What Could Have Been

[Published in DNA, November 11, 2012]

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 Shahrukh 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 Ramjaane-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 Ootie, Anil Kapoor and Jackie Shroff were on their ways 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 shaking, 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 Shahrukh 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, Shahrukh Khan was pushing the envelope playing vengeful serial killers (Baazigar), obsessed lovers (Darr) and endearing losers (Kabhi Haan Kabhi Na).

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 Shahrukh 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, Shahrukh 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. Shahrukh 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 Shahrukh Khan returns to his romantic roots, I murmur, “But when did he ever leave it”, excuse myself from the general hysteria, pop in my DVD of Baazigar, and wonder , with the nostalgic sadness of a recovered addict, what could have been.


44 thoughts on “What Could Have Been

  1. JTHJ is probably for the second kid’s college education or more likely, movie launch..

  2. Totally agree! I WAS a fan one time. Even now I would sit and watch his old movies including the low-brow ones like Chamatkaar. But just cant bear the punishment he doles out these days. One DDLJ is more than enough you don’t need to make it 1000 times in different names !

  3. First. Twice in a row. Ipad with an Ipad case.

  4. Vintage GB. Good to see u back.

  5. Love the article -couldn’t agree with you anymore. Reminds me of my college days. Watched “Anjaam” and “Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman” just for sake of SRK, as he was the only actor to break trends. After DDLJ, it was all downhill for him.

  6. I am surprised you misspelled Akayla. I was told that the ‘ay’ instead of ‘e’ was supposed to replicate the luck of Sholay, whose spelling at the time was controversial.

  7. I actually think you left out a few recent roles which showed his “risk-taking” side. My Name is Khan comes to mind, although the autistic role leaves a lot to be desired. Chak de India was also out of the ordinary. But the same sugar-sweet sauce is going to be doled out in Jab Tak Hai Jaan, for sure. If you were to cast him as a protagonist in any novel’s film adaptation of your choice, what would you like? (And no, Frodo does not qualify 😛 )

  8. I couldn’t agree more.BTW may I recommend a middling movie that probably has the best SRK and Juhi could offer in terms of comic repartee- One 2 Ka 4. Meanwhile, I return to Darr and the SRK that’s could never fully take form.

  9. typo alert: ‘that’ instead of ‘that’s’.

  10. He did do Chak de … which is my favorite sri movie till date

  11. Sudipta, Gandalf and Snape. BTW My Name is Khan was anything but pushing the envelope. It was the same “romantic” role but this time with a story-given excuse to overact.

  12. Hmm.. Don series and Chak de India. You didn’t consider them sir.
    Well I sincerely think that SRK has changed. pls read my review. not a real one. just for fun. 🙂

  13. Yes rings a bell, but I was more of Govinda fan during those early years!!

  14. What about Yes Boss?

  15. Ure being unfair to srk…salman khan can churn out the same mind numbingly boring masala movie fare season after season and I don’t see u panning him for not taking risks….and the lesser anyone talks about aamir’s pseudo intellectual fare the better…..

  16. Arnab, I do not agree fully. To SRK’s credit, do note that even post-DDLJ, he HAS been taking risks every now and then and movies like Paheli, Swades, Chak De, Ra One, Don are testimony to that. Even Josh, One 2 Ka 4, Baadshah to some extent are different from his Raj/ Rahul movies. However (and its a BIG however!), none of these movies except Chak De clicked at the BO. Its his standard-template romances which rakes in the moolah, and being a superstar with millions riding on him, he really cannot ignore the commercials much, right??
    Boss, making a 170-crore movie like Ra One is the MOTHER of all ‘envelope-pushing’, IMHO!!!

  17. “Thou shall not pass” – LOL! 😀

  18. Very well said. Yes I liked him when he came as a change with Baazigar and Darr and liked him in DDLJ and Dil To Pagal Hai as well (or maybe it was because I was in college at that time, and all romance was believable 🙂 ). But with Kuch Kuch Hota Hain I lost it due to the hamming and fakeness of it all.

    The only movie of his that I liked after DDLJ was Swades.

    Btw you do an awesome job of expressing how folks growing up in India of 80s and 90s felt. Though I grew up in Hyderabad I can connect to lot of your experiences. Also bought your two books during my trip to India few months back.

    And I seriously want to know how you are able to balance your profession of Research and Teaching with writing books, writing columns, maintaining your blog and being active on twitter. Hats of to you.

