Readers Write In #287: Thoughts on SRK- the Star, the Actor

Posted on October 22, 2020


(by Aman Basha)

As a beloved classic turns 25, a look at its lead, where he was, where he is and where I wish he would be

It was my original intention to put up the piece I’d written on DDLJ the film itself, it was on the blog too for a brief while till my greed for a signed copy from Anupama Chopra took it off and sent it elsewhere. As I looked with pride at what I’d written and fear at its sheer length, I’d noticed that nearly half was not even about the film, but solely about its lead star, Shah Rukh Khan. And so this is a little collection of thoughts spun off here.

The era of the Khans or the Khan triumvirate can be said to have started from the years of 1994, 1995 and 1996, when each Khan, Salman, Shah Rukh and Aamir (in that order) delivered an All Time Blockbuster in the forms of Hum Aapke Hai Koun, Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge and Raja Hindustani respectively. These three films are still the respective stars’ biggest hits in terms of footfalls. Yet two films are absolute surprises, no one today could possibly conceive that a family film with 14 songs and the most heroic character a dog (whether the best of HAHK is Madhuri or Tuffy is still debated) would be Bhai’s biggest hit and sacrilege, with no fights or shirtless scenes. Raja Hindustani is perhaps the biggest surprise then when it released and even today still is by the fact that the brand of quality, Mr. Perfectionist Aamir Khan’s biggest blockbuster is this banal remake of Jab Jab Phool Khile, seems to be a strong reason why even Aamir fans rarely mention it even in the star dick measuring fan fight contests online.

Yet that is not the case with DDLJ, even today the fandom was abuzz with celebration and even Shah Rukh changed his Twitter Id to Raj Malhotra. This could be said to be Yashraj’s hype, but it is also true among the three, none of these films have defined and become so strong a part of their stardom as DDLJ has for Shah Rukh Khan. On the domestic box office front, the 90s was pretty much a neck-to-neck contest between Salman and Shah Rukh for the prime position of Number 1, yet it’s to note that even Salman’s big hits were populated by comedy (Judwaa, Biwi No 1), action (Karan Arjun, Jeet), romance (Saajan, HDDCS), masala (Bandhan, Jeet, Karan Arjun), family drama (HAHK, HSSH), Shah Rukh’s biggest hits were in romance (DTPH, KKHH, DDLJ, Deewana, Pardes) and the two anti hero films Darr and Baazigar along with Karan Arjun. Although there was much love for his films with Aziz Mirza and Kundan Shah like Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman, Yes Boss, Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa, they were never big hits except in Bombay. Yet overall, the 90s decade can safely be called SRK’s. Why? Yet again, the effect of DDLJ.

While the real time difference in overseas collections of DDLJ and HAHK don’t match the size of difference domestically, it is undeniable that DDLJ created a huge cult like following among NRIs. Perhaps it was a huge hit in Home Video and VCR, but post DDLJ and KKHH, he managed to cultivate a certain dedicated fan base among expatriate Indians and Pakistantis most significantly in the UK that managed to give good returns even to his unsuccessful ventures, like Dil Se (which flopped in India) becoming the first Indian film to crack the UK top 10 box office or Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustanti managing to edge out Hrithik’s smash blockbuster Kaho Naa Pyaar Hai. The overseas registers were a significant factor in SRK’s stardom and set him apart from the rest at the start of the new millennium.

It is important for us to realize no actor or star lasts forever, they all have their peaks and lows. During the period that a particular star dominates, the perception one has about him and the reality after that reign can be quite different. SRK’s strongest period is in my opinion, the 2000s. Although Mohabbatein was a big hit, it was surrounded by turkeys like One 2 Ka Four, PBDHH and Asoka. The real game changer was Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham in 2001, it was a big hit with 45 crore nett, which although paled in front of Gadar’s mammoth. Yet K3G managed to be a record breaking All Time Blockbuster overseas. In fact, in terms of worldwide gross, Gadar was actually next to K3G.

From then on, brand SRK ruled, this difference between domestic and worldwide had come up earlier as well in the cases of DTPH/Border and Mohabbatein/KNPH, and from 2000-2004, all the highest worldwide grosser were SRK films, though Kal Ho Na Ho was a hit in India, it was another blockbuster abroad and though Chalte Chalte was not a big hit, it was a low budget film that made enough returns for him to dissolve Dreamz Unlimited and start Red Chillies. One accusation that is common is that none of these films would have made as much money overseas had they not been Yashraj/NRI/Dharma films, then how does one explain the success of Devdas overseas? Devdas actually made more dollars and pounds than Kal Ho Na Ho which was the perfect NRI/Dharma starrer, it was incidentally the only other success that Madhuri Dixit had, post Raja, the other being DTPH, much bigger in every which way than Bhansali’s previous Hum Dil De Chuke.. starring both Salman and Ajay (back when he was Devgan). It may not have been a very big success considering its budget, but in a year which was absolute disaster in every way, the perception was what mattered. Perhaps, it was the success of Devdas and Raaz in 2002 that brought that famous quote from Neha Dhupia that in Bombay, only sex and SRK sell.

