An Open Letter to the Author of an “Open Letter to Shah Rukh Khan”

Let’s see if I can do this, directly respond to another writer without feeling like I am being nasty. Hey, Anonymous Author! I am going to be nice and start a dialogue, not mean. You can read this without worrying about feeling attacked. Oh, and everyone else, I am going to try to expand the conversation that Anonymous Author started and bring up some points he seem to have missed.

I debated how to write this, what tone to use. I considered the academic tone, but that’s just NASTY. I don’t want to say mean stuff like:

While I appreciate your enthusiasm for the topic and attempt to address it seriously, a little research might have made your argument both more valid and more original.

Or I could respond like an emotional fan. But I don’t want to use specious excited arguments like:

OMG! Shahrukh’s movies aren’t flops! And can we talk about how he can hardly make a move without the right wing starting a protest and maybe THAT’S why they don’t do as well as expected?

And really, the most inflammatory thing about the whole article is the title. If it had been phrased as “some random interesting things I have been thinking about related to Shahrukh Khan’s career”, I wouldn’t have had any problems. But then, no one would have read it either. It has to be phrased as a definite confrontational statement just for clicks. I’m going to pretend that doesn’t exist, and treat it more as a general opening for a discussion. I am going to respond like I would to a commentator here, try to start a dialogue and build on the original discussion:

Hi! I am so glad you wrote an article that dealt with Shah Rukh as a serious artist and took his career problems a little more seriously than the simple answer of “he is a bad actor” or “the audience is tired of him”. As someone else who thinks way more than is reasonable about Indian popular film, I love it when I read something thoughtful and thought provoking.

I really like your point about Shahrukh trying to serve two masters, the global and local audience. And your acknowledgement that as an artist, he is growing and growing in the recent years. And as someone who has trumpeted the value of the Indian film style for years, I very much appreciate your call to appreciate an “Indian” style of filmmaking, complete with songs.

But at the same time, I think you may not have picked the best examples to make your points. For instance, you argue that:

The wannabe Hollywood feel we got in stuff like FanJab Harry Met Sejal or Zero was never there in your films with masters like Abbas-Mustan, the late Yash Chopra, Aditya Chopra, Rakesh Roshan, Subhash Ghai, Karan Johar in his first two films with you, Sanjay Leela Bansali, Farah Khan and last but not least, Rohit Shetty.


https://www.bollywoodhungama.com/news/features/open-letter-shah-rukh-khan/

Now, there’s a problem here. If the argument is that you need to pick a strong director, a strong INDIAN director, in order to have a hit film, how does that line up with the claim you also make that his last big hit was Chennai Express? Shahrukh worked with Rohit Shetty after that, in Dilwale. And with Farah Khan in Happy New Year. Imtiaz Ali is not on that list, but I would argue that he also fits. He made hardcore popular films with Jab We Met and Love Aaj Kal. I do agree that there is something missing in Shahrukh’s recent films, but I don’t think it can be simplified to “pick a better director”. The argument just doesn’t hold up.

Fan was directed by Maneev Sharma, who previously made the very “Indian” Band Baaja Baarat. And the two films could not have been more different, which kind of disproves the “just pick a good director” argument. There’s more to it than that.

In a large sense, the simplification of Shahrukh as having only made flops in the past six years also weakens your argument. You state:


Now let’s come to specifics. When was your last hit? All of six years ago in Chennai Express! Since then, even your 100 crore films like Dilwale and Raees have actually failed to make the grade, and Fan, Jab Harry Met Sejal and above all, Zero, have all crash-landed.

I think before making this sweeping statement and then building on it, we need to define “hit”. I understand what you are getting at, it’s not just about the money a film makes, it’s about expectations. Distributors lost money on many of Shahrukh’s recent films because the money they paid for the rights was not made back through the tickets, that’s what makes them a flop. But is that something that should be loaded down on the films and Shahrukh, or should it bring in a larger conversation about distributor rights and the bidding system?

