This is considerably longer than it was last year, but we are going to have a string of light posts over the next few days, so I thought I should try to give you something a little more substantive today. And you can all argue with me in the comments about what I left out and what is in the wrong order and so on and so on.
I’m going in reverse order from least to greatest. And I’m not doing “my favorites” (that list would include Dil Aashna Hai), I am doing straight up best films he has been a part of. Not even greatest Shahrukh movies, as in greatest movies that play with the Shahrukh Khan identity (that list would include Dilwale), but straight up best all around movies in which Shahrukh Khan was involved.
Not a great film. There are flaws there, which is why it is number 30 on this list. But it’s on this list at all because it’s got a great different kind of performance at the center of it. And it’s a very different kind of film from what Shahrukh usually does. And there are a few scenes that are just stunningly brilliant.
29. Zamaana Deewana
Shahrukh’s one collaboration with the man who made Sholay, that alone would be enough to get it on this list. But on top of that, it is a brilliant deconstruction of the 90s romance film. With a 10 minute drag sequence for no reason. And an incredibly sexy song, also for no reason.
(I went with the spoof instead of the sexy song)
28. Dil To Pagal Hai
I know there are some people who might argue this should be higher, but for me it is just a little too long and a little too slow. On another actor’s list, it might be in the top ten, but Shahrukh has done better. However, it still definitely deserves to be on this list for the clever construction (slow but clever), and the amazing performances, especially from Karisma.
27. Yes Boss
Yes, I am putting Yes Boss ahead of Dil To Pagal Hai. It’s just a little more clever, a little more interesting. And with a little better of a message, not just “true love is true love”, but something about how money is used to control those below, about love flourishing in strange places, about Aditya Pancholi being disgusting.
By far the better of the two Subhash Ghai/Shahrukh collaborations. Great songs, great heroine, great plot. As I discovered on my most recent rewatch, it’s really a lot deeper film than I remembered. The first half is light, but boy does it pay off in the second half!
Pretty movie, nice story, very very unusual film. Great songs. The ending doesn’t really make sense, but the rest of it is so good that I am still putting it on my list.
Are you shocked to see it this high? That’s just because you haven’t seen it recently! Such a brilliant plot, beyond Shahrukh’s performance. Plus good songs, great performances around Shahrukh, and the first SRKajol film. Most of all, though, Shahrukh’s central performance which is just shockingly good.
23. Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham
The movie that brought him to the world stage. But not that good of a film on its own. There just isn’t much there-there. It’s all about loving your parents, but it’s not really about anything else. Just spectacle and glamor and songs.
22. Chalte Chalte
A really solid romance. And a different kind of a romance, showing that all the problems aren’t solved after marriage. And the after marriage problems are a different kind of problem, not just “do you love me?” but “where do we go from here?”
21. Main Hoon Na
Such a fun film! Unusual, clever, fun film. But not a deep film, not really. And not original in content even if it is in style. And doesn’t give Shahrukh that much to do in terms of acting. And so it is only 22, not higher.
Slightly edges out Main Hoon Na just because of the songs and the special effects. The story of Main Hoon Na is better, but when you are talking about a small fun film, the songs and special effects are pretty important.
On most lists, this would be near the top. But Shahrukh has been in some really good films. This one is good, very good, one of the great Hindi film romances of the 2000s. And Shahrukh shows up at just the right time, providing the gravitas and comfort required at that moment in the film.
18. My Name is Khan
This film is such an odd mix. Moments of such amazing brilliance, with moments of complete failure. If it was just brilliant, I would probably put it at number one on this list. And if it was just the failures, it wouldn’t even be on the list. But taken all together, I think it goes nicely somewhere in the middle.
We are now entering a string of movies in which Shahrukh plays Shahrukh in one way or another. Because coming up with the right way to do that, and really exploring what it all means, that makes for a brilliant film. This one in particular, a good movie start to finish, but Shahrukh’s speech at the very end, that makes the whole thing.
