Like most of the Indian internet, I dug the 152-second trailer of Pathaan, the “YRF Spy Universe” movie that marks the comeback of Shah Rukh Khan. There are hero-entry shots and money shots, stunts and dialogue-fuelled swag. There’s the silliness of Dhoom and the smartness of War. And there’s a 57-year-old Bollywood superstar finally throwing his hat in the action-hero ring, hot on the heels of an ageless 60-year-old Hollywood superstar reshaping the soul of big-screen entertainment. Khan looks ready, and it remains to be seen if he can cruise at this new altitude.
But there’s a meta moment towards the end of the trailer that made me sit up. It more or less mirrors the actor’s own hiatus since Zero (2018), and the sheer ‘necessity’ of his comeback. It features Khan – who plays an iconic soldier returning from exile to capture a deadly terrorist – delivering a patriotic punchline. The translation reads: “A soldier does not ask what his country can do for him; he asks what he can do for his country”. Followed by a crystal-clear “Jai Hind”. It’s not like Khan hasn’t played a soldier (Fauji, Main Hoon Na, Veer-Zaara) or a flag-waving patriot (Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani, Swades) before. But those were simpler times – the notion of a Hindi film star was shaped more by artistic merit than religious identity. Nationalism was an honest byproduct of a post-liberalization democracy; nobody cared for surnames as long as the entertainment came. Kids like myself even assumed that ‘Khan’ was a synonym for greatness.
It’s different today. This is now a country conscious of the fact that three of its biggest superstars since 1990 are Muslim. In light of the bigoted Boycott hashtags over the last few years, I found myself pondering about this Jai Hind moment in two ways. One: Shah Rukh Khan is currently in the real-world version of Chak De! India, where he is expected to ‘prove’ his allegiance to this country through the work he does. Two: Khan is returning in a movie called ‘Pathaan’ in a Republic Day week, as a Muslim super-soldier whose very presence signifies that patriotism and heroism are not solely Hindu birthrights. Perspective lies in the eyes of the beholder. So is it a punchline of compromise or courage? I’m leaning towards the latter. It’s sad that the discourse has reached this point, but it would be naive to pretend that Shah Rukh Khan is just another celebrity. He is now a feeling – pure, complicated, political, personal, cultural – that transcends cinema itself. He is both a story and a statement, a survivor and a reminder. He is an outsider scrutinized for behaving like an insider, and an insider gifted with the hunger of an outsider. This burden of context might colour our experience of Pathaan. Now more than ever, it’s impossible to divorce the man from the meaning. And maybe that’s not such a bad thing. For better or worse, the fate of Pathaan will say more about this country than the quality of the film itself.
But the fact is also that Khan took a breather following a string of unsuccessful roles. As much as I admire what he stands for by merely being famous, the shine of his four-and-a-half-year absence is bound to wear off at some point in 2023. As it must. Pathaan is reportedly the first of three releases this year. At some stage, perhaps the external noise will fade away, and all that might be left is an embattled actor embarking on his fourth decade in a fragile film industry. All that remains is a movie soldier emerging from self-imposed exile. Dramatic but true. As it turns out, his career can be neatly divided into three disparate phases – or three distinct Shah Rukh Khans, as it were.
How did he get here? How did we get here? It’s a journey worth tracing, and it’s a time machine worth activating. On the day of Pathaan’s release, then, here’s a decade-wise breakdown of the SRK story so far:
To paraphrase Mary Hopkin: Those were the days my friend, we thought they’d never end, he’d sing and dance forever and a day. Khan’s meteoric rise in the Nineties – from the fearless ‘Fauji boy’ to the King of Romance – makes for a rousing coming-of-age film of its own. Despite the concurrent rise of a versatile Aamir and a cheeky Salman, it was Shah Rukh who embedded himself into the conscience of a country waking up to post-globalization Bollywood. Like cricket counterpart Sachin Tendulkar, SRK became a genre-fluid brand in an age of aspiration. What distinguished him the most was that he wasn’t averse to risk. He was introduced as a shaggy-haired striver before he broke out as an anti-hero, until he ultimately sealed his legacy as the lover-boy next door. The beauty of this phase is that Khan was, for a large part, unaffected by the frills of stardom. He was still feeling his way around, throwing characters onto the wall to see what sticks. For every Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995), there was a Chaahat (1996). For every Baazigar (1993), there was an English Babu Desi Mem (1995). For every Mani Ratnam and Kamal Haasan, there was a Subhash Ghai. Not everything worked, and it didn’t matter. It wasn’t until Dil To Pagal Hai (1997) that you started to see a few trademarks and patterns; that’s when Khan, like a rockstar in sold-out stadiums, started to notice the jumbotron and serenade an audience.
Best performance: Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa
Still the finest role of his entire career, Khan’s exam-failing and girl-losing Sunil upended the norms of Bollywood masculinity. It has aged like fine (port)wine, too, not least because the Goan dramedy oozes a toothy innocence that’s all but extinct in this era of curated small-town-ness and overcooked underdogs.
Worst performance: Ram Jaane
1995 was a year of dizzying highs (DDLJ, Karan Arjun) and ghastly lows (Oh Darling! Yeh Hai India!, Guddu, Zamaana Deewana, Trimurti). But the absolute nadir was Khan’s tapori-gangster act (and that red bandana) in Ram Jaane, which came a mere three months after Aamir Khan’s Rangeela. This was the first of many instances where Khan’s desire to eclipse his competition – rather than forge his own path – would become his undoing.
