(Note: The piece contains a few spoilers)
Watching a Shah Rukh Khan film on its first day of release is a cultural phenomenon in itself. The thunderous applause, the electrifying atmosphere in theatres and the collective adoration that accompanies his arrival on-screen are experiences etched in the hearts of millions.
Yet, amidst the celebration of his mega-star power, there's a primary aspect that has set SRK apart from many of his contemporaries — his subversiveness of the masculinity expected from Bollywood heroes and the portrayal of women in his films.
While Bollywood often finds itself mired in sexist, objectifying and regrettably homophobic narratives, King Khan has consistently chosen roles and films that celebrate the strength, resilience, and depth of women characters.
In a film industry historically dominated by hypermasculine portrayals of the 'angry young man,' where women were often relegated to the sidelines as mere plot devices or objects of desire, most of Khan's characters can be best described as 'men written by women'.
The roles he played were distinctly male but not limited to the traditional norms of masculinity - he was unafraid to cry on screen (as seen in Devdas), ready to bow down to the women he loves (think Kuch Kuch Hota Hai), and in some instances, even willing to die in their hands (remember Anjaam?).
To truly appreciate SRK's stark subversion, you need look no further than his portrayal of Don in comparison to the original Amitabh Bachchan's version. Both essayed the iconic character of the criminal kingpin, or perhaps his lookalike, depending on how you see it.
However, SRK's Don was marked by a charm that was, in its most casual sense, a departure from the menacing aura often associated with such characters.
With a career spanning decades, SRK has donned the mantle of indelible characters, breathing life into a lovelorn Raj in Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, channeling the steely determination of a hockey coach in Chak De! India and embodying the brooding, yet emotionally restrained, Dr. Jehangir Khan in Dear Zindagi.
In each of these iconic roles, he graciously shared the screen with strong, nuanced, and sensitive female leads; characters who were defined by their substance and depth, rather than merely their sex appeal.
His muscle power and intimidating presence is meant to instill fear in men, but whenever he's put in front of a woman, he immediately accepts and happily embraces their superiority.
This refreshing dynamic is evident from the very start, whether it's Nayanthara's first scene sharing screen space with SRK or Deepika Padukone's entry shot.
The "savior complex" might be a prominent theme in the film, with one of his characters (Khan essays a dual role) being literally called the 'Messiah,' but it's the women in the film, and how SRK views them, which sets it apart.
The impact of this representation was palpable in theaters. When his character, the jailer of a women's prison, corners one of the bad guys, the dialogue exchange is nothing short of revolutionary.
As Irani (played by Sunil Grover) asserts, "Kuchh nahi kar sakta tu, mere aadmi hai iss jail mei" (You can't do anything; my men are in this jail), SRK's response is met with thunderous applause, "Haan jail mei aadmi tere hai par yeh jail mere aurton ka hai" (Yes, your men might be in the jail, but this jail belongs to my women).
Jawan doesn't stop at showcasing the strength of wronged women; it delves deep into political and social issues, shedding light on farmer suicides, corruption in the medical field, and the climate crisis fueled by industrialists.
Even in a cameo, Padukone's nuanced portrayal of female incarceration is quite refreshing to see in a typical masala movie.
It's noteworthy that SRK himself championed Jawan as a film driven by women, describing it as a film "about women, for men." This declaration reflects his desire to create more projects that not only provide a platform for women but also cater to their diverse experiences and aspirations, much like a Dear Zindagi or a Chak De! India.
While it's true that SRK's early body of work is not without its problematic aspects — romanticizing stalking, inappropriate sexual behavior, to name a few — but these instances are few and far between, especially when compared to the blatantly misogynistic narratives that some of his contemporaries have perpetuated.
In the world of Bollywood, where change can be gradual, SRK's evolution in the portrayal of women in his films is a testament to his enduring influence.
At a time when actors often do socially aware films, in the name of performative 'wokeness', SRK remains strong in his stance of unabashedly supporting women; dating back to when he pledged to only take up films where his female co-star's name would precede his, in the credits.