Yep, I’m putting it this high! It’s a really really good movie. Not the best movie, but a very very good one. Almost every moment onscreen is perfection.
15. Luck By Chance
Only a cameo role in this, but a pivotal one. And this film as a whole is soooooooooooo good. So good that I had to annotate it. And another one that explores exactly what “Shahrukh Khan” means to the film industry and the world.
14. Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi
Just a wonderful film. A small story with a great performance. A small story that makes us care about the small lives of these people and want them to be happy. And, unlike Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham, it doesn’t feel quite so empty at the heart of it.
13. Bombay Talkies
Bombay Talkies: Shahrukh is barely in Bombay Talkies, just one of many stars making an appearance at the end of the film. But he is technically still part of the movie, so I am including it. And this movie is just so, so brilliant! It’s a collection of 4 short films, and 3 of them are amazing. Karan Johar proves he can really direct, and that his joking demeanor hides all kinds of pain. Zoya Akhtar gives us the most loveable little boy in the world and then breaks our heart. And then there’s the collaboration between Dibakar Banarjee, Nawazuddin Siddiqui and freaking SATYAJIT RAY!!! Do I need to say anything more? Oh, and there’s also the fourth story, by Anurag Kashyap. Eh.
(Karan Johar, man! Mindblowing, right?)
12. Om Shanti Om
This is the ultimate mise-en-scene movie. Everything you see on screen is cohesive and thought out and supports the over all feel of the film. It’s like the greatest Farah Khan song sequence, expanded to be 3 hours long. Same as Main Hoon Na, but with a bigger budget. And, I think, a deeper message. Or at least a message that fits better within a film than Main Hoon Na‘s. Main Hoon Na was all about peace and forgiveness, both between nations and between families. But Om Shanti Om was about the spiritual strength one can gain from art, specifically film art. Yes, it’s a silly reincarnation revenge story. But underlying that is the idea that love and bravery and all the good things about humanity can be brought out in film, that film can strengthen them and give hope at the lowest point, that film is important and magical and meaningful. If you read between the lines in Farah’s interviews about where the idea for this film came from, and why the 70s era speaks so strongly to her, it’s because those films were her escape and her hope and the beauty in her life during a really pretty sucky childhood (parents’ marriage fell apart, family lost everything, they had to bounce between relative’s houses for years, watching movies on the TV was the only way she could get out of herself)
(Now, watch this song picturing chubby little Farah turning up the TV and covering baby Sajid’s ears while their parents fought in the other room)
11. Kuch Kuch Hota Hai
I can’t BELIEVE I forgot to put this on my list last year! Such a well-made movie. It wouldn’t work without Shahrukh and Kajol in the leads, it is perfect for them, but then on the other hand, I don’t know if they will ever be able to find roles that perfectly written again, and a narrative that perfectly designed to frame them. So the film stands on its own quality too.
10. Kal Ho Na Ho
This may seem like a film that doesn’t belong on this list. It’s just a light frothy melodramatic romance, right? And yes, if that’s all it was, I wouldn’t include it. The story and the performances and the songs are all really really good, it’s a solid top 20 Shahrukh movie, but not top ten.
But what brings it to a whole new level is the editing and way it was put together! Seriously, watch it again for all the 4th wall breaking moments, the references to other films, the magical realism. I don’t think there has been a movie before or since that reached quite that level of brilliance and complexity in how it was put together. Maybe Rang De Basanti, with the switching between timelines. But Kal Ho Na Ho did all that, wrapped around a simple and sincere story, and somehow made them feel like they fit together.
(It’s a lovely song, it fits perfectly into the film, you don’t even consciously notice what’s happening with it. But check out how Shahrukh is there-but-not-there in all the scenes, the care with which eye-line matches are avoided, the return to the same locations (beauty shop, street scene) over and over again but from slightly different angles. It’s brilliant!)
