What Shahrukh Khan Means to the Overseas Audience

Tomorrow is the start of Shahrukh’s birthday month, which means you will have to suffer through 30 Days o’ SRK on this website.  But before we get into that, I want to try to explain why he means so much to some of us, why a good half of my blog audience is reacting to the news of 30 Days o’ SRK with silent cheers.  At least, what I think it is.

At the Dream Team concert, when it opened with Alia Bhatt descending from the ceiling on a floating ball, my sister started to cry.  And I knew exactly why, because the same thing had happened to me at the SLAM tour.  It’s because she flew all the way over the seas to come here to us, to bring us joy.

It’s not easy being an NRI.  I’m not saying it’s worse than staying in India, I’m just saying there are another set of individual problems with it.  You are a stranger in a strange land, and then you go home and find you don’t belong there either.  No one seems to really love you or accept you any more, not your home country or your new country.

Hate crimes against desis are a thing in every Western country.  It gets better sometimes, and then it gets worse again.  Australia, the US, England, Canada, they all have horrific stories of people being attacked.  And that’s just the stories that make the news.  There are also the dozens of daily insults, the people who mispronounce your name, assume you are a different religion than you are in reality, look at you with suspicion, avoid sitting next to you on the bus, loudly complain about “immigrants” without making eye contact.

But of course if you go back to India, you don’t quite belong there either.  Not any more.  It’s fine for a visit, but you find yourself feeling not quite at home after a few weeks, notice that people notice you, know you are from overseas.  Overcharge you, ask you for favors, not want to listen to any of your complaints about your life.  And make you feel guilty for complaining because it’s true, you are lucky to be living overseas in many ways.

There doesn’t seem to be any person place or thing that will accept you just as you are, Indian and something else too.

Enter Shahrukh!  I don’t think Shahrukh necessarily knew all of this when he first ran into the NRI audience.  He was doing the occasional show overseas in the 90s, and then of course he was cast in DDLJ which is one of the great NRI films.  It wasn’t an overnight thing for him to realize what he meant to the NRIs.  But as the box office kept growing and growing for his films overseas, and the crowd kept cheering for him and loving him at concerts, somehow he just kind of fell into being “our” star.  More than anyone else, he is the Indian star that has reached his hands across the ocean and embraced those who don’t have anyone else.

(Notice how he doesn’t just greet the crowd, he goes all the way around the fence to make sure everyone gets a chance)

And so when Shahrukh goes overseas for a concert, it’s not just about the cash grab for him, or the spoiled NRIs with loads of disposable income enjoying something those back home can’t have.  Sure, there’s that, but it’s also about the person who lives in a small town and hasn’t been back to India in 5 years, who is surrounded by people who don’t look like him and make fun of his accent and his food and his skin color, driving his family for 6 hours to get to a place where he belongs, where there is the biggest star in India standing there saying “I love you and I am here for you.”

There are a few places in overseas where an NRI can feel fully at home.  Temples, ethnic associations, India Day parades.  But the concerts and the movies in general are something a little different, a little special.  There’s no real barrier to entry for them.  You don’t have to prove that you are religious enough, and the right kind of religious.  Or that you can still speak your home language fluently.  Or that you haven’t married a white person, your kids aren’t too Westernized, none of that matters.  It’s a very “you belong because you are here” kind of feeling.  All are welcome, all the lonely lost souls of the NRI world can come together and enjoy.  It’s truly an “NRI” experience, not a Hindu experience or Sikh or Telugu or Gujurati or any of those other differences that, overseas, are so less meaningful than what brings you together-a shared homesickness and a shared oppression.

So, maybe it started with Shahrukh just making these kinds of films, and doing these kinds of concerts, and not really thinking about it.  And then noticing that he is making a lot of money off of these things and getting a lot of new fans, and so he keeps doing them more and more.  But at some point, I think, he started to get a sense of responsibility, an awareness of exactly why he was so needed by this community.

Which brings me to My Name is Khan.  Which made more money overseas than at home.  It’s easy to look at it and say “sure, the NRIs love it, an SRKajol movie from Karan Johar”.  And maybe in some places, yes.  I’ve certainly seen fanvids and read comments that have it as just another SRKajol romance.

