In the documentary The Inner World of Shahrukh Khan (2005) by Nasreen Munni Kabir, Shahrukh Khan, while shooting for director Farah Khan’s Main Hoon Na (2005), describes his make-up for his role as ‘metrosexual’. The Oxford Dictionary defines the term as “a heterosexual urban man who enjoys shopping, fashion, and similar interests traditionally associated with women or gay men.” Bollywood has, especially post-377, contributed to breaking stereotypes of gender and sexuality but the association of such a word with the lead romantic hero (who is supposed to be a chivalrous, heterosexual Übermensch) seems much ahead of its time in the early 2000s. And that too made by the hero himself! In my article, I shall explore two of the many iconic characters played by Shahrukh Khan in the 90s and early 2000s that offer alternative conceptions of masculinity and male sexuality. The films are Yes Boss (1997) and Paheli (2005).
In director Aziz Mirza’s Yes Boss (1997), Shahrukh plays a Rahul, stooge to his womanizing boss, Siddharth (played by Aditya Pancholi). The contrast between the masculinity of both these characters is interesting to note, especially in the recurrence of the association of Rahul’s character with a joker to underline his impotence against his boss who controls him completely. In the opening itself, Rahul appears wearing a pink tie with Marilyn Monroe’s face printed over it. He takes care of his boss’ extra-marital affairs while his boss is busy by pleasing the women with flowers and gifts and noting down their complaints. In exchange, he gets paid well and his dream of owning an office in the company is dangled in front of him like bait. He knows his boss intimately – from what gift to buy for his wife to which of his coat pockets hold his cash – and he keeps doing his boss’s bidding with the hope of one day achieving his dreams through his benevolence. He is a lesser male whose only way to fulfill his desires is through appeasing a more powerful Übermensch. In these ways, he is very similar to the women his boss dates (especially to Seema) – getting manipulated and cheated while dreaming of realising their desire for a happy and prosperous life under care of a rich businessman.
Rahul’s socio-economic weakness and his dreams of owning a big office in an advertising agency seem to be the root cause of his emasculation. The film presents these instances of emasculation quite brilliantly at various moments. Most of these instances are through the trope of the joker; for example, in the song ‘Suniye toh’ where Rahul tries to please Seema (played by Juhi Chawla), a woman who has been dating his boss, by wearing a series of costumes and dancing on the streets. While the words of the song are a romantic appreciation of her beauty (Rahul is in love with her), he enacts it through ridiculous somersaults and charades, trying to cheer her up because her date (Siddharth) could not make it. Another scene, just before the song, ‘Churi baji hai’, has Rahul sitting in front of a mirror, decking himself up in jewellery and a smudge of sindoor on his nose-tip, trying to confront his position with respect to his boss – that of a clown pandering to his superior’s needs of entertainment.
It is when his friend points out that he cannot ever win Seema over because he is only a puppet in the hands of his boss, that Rahul tries to turn his lack of upper class masculinity into an alternative form of masculinity. He tricks his boss in various ways to keep him away from Seema quite unlike the Übermensch hero who beats up the bad guys to save his beloved from their grasp. As he says, owning his social position, “Joker agar baazi bana sakta hai toh baazi bigaar bhi sakta hai”. All of this works very well until Seema and Rahul both realize that they are being duped and manipulated with promises that Siddharth has no intention of fulfilling – Rahul will never get an office in Siddharth’s company and Seema will never get to marry him. They are able to walk out of the situation in the end when Seema falls for Rahul, undergoing a change in her perspectives on ‘the desirable man’. When in the beginning, she says that: “Do kamzor insaan ek kamyab zindagi nahi bana sakte” so “Hasne hasane ke liye thik hai Rahul” but nothing else, she implies that a man who earns less and lacks social capital is ‘weak’ and therefore, less masculine. But after the transformation of her mentality, she ends up saying that she was in love with the attributes of Rahul’s clownish personality (the broken scooter, a diary to record expenses far exceeding what he actually spent for his boss’ affairs, and so on), which did not include taking her to expensive restaurants and buying her costly gifts: “Mujhe toh tumhara ye scooter, wo diary, aur wo 200 rupay ke phool yaad hai.” Praseeda Gopinath in her article, “‘A feeling you cannot resist’: Shahrukh Khan, affect, and the re-scripting of male stardom in Hindi cinema”, has written on how Shahrukh shifted the very traits of masculinity (generally attributed to the romantic hero) into the sphere of the traditionally ‘feminine’: “from anger (Amitabh Bachchan’s Angry Young Man) to vulnerability, sensitivity, and the ability to feel and endure pain”, but at the same time retaining its “heteronormative privilege”. (Gopinath, p. 307) So, while Rahul might be portrayed as having a different kind of masculinity, softer, clownish, not very aggressive and virile, he would still not qualify as ‘queer’ but more appropriately as pushing the pre-drawn and rigid boundaries of conventional heteronormative masculinity.
