Shah Rukh Khan and the Fine Art of Winning Hearts

Whether or not you like the Pathaan actor’s movies, you’ve got to love his interviews
Shah Rukh Khan and the Fine Art of Winning Hearts

Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (DDLJ, 1995) marked many firsts for Hindi cinema, but among its lesser-known though influential firsts was the decision to release a video with behind-the-scenes (BTS) footage. In it, we see Uday Chopra and Karan Johar — they assisted director Aditya Chopra on the film — and at one point, Johar points the camera towards Shah Rukh Khan. Khan is asked to describe the plot of the movie and without missing a beat, the actor (who in an earlier scene was mimicking a Haryanvi farmer) says in a deadpan tone, “It’s based upon the bourgeois suppression of the proletariat.” How could you not fall in love?

Aside from the pulse-fluttering thrill that comes from knowing that here’s an actor who can weave in a hat tip to Karl Marx while doing commercial Hindi cinema, the BTS video of DDLJ is one the earliest instances of us seeing actors’ off-screen persona. With the economic reforms of the early Nineties came the satellite TV boom, which led to a suddenly-expanding world of media and along with it, a redefinition of stardom. Now the charm of a star wasn’t just in the characters they played on the big screen, but how they performed as themselves on the small screen. Shah Rukh Khan is one of the stars who capitalised on this expansion with maximum smarts, charm and lasting effect.

As his films pushed him to higher pinnacles of stardom, Khan’s presence on our TV screens became ubiquitous — he was endorsing the best of brands; he was hosting the most popular award shows; he was appearing in interviews. Khan’s characters and his off-screen persona started merging into one giant avatar of charm and by the early 2000s, he had commandeered our imagination. He achieved a sense of realness in his appearances and interviews, creating an air of both relatability and admiration, that made even bland promotions feel like intimate chats. In one of his appearances on Koffee With Karan (2007), Khan called himself the “Don of Media”. Scattering insight and indulging in the unabashed silliness that made the early seasons of the show so enjoyable, Khan said, “I am not an outsider, but a part of this media circus. We wanted to have a great market and further reach, and if you want all that, it means more entertainment. It’s a symbiotic relationship — and for media and entertainment, the sky is the limit.”

Television seemed to bring us closer to Khan both as an entertainer and as a person. In an interview with Vir Sanghvi, Khan said, “I say everything so that I can give an impression that there is nothing to hide.” In his 1997 interview with Simi Garewal, Khan initially seemed poised and formal. When Garewal asked Khan if his confidence is a front, Khan admitted it possibly was, adding, “When I am Raj or Rahul... I am confident. Otherwise, I am not.” At one point, he broke character and asked if he could sing ‘Kabhi Kabhie.’ Instead of the soulful, mellow tune that everyone knows, Khan sang it like a qawwali. There he is, singing in a nasal twang, clapping his hands like an actual qawwal, and what added to the hilarity was that he got the unflappably-elegant Garewal to join in. Khan must have planned this little antic and who knows, maybe Garewal was in on it, but what we as audiences got was a moment that brought him closer to us and would imprint itself upon our memories.

Over the years, Khan’s interviews have also shown what a fantastic raconteur he is. He keeps adding little nuggets to his anecdotes — an observation a producer made about his hairstyle during their first meeting; a line his father would say to him that suits the story. He talks of his faith, and goes on to explain the difference between faith and religion. He talks about a prank related to religion, only to make a point about secularism. These details add more colour to the story, making Khan’s interviews feel like short films in themselves. While it always feels as though he’s speaking thoughtfully — flitting from humble to arrogant, pompous to philosophical, flighty to self-deprecating — there’s an earnest honesty to him. In an interview from his early days, Khan admits he copies every actor he can only to claim a few seconds later that he doesn’t consider any actor as an idol. This blend of arrogance and humility sounds believable only in Khan.