But in America, it’s not really fiction.  Sure, some of it is, there are some moments that aren’t quite right.  But the over all details, that is what really happens.  Little boys are killed for having brown skin (not often, but it happens).  Businesses are vandalized, people are beaten up, wrongfully arrested and never released.  And they respond with love.  The Islamic Relief USA is an organization that sends volunteers to hurricanes and other natural disasters.  This is all real.  It’s not melodramatic or an exaggeration.  It’s just something that no one else is reporting, that feels fake because we (and by “we” I mean general western society and Indians back home) don’t hear about it.  But it’s real to the people living it every day.

(weeks before I was planning to give a talk on how this is all just a metaphor and an exaggeration of the immigrant experience, the massacre at the Sikh temple in Wisconsin happened.  So no, not a metaphor or an exaggeration)

My Name is Khan was a huge risk, to make a film questioning the happy view of overseas life.  And to play a Muslim for only the second time ever in a major release.  And to play a Muslim married to a Hindu woman.  But it was his gift to the overseas audience, not a film that gives them an idealized version of their lives, but tries to deal with something real that is happening to them.

And he followed it up with an even bigger risk.  The publicizing of his detentions by airport security.  Instead of sweeping it under the rug and not mentioning it, we know, the whole world knows, every time it happens.

When my college roommate was detained at the airport, every single time she flew, no one cared about that.  It happens literally thousands of times a day.  A brown skinned person is racially profiled.  And sure, it’s usually not a huge inconvenience, you get pulled aside for an extra search and sent on your way.  But it’s another little moment reminding you that you are not welcome here, you do not belong here, you are not safe here.  And if you are an American, it’s a little wound for all Americans.  A reminder that our country is unsafe and unfair and wrong and needs to be better.

When Shahrukh Khan stands up and says “yes, I was detained.  Again” it’s not a starry tantrum, it’s not about expecting special treatment, it’s about highlighting the little insults that his people go through every single day.  He’s the only star (so far as I know) who has spoken out about this.  And maybe if you are in India, it sounds like a small thing, like he is complaining about being treated like a “normal” person.  But it is NOT a small thing.  And he is NOT being treated like a normal person.

I, a blue-eyed blond woman, I am treated like a normal person.  I get waved through security without a second glance.  I can take all kinds of things through the x-ray and no one cares.  I am clearly a regular traveler excited to be traveling and that is all.

Shahrukh is being treated like a brown-skinned person.  And that is not okay.  He should not be treated like this, because no one should be treated like this.  And he is speaking out not because it is a starry tantrum, but because it is just plain wrong.

This is one of many many things that it feels like he is doing just for the overseas audience, not for the audience back home.  Sometimes it’s speaking out about injustice, more often it’s making a silly movie set overseas.  But the point is, he cares!  He is trying, he knows there are millions of people out there counting on him to make their lives a little brighter and happier in a particular way, and he is doing that.

 

So if you are wondering why we (and now I am including myself, even the non-desi “we” feels this) love him so much, it’s because he loves us.  He says things and does things that are a clear signal to his overseas audience, desi and non-desi.  Not the crossover audience, not the fancy Oscar committee or intellectual types.  But the everyday people on the ground who want a bit of magic and hope in their lives.

 

 

(yes, this is an incredibly sappy post, but it’s his birthday month!  It’s time to be sappy)

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35 thoughts on “What Shahrukh Khan Means to the Overseas Audience

