Shah Rukh Khan’s love story with India, decoded through his films

25 June, 2022
Shah Rukh Khan’s love story with India, decoded through his films
Shah Rukh broke into Bollywood as India became liberalised, his DDLJ years signify a new risk-averse India’s rise and the last decade has him, and us, finding our feet in a quickly-changing world. So, which is your favourite SRK movie?

Shah Rukh Khan remains one of the few people in India who needs no introduction. The boy-next-door from Delhi who became a mega, mega star. The man who has reigned over Bollywood – the core of the country’s soft power – for decades now. The actor who has starred in self-reverential movies, and charmed us with his self-deprecating humour and razor-sharp wit. A Muslim in a Hindu-majority nation whose stardom is all-inclusive. A man whose story mirrors that of the country – from the fledgling neo-liberalisation days to the changing political and cultural values of today amid the rise of nationalism.

As Shah Rukh completes 30 years in the Hindi film industry, Deewana came out three decades ago to the day, we revisit some of our favourite films of the star and how they mirrored our lives and dreams. They are in no particular order.

Grey was a colour Bollywood heroes stayed away from in the 90s. Like the colour of the shoes and trousers preferred by many leading actors of the day – they liked their roles sparkling white (The Nirma girl – another icon from back in the day – would have been proud). Imagine a country’s surprise when TV’s favourite pin-up boy Shah Rukh Khan chose a role where he got to throw women off buildings, and plan and plot against the girl he was in love with! He not only embraced grey, he wallowed in it (Darr and Anjaam were a twinkle in their makers eyes till then). But India, ever so clear about the lines its filmi heroes should never cross, just couldn’t look away from this good-boy-gone-bad.

We didn’t know it yet but it was the beginning of a lifelong relationship – there will be some heartbreaks along the way, but love’s love, you know. Maybe what appealed to us back then was that he was ready to take risks. In many ways, his story would run parallel with that of a freshly liberalised India and its new generation who was no longer risk-averse. Indians, especially its burgeoning middle-class, happy to live amid its limited means for so long, wanted the fruits of capitalism. Shah Rukh — brash, young and not afraid to say it — was its new mascot. We were a match made in heaven.

Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa
In his 30 successful years in the industry, superstar Shah Rukh Khan has done a variety of films. Right from his initial days up until his last outing (Zero in 2018), the actor has been open about experimenting with his characters. One early ‘experiment’ was perhaps playing a so-called ‘loser’ like figure in the 1994 Kundan Shah directorial Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa.

The innocence with which SRK portrayed Sunil probably had a lot to do with his own lack of experience in Hindi cinema at the time (he was only two years old in the business then). There was a sweetness, a rawness to Sunil which made his bad choices seem like honest mistakes. It was hard not to side with him, or to root for him to get the girl (who, spoiler alert, he doesn’t end up with). Sunil was a different kind of hero in a different kind of film, especially for Bollywood. It was not your run-of-the-mill romantic comedy with a predictable end, nor was it an actioner where we saw the main man beat up the bad guy.

The treatment of its protagonist, and the effortlessness with which Shah Rukh played Sunil makes the film what it is — a bonafide classic. And in case you didn’t know, Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa happens to be SRK’s favourite too!

Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge
DDLJ is a trademark Shah Rukh Khan film. Romantic to the core with his twinkling eyes and charismatic smile doing most of the magic. Though the actor has labelled the Aditya Chopra film ‘insipid’, it is difficult to look away from the screen every time it plays in front of you. The film is also the one that cemented his position as India’s romantic hero, the Raj of every girl’s dream in 90s India. Millennials may scoff about the film but the actor remains the eternal crush of many.

The film has a generic boy-meets-girl and they fall in love trope, but what makes it stand out is the innocent-yet-passionate love story between SRK and Kajol’s Raj and Simran. And, how can we forget him extending his hand to pull Simran on to a running train in the climax. The scene became a phenomenon and has been replicated in many movies.

This was also the NRI phase of Bollywood where stories were set in the US and UK, but cultural mores were shuddh desi. And perhaps SRK best represented this East-meets-West approach.

“Babuji ne kaha gaon chhod do, sab ne kaha Paro ko chhod do, Paro ne kaha sharab chhod do, aaj tumne keh diya haweli chhod do, ek din aayega jab woh kahenge, duniya hi chhod do!!”

Shah Rukh has done iconic remakes over the years – Amitabh Bachchan’s Don and its sequel, and the Devdas remake which once starred Dilip Kumar, a man he looked up to. Was this his way of cementing his legacy in cinema? The role of a man who has lost in love and life, and drinks himself to death is by no definition meant for a mainstream hero. Nonetheless, it has been played over the years by legends, SRK being one of them.

