By Humaira Ansari Oct. 30, 2021
Shahrukh Khan may have been allowed a breather, but the sense of zen around him has been pierced. This push and subsequent fall has broken something in me, perhaps in all of us. It is indicative of relationship countries share with their most celebrated icons.
Last Thursday, as part of my research for a food story, I was busy envying a Delhi YouTuber savour platefuls of piping hot, ginger-laden nihari when a pop-up notified me of Shah Rukh Khan’s visit to Mumbai’s Arthur Road jail. It was the superstar’s first meeting with his son, Aryan in person, and in prison, since October 3.
Of all the roles I had seen the actor ace, I wasn’t ready to see my childhood crush as a crushed father, let down by a people whose unfaltering veneration had dissipated into something embarrassingly voyeuristic and judgmental. All of that overnight. I had to look no further than clickbait-y thumbnails, urging me to take a peek at Shah Rukh’s first public appearance since Aryan’s arrest: Hair tied, mask up, eyes and emotions veiled behind trendy sunglasses, humility intact.
Historically, SRK’s been superb for SEO. Padma Shri, France’s highest civilian honour, and what not. He’s always made news. Even though I’m no longer a diehard fan like I was when I was younger, to see him become the news in this manner broke something inside me. It all felt dizzyingly unreal. Like a movie. One which he did not want to be in but had forcibly been cast.
Even though I’m no longer a diehard fan like I was when I was younger, to see him become the news in this manner broke something inside me.
SRK has always also been ‘my kinda’ Khan. Charming, witty, suave, and blessed with crater-sized dimples. To the world he might be the Baadshah of Bollywood but for me he is the King of Repartee. I find his quips more alluring than all else. It’s the reason I re-watch his interviews more than his many blockbusters. It’s the reason I admire him as a person more than a star.
I couldn’t work, eat, read or rest much after those news tickers came whooshing in. I was fidgety; furious even. At fans, trolls, that elusive ‘system’, and our double standards at holding celebrities to higher moral ground. My stomach churned and my mind raced. It was only after an hour or so that I mustered some courage and hit play.
I needed closure to get through my day, to plough through a billion other nihari videos that lay in wait. So, on my cell phone screen, I finally saw Shah Rukh, sandwiched. Wading through a sea of media-persons, inmate’s families, cops, lovers, lovers-turned-haters, fence-sitters. In a moment of great personal anguish, he handled himself like every bit of the hero we, as a nation, have collectively made him out to be; acknowledging fans with folded hands, despite the ensuing frenzy his sheer celebrity there had set off.
To the world he might be the Baadshah of Bollywood but for me he is the King of Repartee.
In that short but weighty walk from and back to his car, I couldn’t help but think what (all) the superstar must have thought or felt. As an actor, as a human, and as the father of a son who was dragged through the mud, before being belatedly, bailed by the Bombay High Court. Maybe he was enraged, hurt and dejected. Perhaps he wished for the circus to end magically. Perhaps he even reprimanded himself over what he could have done, not done, or done differently for it to never have begun in the first place. Probably he felt all of it. Or none of it. We can only but presume. Because he is such a fine actor, he may have led us to believe what we interpreted.
I was an impressionable, pliant child, all of 9, when DDLJ released. So when Raj opened his arms wide enough to fit a pachyderm and beckoned all and sundry, flashing his trademark grin to “Come fall in love”, I considered it my sacred duty to do so. So did half of my girlfriends in the building, school, and neighbourhood.
For the next decade or so, whether he romanced as Raj, Rahul or Aryan, led the underdogs to unbelievable victories as Mohan or Kabir; mourned, smoked and got sloshed with panache as Devdas, he had my heart. Shah Rukh could act, dance, romance, play hero and villain with an enviable flourish. A trait symbolic of a pedigree that few actors before his time had possessed.
When I was old enough to detect the misogyny of the 90s and early 2000s Bollywood, I watched all movies, including Shah Rukh’s, with great caution. I saw them, yes. But by now my mind was trained to see through the patriarchy at play, and detest the deep-rootedness of gender disparity, from scripts to pay cheques.
It has to be my soft spot for Shah Rukh that I secretly appreciated him when he let his name feature after the film’s leading lady. I knew, if anything, this was tokenism at best… but still for all purposes, SRK was my last real Bollywood hero and perhaps that’s why seeing an icon of his stature at his most vulnerable makes me utterly despondent, inside out. If he doesn’t have this country’s respect, what chance have we got, really?
If he doesn’t have this country’s respect, what chance have we got, really?
On my way to my permanent residence in Mumbai, I have crossed Arthur Road jail often. It’s barely three kilometres. Had I been in Mumbai when news of Shah Rukh’s visit broke, I, too, would have dashed to Arthur. But not to pry or, least of all, probe the superstar with banal questions like “Aapki bete se kya baat hui, Shah Rukh?”
At most, I would have parked myself at a respectful vantage point, maybe on some nearby terrace, close enough yet cognisant of the moment’s fragility, and blown him a dozen air kisses. PDA ain’t my thing, but maybe I would have offered him the farthest socially distanced jaadu ki jhappi anybody has ever given anyone. He deserves one. Too many, in fact. The grit with which he’s powering through has made one thing absolutely clear: SRK is not just any superstar, but a rock solid one. And the beauty of a shooting star, wherever you might be, however fleetingly it might dazzle your patch of sky, is that, it will make you smile. But to see one brought down… that hurts. Including everyone who was looking up to it the whole time!
Previously with Hindustan Times and National Geographic Traveller India, Humaira Ansari is now an independent journalist. But actually she’s just a certified Nihari-lover who has a beef with people who have a beef with the star ingredient in most steaks.