One of the most intriguing experiments of 2018 is going to be the Aanand L. Rai – Shah Rukh Khan film Zero. The title announcement dropped on January 1st giving us a glimpse of an Indian superstar as a vertically challenged man – i.e. a dwarf (the word has been deemed politically incorrect). I'll admit that the visual of Shah Rukh as a four-foot tall bon vivant took some getting used to but I immediately wanted to applaud his and Aanand's ambition and leap of faith. You might argue that role should have been played by a vertically challenged actor instead of India's biggest romantic star digitized to look challenged but you can't accuse Shah Rukh of playing safe.
Meanwhile, our other superstar Salman Khan delivered yet another blockbuster Tiger Zinda Hai, which turned out to be the most successful Hindi film of the year. As Tiger, Salman does what he does best – play the superhero without the cape, the saviour of men, women and children, a spy who tames wolves with his bare hands and takes down armies – essentially James Bond and Iron Man rolled into one irresistible, morally upright, patriot superman. We've seen him do this before and yet we go back repeatedly to partake in the same celebration of not just good over evil but specifically Salman over evil.
Which made me wonder – why do we insist that Shah Rukh reinvent himself but we reward Salman for playing the same role again and again? Aamir Khan isn't part of this conversation because he's never had a persona. He is the shape-shifter who becomes whatever the role needs him to be. Shah Rukh and Salman have both successfully nurtured images for more than two decades. But while Salman's superman still has an overwhelmingly strong connect with audiences, Shah Rukh's romantic hero seems frayed with time and overuse.
What makes one formula so much more durable than the other? In 2016, right after the release of Sultan, I interviewed director Ali Abbas Zafar – who went on to direct Tiger Zinda Hai. I asked him about the struggle of working with a superstar – how do you pander to the myth of a larger-than-life actor but also evolve it? Ali said that it was a 'huge struggle.' He said: "From the level of the scripting to the level of shooting, the biggest struggle was to keep the star power of Salman intact and yet to rediscover a superstar. There is a certain expectation that automatically comes from you as soon as there is a Salman Khan, Aamir Khan or Shah Rukh Khan in the film. And with all those expectations you still need to have your voice in it. You can't lose your own voice, what you believe in." Ali ended by saying that when a director does manage to achieve this difficult balance between his own artistic voice and the load of the superstar's myth and somehow manages to satisfy the actor's fans, he should not be proud. "One should only say, bach gaye.'
Has Salman's persona endured better than Shah Rukh's because the former has found directors who can find the balance, who can both pander to fans and evolve the myth just enough to make the film seem new? In the last five years, Shah Rukh has taken bigger risks in terms of material. He has worked with directors like Maneesh Sharma and Rahul Dholakia who don't fall into his comfort zone. But the films that emerged – Fan and Raees – seemed compromised. The director's voice seemed buried under the commercial compulsions of a superstar project.
Aanand L. Rai is one of the most distinctive and successful storytellers in Hindi cinema. His films – even the ones he produces like last year's Shubh Mangal Saavdhan – have a wonderful homegrown sensibility. I hope he finds that elusive balance. I look forward to Zero. And I hope at the end of it, we can all say, bach gaye!