This year marks the Badshaah’s 30-year reign in Bollywood. BALAJI VITTAL tries to decode the secret of SRK’s frenzied fandom across two generations and counting
Back in the 1990s, I remember overhearing two teenage girls discussing his lips and his hairless chest. A magazine poll in 2007 named him the sexiest man in Asia. But was his success only about his sex appeal?
In his early days he was a thinking actor The Filmfare Award for the Best Debut actor for Deewana was not a fluke. SRK had brought in fresh, bouncy energy to the role similar to Shammi Kapoor’s in his turning point Tumsa Nahi Dekha (1957). Khan had done his homework and identified what would work. The outsider in Bombay had wedged his way in—both into the industry and into people’s imagination. After two duds in Dil Aashna Hai and Chamatkar, he ventured into a space which no mainstream hero had dared step into, a mentally ill person. Baazigar was a revenge saga, the storyline not unlike Yaadon ki Baaraat, Zanjeer or Trishul but with a difference. The anti-heroes of the three last named films had their morality streak intact, taking care not to let innocents get hurt. But SRK’s Ajay in Baazigar went after the innocents on his path to revenge. In Darr and Anjaam he went a step further, playing the OYM (Obsessed Young Man). Equal credit to SRK and the script writers for lacing these characters with a certain vulnerability and helplessness. It was well thought out. And it worked.
He invested in partnerships SRK built deep associations with film makers Yash Chopra, Aditya Chopra, Karan Johar, and with production houses like YRF, Dharma Productions and Abbas- Mustaan. This included personal friendships with Farah Khan and Karan Johar. When two professionals connect at a personal level the result is greater than the sum of two as evidenced in Darr and Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (DDLJ), continuing through Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, Main Hoon Na and Om Shanti Om.
The Raj/Rahul brand SRK’s Raj Malhotra in DDLJ was a bratty version of Richie Rich. The Young Turks in a new IT-conscious India loved the idea of unshackling themselves the way Raj did. In the second half of the film, Raj suddenly turns into an obedient boy, and every family wanted to have someone like him in the household. DDLJ running for 1,000 weeks in a theatre is only a statistic. The bigger story is about how an expanding diaspora and a have-wealth-will-flaunt-it in the 20s-40s age group found Raj Malhotra their brand ambassador. SRK’s Raj took root in the individual and collective imagination over the years. His relevance grew.
The entrepreneur Khan’s shrewd business sense in investing in Red Chillies, and Kolkata Knight Riders IPL cricket franchise transformed his image from an actor to an entrepreneur, rising above comparison with peer actors.
Top class production values Even his string of trashy films like Chennai Express, Happy New Year and Dilwale made for breathtaking visual treats as SRK took them to locales like Dubai and Europe. They came in for one viewing at least and the films made money.
Bollywood’s Mr. Clean Apart from rumours of his link-up with Priyanka Chopra in 2010-11, Shah Rukh Khan has been a onewoman man. His personal integrity and respect for women had him put the female lead’s name ahead of the male lead in film credits. Little wonder that his female fan following has been rock-solid and generational with the hysterically shrieking girls of the 1990s passing on the SRK ‘bug’ to their daughters. SRK has been a staunch family man, supporting his kids during his son’s drug case, or during the hustle at Wankhede stadium in Mumbai that involved his daughter. As a businessman, he was infinitely patient with his cricket team through its first four underperforming years, putting an arm around their shoulders and assuring them of his personal support. The team loved him and tried even harder.
(Balaji Vittal was awarded the National Film Award by the President of India in 2012 for the best book on cinema co-authored with Anirudha Bhattacharjee. He is also a public speaker, having hosted numerous talk shows at major literary festivals and public events in India, Dubai, Singapore and London.)