New Delhi: I'll be honest. I have never liked Shah Rukh Khan's acting. I have never been a fan of the hamming the actor has now nurtured into an art form. My bias should disqualify me from writing a balanced opinion on a man who has evidently lived a dream for 23 years. But Khan made me a promise twenty years ago when he appeared in the film Maya Memsaab and I intend to hold him to that today.
As a teenager, sexcapades that questioned the sanctity of marriage weren't exactly on the top of my parents' list of what they would allow me to watch at home and in the supervised and scarce trips to the cinema hall. So when I finally caught up with Maya Memsaab, Ketan Mehta's colonized interpretation of Gustave Flaubert's Emma Bovary, the pigeon-chested actor who made uninhibited love to the sultry Deepa Sahi immediately had my attention.
"Who is this scrawny guy, who wears the sexy nail marks on his back like a badge of honour?" I remember thinking.
What sexual awakening was to thousands of teenagers in the optimistic 90s, Shah Rukh was to Indian cinema. He was yet to discover his best camera profile and the scope of his dimples. He has, since then, scaled buildings, detonated bombs and brought roses to his sweetheart at midnight, but his super stardom has taken its bloody toll. He has lost the nerve he once showed in revealing his imperfect body in Maya Memsaab and reneged on the promise he made to his converts in the 90s to always select good cinema over money.
Yes, in that way, I have had a falling out with him. While he has moved on, I haven't.
As a revisionist hero, Shah Rukh was the spiritual head of the new order he established in the early 90s and sustained for the next 10 years paring competition from two other emerging stars - Aamir and Salman - both intense and utterly focussed on using the consumerist audiences of the age of liberalization to their advantage.
"Shah Rukh Khan sells, period." - Shah Rukh Khan
Like an ageing rockstar who remembers the heady aphrodisiac of a stadium full of screaming girls, Shah Rukh keeps trying to recreate the magnetic hold he had on his audience 10 years ago as a monument to his ego in films such as Ra.One. His is a career well lived. He is wealthy beyond all comparison and has established a fan base that few actors can emulate.
"My life may seem glamorous from the outside but off screen it's as ordinary as anyone else's. I want people to know that movie stars live a normal, middle-class life," he told the BBC at the time of releasing the documentaries by filmmaker Nasreen Muni Kabir on his outer and inner worlds.
Yet he rarely ever chooses scripts that do not revolve around the central theme of 'Shah Rukh Khan'. He rarely ever shares screen space, except in his early years, with some one who is his true competition. In Shimit Amin's Chak De India Shah Rukh gave a stellar performance due to the strong ensemble cast and the fact that the focus was evenly shared by a team of good actors.
Shah Rukh has been told, over and over again, by the men he trusted his career, and by default his life with, he looked cute when he nodded his head a certain way or like a devil-may-care Cary Grant when his hair was brushed away from his forehead. Nobody would ever dispute his contribution to cinema. He is the single most important face a billion people the world over identify Indian cinema, its culture and the masculinity and fabulous wealth of its men with. I will not waste your time running you through a laundry list of his films and achievements, his endorsements and the sheer discipline with which he has built himself an empire in Mumbai.
I see him as a middle-aged realist with sharp intelligence but too entrapped in his super stardom to realize the message his changing audiences are sending him in his Friday outings at the Box Office. Yes, Ra.One made money, and so has Don 2. But the man on the street, which he himself once was at the time of Circus and Dil Dariya, is losing interest in the hamming, in the lined forehead and the body tortured in the gym to keep the tapering waist even in his middle age.
Would you, Shah Rukh Khan, see your own films, if they were showed to you back in 1988 when you valued character-driven performance? How would you rate your acting? I doubt if he would answer those questions.
If they were to put up a statue of him at Bandra it would have its arms outstretched and head tilted back - a pose his fans interpret as welcoming both the malice and the love he has received over 20 years. Which is not inconsiderable. He is the first hero to give back to his fans as much as he got, welcoming them into his drawing room. If only he knew when to stop.
The stress is starting to show
At the height of his success, Shah Rukh, with good humour and the shrewd derision he often directed at himself, said he has learnt to live with the burden of his fame. In a candid interview with his friend and filmmaker Karan Johar, he said he would always be King Khan in his mind and amongst the people who love him. The first cracks in the good humour have started to show now.
Despite protestations that opinion of film critics do not matter, the stress is showing after repeated thrashing from opinion makers across the board on two of his last films, Ra.One and Don 2, which were almost his children in the amount of love and attention he had bestowed on them. He had exhausted himself promoting Ra.One on a scale that has never happened before and previously thought impossible.
The sulking star is now in the news for slapping filmmaker Farah Khan's husband Shirish Kunder, a lightweight in the pecking order of the industry. He is taken to making potshots at rivals, dressing in drag at major award shows and masquerading a barely concealed jealousy at the success of a hugely successful risque film under the garb of genial humour.
I mean it the kindest way, but it's time to say goodbye. Shah Rukh will not be able to keep up with the formidable crowd forming at Bollywood's second rung every day, neither will he be able to accept a character role that is not an ode to his super stardom. For as long as his friends in the industry keep shaping his career he will find a hit or the other. But now is a good a time as any for a dignified exit from playing the romantic hero opposite heroines half his age and choose scripts that will do justice to his talent.
For a man who is a strategist, he is one lost superhero.