2004 was easily the best year, in terms of peak and success. Main Hoon Na was the big debut of Farah and Veer Zaara his reunion with Yash Chopra, both were successes and Veer Zaara the highest grosser both domestic and worldwide. Swades’ critical acclaim and gradual status of a cult classic on TV and DVD gave enough joy to the actor within. 2005 was a disappointment as his experiment with Amol Palekar didn’t work, but was still one of the highest grosser overseas that year (small mercies). The most glaring difference between SRK’s domestic and overseas was most evident in the case of KANK, a film which was an average but felt like a failure in perception, yet was a monster abroad and ended up another all time overseas blockbuster. Don clashed with an NRI/US based/ musical melodrama starring both Akshay/Bhai and became a hit, although not a biggie when compared to either Fanaa/RDB or the blockbuster that was Dhoom 2.

Another 2004 repeated in 2007, where finally critical acclaim matched commercial gain in Chak De India, but Shah Rukh’s eyes sparkled even more with joy as his Om Shanti Om with debutante Deepika became a blockbuster, destroying Saawariya and Sony as he famously promised to do so. In 2008, he reteamed with the man whose debut had made him a superstar in Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi, the debut of Anushka Sharma. Despite its relatively lower opening, it went on to become another Blockbuster, both domestic and abroad.

It’s important to note what his contemporaries were doing the same time around, Salman was bogged in controversy and cases, having only three hits MSK, No Entry (an extended appearance) and Partner, all of which were co-lead films. Akshay had a great 2007 with 5 hits or so, yet like Garam Dharam who had the biggest hit and several other hits in 1972 and didn’t get much notice courtesy Kaka Mania, was buried under the hoopla around the juggernaut of Chak De and OSO. Aamir started off with Lagaan and DCH, neither of which were big hits but had accumulated enough cultural capital to start off a big opening for Mangal Pandey. His later successes like Faana, RDB, TZP (clashing with Welcome), JTYJN firmly established him as brand of quality movies, the ISI stamp of Hindi cinema. It is perhaps a brand of stardom that never existed before and with Ghajini/3 Idiots, left even SRK behind commercially.

The biggest surprise that anyone and everyone must have had was Salman, a star who turned his career around and started his best phase at the age when others begin to decline. His star power is in fact very reminiscent of SRK, Wanted was surrounded by a bunch of turkeys till Dabangg became a huge domestic hit and soon after, every single movie turned into gold. Even SRK’s famed overseas touch was now not as strong when My Name Is Khan barely scraped past 3 Idiots despite its international subject.

Salman’s peak was in the 2010s, especially between Dabangg and Sultan, where with the exception of Jai Ho, all were blockbusters in India. He had exactly 10 of them, yet after Sultan and apart from Tiger Zinda Hai, not a single film can be called even a hit though I do hope Radhe hit its big, if not for Bhai, but at least to keep our exhibitors and theatres alive.

It is also worth stating SRK tried his best to run neck to neck with Salman, although the overseas advantage was nowhere as huge as it used to be, Shah Rukh still had a slight edge and with the occasional good film like Chennai Express, could break records as well. Yet the decline was clear, why it was here is not as easy to answer as it seems.

Which is why I was astonished to read comments about DDLJ being the worst thing that happened to SRK, that the film ruined his career as an actor and so on.  We all seem to look at Shah Rukh purely as an actor, he is of course the protégé of Barry John’s theatre group, an NSD alumnus, the most well trained actor in his generation and so on. But he is also the same upstart who declared at the very beginning of his career that he’d destroy Aamir. He’s a true blue capitalist, the perfect symbol of a post liberalization middle class New India, like Raj Kapoor was for the socialist 50s or Amitabh for the turbulent 70s. Furthermore, unlike the earlier two, his off screen ascent matched his on screen persona and that is what wins a lot of fans. Which other fan group brings in estimated net worths, Mumbai mansions and Dubai villas into the fan dick measuring wars? He always wanted to be the biggest star.

And DDLJ made him so, though he may not enjoy romance, he is grateful that it has made him what he is and gave him many of the friends he has today.  We may think he could do the work Aamir has done, but he truly doesn’t have the script sense Aamir does. There is literally no report ever of him listening to a full script and completely approving it, he’s drawn in straight away by the concept (he did Guddu, for God’s sake), which explains Ra.One, JHMS, Zero and so on. Without the popularity that DDLJ offered him, how could he have survived if the films he was working on with interesting directors like Mukul Anand, Ramesh Sippy, Ketan Mehta, and Mahesh Bhatt all flopped? Which actually did happen, in the same year as DDLJ’s release. In fact, between DDLJ and Rab Ne, he worked with directors from Mani Ratnam, Kamal Haasan, Santosh Sivan to Amol Palekar, Farhan Akhtar, Ashutosh Gowariker. Despite the failures of most of these films, he’s been able to carry on due to the success of his chick flick hits which gave the security for his more unconventional choices.