Paheli (2005), directed by veteran actor Amol Palekar, has a very unique take on the lead hero’s sexuality, especially when they are double and one of them is not even a human being. Based on a folktale of Rajasthan, the story goes that Lachchi (played by Rani Mukherjee) gets married to a merchant, Kishanlal (played by Shahrukh Khan), who is indifferent to everything except business. A ghost (also played by Shahrukh Khan) falls in love with her. So, when Kishanlal leaves the day after his wedding on a business trip for five years, the ghost takes his form and starts to live with Lachchi in the family mansion. However, the film clearly highlights the contrasting masculinities of not only Kishanlal and the ghost but also between them and the male head of the joint family, Kishanlal’s father.
Kishanlal is an obedient son to his father and coyly submits to the chalked out conventions of gender roles in their family and community. He would never dream of displeasing his father, according to whom business should be the sole pleasure of a man because everything else is unmanly. No wonder when the ghost enters the mansion and everyone thinks Kishanlal has returned midway from his business trip, the father complains loudly that Kishanlal has now become useless because “Ya toh dhandha karo ya lugaai ka palloo pakar kar ghumo.” Showing any signs of devotion to the wife is a big no-no for ‘real men’. So, we see Kishanlal on the day of his wedding deeply engaged in calculations, never pausing to look at his wife even on their wedding night. His sexual desires are also shackled by those dictates of masculinity as he excuses his refusal to have sex on the wedding night in these words: “Ma ka kehna thik hi hai, ek raat ke liye sareer ki chah kyu jagayi jai.”
The ghost is, on the other hand, blinded by his love for Lachchi, and he has the courage to transgress two boundaries: one of conventional masculinity even though he takes the form of a man who made strong attempts to adhere to the standards of masculinity set by his father, and the other, of the two spheres of the human and the supernatural. He embodies a unique kind of queerness in which his feelings are like a human but he is bodiless like a spirit. Against the dictates of masculinity in the family, he expresses his love and desire for Lachchi all day long, singing songs, dancing, and reciting poetry. He confesses to her the truth about his identity in their first meeting, saying that all that is real is his love for her. The puppets who accompany him comment: “Chhal kapat, vishwasghaat toh mardon ke liye baaye haath ka khel hai.”, hinting at the unusualness of this attitude in men. He lets her know that if she so wishes, he would leave, which endears him even more to her because nobody in the family ever gave any value to her, a woman’s, wish.
Not only does he have human feelings, he also has sexual desires, which all the more hints at his queerness. However, even the way he enacts his desires as he seduces her are feminine. Seduction is generally considered a woman’s act not only in society but also in most commercial Bollywood cinema. Reena Dube in her chapter, “Postmodern Cinema of Seduction” in Seduction in Popular Culture, Psychology, and Philosophy (edited by Constantino Martins et al.) argues along these lines in context of Paheli that the switching “of the masculine lover into the feminized position” implies “the feminization of the figure of the ghost”. (Martins et al., p. 141)
Therefore, while Kishanlal ends up longing for Lachchi and returns after two years to the mansion, it is the ghost whom Lachchi loves and despite his successful efforts in adhering to the standards of masculinity fixed by the patriarch, he still remains unaccepted in his wife’s heart. The film quite endearingly refuses to reward the conventionally masculine character with a happy ending.
This is not to assume that Shahrukh, in any way, defines and fixes a new but single kind of masculinity of the romantic hero. Right from Deewana to Zero, the masculinities he has played are never fixed; they keep evolving and redefining themselves. While his hero might be aggressive, he might be disabled in some way that threatens his masculinity (Zero). Or he might be completely inept at taking household responsibilities and pays for it heavily (Chalte Chalte) or he might be so psychotic and obsessed as a lover he pays the price by failing to win the woman’s heart in the end (Darr). I end with hoping that he continues to challenge his own roles that he set as precedents, chipping at his craft constantly even after close to 28 years of ruling Bollywood.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.