The reinvention of a K-k-k-khan

Posted on February 4, 2017


Given Shah Rukh’s career crossroads, it’s going to be fascinating to watch where he goes from here.

Is it just me, or has Shah Rukh Khan become the most interesting actor around? This isn’t about his performing skills. This isn’t about his box-office clout, healthy enough for a star, yet nowhere near that of the other two Khans of his generation, Salman and Aamir. This is about where the actor is at this point, at some kind of crossroads. He’s too old to pull off the demented lover and Raj-Rahul routines that made him a superstar – even the mature variants of Raj and Rahul haven’t quite done the trick, as the modest returns of Jab Tak Hai Jaan and Dilwale prove. But he hasn’t figured out what the alternative is. He’s trying to reinvent himself. But as what? He doesn’t seem to know. We don’t either. And that’s… interesting.

Aamir’s films have acquired the reputation of being better, classier, more wholesome in terms of an all-round cinematic experience. After his reinvention in 2001, with Lagaan and Dil Chahta Hai, his films have become the equivalent of an Ambassador car. A tad old-fashioned, but in a good way. And sturdy. Reliable. Best for Indian conditions. Can accommodate the whole family. Salman, whose reinvention happed in the Wanted/Dabangg phase (2009/2010), is the screen’s answer to a Bullet: not much mileage, but fun and cool, if a tad noisy. Even Akshay Kumar, who started out around the same time as Shah Rukh (Saugandh came in 1991, Deewana a year later), has accomplished a turnaround. In fact, his may be the most startling reinvention of all: from cheesy action hero to comedy star to all-rounder whose fans will see him in any kind of film today. (Just look at his 2016 slate: a patriotic pilot in Airlift, a clown in Housefull 3, a cuckolded husband in Rustom.)

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That’s the model Shah Rukh seems to be going after, if his output from last year is anything to go by. Fan was a risky deconstruction of his inherent Shah Rukh-ness – the film did not entirely work, either artistically or commercially, but it was a fascinating meta experiment. And in the refreshingly different Dear Zindagi, he played a glorified supporting role, something like what Aamir did in Taare Zameen Par, but with less wattage. And now, we have Raees, a film that tries to graft grimy masala tropes onto a star whose image has become synonymous with posh NRI-frequented multiplexes. The film isn’t very good, but it’s a pleasure to be reminded that there’s still a wolf whistle-worthy single-screen star in Shah Rukh Khan.

Reinvention is something that seems to affect only the Bollywood lot. In other industries, fans seem happy seeing their idols do the same thing across decades. Look at Chiranjeevi. At 61, he’s still pulling off a masala movie like Khaidi No. 150. Salman Khan is a decade younger, but even with his loyal fan base, it’s hard to see him doing another instalment in the Ek Tha Tiger franchise ten years from now. The younger lot – Ranveer Singh, Ranbir Kapoor – don’t even seem interested in an image. They’re doing films they find interesting, challenging. Only Tiger Shroff is assiduously building himself up as an action hero.

The question with reinvention is this: How do you change the kind of films you make without diluting – too much – the things in you that audiences like, the things that made you this big star? Fan tried to push the envelope while giving Shah Rukh’s fans the Shah Rukh they craved, but to many, the film’s creepy central character, the world’s biggest Shah Rukh fan, must have felt like a slap in the face. And Dear Zindagi was essentially about Alia Bhatt exorcising her demons through psychotherapy – not exactly the recipe for a pan-India hit. So here’s another question: Is Shah Rukh content being one of the top stars, or does he have his sights on the 300-crore blockbuster that’s eluded him? (Aamir and Salman have two each: the former with Dangal and pk, the latter with Sultan and Bajrangi Bhaijaan.) Because the films he’s making now – one with Imtiaz Ali, one with Aanand L Rai – don’t point to that kind of business.

These questions are why the nature of the next Shah Rukh film – the nature of his future career trajectory, in general – has become more interesting. With Aamir and Salman, you know – broadly – what kind of film you’re going to get, what kind of box office result these films will get. With Shah Rukh, all of this is a big question mark. He’s the biggest star Imtiaz Ali has worked with, but will his stardom affect the project? Ali’s forte is the personal and intimate romance, so how will he handle the biggest romantic star since Rajesh Khanna? Will Ali be able to do what Rahul Dholakia couldn’t in Raees, where the director’s vision was at times hijacked by the necessities of star power?

And what about those on this side of the screen? Does the average audience, the average Shah Rukh fan, want a reinvention? Do they want Shah Rukh doing a variety of unconventional films with unconventional (for a star of his magnitude) filmmakers? Do they care? But at least for the critic and the serious filmgoer, it’s going to be fascinating to watch where Shah Rukh Khan goes from here. He’s apparently playing a dwarf in the Aanand Rai movie. It feels like a giant leap into the unknown.

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