Okay, there’s the ending. That alone, and all the little hints built in going up to the ending, would be enough to put this on a top 20 list. But what moves it over the top is the style! The color tones, the camera angles, the costumes, all of it perfectly creating a certain nihilistic mood. While still calling back to the 70s classics which inspired the script, not letting go of the Indian film heritage.
And then there’s Shahrukh’s performance. Like I said, this isn’t a post about “best Shahrukh Khan films”, it’s about the overall greatest films Shahrukh has been a part of. But Don IS Shahrukh Khan! It rises and falls on his shoulders, and Farhan Akhtar managed to tease out of him some sort of completely new persona, something the world had never seen before.
(Yep, he is Don)
What is it that makes Chak De, India great? Is it because it is the first great Indian sports movie of the modern era? Is it because it is uniquely grounded and realistic in mise-en-scene? Is it because Shahrukh gives a sensitive and powerful performance, not to mention playing a Muslim onscreen for first time as a leading man (I don’t count Hey Ram)? Is it the “Sattar Minute” speech? Or the McDonald’s fight scene? Or the awesome title anthem?
Or is it that all these things are there to support a story about women achieving against the odds, even if no one cares or respects them, because they know in their hearts they are worthy? Yeah, pretty sure that’s it. The only reason this film isn’t higher on the list is because of the moments when it loses sight of this goal, the artificial conflicts between the girls, the almost too evil actions by their enemies, etc. But when it is just about the power of a brief moment on the sports field when nothing matters but your teammates and your own skill, a moment outside of the constant restrictions of society, that’s beautiful!
I really debated putting this film higher on the list. I think it is probably the most ambitious movie Shahrukh has ever been a part of, maybe the most ambitious film ever made in India. Not just the technical part of it, but the big ideas about stardom and identity and globalization and family and even gender issues!
But it was kind of too big, you know? In the end, it just couldn’t quite hold itself together, too many ideas shoved into a space too small too hold them. The same problem as My Name is Khan (and the reason My Name is Khan isn’t on this list at all, although don’t worry, it will show up on a list at some point in the next 11 days).
6. Gaja Gamini
Man this movie is weird! And a triumph of Indian film, an acknowledgement as something truly made for and by artists. MF Hussain, India’s greatest living artist at the time (and then he died, if he was still alive he would still be the greatest living artist. Was that not clear?), was so inspired by Indian films that he wanted to make a movie. And the leading artists of the film world so respected his vision that the volunteered to work with him. Shahrukh shows up for barely 5 minutes, playing himself. The whole movie is built around Madhuri Dixit, Hussain’s muse (at that time, towards the end of his life it switched to Amrita Rao), playing all the figures of Indian dramatic narrative at once.
And it’s just lovely, truly. Like nothing I have ever seen in any other film. Hussain’s art has this fantastic sense of movement and flow, and somehow that managed to translate to his film work. It’s not just a series of beautiful still images (although it’s that too), it is about how all those images come together and create a beautiful sequence.
(Doesn’t this somehow feel like a movie? Like it has movement buried in it?)
Top 5! Woot-woot! I put off watching Darr for so long (because it broke my “no movies where Shahrukh dies” rule), and then I finally did, and it is so much more than just a movie where Shahrukh dies! Or a cheap ripoff of Baazigar, or a stupid Sunny Deol action movie, or anything else that I feared.
Darr interrogates the whole concept of filmic romance as we have learned it from Indian films: gender roles, “heroines” versus “heros”, even Holi songs get questioned! And it does all this with so much pretty gloss and songs and costumes, that you don’t even notice what is happening, until you reach the end and realize you are rooting for the “villain”, because you have fallen victim to the brainwashing that makes you see him as the hero.
(Why do we always accept these stalker love songs as romantic, instead of acknowledging that they are terrifying?)
As a film, just the directing part of it, I would put this behind Darr. And Don. Even Kal Ho Na Ho was slightly more inventive! But the message is so powerful, a simple presentation almost makes it stronger. Even with bad American actors, and a miss-conception that NASA is based in DC, and a score that gets a little too twinkly-tinkly at times.