Guilty pleasure: Josh
Baadshah? Sure. Duplicate? Probably. Koyla? Maybe. But Khan’s catholic motorcycle-goon in Josh felt like cool closure for those Ram-Jaane-sized misfires.
Hrithik Roshan hit the ground running, Aamir Khan changed the grammar of storytelling and box-office validation, Akshay Kumar found his funny bone, Sanjay Dutt redefined the social comedy, and Salman Khan returned as a mass hero. Initially, this golden age seemed to liberate Shah Rukh Khan from the pressure of ‘ruling’ the roost. So he wore multiple hats (some of which had rabbits in them) – producer, talk-show host, charming interviewee, awards host, IPL owner, showman, businessman, cameo specialist, actor and prestige-picture star. His on-screen roles became older and wiser: King, tragic, scientist, ghost, coach, husband, bitter husband, older husband, Bollywood star, father. The romances became less aspirational and more practical. Believe it or not, this was a near-perfect decade for Khan in terms of consolidating his talent, tempering his fame and playing his age. For every Devdas and Asoka, there was a Paheli. For every Karan Johar and Aditya Chopra, there was a Shimit Amin. One might in fact be hard-pressed to recall a terrible Shah Rukh movie in this era – no, not even Hum Tumhare Hain Sanam. But it’s also true that the biggest commercial, cultural and critical hits came from his contemporaries. Movies like Lagaan, Gadar, Munna Bhai M.B.B.S., Dil Chahta Hai, Ghajini and Wanted expanded the parameters of commercial Bollywood. This mattered. By 2010, inevitably, the FOMO kicked in for Khan. He stopped marching to his own beat and joined the numbers race – the influence of which would only be evident in the coming decade.
Best performance: Swades
If I had my way (I do but you know what I mean), my weakness for Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi would’ve hijacked this paragraph. Or even the Luck By Chance cameo. But at a purely objective level, Khan’s restrained ode to the motherland in Ashutosh Gowarikar’s film made patriotism feel personal and elegant at once.
Worst performance: Hum Tumhare Hain Sanam
It’s the casting. You can’t have Shah Rukh Khan play the jealous jerk in a movie that also features Salman Khan. It just doesn’t add up. To make matters worse, Shah Rukh did it much better in Chalte Chalte.
Guilty pleasure: One 2 Ka 4
Don’t be a hater. I’m going to stand by this even twenty years later. What’s not to love about a grave, crime-thriller version of Hum Hain Rahi Pyar Ke?
The decline was neither quick nor painless. This was the decade that broke everything except box-office records. Terms like the 100-crore club were in vogue, and it felt like Shah Rukh Khan wanted a piece of every cake. As a result, he strived to be everyone but himself – a multiplex hero, a single-screen hero, a hero’s hero. The slow-motion strutting and fan service increased ten-fold, almost as if Khan were posing for still photographs that just happen to be in motion. Ironically, his sharp-witted interviews made it tougher to accept the on-screen rot. The self-reverence lost its sheen: Rahul from Chennai Express and Raj from Dilwale were pale imitations of the past. Even his Ae Dil Hai Mushkil cameo felt strange. It’s not like he didn’t try. But he also tried too hard. His technical innovations in movies like Ra.One, Fan and Zero were stylish, but they came at the cost of substance. Somehow, every kind of filmmaker – Farah Khan, Rohit Shetty, Imtiaz Ali, Yash Chopra, Rahul Dholakia, Aanand L. Rai, Farhan Akhtar – made their worst films with Khan. We often wonder why superstars who have nothing left to prove don’t experiment more. Khan’s trajectory in this decade suggests that the prospect of waning is more potent than the promise of reinvention. The bright spots, like his rugged-psychiatrist turn in Dear Zindagi, were few and far between. But as the line goes: The night is darkest before the dawn. Never mind that the character who said this in a superhero movie was broken by an unhinged clown.
Best performance: Fan
Fan is to Shah Rukh Khan what Jagga Jasoos is to Ranbir Kapoor – heartbreaking, career-altering failures that might have made them allergic to the very risks that shaped them. Khan’s double role was committed and edgy, with shades of Darr and all the big swings that once defined him, but the film fell apart after a riveting first half. Zero was the final nail. If his recent cameos in Laal Singh Chaddha and Brahmastra are anything to go by, however, even a ‘safe’ SRK is worth betting on.
Worst performance: Dilwale
The contenders are strong, but Rohit Shetty’s awful SRK-Kajol tribute starring SRK and Kajol could have been an HR email. Every performance in it felt like a digital autograph.
Guilty Pleasure: Ra.One
Or more specifically, the gripping local-train chase, which I still enjoy from time to time, wondering what could have been if the writing had echoed the film’s visual effects.
Overall, two (decades) out of three isn’t a bad strike rate. There’s also the matter of sentimentality. Distance has made the heart grow fonder – and needier for all things Shah Rukh Khan. And for reasons not in his control, the stakes are higher now. The chants are louder. The penalty shootout is on. The goalie is ready. All she has to do is look at Khan, a man who can win the day with gestures alone.