Over a career spanning almost thirty years, I've spent hundreds of hours interviewing Shah Rukh Khan. And here's the miracle — it never gets old.
My earliest memory of Shah Rukh is from a Bollywood party somewhere on Madh Island in Mumbai. It was the first time I saw him in person. My strongest memory from that night is of him dancing vigorously with Gauri Khan. He was a married hero flaunting his wife, which was then considered a radical move. Darr and Baazigar were still a year away, but his debut film Deewana (1992) had been a hit, and there was a lot of buzz around this up-and-coming star. I remember being intrigued by his shirt, half-tucked-in; his manic energy; and that patina of arrogance.
I interviewed him for the first time in 1995. I was a journalist with India Today magazine then. Baazigar, Darr and Karan Arjun (1995) were blockbusters and he was now the hottest star on the horizon.
We met on the sets of Ram Jaane, a lurid drama about an orphan who grows up to be a criminal. Shah Rukh was wearing a purple suit with a thick gold necklace and bracelet but his statements were more flamboyant than his outfit. "I'm not into becoming the character. I will always be Khan playing the beggar or goonda or villager," he said, and then added for effect, "I know people think I'm gimmicky. Balls to them."
Three years later, journalist Rohit Brijnath and I co-wrote a longer feature on him, titled Lord of All He Surveys. The signature cockiness was in full bloom. A sample quote: "Even if Hollywood offered me Titanic, I wouldn't take it. Of course if it was Shah Rukh Khan in and as Titanic, now that would be something." Years later, Shah Rukh told me that this article prompted the moniker King of Bollywood. In 2007, I wrote a book about him called King of Bollywood: Shah Rukh Khan and the Seductive World of Indian Cinema.
Back then, it wasn't as hard to penetrate the wall of minders around him. I often reached him directly, via text and telephone. I remember a time in March 2003 when I interviewed him about his recent spine surgery as he walked on Oxford Street in London. It was a complicated operation and I asked if he had been afraid that something might go wrong. He said: "You know how they say, you win some, you lose some? This is part of lose some. God has given me the best in every way. This is the payment I had to make. This is perhaps the only way I will feel less guilty about my success." In a few minutes, he had to hang up because he was being mobbed.
Over nearly 30 years as India's most beloved romantic hero, Shah Rukh has seen tumultuous times. There have been failure, health scares, controversies outrage and bans.
The current crisis dwarfs them all. I cannot imagine that this is part of the "lose some" because that suggests a capricious celestial being meting out the worst anguish a parent can endure, in order to balance some imaginary karmic scale. In my book I had written that unlike other superstars, Shah Rukh never felt like a larger-than-life figure on a pedestal but simply the most charismatic member of our family. Which perhaps explains the outpouring of public support in the last few weeks.
Shah Rukh has always represented the best of us. His movies have given me and millions around the world countless hours of joy. His persona — the indefatigable charm, the more malleable masculinity, the ability to be at once heroic, aspirational and relatable — translates across borders. Even in his most mediocre films, Shah Rukh offered us the possibility that love would ultimately triumph over hate.
For his sake and ours, I hope that this is true.