Dear Shah Rukh Khan, How Many Times Did You Stop Yourself from Rolling Your Eyes at David Letterman?

Pop Culture

Dear Shah Rukh Khan, How Many Times Did You Stop Yourself from Rolling Your Eyes at David Letterman?

Illustration: Siddhakanksha Mishra

I’ll acknowledge I’m late to the David Letterman-Shah Rukh Khan party. It took me several days to decide if I wanted to attend at all, given the profound disappointment many of us felt on looking at the selfie-that-must-not-be-named recently. I’m the biggest Shah Rukh Khan fan I know, and I can almost always be counted on to leap to his defence for most questionable choices – I have even ferociously defended Ra.One on many, many occasions — but this was a particularly difficult pill to swallow. For five days, I sulked in what I call my silent satyagraha. Sure, my act of protest was not going to stop anyone from doing anything, but is there anything sadder than a star losing one of their most devoted fans as a matter of principle? On day six, I gave in to my curiosity, given how polarised the reactions to the episode were. Less than halfway through the one-hour episode, I knew this party was a mistake. You know, the kind where the guest of honour arrives before the host and then everyone just stands around awkwardly trying to pretend things are peachy, but they’re really, really not? The Shah Rukh Khan episode of My Next Guest Needs No Introduction was the Netflix version of that. The host, the David Letterman, a lion figure within the American talk-show canon, was unprepared, uninteresting, and mostly, just absent from. You can’t help but wonder what happened to the guy who Cher declared was “an asshole” on national TV, got Madonna to offer him her panties on air, and had a poignant discussion with Warren Zevon about death and dying after the American singer-songwriter was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer? It’s true that My Next Guest has never, perhaps intentionally, tried to be as hair-raising or havoc-inducing as Late Night and Late Show, yet the SRK episode was such a horribly missed opportunity. It’s tough not to feel a little defrauded — on SRK’s behalf. It’s ironic that the show that lets down the man and the self-admitted myth that is Shah Rukh Khan can, in spirit, be translated to naam toh suna hoga. 

One of the joys of watching Khan being interviewed is the cheeky, self-effacing manner in which he negotiates his very particular kind of popularity. He has failed more times, and more spectacularly, than any other man in his position, and yet he continues to inspire a level of love and devotion that defies logic. He is interesting to speak to, not for his success, but for his free acknowledgement of the anomaly that it is. He’s also one of the few in Bollywood who has perfected the delicate dance between humility and cockiness. He can grin and dimple while confirming he’s been credited with having “3.5 billion fans” in the same sentence that he says, “I realised I’m not half as talented as I think I am.” And you’ll want to hug him for both. SRK’s willingness to be riffed on and engage in a witty, verbal duel with makes him a guest that should be any interviewer’s wet dream, especially in a country like India, where superstars mostly expect to be treated with indulgent deference and kid gloves. And yet, instead of taking him up on his offer, Letterman spends the major part of the hour oohing and aahing about the crowds that throng outside his home and the magnitude of his celebrity and stardom. It’s almost painful to watch two such interesting men spend an hour discussing recipes, among other equally inane things. Watching David Letterman beating chicken and pretending (badly) to slice his finger in Khan’s kitchen has to be one of the most ridiculous moments in the host’s talk-show legacy. At one point, I could have sworn even SRK wanted to roll his eyes at the proceedings. 

It’s ironic that the show that lets down the man and the self-admitted myth that is Shah Rukh Khan can, in spirit, be translated to naam toh suna hoga.

I believe SRK tried to save Letterman from himself. A better-prepared — or more interested — host would have recognised the openings. At one point SRK recites lines from his childhood portrayal of a member of Hanuman’s sena in local productions of the Ramlila. Watching the country’s biggest star, who also happens to be Muslim, voluntarily mouthing dialogues from the Ramayana at a time when religious fault lines are threatening the very idea of India, was both a fraught and moving moment. And yet Letterman lets it whistle by carelessly. Either he doesn’t know, or doesn’t care, and I can’t decide which is worse, honestly. 

At another point, Khan makes a dig about on-air, public apologies, ostensibly alluding to Letterman’s own decision to admit on camera that he had “had sex with women who work for me on the show” and “done terrible, creepy stuff” in 2009, after a former employee’s boyfriend tried to blackmail Letterman into giving him hush-money. It could have been a great moment to launch into an exploration about entertainment’s big exploitation (of women) problem, but no, that was not to be either. Instead, Letterman struggles to get DDLJ right, and asks aloud which country SRK’s father fought against for India’s freedom. It’s embarrassing and cringe-worthy, and I’m amazed the audience didn’t immediately break into a chorus of boos. 

The episode is little more than a montage of the most cliched, gratuitous shots of India, cobbled together with desi music — I would not at all be surprised if I was told that the music for the episode was the stuff retrieved from AR Rahman’s rejected pile — while a rich, white guy enjoys his moments of anonymity. Seriously, why would anyone want to see David Letterman wandering around a flower market in Mumbai or playing cricket in a show about Shah Rukh Khan? Which makes me wonder, who was this episode really made for? As someone who until very recently belonged to SRK’s (debatable) 3.5 billion-strong fan following, I can say with reasonable confidence that it most certainly wasn’t for us.