Duplicate is a comedy that almost turned a 12-year-old me into a tragedy. Let me explain. It was 1998. Summer vacation. Bollywood-crazy Ahmedabad. Like most kids my age, I was a hardcore Shah Rukh Khan fan. He was at the peak of his powers. I had seen him in almost every avatar by then – an average Joe, a psychotic villain, a nervy gangster and most recently, a charming romantic hero. But he was yet to do an out-and-out comedy. (Baadshah was still a year away). I was convinced that SRK could even give reigning king Govinda a run for his money. The trailer of Duplicate, then, had me both apprehensive and excited. For a performer who had become a superstar by taking risks, it's ironic that a comic role was going to feel like his biggest risk yet.
I watched Duplicate at the local drive-in theater with my parents and friends. It was a strange experience. I could sense the energy around me nosedive, the expectations getting dashed. Nobody was impressed. "Over-acting kar raha hai" was the verdict. Some of them looked at me quizzically, as if I had made the film. But it might have also been because I was the only one laughing – and reacting. News spread fast. Before I knew it, people started teasing me about "liking" a bad film. This was more than a decade before Twitter trolls were a thing. I got into fights, some verbal and some physical (!), because I wasn't articulate enough to frame why I enjoyed the movie. When Kuch Kuch Hota Hai released later that year, the "Rahul is a cheater" chant caught fire in context of my fondness for Duplicate – it became a running joke that I would rather stay home and secretly watch Duplicate reruns than play with the gang. (This was not entirely false).
Now I knew it was no classic, but I couldn't get enough of it. I couldn't get enough of puppy-eyed Babloo Chaudhry (good SRK) and mad-eyed Manu Dada (bad SRK), a bubbly Juhi Chawla, a saucy Sonali Bendre, a feisty Farida Jalal, even a hammy Gulshan Grover – and most of all, that insanely addictive Anu Malik soundtrack. I loved the fact that almost every song on the album had a desi mouth-as-instrument hook to it: "Wah ji Wah" was literally a sound, Ek Shararat Hone Ko Hai had the dreamy "La Lai Lai Lai La Lai," Tum Nahin Jaana had the caveman-like "hu-hu-ah-hu-hu" as its chorus, Ladna Jhagadna opens with a "ha-ha-ha" jugalbandi and Mere Mehboob Mere Sanam has a "dhoom-pichak-dhoom-dhoom" backing vocal. I remember first hearing Mere Mehboob a few weeks before the film's release – not as an independent track, but believe it or not, as the background score to a news channel's footage of Sachin Tendulkar smashing Australia to smithereens during the "Sharjah Storm". It felt like the music was made for Sachin's sixes – and Michael Kasprowicz's stunned face (…Shukriya Meherbani Karam).
I loved that Wah Ji Wah, my culinary song of choice, had Kunal Vijaykar dancing alongside a clownish Shah Rukh. I loved that I was too young and un-woke to not grin at the casual racism of the Japanese luncheon scene – and that I forced my mother to cook a Japanese meal (with spices) for me after that, and she cooked 'Indian Chinese' instead. I loved that I identified with Babloo because he was a Punjabi Momma's Boy. I loved the swag of Manu Dada when he walks away from Lily on stage as she croons "Tum Nahi Jaana". I loved that tight black leather pants looked just as natural on Shah Rukh's legs as stalkings and high heels.
Over the course of my Bollywood-watching years, I started to figure out my adolescent fondness for Duplicate. I was never quite able to express that I was not laughing with the film. I was laughing at a film that wanted to be laughed at – which, in 1998, was a new kind of comic experience. It was essentially a Farah Khan film directed by Mahesh Bhatt. When someone as fluent as Shah Rukh Khan acts in a comedy, he isn't performing comedy – he's spoofing melodrama. Even when he dances, it looks like he's playfully satirizing the moves of heroes past. His language of humour, too, is more reactive than reductive. The signs were obvious: Kajol's cameo at the railway station, Juhi Chawla playing Khan's boss (as an ode to Yes Boss). Duplicate felt like a shock to the viewer's system because it allowed him to chuckle at an acting image we had begun to take so seriously. The boyish Babloo was SRK parodying the rom-com/family-friendly half of his career, the hammy Manu was SRK cutting down the Darrs, Baazigars and Anjaams to size.
The duality became more existential with the double roles in the latter half of his career, but Duplicate also helped me understand that funny dialogue didn't have to be the centerstone of Indian comedy. Khan's characters, even up to this point, had derived their comedy from physical awkwardness. Think Raj stammering "b-b-beer" by mistake while serving Amrish Puri in DDLJ, his cheery "aao" to the pigeons as opposed to Puri's heavy baritone, or Rahul trying to sneak back into the changing room without pants in Dil Toh Pagal Hai. Babloo and Manu's mannerisms were merely dialed up versions of those scenes – the way Babloo's facial expression changes every time he is pulled between the two silver ladies in Mere Mehboob, or the way Manu's tongue-twitch resembles a venomous snake going in for the kill. It's even more meta when Babloo tries to mimic Manu's raspy voice and mouthy ticks, and Manu attempts to ape Babloo's sheltered agility.
I did have the last laugh when the Filmfare Awards – back when it was still a big deal – nominated Shah Rukh Khan in the 'Best Villain' category. Which is to say, his performance was so far ahead of the curve that even the jury assumed that the slick-haired actor playing Manu was different from the floppy-haired actor playing Babloo. If that isn't an official acknowledgment of guilty pleasure, I don't know what is.