A blog on The Los Angeles Times called this man possibly “the biggest movie star in the world”. Estimated at a net worth of over half a billion American dollars, Shah Rukh Khan’s journey through superstardom, 26 years and still counting, is straight out of a film.
Popular Hindi cinema has seen many a male superstar. All of them captured the mass imagination. But it was Shah Rukh Khan who recreated superstardom by breaking down bit-by-bit the larger-than-life enigma of the movie star and making it accessible to the common man.
How is a star created? The movie star’s image is built over a stereotype. With Mr Bachchan, Vijay became eponymous with the ‘angry young man’, a man with a vendetta against the system dragged into the dark underbelly of crime, seeking revenge for injustices committed against his family. Even the flowing bell-bottoms became a trademark of his long-legged persona.
Rajesh Khanna too was the simple middle-class hero, unremarkable to look at, but oozing sentimentality, a symbol of the honest middle-class Indian. Raj Kapoor created his own public appeal of the endearing desi tramp, vis-à-vis Charlie Chaplin. These stars thus gained extraordinary cult status by repeatedly portraying these characters.
So what about King Khan? Like Kapoor, Khanna and Bachchan before him, Khan too, with his unconventional looks and thatch of funny hair, became typecast. In film after film, he played the flamboyant Raj or Rahul, the archetypal loverboy. He became synonymous with the urban/diasporic Indian. Khan’s signature arm stretch, even his specific laughter and dialogue delivery became as iconic as the man himself.
Yet, unlike his predecessors, Khan’s stardom went through a second stage of image construction. Not only did his boy-next-door image catapult him to superstardom, but the similar off-screen image that the star maintained further won hearts and fed into his stardom. Unlike stars before him, Khan created an off-screen image that was as regular, adorable, humorous and intelligent as his on-screen persona. Thus while Bachchan is held in awe, Khan has been held in adoration.
The king of romance has pulled down barriers between the movie star and the common man while becoming one of the richest men in the world. Far from ordinary!
However, for the past four years, the star has made movies, that, while grossing high at the box office, have earned him very little kudos otherwise. Even Khan fans, who religiously made it to the theatres, have come out, dejected by the lack of plot, the absence of a script and a near nonsensical nature of the films.
So what went wrong?
Unlike Salman Khan, whose audience belongs to a very specific social class, Shah Rukh’s appeal has been evenly distributed among the masses and the more educated audiences. So, while films like “Chennai Express”, “Happy New Year” and “Dilwale” might have targeted the mass audience, the so-called sophisticated section of the audience remained consistently disappointed. While Shah Rukh has repeatedly said in interviews that he is an entertainer, a large part of his fandom requires him to stop indulging in no-brainers, and do more sensible cinema.
So what happens when a film like, say, “Raees” releases? While critics had given it the thumbs up, portions of the audience, fans included, seemed sceptical. Yet, after a substantial period of time, this was a film with a meaningful script in place, a plot, albeit disjointed, and a distinct attempt at characterisation, despite relying heavily on the star’s screen presence to pull it through. And pull through he does! With the kohl-eyed, Pathani-suited Khan oozing charisma and sex appeal in every frame, “Raees” is SRK’s superstardom, devoid mannerisms, at its peak. Yet, the negative buzz on social media seemed endless, even while the movie was showing in theatres. So something doesn’t seem right! It seems even his fans are confused as to what they expect from their heartthrob of over two decades.
For the major part of his career, the star found his USP for all sections of his audience, churning out films that are crowd-pleasers. Now, at 52, he no longer fits the Raj/Rahul stereotype. Neither does doing a string of inane films help his now-at-crossroads stardom, especially with the ‘crème’ classes of his audience. Perhaps the star has been in his old shoes for far too long. And the audience has evolved with time, more than the star himself, who has only recently begun experimenting with roles. Hence, the dilemma.
While Salman, with new-found stardom at 50, and Aamir, have settled into their superstar and star-actor roles respectively, Shah Rukh’s indisputable stardom has suddenly become one bumpy ride. Will the audience love another done-to-death romantic stereotype? Seems unlikely. Do they love his anti-hero avatar? Not entirely. Will they welcome another brainless inanity? Not a chance. Can Shah Rukh bring back his “Chak De!” days? Not unless the script becomes the hero. Will the confused audience accept it if he really does another “Chak De!”? God only knows!
It seems then that the future of the ‘world’s biggest movie star’ lies in the hands of his muddled audience. For even with different kinds of roles, like in “Fan” and “Raees”, the star has failed to completely satisfy his audiences. His superstardom surely etched in history, we wish him luck in his new ventures like “Zero”. Here’s hoping as always with the inimitable Khan, “Picture abhi baaki hai mere dost!”