The lesson that India can do better, and should do better, and its best and brightest should stay and fight for that instead of just giving up and leaving, that has resonance! Not just for the NRI community, but for everyone who has ever wondered if they should stay and fight to make their home better, or just give up and move somewhere else (by the way, for US residents, don’t forget to vote! Election day is just 6 days after Shahrukh’s birthday, that should be easy to remember!).
Just to deal with it in a microcosm, I’m from a long time Chicago family. Chicago is ringed by very wealthy and healthy suburban communities (there’s a whole thing about property taxes and school funding and the state constitution that is related to this). I work in Evanston, the largest of these suburbs, which is also where Northwestern University is located. It has a lovely public library, clean streets, nice cafes and coffee houses, reliable public transit, everything good. And yet, I still live in Chicago, dirty crime-ridden terrible schools over-crowded and over-burdened Chicago. Because it is better to stay there and fight to make it better, than to give up and move to the suburbs.
I’m just talking about a move of half a mile, but it is the same moral question that this film deals with in moves of hundreds (millions? I’m bad at geography) of miles. And that’s why this film is number 5, because despite it’s flaws, it perfectly expresses a unique moral message, one that we don’t hear enough in the world today.
3. Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa
This is not a movie with a deep message. It’s not a movie about big earth shattering events. It’s not a movie about larger than life people, and fantastical locations, and amazing achievements. And that, in itself, is it’s achievement.
Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa is about the beauty of the over-looked everyday events. A boy who fails school and fails at love and fails at everything, but keeps trying and growing and learning. He’s a hero because he tries, not because he succeeds. His biggest “heroic” moment is when he confesses to his family that his report card was forged, and he actually failed. And his triumph is when they decide to forgive and love him anyway, because he tried.
2. Dil Se
What can I say about Dil Se? It is what it is, you know? A Mani Ratnam movie, so it’s brilliant by default. More than that, it’s a movie which tries to get at the heart of what drives people to terrorism, not just the superficial story of a misguided youth or bad role models, but an unflinching idea of just what kind of trauma would do that to a person.
And it doesn’t give an easy solution either. There is no solution for that kind of trauma, “love” won’t cure it, and any sort of patriotic pablum won’t convince you away from it. Intensive therapy, sure, that might help. But will that do anything to help with the knowledge that hundreds of people everyday are going through the same trauma as you, and you are doing nothing to stop it?
(“Chaiyya Chaiyya” is the big show stopper, but over the years I have come to appreciate the title song more and more. It’s about purposeful blindness, ignoring the world burning around them and insisting on love and joy and life. And in the end, love triumphs! At least for a moment.)
Dil Se was sold to the world as being about the 7 stages of love. And it is a love story, but not that kind of love story. It’s not about Shahrukh falling in mad love with Manisha, it’s about the way that kind of love has the power, for even a brief moment, to distract her and save her from her destiny. To find the hope inside of her black grief. Ultimately this love can’t “save” her, but what matters is that he tried, that he saw her and cared for her, that he gave her back her humanity at the very end. That’s all the oppressed people around the world are asking for, to be seen as human again.
1.1. Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayange
Well, if you really want to know what I think about this, you can check out my full index of coverage here.
But for the big picture idea of why it is at the top of this list, DDLJ encapsulates the entirety of Indian culture in the current era. I don’t just mean the current film era, I mean all of Indian culture. The rise of the Indian woman, the NRI identity, the patriarchy trying to assert itself, the battle waged over female bodies and Punjabi fields, it’s all there! And it ends with wish-fulfillment, that the patriarchy will let go of its grasp on young people (especially female young people) and allow them to life their lives.
Until that happens in actual fact, until young India is allowed to make its own choices and go its own way, DDLJ is just going to keep running in Marathi Mandir, and I am going to keep putting it at the top of this list.