It is true that romantic superstars have a shorter shelf life in general, but then look at Salman’s period from 2010-2017, it’s just as long as SRK’s 2001-2008, so in fact Shah Rukh has made the romantic superstar last longer than anyone else. Yes it is a point, but there are others worth noting as well. But definitely his fall is no way similar to Rajesh Khanna, Khanna’s fall was as swift as his rise, it’s something we might never see again and more importantly, was there a movie in the 80s where Kaka was with a heroine and didn’t creep the hell out of you?

(SRK/Anushka=SRK/Juhi, great couple, friendly chemistry, not very successful movies)

Post 2008 was also the first season of IPL, where Khan came to be associated with the team KKR. He was the biggest face of the KKR brand and is even today, where RCB is referred to as Kohli’s team and CSK as Dhoni’s, KKR is still known as the team of Shah Rukh Khan. For a star who’d already spread himself thin, the continuous loss of his team hurt his brand equity significantly. But nothing hurt more than the year 2011, it had the hugely disappointing Ra.One, a film whose financing made him do Zor Ka Jhatka that made even his diehards cringe, a film whose hyper promotion led him to overexpose himself, a failure whose burden greatly weakened his star power and made him flare up and go for it against Shirish Kunder till he had to be dragged by Sanju Baba of all people. Don 2 didn’t really hurt, but didn’t help either. Yash Chopra’s ending to his film career turned out like the mess that most of his movie climaxes were. Apart from Chennai Express which genuinely worked, the back-to-back masalas like Happy New Year and Dilwale, which may actually have been the first time two movies of his coming back-to-back felt so much so the same and not so good either.

It seems after Dilwale, the audience literally lost all trust in Khan’s choices. It really hurt that his more unconventional choices suffered due to this, they may not have been good but were nowhere as bad as they were made out to be. I cannot claim to be privy to what exactly happens in someone’s head when they chose to do something, but this I would say, I wish that the original schedule of Happy New Year-Fan-Dilwale-Raees-Dear Zindagi had happened. It could have kept off the audience fatigue and might have even done a ’04 or ’07 again, albeit in a smaller scale. But it is what is, and to prove how audience trust had fallen, I’d quote an incident where a friend of mine had heard Phurr and went on a rant how SRK does this same shit since Lungi Dance, making a separate song with a famous singer and zero connection to the film, only for promotions, it’d happened with Sharabi, Tukur Tukur and Jabra Fan earlier. Yet he was wrong, the song was a crucial part of the film, but the timing was suspect. Shah Rukh seems to be in this phase where nothing seems right and everything goes wrong.

(Sentiments of many neutrals these days)

It’s a bit presumptuous for us to question and dissect our favorites’ choices, for what we merely observe from a distance, they live through every day. But a little outside perspective from someone who regularly parlays on the star dick measuring contests from the star’s side might be fresh.

So Shah Rukh, I make you my genie and want three big wishes from you: first about your film choices, I’ve managed to wade Aamir fans and their five consecutive all time grossers with the fact that only Raja Hindustani comes even close to DDLJ in footfalls. But then wading them away along with Bhai fans going on about Hum Aapke Hai Kaun and Bajrangi is getting harder, hope that rumored collaboration with Hirani, gives us SRKians a way to shut these fans up for once. But also, for the inner art lover, it would be lovely to see what he did with Dear Zindagi, do again for other good films, power a small film with stardom and earn goodwill in return. Although Mast with Mani Ratnam never happened, the cameo in Saathiya was still lovely to see and I hope Rocketry would be the beginning of such friendly cameos and scene stealer guest roles that Big B rocked in towards the latter part of his career. My second wish is that he’d give greater focus to his VFX division and technological ambitions, Zero and Fan were brilliant technical work and for a country where despite having the most of the VFX work outsourced here, the special effects of native films still suffer, so any step in improving the quality of VFX is appreciable and a worthy legacy. The third is not a wish, but a suggestion as the overseas record we fans so love to boast about is under challenge due to Dangal’s success in China. There is perhaps another new market that might be just as sweet as China was, and far less controversial too. Why not go after Indonesia, which is the sixth largest film market in the world? More importantly, one that luuuves Kuch Kuch Hota Hai? All this might be an insane overstatement, the fantasy of a fan tired of fighting, but when your star is the Raj who faced Baauji’s glare and made Simran’s dreams come true, all I can say is, Bas itna sa khwaab hai.

PS: Yashraj, enough celebrating DDLJ, announce the damn movie already!! Maybe that’s it, the season of romance is over and it’s better to shed all the baggage, go into a new direction and make DDLJ as surprising a blockbuster as HAHK and Raja Hindustanti are?