Bollywood actors regularly inhabit make-believe worlds as a part of their profession and the validation that they receive for their acting chops is dependent on whether they are able to successfully transport the viewers into those worlds and make them care for the characters they play. Very few of them, however, have the uncanny ability of transcending the characters they inhabit on-screen and revealing themselves as they are, through the characters they play, entering straight into your hearts! It takes a very fine artist to be able to make you root for the on-screen character, its lack of believability notwithstanding, and simultaneously make you care for the person behind the façade too. Shah Rukh Khan makes you fall in love with Shah Rukh Khan the person himself, along with the character he is portraying, no matter what the character is, and that, in my opinion, is a delicate balance of acting and honesty, which SRK achieves fabulously.
Right from his early years, when he emerged as a bona-fide anti-hero through stellar performances in Darr, Baazigar and Anjaam, to his establishment as the nation's ultimate romantic hero through the mid-90s to the mid-2000s, to the off-beat choices peppered throughout his career through movies like Swades, Dil Se, Chak De! India and more recently, Fan, SRK has displayed a very diverse acting range and the ability to inhabit multiple cinematic universes with equal ease. This ability is often overlooked and masked by the criticism that he has received through the years, with many of his detractors pointing to his inability to surrender himself completely to his characters. "SRK is once again playing SRK" has been a common grouse against him for years. I however feel that this long-standing criticism is exactly what has enabled him to carve a unique place for himself in his audiences' hearts. For a man who has such an overpowering screen presence, a sharp, witty, intelligent mind, oodles of charisma and a good-humored, mature approach to life in reality, all of which shine through each and every one of his off-screen appearances as well, he uses these traits of his real-life persona to his advantage very intelligently and puts them to good use in the characters that he plays, such that each of his characters bears an indelible SRK stamp on it, which endear themselves to his audiences. A case in point is Chak De! India, where he surrenders completely to the part of the no-nonsense hockey coach Kabir Khan, who has been wounded by unfairness in the past and seeks redemption; however he also allows his real-life intensity, broodiness and, undoubtedly, his charm to seep into the character, adding layers to it and making it richer and more endearing, which aids in conveying the character even more acutely to the viewers. This ability to allow his real-life qualities to shine through the characters he plays, makes each character his own, such that one cannot imagine anyone else playing them!
I first saw SRK on screen in a theatre in my dad's hometown Satara, back in 1995, and the movie was, of course, Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge. My 2-year-old self was more excited about sitting in a dark hall and staring at a big screen while eating popcorn, rather than the movie itself. A few minutes into the film, SRK jumped onto the screen, quite literally, and immediately endeared himself to me. I do not recall what it was about him, but his image stayed in my head long after. That movie was the beginning of my fascination with Bollywood and this man in particular, a fascination that has not only endured but that has grown into a deep respect for the art of acting and cinema, and also a deep respect for this particular artist's extraordinarily inspiring life story over all these years. SRK has been a huge source of positivity and inspiration for me, much to the chagrin of some around me who cannot fathom how a movie star could mean so much to a person who seemingly lives her life pretty "sensibly" and "rationally" otherwise! This inspiration, or influence, as some might call it, has changed forms over the years as I grew up. It started with wanting to dance on top of a train, à la Chaiyya Chaiyya, and then wanting to emulate his attitude, determination, and grit for succeeding in life despite all the obstacles that he has faced. There have been countless times when I have felt down in the dumps and watching one of his interviews has soothed me and even given me a nudge in the right direction. For that, and for his ability to go beyond the movies he makes and give so much more to his viewers, I will remain eternally grateful to him!
In the last few years, SRK's attempts at reinventing himself through radically brave and off-beat choices like Fan, Dear Zindagi, Zero and even Raees to some extent, have not succeeded in the intended manner. I do not blame him for it. It takes years to wipe off an image created over three decades, especially when you have such a strong off-screen persona to go with the on-screen one. But I admire his will to try and reinvent himself after thirty years in the business. That alone shows his desire and ability to unlearn, relearn and rediscover himself and these qualities make my respect for him only grow deeper with time.