Islamia. The entire nation watched videos emerging of the police mercilessly beating up students and raining shells and batons on campus buildings in Jamia and Aligarh Muslim University. I remember us anxiously huddled in the living room of my aunt’s house with her and my cousin, watching the clip of three women students from Jamia, Ladeeda Farzana, Ayesha Renna and Chanda Yadav, bravely defend their male friend from the police as the policemen rushed to blow lathis on him. My cousin broke down and, fighting tears, he said that those who refuse to speak now, after all this, really must have no conscience left. Shah Rukh chose not to express solidarity and refrained from making any statements.
Although, half a decade ago, when Shah Rukh had spoken up against rising intolerance in the country, he was widely condemned, with Yogi Adityanath, current Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh and Kailash Vijayvargiya, the BJP national secretary, calling Khan a Pakistani agent and comparing him to the terrorist Hafiz Saeed. Now, the superstar is seen taking selfies with the Prime Minister.
Nonetheless, I do sincerely hope he has some kind of middle-aged re-awakening as a different kind of star. Even if he doesn't, SRK's superstardom will always be a remarkable phenomenon and his public persona remains incredibly valuable.
A generation is waking up to the absolutely gutting realisation that Shah Rukh is now in their past. Once a metaphor for superstardom, I saw him transform into a metaphor for something else this year. Perhaps my students already hinted at this in their indulgent amusement at my adoration of the actor, but for me, it was in 2020 that Shah Rukh Khan became nostalgia.
Zehra Kazmi is pursuing a PhD in South Asian Literature at the University of St Andrews, UK. She is also a Teaching Fellow at Ashoka University, India.
Find latest and upcoming tech gadgets online on Tech2 Gadgets. Get technology news, gadgets reviews & ratings. Popular gadgets including laptop, tablet and mobile specifications, features, prices, comparison.
Nushrratt Bharuccha, Pavail Gulati cast in Omung Kumar's Janhit Mein Jaari, written, produced by Raaj Shaandilyaa
The news of the film was announced by Mary Kom, who was the subject of Omung Kumar's 2014 biopic.
In October, Sana Khan, who has played supporting roles in several Bollywood films, announced her exit from the entertainment industry.
Directed by Abir Sengupta, Indoo Ki Jawani also stars Student of the Year 2 breakout star Aditya Seal and Mallika Dua.