I already did a post on the “fake” problem of Shahrukh and women, and the “real” problem. Now, let’s look at the “fake” problem of Shahrukh and his movies and the “real” problem.
For Shahrukh Fans: The first bit will be nice, the second bit will be hard, but keep reading to the end because I bring it around again.
For non-Shahrukh Fans: The first bit may seem like I am blind, but keep reading, I get into criticism in the second bit. And the ending doesn’t totally absolve him.
The argument I am seeing that is just plain wrong, that Shahrukh is artistically stagnating, making “safe” choices. That, in fact, he has always made safer choices and been less artistically adventurous and talented. And this gets into the issue of Confirmation Bias and cherry picking arguments. If you assume that Shahrukh’s career should only be looked at from the late 90s on. If you assume that only his more successful/popular/best remembered films should be considered. If you carefully reject even some of those popular films. Then yes, this is true.
But that’s a pretty obviously flawed argument! First, I personally find Shahrukh to be an enormously talented and skilled actor. You may disagree with me, but please don’t assume that I am “obviously” wrong, or blinded by my fandom. For one thing, he is one of the best trained actors working in Hindi film today, he had a good 5 years in a theater group before entering movies. He got his first roles because of his acting training. It’s not crazy to say that we see a talented actor there.
And if you look at his filmography as a whole, unless you go through saying “this doesn’t count, this doesn’t count, this doesn’t count” for a variety of reasons, he has the most creative experimentation of any actor in the history of Hindi cinema except Dilip Kumar, Amitabh Bachchan, and Sanjeev Kumar. He is most certainly not sleeping his way through his recent movies, or taking the easy choice, or doing the same thing over and over again. Most frustrating to me (and to other people who have watched and enjoyed his recent films), often that argument is made by people who didn’t even watch his newest work!!!! They just assumed it was “the same thing again” based on posters or what they heard second hand.
(This is not a Shahrukh you have ever seen before onscreen. Trust me, I’ve actually watched the movie many times over)
But yes, there is a problem with Shahrukh and his recent movies, obviously, anyone can see that from the box office numbers. But again, it’s not the easy superficial answer. It’s not simply “they are all bad films” or “Shahrukh is a bad actor”.
Now, what’s the problem with Shahrukh’s movies? Why has the box office dropped off, why do so many people believe they have seen it all before?
Shahrukh’s Brand Problems: Shahrukh, since the beginning of his career, has used his personal brand to promote his films. This was a brilliant idea at the beginning when he had nothing to sell BUT himself. But it has become lazy in the years since then.
One of the most common complaints about Shahrukh is that he “always plays the same role”. This is not true AT ALL in terms of his films, but it feels true because it is true of his non-film performing. We have had 25 years of “Shahrukh the clever witty family man just like us mugging for the camera” in our faces at all times. That is the role that he needs to shake up.
Especially since it is more and more clearly an act. He isn’t a “family man just like us” any more. It came up in the comments of a recent post how strange the birth of AbRam was for the fandom. And that made me look back at that period of his life. In that same period, he had the release of Ra.One, which was kind of the announcement of Red Chillies as not just Shahrukh’s friendly little hobby studio, but a major player in Indian entertainment. He’s not a guy who works for a salary like anyone else, just on a film set, he was a major corporate player.
(He coordinated a McDonald’s tie in promotion. That’s Disney level stuff, that’s not average guy from Delhi with a struggling studio type stuff)
And he sent Aryan overseas to an exclusive boarding school. Middle-class guys from Delhi don’t send their kids to boarding school. They keep the family all together and help the kids with their homework every night, and drop them at school in the morning. They don’t have the money to send their son to London, and it’s not something they would be comfortable with anyway. That’s the kind of thing that the upper upper classes, royalty even, do. Shahrukh isn’t just the average loving father, he’s the equivalent of royalty.
And the rumors of the Priyanka affair broke. Whether or not the rumors were true, they did serious damage to his “I’m just a regular guy married to my high school sweetheart” image. At the very least it was a reminder that he was a guy married to his high school sweetheart who also worked intimately with beautiful woman, many of whom fell in love with him. He’s not the dopey helpless sweet husband, he’s an international sex symbol and lady killer.
And then there was the fight at Sanjay Dutt’s party. There had always been stories of his vicious temper, but they had been swept under the rug with all the happy charming interviews, the self-deprecating comments, the warm moments with friends. This was a reminder that he wasn’t just some teddy bear guy to fantasize about, he was a real person who got drunk and got angry, and who you may not like if you met him in real life, and he may not like you.