  1. Oh this is beautifully written.

    I’m not sure I personally would intellectualize in that way regarding my own connect with SRK. As an NRI who grew up American (and someone with very fair skin – I can “pass” if you know what I mean) and have not really felt the push and pull with India that my parents face, SRK still somehow means a lot. It’s true that DDLJ has a lot to do with that for capturing our feelings and motivations – as children and teenagers me and my Indian friends had a lot of the same type of restrictions Simran had in the movie. Our parents were just as distrustful of the outside world, fearful we’d lose our way if we had too many American friends, dreaming old dreams of Indian husbands and arranged marriages, etc. So many friends I knew behaved completely different at home to please their parents but had very different personalities outside to fit in with that world and struggled to reconcile both halves. Before DDLJ, BW treated NRIs as freaks – people without hearts or morals who just drink and party and have evil mindsets – movies like Aa Ab Laut Chale and even Pardes and many more. It was unusual because in my circle at least, the NRIs were actually MORE traditional and moralistic (not always in a good way) than people back home. I’ve heard it being described as.. NRIs get stuck with the atmosphere and attitudes Indians had when they first left the country. Nothing changes for them even though it’s changing in India. They hold views that even people in India have moved on from because they’re trying so hard to hold on to the culture they know. But of course what they know is very old from back when they left it. This is especially true for the earliest wave of NRIs that left India in the 60s and 70s as many family members of mine did.

    BW movies were just about the only connection to India there was and most of them made us feel bad or disconnected. Either through negative portrayals or simply through things that we just don’t connect to as our lives have changed so much. DDLJ and what came after felt like it belonged to us. SRK belonged to us. And with him, it did go beyond the movies. For him, people even show up to see trash like Billu which really has zero relevance to anyone. And I think a big reason for that is simply his own personality. SRK is Indian but not too Indian and I don’t mean it in a controversial way but simply that he isn’t as local as I feel many of the other actors are. The things he talks about – his references to Madonna or Michael Jackson or the books he reads or even obscure references to some Peter Sellers movie – combined with his wit and charm and intelligence, automatically just makes me more global and more able to connect with people outside of the local Indian realm. He can stand next to Brad Pitt and outshine him. When he does a TED talk, you can feel pride that he’s one of us. He makes us look good. He doesn’t get cowed down by Hollywood or by white people. He is respectful but not obsequious. There’s a confidence and self-respect worn lightly by him that is the ideal of what we all wish we had in this foreign world we live in. That is something I think most of the other celebrities in India don’t bring to the table. He can easily step in and out of two worlds and he’s very comfortable everywhere which is what NRIs want to be able to have – this ease and comfort he seems to have with the world. (For the exact opposite of what I mean, check out Ranbir Kapoor sitting on the floor while De Niro sits on a sofa. Ranbir kissing his knees and putting his head in the guy’s lap – absolutely cringeworthy, a total embarrassment)

    Liked by 3 people

    • I love this line: “DDLJ and what came after felt like it belonged to us. SRK belonged to us”

      Yes! That’s it exactly, he belongs to the overseas audience in a way the other stars just don’t feel like it.

      I totally get what you mean about his attitude abroad. He draws the line of “I’m not going to ‘play’ Indian for you” but at the same time “I’m not going to pretend to be ‘just like you'”. Which is the exact struggle NRIs have every day. How can I be true to my ethnic identity without making it the only thing about me? Shahrukh will wear suits and talk to kings and queens, but he will also throw in a Hindi phrase, or talk about his childhood in Delhi, he’s not hiding who he is.

      I wonder if it is because he is in fact “more” Indian than the other stars? That is, he doesn’t have a fancy background, he didn’t have holidays abroad as a child, he grew up in middle class Delhi. So Ranbir, for instance, might feel the need to “prove” his Indianness by acting more so while overseas. But Shahrukh has nothing to prove, he knows he is Indian, and so he carries that comfortably with him wherever he goes.

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      • You know, I’m not too sure about the last part. I wonder if maybe it just has to do with him being well educated and growing up in the real world away from BW. A lot of these industry kids basically dropped out of high school and live and breathe films so there’s just a lot of unawareness about the rest of the world. I’m guessing that’s why SRK shipped his kids off to boarding school to get them away from the insulated atmosphere. He’s obsessed with his kids so to part from them must have driven him crazy.

