On 30 January, Shah Rukh Khan appeared on stage and in referring to the secular nature of the Hindi film industry, he compared his Pathaan co-stars to the titular characters of Manmohan Desai’s iconic 1997 film. In a video clip that has gone viral on social media, Khan said that Deepika Padukone, he himself and John Abraham were Amar, Akbar, and Anthony.
“And this is what makes (Hindi) cinema,” he added. “Amar, Akbar, Anthony. There are no differences that any of us have for anybody, any culture, any aspect of life. We love you. That’s why we make films. We love you, to give us love.”
Shah Rukh and his co-stars appeared on stage for the first time since Pathaan had been declared a humongous hit. And it was a coincidence that he spoke on Mahatma Gandhi’s 75th death anniversary, the day India’s secular heartbeat is sometimes questioned and debated.
Why Indians Resonate With Shah Rukh Khan
Shah Rukh Khan has been a part of the Hindi film industry for three decades now. And as it has happened in the past, we once again needed him to understand who we were, who we have become and where we are headed.
There were other times when Amitabh Bachchan’s 'angry young man' persona was said to mirror the mood of the country; or, when in the 1957 film Pyaasa, Guru Dutt sang Jinhe Naaz Hai Hind Par, and observers noted that the lyricist Sahir Ludhianvi was expressing his disappointment with how independent India was shaping up under the leadership of Jawaharlal Nehru.
But in the years since Shah Rukh started acting in Hindi films, he has time and again, been the bellwether of India, and how the nation is evolving. Here was a young man, educated from Delhi’s St Columba’s School, Hansraj College, and Jamia Milia University, trained in Barry John’s amateur theatre group, from a Muslim middle-class family, married to a Hindu Punjabi girl.
But as he grew and developed in the industry, we saw ourselves in Shah Rukh. He was the benchmark to what happiness should mean to us. Our life goals seemed to align with his and those of the characters he played. In her 2021 book, Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh Khan, author Shrayana Bhattacharya quotes a young man who has cleared the UPSC exams as saying, “Ab main toh Shah Rukh ban gaya.”
Shahrukh’s fame and money was beyond the reach and imagination for most of us, and yet his successes and failures felt close to home, something personal that we could relate to. We wanted him to pull out of the recent low phase in his life as reflected in the failure of his last film Zero and the arrest of his son in the fall of 2021.
Why NRIs Root for the Shah Rukh Magic
And so it was in the 1990s, as the Hindi film industry became a global phenomenon—especially reaching out to the diaspora markets in the US and UK, we saw Shah Rukh as a symbol of the post-liberalisation India with his characters living abroad (Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, Pardes, and the Karan Johar trilogy of early 2000s —Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna and My Name is Khan ) or travel to exotic locations just to sing a song such as in the Tum Paas Aaye sequence in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai(KKHH).
Yash Chopra and even earlier filmmakers, including Raj Kapoor also took their actors to sing and romance in foreign locations. But Shah Rukh’s films became symbolic with Non-Resident Indian (NRI) cinema. He was the first Bollywood star to embody NRIs in the post-liberalisation India or represent Indians who could travel abroad because such vacations were now within their reach.
Indians living abroad were sometimes part of the narrative of Hindi cinema in the previous decades as well. Manoj Kumar made Purab Aur Paschim (1970) and Dev Anand directed Des Pardes (1978). But the NRIs in those films were often clueless or, mean people who embodied “bad” western values—drinking alcohol, women wearing short skirts and men with long hair. Shah Rukh’s NRIs—including Mohan Bhargava of Swades, were ground with Indian values seeped into them. They were “good” NRIs.
Before shooting the Tum Paas Aaye song, Karan Johar went out shopping for clothes for his lead actors. But little did he know that he was about to cater to many aspirational Indians. I know quite a few Indians who visited New York City after seeing KKHH and bought the same GAP hoodie that Shah Rukh wore in that song. I have lost count of how many Indian tourists in New York sought out the spot where Shah Rukh spread his arms on Brooklyn Bridge in Kal Ho Naa Ho.
Shah Rukh Fever Continues to Grips the Nation
In the ‘everything is possible’ mood of the India in the 2000s, Shah Rukh, once a middle-class kid, expanded his horizon from an actor to a producer of films—delegating the role to his wife, launched a visual effects company, and even bought a cricket team. His team 'Kolkata Knight Riders' only won two IPL tournaments, but we wanted him to succeed.
Pathaan has a mediocre script, plotline and action sequences inspired by the Fast and Furious and Mission Impossible franchises. But as it breaks Bollywood’s records, it seems like a victory for all of us. We waited for a while for Bollywood and Shah Rukh Khan to be back. And so the film’s box office numbers seem sweet as if we have all won this lottery. That is the reason why audiences across India are dancing in theaters to the song Jhoome Jo Pathaan.
Shahrukh’s party is our party and everything seems good for the time being.
(Aseem Chhabra is an actor and producer, known for Sita Sings the Blues (2008), Iftar (2015) and Pulse: The Desi Beat (2007). He is also one of the organisers of NYIFF. He tweets @chhabs. This is a personal blog and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)