I’ll make it simpler, you say that Yash Chopra is a good strong director of the type who can make classic popular Indian films. You also point out Fan as having “crash landed”. But in raw box office figures, Jab Tak Hain Jaan (Shahrukh’s last movie with Yashji) and Fan made about the same amount. In fact, Fan made more, 1,169,700,000 to Jab Tak Hain Jaan‘s 1,015,900,000. What I am seeing here is not “Jab Tak Hain Jaan was less ‘Hollywood’ with a better Indian director”, but more “the audience and film industry changed dramatically in the 5 years between those two movies, what used to be a hit is now a flop”.

There’s also how Jab Tak Hain Jaan was 2/3rds set in London while Fan was 2/3rds set in India.

At the same time, you also point to Badla as a “hit”. I agree, it is a hit. It was made on a small budget and made far more than expected. But if that is our basis for “hit”, then we could say the same about Dear Zindagi. Badla was made for an estimated 24 crore, Dear Zindagi for 25. Dear Zindagi made an estimated 918,200,000 and Badla has made 827,100,000 so far. So that means Shahrukh has, in fact, made a “hit” film since Chennai Express. And he did it without a “Master” Indian director, but instead with an unproven director on her second film.

I guess my big problem is the simple argument of “people will watch your movies if you pick better scripts and better directors, ones who connect with the Indian audience”. That’s easy to say, but it doesn’t really hold up. Shahrukh has had hits and flops with a whole variety of directors who have a whole variety of hits and flops with other stars. And he has had hits and flops in a whole variety of styles, just as many other stars have had a whole variety of hits and flops in a whole variety of styles, there is no one simple way to connect to the Indian audience.

And I also have a problem with the argument of trying to chase the global market. This is a problem for Shahrukh, yes, but it is also a problem for everyone else, in India and America. The global market is the dream. You mention Avengers as proof of a good script and a good director. I would offer it as proof of the possibility of a true global market. Marvel Studios planned a careful attack over years, softening up the market worldwide and then releasing their film in a massive blast that dominated every market, strangling the possibility of anything else succeeding. That is how you make a hit in the global market, you do a wide release, you do a massive promotion campaign, and you convince the world that it is a movie not to be missed. It’s not just about the script or the director, it’s about a lot more than that. And if you want to see who in India is really going after the global market, don’t look at Shahrukh’s movies with their NRI heroes, look at Aamir’s movies with their calculated promotions and big silly storylines that translate everywhere.

And there is the problem that the “Indian” market is rapidly disappearing. Single screens are almost gone already, and multiplex tickets keep rising and rising. Footfalls are dropping at an alarming rate. And Hollywood films are invading the market. If Shahrukh is to do what he did in the 90s, he would be hard put to find the audience he had in the 90s, the single-screen audience with no Hollywood competition. Pursuing the “global” audience is in fact pursuing the only audience left in India.

Border had more footfalls than any Hindi movie released in the past 18 years. The audience is going away, not going away from Shahrukh, just going away.

But I think you are on to something with the call for looking at the film as a whole, and deciding who your audience is. It’s not the directors, Shahrukh has only worked with amazing directors in the past decade or so, and directors from a whole variety of backgrounds and none of them were the magic fix. And it’s not the scripts either, Dilwale had a terrible script and it did better than Jab Harry Met Sejal which had a great script. But making the leap and deciding “I am going to think about whether this film is worth making, not whether I want to act in this film”, that is an interesting difference. And saying “I am not going to try to appeal to everyone in the world, I am going to picture in my head the exact people I want to please and make a movie just for them”, that is an interesting difference too.

I think that advice is good for all artists, really. To think about if what you are creating deserves to exist in the world, whether it has a purpose besides your own fulfillment, and to think about who you want to give this thing too. Shahrukh has never necessarily done that before, I think a lot of working artists don’t do this. You start out taking any job you can find just so you can express your art. And then you become successful and start taking the jobs you want because that is the reward of success, artistic fulfillment. And somehow, you skip the step of sitting there and thinking “why am I doing this? What am I putting into the world? And who am I putting it out there for?”