        About the more Indian part, I don’t know. What is more Indian? I guess that’s the question. SRK has admitted he had a very Westernized upbringing and that was in the 80s before India really opened up. He went to a very elite English school, seemed to be aware of fashion enough to only wear Levis and Nikes, listened to Western music – he claims his first crush was Samantha Fox. He has said many times that he thinks in English and has to translate it back to Hindi when he speaks in Hindi – apparently he was so bad in Hindi his mother had to bribe him with movies so he would study the subject more. The theater work he did was also very artsy fartsy as they were doing Sartre plays and such. Even way back in the day, he used to say his favorite movie was It’s a Mad Mad Mad World. (He later started saying Sholay, for obvious reasons IMO) These sort of things would have automatically separated him quite a bit from the general desi public and even now I think that’s why he has so much trouble when he tries to do massy movies. My own view is that he doesn’t actually like them but believes the audience does and so he has to work for his employers but that results in mistakes because he’s not able to separate what is actually good and bad in that type of genre.

        Anyway, I randomly came across a very old interview and thought it was fascinating. It was his very first interview ever, in 1991 – only 6 months after his mother’s death. Maybe the superfans have already seen it but in case they haven’t – they can read it here.

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        • Going back to your idea that about struggling to understand what the audience wants in massy movies, perhaps that is another way he and the NRI audience have sort of “found” each other. Because we like the same kind of movies! The movies he likes to make are the movies we like to watch.

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          • Let me make a petty comment. There were a lot of comparisons between Jab Harry Met Sejal and Toilet since they released at the same time with a lot of anger and demands that SRK should really be making Toilet type movies. I think I almost threw up just at the thought of it. I realize this ‘social’ drama type of stuff is the big thing in India lately but they seem like after school specials to me which is I think a reference only Americans would get – those cheesy boring lecture type shows to teach something to kids that used to come on TV. So drab and dull! And let me be even more petty – unless it’s EXTREMELY well made, I’m not going near any village movies. I know that’s my own problem but I guess that’s where the connect thing comes in.

            Maybe it’s just me but SRK is one of the few actors who can pull of adult and edgy characters. It reminds me of the clamoring that seems to be from a certain brigade that he do movies with Raju Hirani or at least movies like the type Hirani makes. WHY?! I mean I get the business aspect of course but if we can put aside the box office aspect, why god why? Maybe I’m one of the few people who is not that fond of Hirani movies. They’re well made but they too are cheesy movies – overly simplistic and almost seem to be geared at 12 year olds. There is a need for that as well so I understand people that like them of course but why would you waste SRK on them? Anyone can do those movies! Literally anyone can! (And despite the big make-out scenes Aamir Khan likes they too are sexless after school specials as far as I’m concerned)

            Maybe it’s just my own obsession to see SRK in more complicated, rawer characters but let the man who can actually do edgy stuff do it! Where the stories and scripts that can actually use his rough suave persona? Give him some murderer role, give him a bank robber role, or a manipulative businessman or anything but charmless cheesy boring social issues!

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          • Going back to the main point, the Toilet versus JHMS comparison shows just how out of touch some critics are with the overseas audience. Toilet has nothing to do with the nri experience, and JHMS has everything to do with it! That lack of identity, depression, homelessness, that was for his overseas fans, the kind of character and story that no one else is giving us, western or indian industries. Shahrukh may be losing his indian audience, but he is a big part of what is holding the overseas audience to Hindi film instead of losing them entirely.

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          • The threads are going haywire so I’m not sure where this reply will land.

            But regarding the overseas audience, I guess the critics would say “well Aamir is bringing China audience” or something like that. But that is a fluke and unsustainable IMO. But who knows. But mainly I guess they don’t care about the overseas audience and they’re allowed to feel that way.

            I think SRK was aware that JHMS was a risk even while making it. In one of the Making of videos, he was joking that he’s too overseas and so is Imtiaz so they have gotten Anushka for the masses. It was a joke but I think he knows his taste is not for the masses but sometimes he can’t resist making the movie that he wants to make. Raees was a very Muslim movie (which is something the other actors are not courageous enough to do), Dear Zindagi very female-centered and clearly an “art” movie for BW standards, JHMS – no connect for India-based audience and way too sexy and uncomfortable for family audiences, even Fan had none of the usual elements people want.

            That’s the difference with mass movies- like Dilwale or Happy New Year. Even if they are “bad” they still get high enough box office numbers regardless of content. I don’t like them but they still get respectable enough totals even when people supposedly dislike them.