(Sanjay Dutt dragging a drunk Shahrukh out of his party is not the image we are used to)
And finally, there was AbRam. Your average middle-class guy from Delhi isn’t going to have a late in life baby, he is going to follow the government recommended “Hum Do, Hamare Do/We Two, Our Two” policy. And he definitely isn’t going to have a baby by surrogate. Most of all, our “good friend” Shahrukh from Delhi, the one who was always so seemingly open about himself because he trusted us and was just like us, isn’t going to keep this from us, let the news of the baby come out weeks after it was born instead of being proudly announced from the start.
Since that moment, if not even earlier, the Shahrukh Khan personal “brand” has been increasingly disconnected from the Shahrukh Khan real person. He has a right to his privacy, certainly, but there is a difference between keeping your real self private, and lying publicly about what that real self is. Instead of staying strictly carefully private (as Aamir Khan has done or most of the younger stars) he is still going out in public wearing a suit that doesn’t fit him any more, that feels like a lie.
And it is severely effecting his films. Every film Shahrukh makes is promoted based on that out of date Shahrukh Khan “brand”. You liked the idea of him as forever always in love with his wife? Fine, here he is making a series of friendly flirtatious personal appearances with his latest female co-star. You like him as the “everyman”? Fine, here are a bunch of interviews where he talks about his kids and his home life. You like him as the struggling hardworking outsider? Fine, we will never ask a question that implies he has control over his films (which he himself produced! He has TOTAL control!) instead we will keep it directed towards his performance as part of an acting team, as though he is still working for “the Man” instead of being “the Man”.
(In the AIB interview, he has this sweet self-deprecating moment, but he also talks about how he doesn’t need people to tweet him box office reports, he has box office reports, he tracks that himself. A reminder that he ISN’T just a “big star”, but also a major industry figure and a business man)
First, we all know these appearances are a lie now. They feel tired, fake, wrong. He isn’t a flirtatious equal with his female co-stars, they are his daughter’s age, he is their mentor and teacher. He should act like it. And he doesn’t have an “average” home life. Sure, he loves his kids, but he isn’t hanging out with them and their friends every night, they are off at boarding schools or with nannies. Talk about that! Or don’t talk about them at all. And don’t go around pretending to be a friendly show pony who loves the fans, go around and tell us about your marketing strategy and why you chose to release this film at this time, and your box office expectations. And your serious deep acting struggles, not just “ha-ha, this song was hard to make”.
And second, the appearances give a lie to the film as well. Back when his star persona was first drafted, the friendly-charming-in-love-everyman-from-Delhi was what he played onscreen as well. Powerless, innocently in love with the heroine, good at heart, and oh so lovable. The films where he played with that persona were fun ones, delightful surprises and winks to the audience, making his boyish charmer into a murderous stalker in Baazigar, Darr, and Anjaam, or even as recently as KANK, making his carefree lover into an embittered middle-aged man.
(This was Shahrukh on and offscreen, young and inexperienced and just arrived in the city, and very in love with a sweet average girl. But that’s not who he is any more)
But now his public persona is not only completely divorced from his real life self, it is also completely divorced from the roles he is playing onscreen. While Shahrukh-the-actor has grown in leaps and bounds in the past few years, Shahrukh-the-star has not bothered to catch up. Jab Harry Met Sejal was a romance with Anushka Sharma, but beyond those bare facts, it had absolutely nothing in common with anything Shahrukh had ever done before. The only thing tired about it were the promotions. But that was enough to ruin the film. Shahrukh killed his own movie, tarnishing it with the same old boring fakery that he had been using for years in real life, making people think that his character onscreen would be similarly fake.
At least Jab Harry Met Sejal escaped with the content of the film undamaged. Happy New Year was not so lucky. There was a great idea at the center of it which was ruined by the need to feed the out of date Shahrukh Khan star persona.
First, and most simply, Shahrukh was much too old to play his character. Rather than seeming to be a young man recently graduated business school whose life took a turn, he seemed like an old man who was holding on to a grudge for much to long. 10 years earlier he could have played the role, but as it was, he needed to let Farah re-write the script, or re-write it himself, to fit an older persona. But of course he couldn’t, because he wasn’t willing to let go of that idea of himself.
