Shah Rukh, take a chill pill
To be Raj, or to be Rahul, that is the question.
Thirty years ago, Bollywood crowned a king who was never once a prince. Shah Rukh Khan, an Indian actor, marked his arrival into the machinery of the Bollywood industry with his debut in “Raj Kanwar’s Deewana” (1992), sweeping the nation with his portrayal of Raja Sahai. An overnight success, his celebrity and stardom took flight and in its shadows, he stole the heart of the country. With arms extended in his signature pose, Shah Rukh Khan is now a household name that lingers on every tongue. As he celebrates 30 years in the industry, he continues to be celebrated for his craft, soon to be honored at Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea International Film Festival.
Be it his brilliance in “My Name is Khan” (2010) or a mere cameo in “Brahmastra” (2022), his films will always bring me home. So if you are in need of a home or simply looking for a place to rest for the night, read on. Some trivial and rather underwhelming plotlines might lose you, but SRK’s acting — as is customary — will always win you over. After all, “haar kar jeetne wale ko baazigar kehte hai” — the one who wins by losing is a true gambler.
For me, when life closes one door, another opens — more often than not, one that leads into a darkening theater screening a classic Bollywood movie that is sufficient to create a dent in my already crumbling emotional stability. Based on the novel by Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, “Devdas” is a five-time award-winning contender in this category. A poster child of dramatization, it is consumed by an exaggeration and opulence that both defines yet somehow manages to outdo the typical Bollywood flair. As such, “Devdas” was director Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s foremost attempt at depicting the splendor and grandiose appeal of Indian high society.
Within this operatic world that has been painstakingly crafted, we encounter Devdas (Shah Rukh Khan), the prodigal son of the Mukherjee family, who is — to put it gently — an alcoholic wrecking ball. Within every frame (a majority of which he spends alternating between crying and drinking), Khan settles into the skin of Devdas with the same ease and magnificence as that of the sun that melts over the lens of the film. The mastery with which he filters through expressions, an idiosyncrasy unseen in his earlier performances, is brilliant, to say the least. He finds himself in an overture of heartbreaking silence, instantaneously pierced with raging violence, soon to melt into a clear-eyed plea for forgiveness. His wandering eyes, trembling vocalization and sneering laughter lend an unforgettable humanness to the character.
This, however, is not to say that Devdas isn’t shy of its indignities and frailties. It is replete with values of trickle-down patriarchy, male chauvinism and the romanticization of alcoholism. Yet, within the extremities of his on-screen presence, Khan is a slow-burning sensation. To put it simply, Devdas is an agent of his own ruin but the groundwork of his fame.
“Kal Ho Naa Ho” (2003)
To watch “Kal Ho Naa Ho” is to dive head first into three hours and six minutes of pure Bollywood indulgence.
At its core, it is a melodramatic tale of the Kapurs, an eccentrically dysfunctional family that is perennially on edge, owing to the endless quarrels that govern their household. Seconds into the film, we bear witness to their severed family dynamic, catching wisps of them wishing upon a star for a farishta or angel to bring them their happily-ever-after ending.
Enter Aman (Shah Rukh Khan): the charming and large-hearted yet over-indulgent, nosy neighbor who utters words of wisdom that have, for decades now, been rote-learned and often roll off the tongue of every Bollywood fanatic. While clouds of highly problematic body shaming, misogyny and objectification shadow the film, SRK’s over-the-top, beamingly animated and ironically full-of-life persona kindles forgiveness.
A story of love that is wrapped in a welter of loss, “Kal Ho Naa Ho” is a warm hug that always hits too close to home. Reveling in the aura of SRK’s celebrity, the politics of division that have often permeated Hindi cinema take a back seat and allow joy to be the driving force. Through the eyes of director Nikhil Advani and screenwriter Karan Johar, we witness a paragon of culture liberated in a modern world, painting a canvas that is so vibrant and visceral that Indian society seemingly thrives in the Kapurs’ little corner of New York City.
No matter the years that pass, “Kal Ho Naa Ho” — for all its glory — shall always remain a classic, with Shah Rukh Khan’s words eternally echoing, “Haso, jiyo, muskurao, kya pata kal ho naa ho” — Laugh, live, smile. Tomorrow is never guaranteed.
“Chak De! India” (2007)
Shimit Amin’s fictionalized biography “Chak De! India” is a film that foremost exemplifies grit, picks at the yarn of passion and retreats from the trenches of failure. Contrary to an otherwise idyllic and familiar portrayal of the underdogs finding themselves victorious at the penultimate moment, “Chak De” is a fever dream that crawls into our hearts by degrees.
In the role of a lifetime, we come upon Shah Rukh Khan in the shadows of a dingy home with unmoored eyes and a fractured spirit. As such, he sinks his teeth into his portrayal of Coach Kabir Khan with immense precision, imbuing the film with a sense of long-lost determination and a blind yet passive rage that wells in his mannerisms. Chartering a course for Shah Rukh that steers not too far from reality, screenwriter Jaideep Sahni blends fictionality with the truth, borrowing tribulations from the life of Mir Ranjan Negi to fit his rendition of Coach Kabir Khan.
However, as we bury ourselves further into his life, we bear witness to an afterglow of hope. Weaving a tale of self-exploration, success and redemption, “Chak De” roots us with its intensity and verve but provides wings for us to take flight. Khan chaperones a sweeping desire to actualize the dreams that take refuge in our most unfettered imaginations. Delicately yet marvelously, it sways us to peer into the glass mirror, reflecting on a journey of healing that stays with us long after the credits roll.