By Aditi Saxton Apr. 14, 2016
On the eve of the release of Fan, Shah Rukh Khan's tribute to his own fame and fortune, we meet the star with the larger-than-life persona. And discover that he is just like us.
Aminute-long trailer for Shah Rukh Khan’s Raees drops on the eve of Eid 2015. There he strides, a Muslim bootlegger, through what might just be the 2002 Godhra riots, surma Bhopali and a flash of fire in his eyes. It’s a second coming, leaving us wanting and wanton. In just a minute, Shah Rukh Khan commandeers the kind of veneration, formerly reserved, well, for him. But a former self.
In the Khan triad, Salman is slotted as socialist Bhai, Aamir is the self-appointed messiah of satya, and then there’s the king, our Badshah Khan. He turned 50 last year and the birthday came with back-presents for us. Dilwale – the reunion of the original rab-bani jodi, his first film under the Yash Raj banner since the death of his mentor – came out this past December only to be met by reviews that compared it to a Windows screensaver. But now there’s Fan, directed by Maneesh Sharma, on the threshold of release – on its heels will be Raees slated for a July opening. From the ashes of a creatively barren year, these are the stirrings of a phoenix rising.
Reincarnating without dying is a tall order, but if anyone can do it, Shah Rukh Can, like the second print-run of his best-selling authorised biography, by journalist and close pal Mushtaq Shiekh, claims. Shah Rukh’s swaggering braggadocio is unchanged, reminiscent of another “angry young man” who can’t, and won’t give up the ghost. At the Tehelka THiNK festival in 2012, he spent three hours chatting with me for a story (that wasn’t to be): “People sit and give you details, this is how I’ve prepared for the role. It’s like asking how Sachin prepares for his century. However great the actor, all I remember is… ‘Rishtey main to hum tumhare baap lagte hai.’” He’s talking about technique, but if you missed it, he’s also equating himself with two living legends.
Karan Johar in an interview with The Big Indian Picture said Shah Rukh spent over a year studying the symptoms of Asperger’s syndrome for My Name Is Khan, modelled his mannerisms on a man named Chris in London, whom he tracked for a chunk of time. “I’ve never harped about the fact that I went into a full-blown depression after that film. I’ve never once said after Asoka, that I believe only the dead have seen the end of war. It touched me, it changed my life. But you don’t need to know that.” When pressed, he’ll confess he began a regimen of drinking in the mornings to enter character for Devdas.
“Who wants to know about the craft? You just want to see the art. I don’t want to tell you how serious I am! I’m extremely serious. I’m a better actor than anyone in this fucking world! I know it and I don’t need to tell anyone. I can act better, I can walk better, I can talk better, I can romance a girl and I can fight, I can be negative, I can fly like a superhero in tights!”
He got a standing O, at THiNK; a guest described it as the sound of panties being ripped off, across the packed hall. When she tells Shah Rukh this, he asks if he’s allowed an up-skirt view.
There’s no passive way to watch Shah Rukh Khan, his stardom demands an active, reciprocal performance. Even those who are disdainful and dismissive feel obliged to act out their attitude, wear it on a cocked eyebrow, or shrug it off a shoulder.
Anyone privy to his deepest thoughts – and that’s at least 19 million of us following him on Twitter – knows that he really, really cares about what we think of him. The oft-expressed OTT gratitude for our love is constantly duking it out with a disavowal of his fame, a tired plea to be left the hell alone. “I need to make you happy. Do I make you happy? That’s my job,” he asks me earnestly.
Khan’s equation is easy to follow, that fame is a deal with the devil, and occasionally the mask melts in that hellfire but he is unapologetic about the most damning criticism levelled at him – that he is a sell-out.
This stewardship of his own image is very important to him. But the tired trope of his enigma, fodder for fashion glossies and twopenny tabloids alike, occasionally bucks and rears. “I genuinely believe I’ve sold my soul for a million dollars and a lot of people take advantage of that, and write what they want to and say what they have to. What can I do? Impeach them? Sue them? There’s nothing I can do. So once or twice in a year, all this builds up and comes out on a cricket ground or on my friends who have husbands. And I don’t beat them up because I’m aggressive; I call it ‘beat sense into the mother fucker.’ So please, please if you don’t understand, please don’t speak about it! I’m really sorry because that physical outburst, now that I’m a big star, leads to ‘How could Shah Rukh do this, he’s an icon?’”
His equation is easy to follow, that fame is a deal with the devil, and occasionally the mask melts in that hellfire but he is unapologetic about the most damning criticism levelled at him – that he is a sell-out. The crushing poverty of his early years is the dime on which his flagrant materialism turns. It’s mean-spirited to dig too deeply and so, as a late career defence, it’s unassailable.
As a child, his father took him to a traffic roundabout, and told him he was watching a movie. He didn’t know enough to feel cheated until years later, when the incident had already passed into fond memory. “The only way that I can be better than my parents were to me, is by being longer with my children.”
Revisionist histories are a privilege of age, and Shah Rukh is now at the age his parents were when they passed away. Son AbRam has become a big part of his story, the surrogacy shielded as a private, personal decision, but its outcome showcased triumphantly. “My parents died. I had nothing. I got lucky. I am one in a billion. Just because it happened to me, will it happen to you? It won’t! Survive first. This is not practical, it’s not pragmatic. It is life. If you don’t survive, if you’re a fucking dinosaur, you’ve done nothing for evolution – you’re gone. Survive first.”
As mid-life stock-taking (he fully intends to power through, dancing and romancing until he’s a hundred, “You’ll have to throw me out, push me off the cliff on a wheelchair”), what Shah Rukh hopes to bequeath his kids is his own longevity, a parental presence in their life, which he still feels the loss of, like a phantom limb. He also grapples with the cost of his success a good deal. “It’s all futile if people give you lectures on success. All I want to say to them is try to do it all over. Do exactly what you did and make it happen. So success is never a good teacher. Neither is failure. But it is a better (pause) experience than success. I can’t pass on my success to my son.”
His message is undercut by the fact that this is the thrust of many lectures on success. As I rib him, he smiles in acknowledgement, stubs his cigarette carefully out, and repeats Beckett’s aphorism, “Fail better.”
Sachin retired, because age tells. Youth is at least as revered in Bollywood, but it need only be skin deep. SRK still bends a suit better than Beckham. I planned, but somehow forgot to note how high the stacked heel is, on his pair of burnished, burgundy boots. No matter how old he is, the man looks distractingly good. I don’t dare tell him that but he’s SRK, he picks it up. “Lady Gaga, this 25-year-old little girl, half my age, said to me, I never let anyone know what I look like. The day my art is not good enough, I want to be rejected. I don’t want to be remembered. I want to go back to New York and make pasta for my dad.”
It’s good a story to tell. Its’ also good to know he’s not above the occasional name drop. Turns out, stars, they’re just like us.