Thursday, December 20, 2018

Hero to Zero: The Phases of Shah Rukh Khan

This post was written for FirstPost and published here. It was somewhat edited, hence sharing the long piece on the 'site which doesn't edit'. 

When Shah Rukh Khan zoomed on to the big screen riding a motorcycle and singing a hit song in Deewana, he was challenging a hegemony that was created nearly twenty years back. He would become a ‘lover’ – arguably Hindi cinema’s most successful lover, breaking the formula of the ‘Angry Young Man’ created by Salim-Javed and Amitabh Bachchan in the early 1970s. It is to this trio’s credit that the Angry Young Man image transcended Salim-Javed’s partnership and Bachchan’s superstardom. All of 1980s and a big part of 1990s had heroes – Sanjay Dutt, Jackie Shroff, Sunny Deol, Anil Kapoor and even the ageing Dharmendra and Vinod Khanna – playing versions of Bachchan’s original act, the vigilante taking revenge for father’s death and/or sister’s dishonour.
Shah Rukh Khan changed that. He was the lover boy who turned the tide against the action hero. Of course, it can be said that Aamir Khan and Salman Khan came before him as chocolate boy heroes but neither of them matched SRK’s early successes or his virtuosity in playing a wide range of lovers. And his career can be neatly divided into segments where a certain kind of lover type has dominated, and each kind has brought him great success. Almost always.

His opening act was that of a ‘cute and (sometimes) bumbling lover’ – the type with a disarming charm with a raw edge. The Deewana character was a bit of a Hindi film stereotype – rebelling against parents for a quasi-forbidden love – but Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman was a guy who was knocking glasses off tables and creating minor messes that women found irresistible. Be it the less successful Chamatkar or the super-successful Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa, the early SRK was tripping over himself and tumbling into women’s hearts. In Maya Memsaab, he was the charming youngster the older woman took on as a lover and the lovemaking had an energetic childishness that the character was displaying otherwise as well.

Almost intertwined with the bumbling lover was his ‘crazed lover’ phase – a character not seen before or since. Baazigar, Darr and Anjaam formed the trilogy that catapulted into stardom and audience reaction went from gasping surprise to starry-eyed adulation to eye-covering disgust! Much has been said about these roles but it is interesting to see how well SRK positioned them in his career to wrest the spotlight away from star sons, actors backed by bigger production houses or those considered more talented. This had an implication on the next set of films he did, all of which were with biggest directors of Hindi cinema. Rakesh Roshan, Ramesh Sippy, Subhash Ghai and Mahesh Bhatt all worked with him in the year after these films.

And that gave him the launchpad for his next phase – where he was the quintessential ‘lover boy’. The one known for his signature pose with extended arms, dimpled smile and tilted head. This phase officially kicked off with Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, an iconic film that married sanskar with subdued sexuality and pretty much broke the cash registers at multiplexes abroad. He perfected this with Dil To Pagal Hai, Pardes and Dil Se… before hitting the partnership that would establish SRK as one of the greatest heroes of Hindi cinema. Karan Johar and SRK did Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham and Kal Ho Naa Ho in a five-year period, films which – along with Mohabbatein in the same period – made him the face of the modern romantic hero. His clothes, his mannerisms, his songs, his style were all imprinted on the Indian – in India and abroad.
(While I mentioned only a few films here, his other films in the period after DDLJ were mostly in the ‘lover boy’ mould except for a couple of action films.)

Kal Ho Naa Ho was an interesting transition point because this is the point where SRK turned into his next persona – the ‘mature lover’. While he had played the older sibling in even K3G, Kal Ho Naa Ho had him in a role where he was lover and a philosopher rolled into one, dispensing advice and murmuring sweet nothings at the same time. Be it the older brother in Main Hoon Na (which also had shades of his bumbling hero phase) or the suave scientist of Swades and old convict of Veer Zaara, we had a ‘mature lover’ that we continue to see even today. If we keep aside the two Don films and Ra.One (the action hero outings), every other film of his from the mid-2000s has shown him with a mature or jaded side.
Fan’s Gaurav Chandna was a youngster but he was really a fan of the much older Aryan Khanna, nearly a SRK alter-ego. Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi’s ritzy Raj had a sedate Surinder while SRK’s character in Chennai Express declared himself to be 40+. 
(And fans have pointed out already that it is a bit of a travesty to put Kal Ho Naa Ho in the same bucket as Chennai Express or Happy New Year!)

Which brings us to the observation that this phase of his has lasted way too long. While the other phases – with very different characterisations – lasted less than five years each, we are seeing the ‘mature lover’ for more than a decade now. While there have been attempts to get in different shades, the SRK who pushed the envelope in characterisations is sorely missing. And so is the box-office fire. Or the gushing critical reception.
We were supposed to get a debauched older man in Jab Harry Met Sejal but the character turned out to be sweet and safe guy, befitting a superstar but not the edgy SRK we probably wanted.
Zero gives us hints of a craziness. A dwarf in love with a paraplegic scientist. How edgy will SRK get? How did the scientist become a paraplegic? Did someone throw her off a building? Did the dwarf?

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