26 years, almost 100 credits to his name – Shah Rukh Khan has had a glorious career doing hero, villain, comedian and cameo. These are my favourites:
5. Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa (1994)
Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa released in 1994 after Darr and Baazigar but it was shot before stardom set in. Shah Rukh is Sunil, a bumbling, clumsy, aspiring musician in Goa who is forever chasing an unattainable dream – Anna. At one point, the local priest asks him – Sunil tum hamesha khidki se kyun jata hai? Khidki se pehle darwaza kyun nahi try karta kabhi? But Sunil can’t stick to the straight and narrow path. He marches to the tune of a different drummer. And that’s what makes him special.
There is a sweetness and innocence in this performance that Shah Rukh never matched again. Sunil does silly things – he lies to Anna and to his parents. But even his mistakes are so good-natured that it’s impossible to be angry. Anthony, the local don, tells Sunil that he is a sacha lover. There is a purity in his emotions. Of course by conventional standards, Sunil is a loser. He doesn’t even get the girl in the end. But director Kundan Shah and Shah Rukh makes us care for him and root for him. There is a lovely scene in which Sunil is trying to fob off Anna’s other, far more eligible suitor Chris by telling him that she’s a flirt. Through it, Sunil orders cream rolls and insists that Chris eat them. It’s desperate and funny and tender. I don’t think Shah Rukh did another character who had the same sort of youthful vulnerability. Which is why Sunil is a keeper.
4. Devdas (2002)
Devdas is another word for excess. A title card reads that the film is a tribute to the genius of Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay (he wrote the novel in 1917), P. C. Barua (he directed the Bengali and Hindi versions in 1935 and 1936 respectively) and Bimal Roy (he directed the what is considered to be the definitive version with Dilip Kumar in 1955). It’s a noble gesture but I doubt any of these gentlemen would recognize Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s version as Devdas.
This was the first unveiling of Sanjay’s instinct for opulence and opera. Everything is dramatic from the zamindar’s haveli to Chandramukhi’s kotha to Paro’s longing for Devdas who here comes back from London after 10 years – so Paro lights a diya for him and keeps it going the entire decade. Sanjay’s vision is all about swirling top shots, reams of flying fabric and heightened emotion. Shah Rukh is very far from his comfort zone of the urbane, contemporary Indian. For most of the film, he’s in a dhoti, either crying or drinking.
And yet, Shah Rukh manages to plumb the singular tragedy of Devdas – a great lover but an indecisive, weak man who self-destructs after he loses Paro. Watch him in the scene when Devdas comes to meet Paro just before she gets married. He had sent her a letter saying they must part but now he’s falling apart himself. His expressions combine embarrassment, arrogance and regret. He hits her with her own necklace and then is immediately sorry. Or watch him in the scene when he shuts down his haughty father who is insulting Paro. Later in the film, he arrives for his father’s funeral drunk and then makes polite conversation as though he’s talking about a stranger. It’s heart-breaking.
Of course the litmus test is that classic dialogue – when Chandramukhi asks Devdas to stop drinking because he won’t be able to bear it, Devdas replies – “Kaun kambhakkht bardaasht karne ko peeta hai?” When he says this, Shah Rukh doesn’t have the depth or finesse of Dilip Kumar but he has an arrogance and vulnerability that make this Devdas memorable. The film is a sensory overload but Devdas’ heartache pierces through all the baroque splendor and that is an achievement.
3. Kal Ho Naa Ho (2003)
Kal Ho Naa Ho is the pinnacle of what I call the Shah Rukh Khan charm offensive. Here he plays Aman, a terminally ill man, who is so noble and large-hearted, that he engineers that the woman he loves – Naina – marries her best friend – Rohit – instead of Aman himself because he’s not going to be around too long. Kal Ho Naa Ho is basically a mash-up of two Hrishikesh Mukherjee films – Bawarchi and Anand – and Shah Rukh becomes the modern day avatar of Rajesh Khanna – exemplifying the line, “Zindagi badi honi chahiye, lambi nahin.” So Aman is also the farishta or angel who brings love and laughter into Naina’s tragic life. Early in the film, Naina, her mother and her younger siblings are praying. Naina says: “Dear god, if you’re listening, in andheron mein thodi si roshni le aao, thodi si roshni.”And on cue, the light goes on in the neighboring house and Aman walks into the balcony, wearing only a shirt in the snow. The next day, it’s summer.
