Happy Shahrukh Week Day 2! Only 5 days left for Fan! Of course, he is taking a break from Fan promos (although supposedly there was a discussion of having the royal couple do a “Jabra Fan” dubsmash) to greet the royal couple. I’ll also take a break from Fan, to think about Shahrukh and his royal roles.
Considering his nickname is “King Khan”, he’s actually done a surprisingly few number of royal performances. Looking at my Shahrukh DVD shelf, really it’s just Asoka. Even in the movie named “Baadshah”, he was just playing a regular guy who’s nickname was “Baadshah”, not an actual King.
(Baadshah ho Baadshah, Baadshah ho Baadshah, Baadshah ho Baadshah, BAAAAAAADSHAAAAH!)
Kind of matches with his persona, really. He’s always presented as a nice middle-class guy from Delhi who works hard and makes it on his own merits. Not someone who inherits wealth and power, or who is brought up to it as a matter of course, but someone who works for everything they get. Even in a film like K3G, where he is supposed to be the wealthy inheritor of a financial empire, they undercut it a little by making him adopted, and making him find his own way and his own success in the second half.
Which is why Asoka is the perfect story for him! The King who wasn’t destined, but created his own destiny. He is the forgotten unloved son, his power comes from his abilities to command his troops, not anything his father gives him. And then, in the best part of the movie, he goes off on his own and lives by his own abilities and wits. And then he comes home to power and the whole thing goes off the rails again.
At least, that’s how it is for me! I recently re-watched Asoka, for the first time in years, and it was both better and worse than I remembered. The opening, when we are supposed to see the grand sweep of the Empire and how Shahrukh fits within it, really does not work for me. It doesn’t feel epic enough, and Shahrukh doesn’t feel noble enough. The first time we see him, he is having a cool stand off with someone, using his fwippy sword (Urumi!). And it doesn’t feel like a king enforcing his natural rule, but like a cocky gunslinger enjoying showing off his abilities. Basically, more Han Solo than Princess Leia.
(And someone on the internet thinks Han Solo is more Akshay than Shahrukh)
Compare this with the first time we see Hrithik in Jodha-Akbar, one of my all time favorite hero introductions. He isn’t showing off his abilities, or showing off at all. He is merely flipping his hand to order thousands of men into battle. This is a nobility that is inbred! This is someone who was raised to power!
I guess the Asoka opening works if we are supposed to be seeing Asoka as he is before he comes to power, when he is still being ignored. Only I don’t think he is supposed to be completely ignored at this point, I think we are coming into it when he is already the beloved and successful general. Remember he has that huge parade when he arrives back in the capital? But the way he plays the first scene, this isn’t a guy with parades, this is a guy used to not being seen, to doing what must be done in the shadows.
And then we see him with his family, and it makes sense again, since his brothers are more loved and he is not expected to take the throne. It makes even more sense when he rushes to stop his mother from taking a vow of silence, that feels like the familiar Shahrukh, the devoted son of a struggling single mother. Same as in Baazigar or Karan-Arjun. And when his mother orders him to leave, that really makes sense. Just like in K3G or My Name is Khan, he leaves because his parent tells him to, being banished by obedience.
Which leads to my favorite part, when he is just a traveling swordsman, a regular guy, falling in love with a princess, teaching her how to fight, being generally charming and awesome. And, most importantly, cutting his hair! I don’t care what kind of plot logistics they had to come up with to make it happen, I am just so glad to see the last of the long noble historically accurate locks!
This is also the part of the film where I feel like Shahrukh is most comfortable in his performance. He is just being a charming cocky guy, traveling the world, being cool and enjoying himself. And, of course, being devastatingly attractive while falling in love with a strong confident woman.
And then it all goes bad again when he loses the strong confident woman, thinks she is dead, and goes home to discover his mother is dead, the other secure element in his life, and suddenly he turns into Vengeance Shahrukh. Which is not the best look on him. Speaking of bad looks, he also grows his hair back (noooooooo!).
But maybe this is on purpose? You could argue that the whole film was structured around Shahrukh’s strengths onscreen. He never seems quite right, quite comfortable, with the bits in which he is actually ruling the kingdom. He is happier and more natural when he is just pretending to be a traveling mercenary, than when he is forced to lead. And the wrong-wrong-wrong feel when he is traveling the country, defeating his enemies by brutal means, that could also be on purpose. Seeing SRK, who we are so used to as the charming happy lover, turning into this vengeance machine, adds an extra layer of awareness of how Asoka was perverted, driven from his natural path, only to find it in the end.
Only, Shahrukh as a noble peaceful Buddhist is a little unbelievable too. Maybe that’s why the film ends so abruptly, before we can see his final incarnation, because they knew he really really couldn’t play that bit!