He’s also one of the few actors who is so unabashedly hungry for laughs that he will do anything to score this. In his interview with AIB (which showed Khan at his unfiltered, unhinged best), the actor jokes about how he gets more upset by the grammatical inaccuracies of abusive messages sent to him on Twitter than the trolling itself. When Anupama Chopra questions Khan about the time he crossdressed and did a pole dance at an award show, Khan admits the act to be in bad taste, but pads the apology with jokes that don’t take away from the quiet gravitas of his regret. Since the mid-Nineties, Khan hasn’t hesitated to make jokes about himself and his life. In an appearance on Rajeev Shukla’s talk show Ru-Ba-Ru, when asked about the lack of rumours about him, Khan replied, “I have hidden my girlfriends in the same place where my black money is stashed away.” In an interview with Farida Jalal, Khan described the elaborate prank he had played on his in-laws, about supposedly converting his wife Gauri to Islam. It’s an anecdote that’s rich with mischief, but through it, he’s also emphasising how important it is for him for everyone to have the freedom to practise their faith as they see fit. Years later, in an interview with Rajeev Masand, when asked about the rivalry with his co-stars and senior actors, Khan quipped that he has hired assassins and plans to get his competition murdered. On one hand, it feels impossibly brave on Khan’s part to crack such dark jokes, but perhaps it’s also a reflection of the faith that he has in the audience that he’s cultivated over the decades — he trusts us to appreciate the punchline, find the meanings, and not misunderstand him.

Part of what makes Khan so endearing in his interviews is that he seems vaguely mystified by his own popularity. In the 1997 Simi Garewal interview, Khan speculates on whether people like him for his luscious lips. In another interview, he admits to not being conventionally handsome. In a 2000 interview on Face to Face, when he’s asked if the song ‘I Am The Best’ applies to himself, Khan says, “It applies to a lot of complex and insecurities I have as an actor.” I doubt any actor in the last 30 years has been asked about their fears of losing their fame as many times as Khan has and each time, Khan has found ways to say with a smile that he would probably not survive that fall. Speaking to Nasreen Munni Kabir in The Inner Life of Shah Rukh Khan, he talked about his work ethic: “The only cure for sadness is to keep working.” Perhaps it’s all part of Khan’s myth-making process.

Many have accused Shah Rukh Khan's movies of being sullied with his stardom, for infusing the characters he plays with his off-screen aura. The idea of audiences flocking to theatres because of a star’s personal charisma is hardly new, but with Khan, the lines between role and persona feel particularly blurred. Even in the most outlandish of cinematic settings, there’s something about his characters that feel like they’re allowing the audience to glimpse the real Shah Rukh Khan. His upcoming release Pathaan,whose release date is January 25, 2023 and also stars Deepika Padukone and John Abraham, is an action thriller, and marks the first time in decades that Khan appears on screen as a character that, with its gun-toting violence, appears to be entirely removed the actor’s off-screen persona.

Twenty years ago, on the show Jeena Isi Ka Naam Hai, Khan made his entry looking like a newly-crowned prince, looking dapper in a black suit. As host Farooq Sheikh invited more people from Khan’s formative years as guests, Khan became more visibly relaxed and often chimed in with jokes, received old familiars’ jibes with good-natured embarrassment. This is the quality that has remained a defining characteristic of the actor even as the world changed around him. Khan’s wit and charm has always stood out, even when his films didn’t. When some of Khan’s films performed below expectation in the 2010s, the actor’s interviews became sharper and wittier than ever before. It was almost as though he was compensating for the on-screen performances that felt lacklustre. The intelligence and grace that shone through in interviews didn’t always reflect in his choice of films.

This year has seen Khan in three cameos and early in 2023, we’ll see him in his first lead role in four years. I won’t lie: Even for a die-hard fan, it has been difficult to sustain high expectations from his coming films. However, it’s been easy to love him for the way he has presented himself to the public gaze, whether it’s through an occasional social media post or because of the dignity he’s embodied when his son was arrested despite there being no incriminating evidence against him. The box office has little to do with the admiration and fandom he inspires. It’s something he’s earned over the decades, through the fleeting moments of public interactions and the time capsules that are televised interviews. Maybe Khan’s forthcoming films won’t work at the box office, maybe they’ll set records. Either way, the love that his fans feel for Khan won’t diminish. The man has given us enough of himself, both on and off-screen, to last us a lifetime. And whatever happens with the comeback films, we’ll always have the interviews.

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