Is the Myth of Shah Rukh Khan All That is Left of SRK?


Is the Myth of Shah Rukh Khan All That is Left of SRK?

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

There is really no reason to be a Shah Rukh Khan fan in 2019. Sure, he’s charming as hell, those dimples are contagious, his self-deprecating punchlines are always funny, and he says the kind of things that can make you believe that he is speaking only to and for you. But these things were perhaps more novel a couple of decades ago. Now they’re more of a necessary accompaniment – a side dish of sorts – expected out of someone who has been in the business of selling Shah Rukh Khan for the last 30 years. His enduring charm and wit are also things that have very little bearing on the fate of Shah Rukh Khan, the actor.

In the last two years, none of SRK’s films have garnered the box-office cred that is expected from a superstar who has an inextricable hold over 3.5 billion hearts. His last outing, Anand L Rai’s Zero – one of the worst films of the decade – hit the screens a year ago. The pointlessness of his turn in the film, in which the actor shrank in size but continued to act larger than life, was only a notch lower than his patent unbearableness in Imitiaz Ali’s When Harry Met Sejal. And if I had a choice, I’d personally like to forget SRK in Raees and Dilwale – two misfires that underline the ageing actor’s desperation to resurrect his superstardom without much thought.

To confess being a Shah Rukh Khan fan in this day then, is to choose not to move on. It is to go out of your way to find a silver lining – like noticing the way the white shirt he wears all through Jab Harry Met Sejal agrees with him or marvelling at the surprising restraint he brought to his role in Dear Zindagi. The implications of this disconnect, between blindly loving an actor whose films now rarely have the very reasons that make him this likeable, came to a head when SRK made an appearance on David Letterman’s Netflix show last week.

Khan was the first Indian actor to appear on My Next Guest Needs No Introduction, an informal chat show where Letterman has previously dissected the lives of Barack Obama, Tina Fey, and Kanye West. For the SRK episode (the actor is introduced as the “biggest star in the world”), Letterman moved away from script. Instead of merely sitting with his guest for 40 minutes, Letterman chose to experiment with the format – the interview was interspersed with snippets of Letterman’s visit to Mumbai and Mannat, Khan’s palatial bungalow in the city. It’s a weirdly disjointed, terribly structured, and culturally too wide-eyed an episode that does a disservice to Shah Rukh Khan’s magnetism. But even then, chances are that your eyes were glued to the screen, seeking out typical SRK moments. To be fair, the actor alone made the episode sing, towering over his host: My personal favourite was the moment in SRK’s kitchen when he rattles off instructions to Letterman on cutting chicken and refuses to validate his acting. “The performance fell short,” he half-joked.

To confess being a Shah Rukh Khan fan in this day then, is to choose not to move on.

But the real revelation came midway through the episode when SRK said something that can be read as an admission as well as an explanation. “I always tell everyone that I am an employee of the myth of Shah Rukh Khan,” he offered when Letterman prodded him about his superstar status. The actor’s casual, joking delivery ensures this information is disguised as a throwaway line that naturally elicits laughs from an audience who hang onto his every word and gesture. But dig only a little further and you can see the anxieties of a star whose purpose as an actor is diminishing. Worse, it seems to be a tragedy of his own making.

Even when the actor doesn’t mean to serve the myth of Shah Rukh Khan, he ends up indulging in it: Take for instance, that Letterman rejigged the format of his own show for the first time to accommodate SRK only because his guest is none other than the guy whose house witnesses a massive stampede at least twice annually. Or SRK betraying a tendency to unnecessarily take up challenging roles only to live up to the idea the world has of him, but refusing to go all in, because he also needs to save face as Shah Rukh Khan.

It’s why SRK wasn’t focusing only on playing a four-foot Bauaa Singh in Zero; instead, Bauua Singh was made to tailor-fit him, so an obsession with Bollywood is invented and Bauua gets to spread his arms exactly like Shah Rukh Khan. This precise baggage is what the actor invariably inserts into all of his outings (Jab Harry Met Sejal is essentially an alternate version of Dilwale Dulhaniye Le Jayenge), self-sabotaging his characters, making them even less believable. In that sense, there is arguably no other mainstream Hindi actor who has become a prisoner of his own brand, in quite the same way as Shah Rukh Khan.

A common defence of the almost indefensible failings of SRK’s recent film choices is that the world has too many expectations of him. We want him to simultaneously entertain us, serenade us, as well as retain the intelligence he displays off-screen. It’s an accurate assessment. Except, of late, it also feels that it is exactly these expectations that we unknowingly bestow on him that justify his continued existence in Bollywood.

There is arguably no other mainstream Hindi actor who has become a prisoner of his own brand, in quite the same way as Shah Rukh Khan.

The myth of Shah Rukh Khan is, in many ways, all that is left of him. But last year, Zero’s colossal failure seemed to shake something fundamental. The film after all, was premised on milking the myth of Shah Rukh Khan playing someone who was far-removed from him. The complexities of the role was merely incidental. Yet, its rejection is probably proof that this myth – making up a version of what we want SRK to be in our heads to cope with the disappointment of who he is on screen – might just have an expiry date.

Today, there’s no word on when SRK will next make an appearance on the big screen – he has already dropped out of the ambitious Rakesh Sharma biopic and is yet to sign another film. But if this is all there is to being a SRK fan, one thing feels certain: From here on, every SRK performance will continue to be way better in our imagination than how it eventually unfolds on screen.