Upon examining the leading men within the Hindi film industry, I tend to categorize them within two separate group – actors and stars. The actors consist of immersive performers who serve a sense of realism and relatability to their audiences. Examples within this include Manoj Bajpayee, Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Kay Kay Menon. In contrast, those who I categorize as stars are the personalities who bring out their individual qualities within the formulaic genre of commercial cinema. Throughout my childhood this included the likes of Govinda, Salman Khan, Akshay Kumar, Hrithik Roshan, and of course the king himself – Shah Rukh Khan. While some might say it is unjust to pigeonhole these personalities into separate subsets, it is irrefutable that the majority of the latter group's creative endeavors have been an exercise of repetition to serve the demands of their financiers, and rightfully so – after all, alongside a form of art, filmmaking is also a business. And the value of an actor depends on his ability to perform at the box-office. As a screenwriter and independent film-maker myself, I understand that this decision-making of Art-versus-Entertainment is no easy task. I would imagine this serves true to Shah Rukh Khan's journey as well.
To understand my perspective on Shah Rukh Khan, I'd like to first take you back to Chicago, Illinois in the United States, where I was living during the year of 1996. While I was only 4 years old at the time, I vividly remember the first image of watching Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge on VHS. Sunflower fields and the Swiss Alps – these images cemented for me the iconic wonder of a Yash Raj cinematic experience. After being spellbound by the sheer brilliance of the film's colour and cinematography, I began examining the characters on screen and the reactions that were invoked within my family members while watching the film. In particular, everyone loved this guy named Raj. He had a rare combination of witty sophistication and an aura of humility which was something new in contemporary film characters. To me, the character of Raj and his repetitive themes throughout the future of YRF would set the blueprint of what the modern man should aspire to be. As a first generation Indian-American, it provided me with a sense of balance, establishing an equilateral respect for both eastern values and western liberalism. It is probably the only reason that unlike most Indian-Americans of my generation, I have the ability to fluently speak and understand Hindi.
As I grew up, throughout my teenage years, my interest in cinema expanded. I began watching films which competed at the global stage and questioned: In all of its history, why have there only been three Hindi films nominated for the Academy Awards? Why not more? After all, the cinemas of Japan, South Korea, France, Mexico and Brazil generally have all been nominated on a consistent basis. Why not India? Why do these brilliant films of Shah Rukh Khan not receive this kind of recognition? I later realized why. The answer was within the audience's assessment of drama versus melodrama – the root of which is inscribed in culture. I had come to a realization that the way the west views family and relationships is a far more practical than that of the "extended family" and "one love" culture of India. Due to this wedge between cultural outlook of East and West, one could never realistically expect Indian films to gain kind recognition at a global stage – at least not during those times.
But in 2010, a very significant shift in filmmaking was about to take place, which was expected to shape the next decade of Indian Cinema. The previous decade concluded with a strong promise of realistic filmmaking. Amidst the commercial successes of Kal Ho Naa Ho, Veer Zaara, and Om Shanti Om, a new wave of directors such as Farhan Akhtar, Anurag Kashyap, Vishal Bharadwaj, and Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra emerged with their own films, which in contrast, held a realistic and content-driven narrative. Films such as Dil Chahta Hai, Omkara, and Rang De Basanti pushed the tonality of what was expected to be the future of the Hindi film industry. While Shah Rukh Khan's collaborations with Aditya Chopra, Karan Johar, and Farah Khan continued through the 2000s, they primarily remained focused on the same love stories shot in scenic locations – a far cry from the new wave of directors. It was expected that the new wave would carry the industry into the dawn of a new era – one which was more pragmatic and one which could possibly compete on a global stage. There was only one problem – none of these films generated the kind of box-office numbers that Shah Rukh Khan's formulaic films did. With the rise of globalism, it was expected that as time passed, Indian audiences would change – that they would be exposed more to international film markets and in essence, there would be a transitioning from the old kind of cinema to the the new. But in 2010, the release of one film would disprove this theory – Salman Khan's Dabangg. The emergence of this film tapped into a culture of new masculine energy and a disdain for bureaucracy, which the populace of India deeply identified with. It paved the path for a reinvigorated police story genre with many mirroring formulaic endeavors throughout the next ten years, such as Singham, Boss, Rowdy Rathore, Simbaa, the upcoming Sooryavanshi, and of course the two sequels Dabangg 2 and Dabangg 3. The relevance of love stories, which once conquered the minds and hearts of Indian audiences, began dissipating at the turn of the 2010s. The emergence of the new police genre had now overshadowed the classic love story themes of Shah Rukh Khan, which begged the question – what future projects could we expect from him?
In the last decade alone, an entirely new generation of actors has been catapulted to the forefront including Ranveer Singh, Ranbir Kapoor, Ayushmann Khurrana, Vicky Kaushal, Shahid Kapoor, and Varun Dhawan. These actors are the future of Indian cinema. And if Bollywood ever does go back to the trend of youthful romantic comedies or tragic love stories, it is likely that one of these actors will be cast in the roles due to age being a factor in casting.
Where does this leave King Khan? Well, interestingly, Shah Rukh Khan is not just an actor. In fact, he's far more than that. He is a cultural icon, a businessman and a producer. He has spent the better part of the last decade building endorsements for products, creating the infrastructure of a cricket league, and most importantly expanding his production house to push projects for younger actors, be it in films or a web-series. With multiple projects on the horizon, he is constantly being pursued by streaming platforms such as Netflix and Amazon Prime Video. Khan is pioneering the future and he is creating opportunities for the next generation.
As an actor, however, he does not seem to be have a clear vision ahead. It's no coincidence that he has taken a two-year break from acting, as critics and audiences would agree that in the last decade, he has not made as impactful cinema as he did during the height of his success. It's no easy task growing older in this kind of industry, especially when audiences are critical and unforgiving of your every move. But with age, comes wisdom. My assumption is that he's assessing a way in which he can transition himself into more effective roles – roles which audiences would accept and ones which he would excite him as an actor. I am hopeful that he pursues the latter.
In the 28 years of his prominence, Shah Rukh Khan has primarily worked through the safety net of an established image. Understandably so, he has chosen a path of security without much consideration for diverse roles (other than his early years in Darr and Baazigar – two parts which he played to perfection). As an audience member, I believe this man is one of the greatest celebrities to have walked the face of the Earth. He has exuded the most charismatic personality in films, interviews, and award shows. He is undoubtedly the ultimate icon of the last three decades. That being said, I would like to see him become more experimental, particularly with darker roles, as he has so much more potential as an actor. As the most prominent superstar of India, he is the one personality who has nothing to lose when it comes to exploring creative freedom. I have often told people that there are only a handful of actors in India who have the capability to portray a character as dark as the Joker in The Dark Knight – Shah Rukh Khan is one of them. This could be the moment that he decides on transitioning from being a star to becoming an actor – which in my humble opinion, would be the more fulfilling path. And we, his audience, will be waiting for the Return of Our King as he returns to our screens with his next movie Pathaan, also starring Deepika Padukone and John Abraham, which releases on January 25, 2023.