  19. I want to see the “Ramjaane-inspired get-up” 🙂

  20. I am not a big fan of SRK but as compared to Salman, he has done a better and a greater variety of roles. Chak De, Ra 1 and Don series. I dont think anyone else could have played contemporary Don better than him. He does take risks but somehow he has to return to his “roots” once in a while for commercial purposes.

  21. Have any of you seen JTHJ? Its his best performance till date. He saddles the 2 generations with aplomb. Showing all the youthful energy of the DTPH days he does the young guy thing then essays a maniacally intense charachter that perfects what he did in Swades, Chak De and pushes the bar even further in new territory. His single minded focus is so scary that he could actually make a great ghost in a future film. I understand the article and those are my frustrations as a fan boy too. Some points to be kept in mind though :

    1. SRK is not after money. Well he is. But not in the way Sajid (he literally announces the business his film has made like well a pimp would ..) or some of the others are.
    2. Since 2008-2009 he has been mercilessly bashed by the same biased media who made him the ‘Baadshah of Bollywood’. Reasons – He pissed off too many people over a period of time. Balasaheb – Pakistani players in IPL, Salman Bhai – Ego fight, mocked many lesser stars over the years while hosting award ceremonies.
    3. He has not aged well. The make-up man in Don 2 was excellent, the one in JTHJ is God. He is looking good inspite of not been so. This is the first time in his life. One of his strengths was that the energy looked good because of the youthful floppy hair and fresh faced smile. Now we have a sticky haired, tired man with lines all over his face struggling to handle below IQ co-stars who don’t play along with his oft-repeated jokes.
    4. His films are getting bad reviews regardless of the actual content and his performance. Ra.One was bad..but was it THAT bad? Don 2 was a good movie which got bashed for no reason at all. Ditto JTHJ.
    5. Nobody is scared of him anymore. His off the pitch antics and fights have downgraded his image. His philosophical tweets somehow don’t work with his screen image. I guess he is copying Big B there too.
    6. The film industry has gone through a fundamental shift as to how ‘stardom’ is evaluated. The gunda SRK of the early 90s and the romantic, sophisticated lover of the late 90s each have a legion of die hard fans. The last decade he hasn’t stuck to a specific genre and let his brand value diminish by doing too many guest appearences and TV shows and hosting too many events.

    Why there is still hope for a reboot to the early 90s SRK – that of the Anjaam, Ram Jaane and Bazigar days – unfettered and free. An underdog yet to become King.

    1. He has tried all the tricks he could and they have not worked in bringing him back as the most commercially successful star of the present day.
    2. He was quite restrained and entertaining during the JTHJ promotions as compared to the self-involved balderdash that he has served for promotions since the OSO days.
    3. His performance in JTHJ is really quite impressive. I mean genuinely (in his own words). He has already got back the swagger that he had so visibly lost in the Koffee with Karan ‘I have no friends’ episode.
    4. He DID win the IPL. He cannot be beaten on that front ever again.
    5. He seems to have finally come to terms with his current position in the industry and seems to have a coherent plan.

  22. So Bong….Greatbong…seems like there are quite a few who do not agree with u….

  23. I find it amusing how people are complaining about the brickbats, while giving the example of Salman Khan.

    Its a futile exercise. I think it has been established beyond doubt that Salman Khan’s films never have, or even pretend to have, even a shred of logic. All the SRK fans should be happy that their favourite star isn’t being compared to Salman.

    Arnab, I agree with this piece. There was a point when he actually showed signs of fighting back at his demons, about which I’ve written, and will shamelessly advertise below. 🙂

  24. Spot on article.

    I think from the point of experimenting, I would rank Urmila, Tabbu and Manisha Koirala higher for playing non-glamorous roles in movies like Lajja, Chandni Bar, Aaik thi larki etc.

  25. Hey, why is my earlier comment not showing up?

  26. awesome read!! BTW SRK was crappiest ever in MNIK! he hammed unto death!

  27. Great post Arnab! Admire the fact that you’ve chosen to appreciate someone while also calling him out for his flaws. P.S: Why not include Chak De in his list of movies outside the commercial comfort zone?

