Call it serendipity or a display of marketing savvy by the state broadcaster, but the rerun of the popular 1989 television show Circus on Doordarshan on Sundays could not have been better timed. At least for the lead actor, who stormed into Indian households that year as a rookie Army commando in Fauji and the young heir to a crumbling circus empire in Circus.
Khan plays Shekaran, a Malayali, in Circus, which was directed by Aziz Mirza and Kundan Shah. The Delhi actor might have been a cultural misfit for the part, but he more than made up for it through his screen presence, raw energy, irrepressible youthfulness and ability to own every frame – all traits that endeared him to a generation of young viewers used to the piety of Arun Govil as Ram in the Ramayana epic and the resignation of the forever-old Alok Nath in the Partition-era series Buniyaad.
Years later, Khan’s sculpted body would emerge from a bubble-and-rose bath to promote a soap brand. He was stripping down in the very first episode of Circus, in which he steps out of his tent in his briefs and bathes in the open with caged animals and giggling teenagers for company. Soap suds in his eyes, Shekaran struggles to reach out for a bucket of water until a friend bails him out. In episode after episode, Khan displayed a similar willingness to go for broke, a trait that marked some of his most appreciated film outings later.
Echoes of the earthy and inherently cool Shah Rukh Khan characters in Fauji and Circus can be found in his 2016 movies Fan and Dear Zindagi – which is why the rerun becomes all the more relevant for the star’s fan base.
Circus is also significant for sowing the seeds of a fine creative collaboration between Khan, Aziz Mirza and Kundan Shah. While Mirza directed Khan in Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman (1992), Yes Boss (1997), Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani (2000) and Chalte Chalte (2003), Shah gave Khan one of his best-loved roles in Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa (1994). Both filmmakers were known for their pop idealism, literary influences, a Chaplinesque worldview, and the ability to dress up serious art in glossy robes. The association that began on Doordarshan carried on to the box office a few years later, with Khan moving on to the tilted-smile-and-open-arms routine on foreign streets.