From that one mistake, dozens of others bloomed. The DVD has a deleted alternate opening sequence to the film which would have immediately made it 20% better. Rather than Shahrukh’s cool shirtless mud fight fan service opening, it was supposed to be Shahrukh in a business suit giving a presentation on his security system to a bunch of tired old people at a retirement home. The point of the film was a group of “losers” who were finally going to win, but instead of opening by seeing Shahrukh as a tired loser, we saw him as a perfect winner, literally winning right in the first scene.
The second theme of the film was the “Indiawaale” message. Shahrukh’s character is defined by his English skills, his ability to smoothly navigate international territory. The story was intended to be about him regaining his pride in his Indian identity through the process of setting aside his individual success for the pride of his country. And that was where the romance fit in, Shahrukh in his self-hatred denigrates the woman who is Indian, who Abhishek first picks out to train them because she is “one of us”. But by the end of the film he has learned to revere her, and by extension his country and Indian identity.
But again, this is lost. Because Shahrukh cannot be self-doubting, cannot be out of control, cannot reject his NRI identity. He can be charmingly confused, he can be proud of India, be can be tormented, but it’s not quite the same thing. It’s not as obvious as the opening scene being cut, but there were dozens of decisions through out the film which destroyed this message in the service of raising up Shahrukh’s character and adjusting it to fit his usual persona.
In everything since Dilwale, there is no “Shahrukh Khan” as he has come to be known onscreen. There are still flaws related to it, for instance the insertion of a romantic track which didn’t quite make sense in Raees, but his character and performance is consistently perfection. And yet every film is promoted by that fake “Shahrukh Khan” spokesperson and the poison of that spreads and stains the product, makes people feel like his performance onscreen is “fake” it is the “same old thing” because his performance off-screen is.
This is the cause of the disconnect that you can see within this blog. Those of us who consume little Indian pop culture content, either by choice or necessity (in my case, I don’t live in India, I don’t have satellite TV, and I don’t have time to watch it even if I did) are left with only the occasional interview where he reveals enough of himself to make it newsworthy (really just Koffee With Karan and the occasional in depth interview with a serious journalist) and his actual films. If you primarily know Shahrukh for the past 10 years from his movies, you respect him as a mostly brilliant and innovative artist. With a few serious disasters. But if you live in a place where you are immersed in Shahrukh-Khan-the-Public-Persona, you know him as charmingly smarmingly fake and you can’t forget it or unsee it when you are watching his movies.
What I want is for Shahrukh to allow that distance for everybody. Stop talking about himself so much, stop being everywhere, stop promoting his movies in the same old way. If you don’t want to be honest with us, fine, just don’t lie to us. Retreat. Don’t say anything at all.
(This kind of poster shouldn’t be competing with film posters and confusing us)
Now, here is why this doesn’t bother me that much. First, I take some responsibility on myself, to strive to separate Shahrukh-the-public-person from Shahrukh-the-role-he-is-playing-onscreen, and therefore see and value the work he is doing as an actor in recent years. He could make it easier for us, but it’s still possible for the audience to do the work and appreciate his films for themselves. And it should certainly be possible for critics to do that, they have a responsibility as well in helping the audience to see the difference between Shahrukh-the-public-person and Shahrukh-the-role-he-is-playing.
Second, ultimately it is his right to “lie” to us about who he is, I don’t think a celebrity necessarily has an obligation to tell the whole world about problems in his marriage, feeling old as his children age, what it’s like to be fabulously wealthy, any of that. He can keep that to himself if he wants and present a false face to the billions of people he will never meet who follow his career.
And third, most of all, I think he is beginning (several years late) to start to address his image problem. Accepting the award and giving serious interviews at Davos was a good start in rebranding himself as a serious powerful figure not just an entertainer. And attending the Maharashtra business conference was another good step. Along with cutting down on the “cute family” stories and over the top “I love my wife and am terrified of all other women” remarks. And in the right interviews, he has gotten very serious and introspective about looking at the last third of his life and where he wants to go from here and what legacy he wants to leave behind
Maybe only the “fans” are talking about these things, because we are the ones who see every Shahrukh movie even if the buzz is that it is “just like the rest”, because we read every interview and notice the early signs of changing trends in how he presents himself, even because we read every interview and see how all along there were gaps in his perfect image and moments of truth in his public persona. Shahrukh needs to put in the work though and get the rest of the world to see it as well, to force people to watch his movies and to make his moments of truth in real life not just here and there in every 3rd interview, but in all of them. Or, best of all, to cut down on his interviews and public appearances until all that is left is those moments where he actually wants to be real.