Kal Ho Naa Ho is filled with these ridiculously convenient plots twists, obviously manipulative emotional moments and problematic gender politics- at one point, Aman concocts a romantic scheme which he describes as ‘chhe din ladki in‘. But the one thing that helps you overlook all of this is Shah Rukh in all his glory – as both romantic hero and the ultimate family man. Of course there is no subtlety here – he’s animated, energetic and even when he’s dying, fabulously over the top.
Watch him in the scene at a train station when he must convince Naina that Rohit loves her by reading from his diary, except that the pages are empty so he starts to reveal his own emotions for her, pretending that these are Rohit’s words. There is such a desperate longing in his eyes. Or in another scene, Rohit and Naina do the salsa together while he watches, god-like from a balcony above. The strains of the title song begin. Aman purses his lips, looks into the distance. Cut to him walking on Brooklyn Bridge. He spreads his arms and sings, har pal yahan jee bhar jiyo because of course, kal ho naa ho. It’s irresistible.
2. Fan (2016)
Fan is a fascinating but flawed study of celebrity and the reverential relationship we have with our stars. The film is a hall of mirrors with Shah Rukh playing a thinly disguised version of himself as Aryan Khanna the superstar. He also plays Gaurav Chandna, the pathologically obsessed fan. It’s a masterful double act.
Gaurav is easily one of the most beguiling characters in Shah Rukh’s oeuvre. When the film begins, this middle-class boy whose whole life is centered around his love for Aryan comes off as naïve and sweet. Three years in a row, Gaurav has won the Super Sitara contest in his colony, doing Aryan imitations. There’s a wonderful sequence in which he copies Aryan’s every move even as clips from Aryan’s films play behind him. It’s hard to tell what’s real and what’s imitation.
Aided by skillful special effects, prosthetics and make up, Shah Rukh creates a wonderfully complex character who seems at once, endearing but also demented and dangerous. As Gaurav becomes more unhinged, you see hints of Shah Rukh’s Darr and Baazigar days. But even as the plot becomes widely implausible, the character remains believable. What’s impressive is that Aryan also has depth. The film takes potshots at stardom – in one scene a character says, “Chahe jail jaye ya shadi pe nache, attitude kam nahin hota hai stars ka.” In another, Aryan is examining his aging face in the mirror. He seems hollowed out by fame and his own myth.
Fan was a commercial failure but performance-wise, the film is a resounding success. I don’t know that any other actor could have made us invest in a character as darkly complicated as Gaurav. So when, at the end, he flings himself off a terrace and goes down smiling, surrounded by twinkling fairy lights, you are genuinely sad. I wished it had ended differently both for Gaurav and this film.
1. Chak De! India (2007)
It’s the penalty shoot-out in the women’s hockey World Cup in last few minutes of Chak De! India. The Australian player drives the ball into the center. The goal keeper successfully blocks it. The Indian team whoops with delight. Their coach, Kabir Khan, who has engineered this miraculous win looks on, unbelieving and stunned. He staggers back and tears up, looking at the Indian flag. It’s an unforgettable mix of underdog victory and patriotism, which results in 100 percent audience satisfaction.
For me, this film is Shah Rukh’s finest hour. Directed by Shimit Amin and written by Jaideep Sahni, Chak De! India isn’t just the best sports film made in Hindi. It’s also the best showcase for Shah Rukh the actor. It’s the story of a disgraced hockey captain, leading a rag tag band of women – another character calls them the rakshason ki sena – to victory in the World Cup. The love story here is between Kabir and hockey, between Kabir and India, between Kabir and his quest for victory. So we don’t get the outstretched arms pose or any of the mannerisms that made him Bollywood’s most successful romantic star. Neither do we have the distraction of stylish clothing or snazzy cars or glamorous locations. What we get instead is an actor shorn of vanity. Kabir is vulnerable. His eyes brim with pain and regret. The humiliation of his defeat and subsequent shame has scarred his soul. When he grabs a rebellious player’s arm and says, “Har team mein sirf ek hi gunda ho sakta hai aur iss team ka gunda main hoon,” you believe him. There are some dark places in Kabir’s broken heart and watching him heal himself through this team is an exhilarating journey.
It’s a career-defining performance in a film that has lost none of its impact. Each time, I see the sattar minute climactic speech, I get goosebumps and the hard-earned victory still makes me cry. Besides, Kabir is a ferocious champion of women. What’s not to love?