There are quite a few things from my teenage years that I cringe owing up to, none perhaps as embarrassing as having been a shameless Shah Rukh Khan fan-boy. As a matter of fact, I was so Madan Chopraaaa crazy that I would occasionally dress up SRK-style (I still have photographic evidence of me in my Ram Jaane-inspired get-up).
Those days, there was a hero vacuum in Bollywood. Amitabh Bachchan, after a disastrous run in politics, was turning out turkeys like Toofan and Akela, fast descending into the rabbit-hole of Dev Anandian obsolescence. Mithun Chakraborty was preparing to pack his bags for Ooty, Anil Kapoor and Jackie Shroff were on their way out (they didn’t know it yet, of course), Aamir Khan and Salman Khan were still finding their feet through a series of chocolate-boy low-key romantic roles, Saif Ali Khan was thought to be a Sharmila Tagore lookalike with no future, Akshay Kumar was cavorting in speedos as “handsome man” Mr Bond and producers considered
Rahul Roy a viable sole-hero.
Yes things were that bad.
And then he came, sliding down stairs on a slab of ice, cartwheeling, somersaulting, lips trembling, eyes trembling, bringing to the screen the kind of physical energy not seen since Shammi Kapoor in his heydays. This was a totally different kind of acting from we had ever seen — visceral, intense, maniacal one moment and cloyingly boyish the next.
We were hooked.
One of the things that so attracted me to Shah Rukh Khan in the early years was that among all his contemporaries, he was the only one who took risks. Insane risks. While Aamir Khan, later to become the thinking-man’s hero, cavorted in snake flicks like Tum Mere Ho, danced disco dandiya in Love Love Love and headlined formulaic “Girl hates boy, girl loves boy” campus romances like Dil, Shah Rukh Khan was pushing the envelope playing vengeful serial killers (Baazigar), obsessed lovers (Darr) and endearing losers (Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa).
In an industry where breaks are given almost exclusively to insiders, here was a TV actor with no filmi pedigree, making a play for the top, beating the privileged in their own den. You had to support him. You just had to.
And then somewhere down the line, it all changed. I guess it began with the super success of Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, a landmark in the history of Bollywood, firmly propelling Shah Rukh Khan into the number one slot. He then became trapped in the conventional romantic lover-boy image, continuing to essay, over the years, a series of roles that were mind-numbingly alike, executing with unfailing regularity the exact same set of mannerisms — that shake of the head, that stuttering , and that back-bent-hands-outstretched gesture. The edgy path-breaking disruptive outsider of the early ’90s had become the ultimate poster-boy of the Bollywood system, constricted fatally by the strait jacket of a brand-image.
I had hoped that after a certain time, perhaps after a sufficient amount of money had been made, Shah Rukh Khan would explore newer artistic avenues, doing a mix of commercial and experimental, in the way that Aamir Khan now does. Not that he has lost his abilities. Shah Rukh Khan’s performance in Swades proves that when he plays the character, instead of himself, he can still be spectacular. But then again, to the disappointment of once-fans like us, he consciously returns, time and again, to the banality of his “commercial comfort zone”, the tried and the tested, refusing steadfastly to expand his repertoire.
So as Jab Tak Hain Jaan hits the world, fans go weak in the knees and the marketing machine screams “Shah Rukh Khan returns to his romantic roots”, I murmur, “But when did he ever leave it?”. Excuse myself from the general hysteria as I pop in my DVD of Baazigar, and wonder with the nostalgic sadness of a recovered addict what could have been.
Arnab Ray is the author of The Mine and May I Hebb Your Attention Pliss