Before Shah Rukh Khan the actor became Shah Rukh Khan the brand, he had a certain degree of fluidity and experimentation in his unique and charming roles. He was a psychologically disturbed stalker in Yash Chopra’s iconic Darr (1993) and the forever romantic in Aditya Chopra’s Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995). He also fit very well in tragic-hero roles such as Bhansali’s Devdas (2002) or Nikkhil Advani’s Kal Ho Naa Ho (2003). Not to miss the characters with many layers, such as Amar in Dil Se (1998) or Kabir Khan in Chak De! India (2007). While the likes of DDLJ, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, Dil To Pagal Hai and Kal Ho Naa Ho remain the most iconic and successful films in SRK’s career, we sometimes tend to forget SRK the actor. As the King of Romance turns 55, here’s a look at SRK the actor beyond the star and the times he wove magic on screen for us.
Almost every SRK fan fell in love with him after watching a Kuch Kuch Hota Hai or a Kal Ho Naa Ho. For me personally, too, it was the former. However, an ode to the Badshah would be incomplete without mentioning Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa (1994), which in my opinion is one of his best performances and a criminally underrated film in his career. It deals with unrequited love, but with normalcy. Here, the man-child male lead does not stalk the female lead, nor does he threaten suicide and nor does he bitterly blame the woman. Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa is a light, fun watch where Sunil (Shah Rukh Khan) holds romantic affections for Anna (Suchitra Krishnamoorthy), but the latter does not reciprocate his feelings. He tries several ways to win her over but eventually has to let her go, or, in other words, end up a “loser”.
SRK’s delightful charm makes the film a thoroughly enjoyable experience. It is Shah Rukh the actor at his skilful best. The charm of the film lies in the highly relatable characters and society that it paints through its screenplay. Sunil is neither larger-than-life nor a winner at everything. Khan went on to play many iconic characters in his two-decade-long career, but Sunil remains one of a kind, with his flamboyance and youthful delight. The screenplay builds the character of Sunil through simple, everyday situations where he fails but shines nonetheless by virtue of his good heart. Sunil will remain one of Shah Rukh’s most memorable roles, one before SRK the star was born.
Any piece speaking on Khan the actor is incomplete without mentioning his excellent performances in negative roles. The same Khan who made us swooned with his cute dimples manages to nail dark, grey characters with the same ease. Before Darr came Baazigar, which was Khan’s first venture in a lead role and his first collaboration with Kajol. With Baazigar, both an iconic pair and a star were born. In his very first lead role, the brave actor in Khan managed to nail it with his performance in this highly dramatic Abbas-Mustan thriller. Baazigar was followed by Darr, marking the beginning of a long collaboration with Yash Chopra. In Darr, Khan played an obsessive lover, delivering one of the finest performances in his career. That was again a win for Khan the actor. The spine-chilling scene where Khan’s Rahul speaks to his dead mother on the phone, bears a strong resemblance to Norman Bates from Hitchcock’s Psycho. With Darr, Shah Rukh the actor performed with excellence the role of an antagonist. Khan also played a negative role in Anjaam, with a character similar to Darr, but the magnificence of Darr remained unmatched.
Shah Rukh Khan’s passion for roles with grey shades does not end with the likes of Darr and Anjaam. Apart from his portrayal of Don in the remake of Amitabh Bachchan’s Don, Khan attempted characters with negative shades in the fairly recent Fan and Raees. In Fan, Khan plays a double role. A superstar and a fan, both at once. The character of Gaurav (the fan) had many layers, a character with dark, deep and complex sides to him. None but SRK could have played it so effortlessly on screen. He excels equally as Aryan Khanna, a superstar. In one scene, Aryan looks at his aging face in the mirror, while in another scene Gaurav says “Gaurav hai toh Aryan hai, Gaurav nahi toh Aryan kuch bhi nahi” – reminding Aryan that it is his audience who have made him a star today. Although the film was a commercial failure, SRK as Gaurav will remain one of his best performances in recent times. The film had its problems, a lousy second half and over-done sequences, but Khan delves deep into the several dark layers of the character and brings it to life effortlessly.
After romance and darkness, if there’s anything else King Khan nails, it is tragedy. The Mani Ratnam-SRK collaboration resulted in the poetic Dil Se, where Khan played Amar, a Delhi-based radio broadcaster. Seeing it from the lens of 2020, it does seem extremely problematic with its romanticisation of stalking. However, Khan’s performance as the hopeless lover fits beautifully in this Mani Ratnam classic against the backdrop of political turmoil and terrorism. There are a many problems with Amar, but the intensity with which Khan plays the role manages to capture the deeply tragic yet poetic theme of the film. Highly regarded as one of SRK’s most mature performances, this doomed romance was another unconventional addition to Khan’s filmography.
Adding to the list of celebrated tragedies is the highly melodramatic, over-the-top Devdas directed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali. Popularly considered as one of SRK’s best roles, Devdas was nowhere close to the Bengali novel Devdas by Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay or the Dilip Kumar film of the same name. Bhansali’s vision was studded with gold and bronze sets, swirling top shots, streams of tears and sindoor, and exquisite drama. Khan’s Devdas is not as sharp as Dilip Kumar’s but he is heart-breaking and wretched. Indeed, it takes a lot to make the audience cry for a self-destructive, weak character like Devdas, but SRK does it as he says, “Kaun kambakht bardasht karne ko peeta hai?” scoring the final goal with the line. Devdas was followed by the popular and celebrated Kal Ho Naa Ho, where Khan played the terminally ill Aman. The character was a loose recreation of Rajesh Khanna’s role in Anand and SRK nails it as both the ray of hope and the romantic lover boy. Truly, he was the ray of hope in the otherwise ordinary and lengthy script.
SRK the actor lives on. Though hidden beneath his golden stardom and stardust, it is the actor who performs and delivers. Consider arguably his best performance to date, in Chak De! India, as the brooding, dejected hockey coach Kabir Khan. SRK in Chak De! India is at his brilliant best. It is a performance of a lifetime, an unparallelled, beautifully written character with a range of emotions, which Khan brings to life with efficacy. Watch him in the last few minutes of the final match, where Kabir Khan’s team finally wins and Khan breaks down in tears. Sheer brilliance.
Shah Rukh the star delivered as did Shah Rukh the actor, all at once. He sheds his monumental stardom and delivers the unconventional Baazigar, Darr and Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa, while within years he runs through mustard fields singing to ‘Tujhe dekha toh’ (DDLJ). Years later, SRK the actor breaks through again, delivering Swades and My Name is Khan. Shah Rukh Khan’s magnificence lies not in his effortless stretching of arms, but in the vibrancy and fulfilment with which he delivers his performance, be it the highly commercial Om Shanti Om and Chennai Express or the sharp, deep Chak De! India. When you watch him on screen, it is a sort of magic that is unique to him, which is what makes him special. For there will not be another Shah Rukh Khan. Raj Malhotra or Kabir Khan, it is that one man who can nail it, and none other.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.