In June 1992, thanks to your mother being a Rishi Kapoor fan, you watch Shah Rukh’s debut in Deewana as the disgruntled son of a wealthy industrialist. His character casually stalks the woman he loves, eventually winning her heart and walking away from his family money to become a mechanic. His first Hindi film song, also his first scene in the film, follows him on a joyride along the streets of Mumbai. Taking in the sights, he looks at the camera, raises his arms to the sky, and offers his opening salvo, ‘Koi na koi chahiye, pyar karne wala.’ I need someone to love me.
You see him. And, for the first time, you encounter your hormones. You’ve never seen genetic material like this before. You ache for him and for the possibilities he represents. A fan is born. In the mid ’90s, you start calling your local cable bhaiya, urging him to play pirated prints of Shah Rukh films. Your parents are embarrassed and reprimand you.
In November 1992, you encounter him in Aziz Mirza’s wonderful Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman, playing an ambitious young civil engineer from a small hill-town, hustling to get ahead in brash Mumbai, but still able to sing a song about ‘Loveria’. You hum that tune all through 1992 and 1993, much to your mother’s chagrin. ‘Love, love, love, loveria hua.’ Love love love, I have loveria.’
A year later, in the months of November and December in 1993, you are stunned by his negative turn in Baazigar and Darr. You watch these films on the colony cable channel without parental guidance. You are probably a latchkey kid, left to your own devices while mom and dad are at work.
The next year, Shah Rukh offers two major releases – in the first, Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa, he plays a polite loser in love. The second, Anjaam, sees him return as a deranged, near psychopathic stalker, unable to bear romantic rejection. The characters Shah Rukh played in these films, in his own words, gave the ‘Hindi movie creep a whole new dimension’.
The gendered implications will only occur to you much later. At the time, you will be hooked. Your teenage hormones are unaware of morals or feminism, so you shamelessly sing ‘Yeh kaali kaali aankhen’, besotted by Shah Rukh’s confidence, on-screen charm and good looks. And slowly you start to sculpt your imagined ideal man, mould him from the raw material of these pictures and your fantasies. The first rule: an ideal man must look like Shah Rukh, the pre-six-pack version.
India’s action heroes of the time hold little appeal for you. How can bulging biceps and pelvic thrusts convey talent? Your parents suggest that Shah Rukh lacks virtue, that other actors don’t play villainous roles that encourage young men to scare women. In protest, you stomp your feet and proclaim your undying faith in Shah Rukh. ‘No other hero can make heroines so happy,’ is your childish defence. Awed by how the women in all his song sequences glow, you start to realize that this is what you want: a man who can make a woman feel radiant. You believe that the love of an ideal man, like him, will make you as beautiful as a Bollywood actress.
During the Diwali holidays in October 1995, you watch DDLJ with your family in a cinema hall. Your mother, aunts and sisters will have made sure your dad bought tickets well in advance. For you, it will be love at first scene. Back home, your twelve-year-old avatar will wear a frilly pink dress and pretend to attend a dance with Shah Rukh while ‘Ae kaash ke hum’ from Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa plays in the background. Soon, you’ll graduate to wearing a white dress and dancing to ‘Mere khwabon mein jo aaye’ from DDLJ. Mustard fields, London and ‘Europe’ will become synonymous with good husbands. Love will mean extending a helping hand on a train. Love will mean marriage. Love will be a monogamous fairy tale.
Millions of young women walked out of cinema halls after watching DDLJ, desperate to find the right man. The idea was not planted by Shah Rukh. It was sown by the luminous Kajol who played the female lead, Simran. She was astonishingly beautiful yet relatable, a combination that feels impossible in our current era of vegan film stars.
Simran starts the film by reciting a poem for her mother, one she has written herself. She writes about her fantasies of meeting an unknown man – andekha anjana sa. Shah Rukh’s performance as her lover, Raj, concretizes these fantasies. The ideal man would be a foreigner to oppressive patriarchy by believing in the freedom to love and being able to shower his beloved with unabashed affection. Paradoxically, he would also remain an ally of tradition, emulating Raj from DDLJ who risks losing his lover as he refuses to elope, determined instead to win her father’s approval for her hand in marriage
. In DDLJ, after an hour of being a hostile brat who harasses Simran, the empathetic Raj Malhotra whom female Shah Rukh fans so vividly recall emerges. Suddenly, he worries about Simran’s welfare – from her coffee order to her decision to accept an arranged marriage with a stranger to her prayers.
Back in the late ’90s, urban India started experiencing the joys of satellite television and dozens of channels offering entertainment all day and all night. You discover Shah Rukh’s engaging facility for interviews with his unique brand of self-deprecating-self-aggrandizement. You can’t believe your luck. Here you are, alone at home after school, and you can switch on the TV to find your favourite star talking directly to you.
Each English-speaking fan I’ve met recalls these early interviews. Shah Rukh was part of the first generation of celebrities who benefitted from India’s telecom revolution. The proliferation of satellite television networks led to many more shows about the film world being broadcast into Indian homes. New TV channels required new content. The burgeoning media industry in India found a profitable partner in Hindi cinema and transmitted news of celebrities every day. You could watch an actor being interviewed each night on one television network or another, while whole newspaper supplements were dedicated to gossip about film. Media houses relayed Shah Rukh’s icon and interviews consistently. Your hero, articulate and friendly, was inescapable.
These televised conversations marked the beginnings of the actor’s best performance till date: his version of the unapologetic middle-class superstar. Chain-smoking, self-aware, clever, brazen and hilarious – your devotion will be fortified. He displays a charming contempt for the interviewer, the film industry and his own celebrity. Acting is a business, he emphasizes. ‘With that kind of exposure, even a doorknob can become a star,’ he says with a wink. There are self-deprecating jokes about his ‘five standard expressions’ and limited skill as an actor. He keeps describing himself as an outsider to the industry. Shah Rukh’s interviews usher the phrase ‘middle class’ into your dictionary. In his interviews, the actor talks about freedom and secularism; he makes you cry with tales of financial insecurities and how he worked endless hours to make sure he could look after his sister and wife. And so, you glean: an ideal man will diligently battle his constraints. He will take care of you, offer you a good home, serving as the best breadwinner and the safest bet. He will be the One and the One ought to be Enough.
Excerpted with permission from Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh, Shrayana Bhattacharya, HarperCollins India.