There is a popular opinion, amongst audiences as well as many critics, that Shahrukh Khan’s choice of scripts hit an unimaginable low post-2010. This is not entirely true if you evaluate his films based on his performance, or the content of the films (Dear Zindagi, Fan, Raees, and Zero come to mind). After all, box-office performance is not the sole measure of a film’s merit. Out of these, Dear Zindagi (2016) had a unique role for Shahrukh, an actor who has been unnecessarily typecast in the audiences’ minds while he himself, paradoxically, has always survived on breaking the mould. However, are the healing qualities of the therapist in the Gauri Shinde film completely the doing of the character, Jehangir Khan, or is Shahrukh’s real/off-screen personality – the aura he carries and the affects he generates around him – used in the film to heal Kaira (played by Alia Bhatt)?
The association of ‘healing’ with Shahrukh Khan might sound odd for a man whose wit and sexual charm is most conspicuous about him. Dear Zindagi absorbs this less-recognized affect of the actor into a character who is all about healing – a therapist. I use the term ‘affect’ here in the sense of feelings produced in a collective. While watching the film, one is bound to recall the feelings one has while watching his interviews and TED Talks, where he narrates incidents from his life to inspire and encourage his audience. In a tweet on May 30, 2013, years before the film was released, Shahrukh wrote: “Healing doesn’t mean the damage never existed. It means the damage no longer controls your life.” It is very similar to the crux of what Jehangir Khan tries to make his analysand, Kaira understand. He keeps encouraging her to be free of her fears, her past. “Don’t let your past blackmail your present to ruin a beautiful future,” he says.
A deeper look at the way the character of Jehangir Khan is executed on screen and the methods used by him in his therapy reveal uncanny similarities with the way an actor influences the audience. Especially with Shahrukh Khan, the actor, and Shahrukh Khan, the person (as the public knows him). Jehangir Khan or ‘Jug’ is introduced close to forty-five minutes into the film and Kaira only takes an interest in consulting him because of the lucidity with which he discusses his work in a mental health awareness seminar. Like Shahrukh in his interviews, Jug uses wit and humour, recounting little anecdotes from his own life to get his point across – something Shahrukh does as well. What comes off as inspiring in Shahrukh’s interviews, enables healing in Jug’s therapy sessions. In fact, we realize that inspiration could easily be a way of healing people stuck in limbo.
Jug is also shown to be a fatherly person who is artistic and has befriended the neighbourhood’s kids. He repairs their bicycles and makes funky goggles for them out of automobile gears. One catches a glimpse of Shahrukh as a doting father, something his videos with his children on Twitter and Instagram reveal to the audience quite often. Jug’s conversational and informal methods of healing also involve conducting sessions outdoors, sharing his own emotions sometimes, and facilitating a free flow of affective exchange. For instance, he talks about his son and how he tries to build good memories with him, jokingly adding, “Taaki uske paas koi to achchhi yaadein ho apni therapist ko batane ke liye.” However, this does not mean he is not professional. While he keeps peppering his conversations with his analysand with personal anecdotes, he is also very private, which compels Kaira to say at one point quite grumpily: “Fine! Hide all your secrets!” It is evident that while Shahrukh might talk about his life a lot, he uses it as a frame to illustrate his points. Even when he is off-screen, he is performing as the incredibly hardworking and professional actor he is.
In the film, Kaira is successfully healed only when she is able to properly vent her pent-up anger and hurt, inflicted on her by her parents’ abandonment. As she apologizes for crying in front of him after recounting the painful memories of her childhood, Jug says to her, critiquing Indian parenting: “Rona, gussa, nafrat kuch bhi khul ke express nahi karne diya. Ab pyaar kaise express kare?” So he calls for a little moment of celebration for Kaira’s emotional rant with a mock popping of champagne. He clearly treats it as a successful moment of his function as a therapist, a healer. This can be juxtaposed with the function of ‘catharsis’ that Aristotle, in Poetics, claims to be the mark of an effective tragedy, and the actors playing in it. The audience has an affective relationship with the actor that is one-sided in the same way as that between a therapist and his subject. The only difference is that while the actor never really knows or needs to know about the audience’s personal stories to facilitate their emotional catharsis, the therapist requires knowledge of the analysand’s personal story to heal them. The constraints remain the same in both cases, though. Both services of cathartic healing are time-bound (for an actor, as long as the film or interview lasts) and require payment to be accessed. Finally, just like a fan might mistake the affective connection between them and the actor as a romantic one, Kaira too ends up feeling the same way for Jug at the end of their sessions. Just like an actor, Jug also makes sure the impossibility of a relationship between them that might fall outside his professional realm is clear to her.
The necessarily constructed distance between Kaira, the analysand, and Jug, the adorable therapist, reminds one of the unavailability of an actor or a star to the audience as a requirement of their stardom. To remain always out of reach facilitates the one-way cathartic relationship on screen between the star and his audience. The success of an affective relationship as a paid service requires that no personal relationship is established. The fictional character on screen played by the actor and the professional objectivity of the therapist would lose their healing powers if these boundaries are transgressed. So, if his fans really knew Shahrukh, would they stop crying buckets or feeling rejuvenated at his dimpled smile anymore? That is an interesting question to ponder.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.