            My resistance is more towards these boring social issue movies being considered great work. Are they serious?! They are corny lectures in movie format. And people want to thrust SRK into these lame dorky movies. I guess you have to listen to the box office but… gross.

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          • What really kills me with social issue films is that if you KNOW it is a social issue film, it isn’t doing its job. Taking this to extremes, you could argue that JHMS does more for feminism by simply showing a woman choosing what she wants for her life and making the audience accept this, versus the obvious and therefore easy to forget messages of Toilet. Good propoganda is invisible. Obvious propaganda makes the audience feel virtuous while watching the film, and then they immediately forget it when they walk out of the theater.

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        • I think it works the opposite with the audience, sadly. If they KNOW it’s a social issue movie, it is automatically important and intelligent and not frivolous like a regular movie. Everything has to be hammered in because subtlety doesn’t work. I mean, can you believe people didn’t get why Anushka would dump her fiance in JHMS? Or why Rani would walk out of her marriage in KANK? Really?!! “It doesn’t make sense!! Bad script!!”

          I also find most of these “issue” movies have bizarre mixed messages. Take Dangal for example. Supposedly feminist but how? A father forcing his daughters and creating them into his own mold is feminist? On what planet? Only small changes would have fixed it. Why not just have the girls wanting to be wrestlers to begin with, the father resisting because they’re not boys and then coming around and helping train them to become the best? But nope. Instead, the patriarchal father knows best pushes them around and makes them do things to make his own dreams come true. In the end, it only reinforces all the old brutish values and thoughts.

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    • I enjoyed this thread as much as I enjoyed the post. Thank you for articulating the NRI experience viz SRK so well.

      I’m not a fan of the recent SRK fare (Except Om Shanti Om which I totally love) which is why I want him to make a full NRI film. I love what you said about what DDLJ did for the expats. Maybe something like that. He’s clearly struggling against the trend, again as you’ve pointed out, of the desi and local small town stories which don’t appeal to HIS audience overseas and his made-for-NRIs films don’t appeal to his desi audience.

      Instead of trying to please everyone, I would love to see him make that film that is wholeheartedly made for a particular audience and since the NRI/non-Indian Indian film lovers are HIS core audience, that film would make sense.

      So far, if you look at the NRI film segment, we have things like The Namesake or Mistress of Spices which are just plain depressing.

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  2. I just finished watching MNIK not 30 minutes ago with a friend who had never, ever seen an Indian film. She was blown away. It does such an amazing job of holding up a different lens on the post 9/11 world, one I have rarely experienced in other films, American or otherwise.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Exactly. It’s America through the eyes of the NRIs, not through the eyes of other Americans, or those still back home in India. A unique film.

      On Sun, Oct 1, 2017 at 4:52 PM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:

      >

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      • `
        I have a problem with MNIK that I have with many Indian movies. (And it’s my problem, not the movie’s.) There are these incredibly realistic scenes with brilliant acting and then there will be a scene that just seems hokey with cheesy sets and costumes. I know it’s part of the style (like dancing in the Swiss Alps), but it seems unnecessary.

        In MNIK, it’s the hurricane relief segment. I know I’m suppose to be sobbing and shaking my head, but I couldn’t get past the unrealistic set and the over-the-top emotionalism.

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      • After Anonymous mentioned that DDLJ really captured her nri life, I was thinking of what movie closely showed what my life is like. I think the closest is Fidaa. Not only was the lifestyle in the United States very similar, I also felt that the way the little kid and Varun Tej talked and acted were similar too.

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  3. I love this post, and I’m looking forward to more NRI or Indian commenters’ thoughts. I feel like this isn’t really for me to comment on, not being either. I do have a really shallow question though. Do you think that Shah Rukh will do any more concert tours in the US? I became a fan in Spring 2015, and later was so mad when I found that he was literally up the road from me during the SLAM tour in late 2014. If not a big concert tour, maybe a book tour if he ever publishes his autobiography?

    Really looking forward to the 30 days of Shah Rukh. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well, I’m not desi, and I wrote the thing!