Shah Rukh Khan’s humour translates effortlessly into his acting. More than the king of romance, he seems fit for the title of King of Comedy. Duplicate was one such example. He played dual roles in the film, one being a simpleton, and the other a deadly gangster. With his peculiar expressions and the cheery camaraderie with Farida Jalal as his mother, SRK’s performance almost made viewers forget his previous romantic and villainous outings. Duplicate relied on slapstick humour, but SRK’s breezy acting made it a rib-tickling comedy. The cherry on the cake was his chemistry with Juhi Chawla. The film didn’t even need a proper story, all it needed to do was put SRK in hilarious situations–if he wasn’t killing people with televisions, he was praying morosely to God or trying to cook up a storm.

Swades released the same year (2004) Shah Rukh Khan delivered Veer-Zara and Main Hoon Na, all three from different genres and moods. And as commercial the other two were, Swades was something SRK was trying for the first time – shedding his superstar image and getting into the skin of an NRI looking for his roots in the heartland India.

Swades was director Ashutosh Gowariker’s love letter to India, and a tale of homecoming for every NRI who misses the fragrance of its soil in a foreign land. With a rural set-up and some emotional sequences, there was nothing manicured about the film, yet it was a subtle statement on neo nationalism and how the idealism of Shah Rukh’s Mohan Bhargava gets a reality check when he visits his native place. Here, the contrast and the most important relationship was between Mohan and his Kaveri Amma.

Swades was nothing like what we have seen earlier in our patriotic films. It did not scream anti-western trends, but forced us to think rationally about one’s own nation and how little we do to impact things at a micro level. It was a quest towards change, a brave attempt made amidst the clutter of glossy big budget cinema Bollywood was endorsing in early 2000s.

Swades was not a commercial hit back then. But its universal plot and core emotion ensured it gathered a loyal audience over time. Today, Swades is one of the most heartwarming, enlightening movies in both Ashutosh and Shah Rukh’s filmography.

Chak De! India
Ever since his fans can remember, Shah Rukh Khan has been the physical embodiment of romantic love on screen. So, when Shah Rukh took on the role of the wronged coach Kabir Khan in Chak De India, it came as a surprise for his loyal fanbase. Naysayers have criticised SRK for rehashing the same role over and over again across the 90s, so his turn as a football coach, who takes up the task of winning the World Cup with a dysfunctional team left even his worst critics in awe. Shah Rukh’s now-famous monologue ‘Sattar Minute’ had the audience rooting for the team, and the ultimate victory where Kabir is overwhelmed with emotion as he could finally clear his name from a scandal that once ruined his career and reputation. Chak De India has a Muslim man at the centre of its plot who has been accused of ‘selling his country’ to Pakistan, and while it captured the social climate of the country at the time, it hits even harder in 2022. Shah Rukh’s colleague tells him in the movie, “Ek galti toh sabko maaf hoti hai (everyone is allowed to make one mistake)”. The actor smiles and asks: “Sabko (everyone)?”

Shah Rukh Khan’s career was on a slippery slope even before the disastrous Zero. He was coming off the back-to-back box office disappointments Fan, Raees and Jab Harry Met Sejal. In an interview with Hindustan Times ahead of the film’s release, he was asked (rather impertinently) what he would do if Zero also failed. He said, “God forbid, if this film doesn’t work, what will happen? Maybe, I won’t get work for six months or 10 months.” But, Shah Rukh added with trademark grace, “If I believe that my craft and art is good, I will continue to get work.”

Zero, as we know, didn’t work. In fact, its failure hit Shah Rukh so hard that he went into self-imposed exile from the industry. For that reason alone, it will forever be a pivotal addition to his filmography. But people forget that Zero is also one of the most ambitious films of Shah Rukh’s career, which was already in its go-for-broke era at the time. Not only did it employ state-of-the-art visual effects, but it did it so seamlessly, in a manner that didn’t call attention to itself. More importantly, though, Zero, at least on the surface, tried to give Shah Rukh’s fans exactly what they wanted at a time where they’d made their disapproval for his recent work known. This despite retaining the uncompromising swing-for-the-fences attitude that he was bringing to his films back then.

Zero’s an old-fashioned charmer, and an underdog story; it featured Shah Rukh in his element as a romantic hero, but also didn’t allow him to deliver a phoned-in performance. It had a sweeping, achingly tragic scope, and also a thematic edginess and narrative ambition that we might never see in an SRK film ever again. After all, it depicted a classless India in which an insecure small-town dwarf manages to woo a rocket scientist and a movie star, rejects them both, goes to Mars and returns to tell the tale. And they call RRR insane. 
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