Long before Shah Rukh Khan became the world’s biggest star, he was a mascot for love. If you were curious about how love should feel, he was there for you. To love and lose, and find love again like Rahul (Kuch Kuch Hota Hai), to love forever like Raj Aryan (Mohabbatein), to love and never give up like Amarkant Verma (Dil Se), to love and err and grieve to death like Devdas – in a span of a few movies, Shah Rukh Khan embodied these characters like no one else could ever have.
For a teenager in the 1990s, matters of the heart were (nearly) everything. Love, desire, rebellion, heart-break and sacrifice – a middle-class childhood and an orthodox schooling had no room for any of that. Strange as it may sound, those emotions were available primarily on-screen, and no one expressed them with more intensity and tenderness than the characters that Shah Rukh Khan played. What those characters did in love was often irrational and sometimes implausible, as one would expect movies to be. But he made it okay to cry in love, the polar opposite of an uber-masculine notion of self that society and movies usually perpetuate. (This was back in the time when ‘masculine’ meant ‘male’ and we knew too little about what it meant structurally in society. Shah Rukh Khan made heartache normal. He created an alternate universe where love was all-absorbing. He made it normal to be vulnerable, and made being gentle and tender desirable. His characters made you want to be principled in love. Such was the power of his cinema.
Still, being a fan of Shah Rukh Khan was not easy. He wasn’t the most popular actor around, and many of my friends simply did not get the appeal. Fair enough. But how could I explain to them why those movies felt deeply personal? As you grow older and the romance fades, as it often does, movies about love can feel rather outlandish. But it is an influence that I realise shaped many of my interactions when I was young, and no matter how much I change as a person, I am able to look back and identify exactly what it meant at that time.
From Major Samar’s (Jab Tak Hai Jaan) intensity to Bauaa’s (Zero) cocky madness, there was a Shah Rukh character for every shade. Rizwan Khan’s (My Name is Khan) stubborn belief in love trumped his partner’s grief-propelled rage. To love with abandon, expecting nothing in return or to be helplessly in love where things spiral out of control. And Shah Rukh’s stories moved seamlessly between individual emotions and and love for one’s nation, sometimes cleverly weaving in both.
Love for your nation can motivate you to achieve the unthinkable – Shah Rukh Khan showed us how. Mohan Bhargav (Swades) and Kabir Khan (Chak De) overcame tremendous odds to prove their detractors wrong. They were also motivated by their undying belief that if they gave it their all, the nation would reciprocate in full measure. Love conquered all. Looking back, what probably was most salient was that Mohan and Kabir never relied on jingoism, never sought to overshadow the contributions of others working by their side, were appropriately righteous in telling off people who tried to detract from the teams they were assembling, but were also respectful of the personal struggles others were going through. In Shah Rukh’s stories, the ultimate victories were predicated on the success of a collective that represented the spectrum of Indian society.
As one of the many millions who have only watched Shah Rukh Khan on-screen, it is very important to separate the star from the actor, and the characters from the man. Just as it is important to always remember that a movie is not real life. But if Shah Rukh Khan played a character every now and then in his off-screen public interactions, it also seems likely that on more occasions, an element of the man he is showed through on-screen. Watch the cameo in ‘Luck by Chance’ where he plays himself and warns a new actor about the perils of stardom. More prominently, take most of the film, Fan. Aryan Khanna, the superstar was Shah Rukh himself. These characters reflected a basic honesty about himself and revealed the insecurities that pervade his profession. No other actor I have watched on screen displays this level of self-awareness and intelligence. If there is a joke about Shah Rukh, you can be sure he is in on it.
With limited access to satellite television and the internet, we first got to know Shah Rukh Khan mainly through his movies. It wouldn’t be until later that the interviews, the self-deprecating wit and the easy confidence made a lasting impression. His politics too hit all the right notes, as he seemed fully aware of his identity, what it meant to him and how political interests were likely to want to use it. One can dismiss stardom as something carefully cultivated, but that could never diminish his allure. The allure of Shah Rukh Khan was the connection he had with those who loved him, the lives he had had such an enormous influence on.
This is undoubtedly what makes Shah Rukh Khan India’s biggest movie star. His influence on India’s pop culture, the values he embodies, and his carefully-considered politics makes him an outsized target for all those who hate his (and our) idea of India. Patriotism now has to be worn on the sleeve and is valid only when deployed in service of the ruling establishment. This is the demand being made of every section of society today, and of every profession. In a New India that scoffs at emotions as a weakness, and trades in sentiments only when it leads to a call to violence, the idea of love binding people can seem outmoded. Instead, we are being taught, at every step, that it pays to divide people.
And indeed as recent events have shown, the state machinery and a pliant media can turn on even those who we think are socially well-connected and powerful. Whether the assault on Shah Rukh Khan is a message to his profession or to fellow Muslims in India, only time will tell. But Shah Rukh Khan’s dignity shone through even in this hour of crisis as we could see from the images and videos on television.
We should have learnt by now that hate can only take us backwards. So as Major Ram says to Raghavan in Main Hoon Na, why not give love a chance? What are we afraid of?