      I think he probably will do another concert tour, but it takes a lot of time to organize and do, and right now he’s got all those movies back to back. Maybe if there is a gap between the dwarf movie and whatever comes next.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Having finished the video, and re-read this, it is interesting how you position yourself–and other non-desi overseas fans–with respect to different audiences and different immigrant experiences. You, personally, occupy an interesting position: film expert and fan, non-Indian but with a close interest/connection to desi communities and culture. I’m sure he’d find you interesting to talk to. I recall him wondering in a couple of interviews what non Indian fans really understand from his films and why they connect so strongly with him.

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        • You’re right, Shahrukh should talk to me!!!! Except, all I would be able to say if I met him in person is “gaaaaah”.

          On Mon, Oct 2, 2017 at 2:26 PM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:

          >

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          • I don’t believe it. You wouldn’t be able to pass up the opportunity to ask those questions you’ve always wanted to, or tell him about your fave scene or shot of DDLJ and other flicks. After a bit of “gaaaaah”. 🙂

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          • I think you have more faith in me than I have in me. Which is nice to hear!

            On Mon, Oct 2, 2017 at 2:42 PM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:

            >

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  4. This post is exactly why I love you Margaret! I was not sure about the birthday month thing but if I get to read a post like this everyday for the next month (I hope you do the Bahubali post and also something for poor old Prabhas’ birthday too) I’d be happy!!

    As a former SRK fan, it feels good to be reminded of exactly what it is that made me love him all those years ago. I hope there’s more analyses like what you did in The Pain of Disco video coming up in the birthday month celebrations. also, is The Pain of Disco going to be made into a long post?

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Margaret, your analysis of NRI mindset is excellent. That was how I felt when I was in USA.

    But Sharukh is becoming history and as a blogger you already should have noticed the changing trends. As Asmita rightly said, it is better to start giving more weightage to younger actors and actresses.

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    • Well, it is his birthday month, so this month is all SRK anyway.

      But part of the reason for this post is because what I see in my own blog stats. A post about Shahrukh is orders of magnitude more popular than anything else. He may be history in some ways, but in terms of the English language internet, he still rules all. Which I suspect is related to what I describe here, the special place he holds for NRIs.

      But yes, I do try to stay aware of the up and coming other actors too, right now I am really curious what Ayushmann Khurrana and Rajkumar Rao will be doing next.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Pingback: New Youtube Video! SRK Overseas | dontcallitbollywood

  7. Shahrukh Khan has an amazing ability to change himself like a chameleon to suit his audience.He’s very very charismatic and would have made a good con artist (or politician or salesman) if he hadn’t been an actor.He’s very good at making you feel that you’re special.Everyone from an 8 year old to an 80 year old can relate to him.And he’s very good at spinning a story.And he’s very well read,intelligent and articulate.Quick witted and observant too.I love him but I wonder whether anyone outside his close circle really knows his true self.

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  8. Excellent comments, Margaret. Agree completely with Anon about Hirani. I never really got the hype around his movies. After School specials sounds exactly right. I didn’t care much for 3 idiots or Piku. In fact, Oh My God, I thought was a much more entertaining film, and had the same message in a much less condescending manner, but I did have to suffer through Akshay as Lord Krishna. Another patriotic actor. So when I read articles about how SRK’s career needs saving at the hands of Hirani or Anand Rai, I want to punch someone. Or the opinion that he needs to do more patriotic fare, or age-appropriate roles. You have to watch his hilarious AIB interview to see that SRK is as vexed with these comments as some of us are. I just think people are jealous he still looks hotter than the sun post 50, and can romance a lightpost. In Aamir’s defense, I think he realized quite early on that he would never be as convincing in a romance, and a petty part of me thinks it is because he doesn’t like to share screen time with an actress. SRK is the undoubted king of romance. I’ve had to suffer through Fanaa, and it was torture. For an Aamir film, it has to be all about him, all the time. Dangal being a surprising exception. Dangal is Aaamir’s Chake De, 10 years late.

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      • And that slip is kind of interesting, because Piku is a film that addressed all kinds of issues without feeling preachy. It was just the story they wanted to tell.

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    • I really hope that SRK never gets more patriotic than he was in Chak De India, for instance. A simple statement of his Indian identity, without anything else added to it, or feeling like anything more needs to be added to it.

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