  28. Good article. SRK’s fan-base is undoubtedly shifting fast from “I love him” to “I don’t hate him” and probably only he himself is to be blamed for it. As you correctly mentioned, it was his courage to experiment which got him noticed and added the charisma to his persona. However, under the banner of Johars and Chopras, he has taken his lover-boy image too seriously. As he closes in on his 50th birthday, he should seriously re-consider enacting characters (and romancing heroines) half his age!

  29. I wanted to say something on SRK defense other then what Madan chopra said but i think it is futile because i know GB will belive what he wants to belive.

  30. SRK is fast becoming the next Romeo-Dadu.
    For the uninformed, Rishi Kapoor is the original Romeo-dadu,a title he’s richly deserved for having romanced a 16 year old Dimple in Bobby (1973)and a 100 odd other heroines….right down to a 18(?) year old Divya Bharati in Deewana(1993).
    The kapoor khandaan should strongly consider auctioning the magical multi-colour sweaters that have not allowed Rishi Kapoor to lose his libido for 30 years. Jobani Jindabad. Kee bolo?

  31. This is another awesome depiction of the film.

    Loved ur post, GB.

  32. I just returned after watching JTHJ. I liked the movie. I went with particularly low expectation after reading a firstpost review. After the show I found one guy bad-mouthing the movie too. However, I enjoyed JTHJ. Morale of the story: See what you wish to see without bothering about reviews. Everybody has individual taste. There is no point raging a debate about individual preferences.

    PS: I also like Don2, ChakDe, Swades.

  33. I thought SRK was the best thing that happened to Hindi cinema since Dilip Kumar. But I can never forgive hime for botching up Devdas, a character held in high esteem in the South.

  34. No body ever mentions the “under the sheets” performance of SRK in Maya Memsaab :p

  35. Don, swades, chak de India are the only silver linings in this.

  36. Speaking of Shah Rukh Khan and Bollywood, any thoughts on the state funeral for Maharashtra’s hate-monger-in-chief? Or for the fascist society he left behind, where even teenagers think that calling for and acting upon ethnic, regional, religious divisions in a multi-cultural country like India is all in a day’s work and perfectly acceptable? Is this where our generation and the next wants to see India go? Or is this a passing chauvanistic phase in a society with an entitlement culture?
    I’m sure a post on your blog would bring out many of our old friends in the comments section from the woodwork!

  37. @Gb … What film and what role would you have picked for SRK among ones essayed by his contemporaries in recent times ?

    For eg … changing the gender … i would have so so so loved Rani in Kahaani !!!

  38. This post is as though someone gave words to my thoughts. Exactly why I loved the Shahrukh Khan till 1998 or so (till Dil Se / Baadshah), and hate the SRK thereafter. Apart from Chak De, he hasn’t delivered an edgy performance thereafter.

  39. When did Mithun Da ever leave? And on a separate note, even I was disappointed with SRK that he didn’t experiment more even after Chak De was such a success. Disappointed that he hasn’t till date worked with Vishal Bhardwaj or Imtiaz Ali..

  40. Well said, exactly my views on Shahrukh, But I think that his first “bad” movie was ‘Yes Boss’ where he lost his look, acting and everything that was good till then.

  41. nope he returns to to romance after a long gap ,last was rnbdj.raone with all the negativity around it won the hearts of its target audience ..kids…in don2 too srk potrays a villain and strangely ,again audience roots for him.so stop saying srk is limiting himself.he is probably the only actor who has the balance right.u have to do commercial cinema otherwise media will write u down in todays age of box office collection.(sadly at the end its the only parametere which media uses ).lastly jab tak hai jaan is probably the most modern cinema in romantic genre in india.sure it has its flaws but then all thing has…and srks performance in jthj can come second to only swades.

  42. ‘Those days, there was a hero vacuum in Bollywood.

    Yes things were that bad.’

    Well, there was one good thing, and that you missed completely and entirely- Sunny Deol! Young, fresh, intense and romantic. I still bear his movies because of those days- Betaab, Arjun, Damini,Joshilaay, Chalbaaz, Ram Avtar, Nagina…

  43. Srk you were good till kuch kuch hota hai but Johars and Chopras and Farah khan ruined you completely

  44. You will be glad to know that the legendary movie Indian Superman or just “Superman” (1987), with legendary performances from Dharam paaji, Ashok Kumar and Shakti Kapoor has been uploaded on utube under GoldminesTelefilms. 🙂 A reckless case of plagiarism. Kindly post a review 🙂

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