19 thoughts on “An Open Letter to the Author of an “Open Letter to Shah Rukh Khan”

  1. Thank you for writing this! I read it earlier today and thought it was the stupidest, shallowest diatribe ever. It’s so typical for Indian critics or whoever he is to be singularly focused on box office numbers. How ridiculous to suggest that Swades was a mistake because of how much it made. Pathetic. SRK has clearly been craving experimentation and trying to push the envelope on story lines, characters and yes VFX in India. That means taking risks and if an artist of his caliber isn’t doing that, then what’s the point? Keep hamming it up like Salman? No wonder the domestic Indian market can’t progress beyond SOTY8 or Dhamal 15 and whatever else drivel it gravitates towards. Every two cent critic is measuring rupee intake instead of the quality and audacity of the story.

    The box office isn’t everything and while everyone has a right to an opinion, my opinion is that lame open letter needs to be burned.

    Ps not sure if it was anonymous when you read it but now it has a byline. No clue who the person is, nor do I care!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think the biggest problem might be that it fails to investigate the premise of what it is saying. That all Shahrukh’s recent movies were flops, that he must crave box office blockbuster hit over critical appreciation, and so on. They might be valid conclusions, but they need more information and detail to back them up.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Bollywood Hungama is the website/news outlet that published the letter. Sounds like someone else took credit for it now, their music critic or something.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I admire your restraint, Margaret. Somehow I doubt the writer of the open letter will get your intelligence, though.
    One point may be the most relevant: expectations…and the way they are rised (not only by the makers’ promotion but by every available public possibility) or subdued, for that matter.
    And then there is one question I ponder about myself: What is the reason that – in this decade (or at least since 2014) – ShahRukh’s movies generally have got a better reception overseas than in the domestic circles.

    Liked by 1 person

    • In terms of expectations, he seems to be using the “distributors lost money” definition of “flop”. But that is on the distributors, right? They thought all these movies would be a hit, it wasn’t just Shahrukh who thought that, and they paid big money for them. If they had paid less, than these movies wouldn’t be “flops”, they would be hits like he says Badla is.

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  3. First of all, you are a much better writer than Rajiv Vijayakar. His style is florid and pretentious while your response to his largely fallacious argument is well-structured and sincere. He claims to be the “only consultant on Hindi film music”. Whatever that means. It seems he studied dentistry at Jai Hind College but somehow veered away from that profession into Bollywood. He’s a older guy, small, balding, possibly paunchy. My guess is he’s a failed actor and totally jealous of the one and only Baadshah.

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    • He could be perfectly well qualified, pop culture reporting is a strange game since there isn’t really a straight line into it. But yes, his argument in this case is not terribly well structured. Needed a few more drafts.

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  4. Just like Indian film criticism, Indian trade analysts leave a lot to be desired. The one thing I will never understand is why they would expect very different films from very different genres and even different types of releases to make the same type of money? In Hollywood, for example, it’s understood that a romcom has a certain monetary level it can get to. The actor starring in it is not a flop just because it doesn’t make the type of money Avengers does. Salman is propped up as a huge star and others are mocked but Salman’s box office is bigger generally because he does almost nothing but masala movies with wide releases and crowd pleasing ingredients like action and explosions. How does it even make sense to compare movies like Dear Zindagi and JHMS to those types of movies in terms of box office? Stick Salman in the latter two movies and the box office would have been no bigger. Probably would have been even smaller because his type of fan base would not be interested in those topics. Look at how much money Judwa can make compared to October. If an actor is choosing to do the more unusual subjects, of course it has to be understood that it cannot and will not make the type of a money a lazy masala movie will. That doesn’t mean his star power is suddenly big during Judwa and disappeared during October.

    These people have turned movies into a horserace that makes no sense and penalizes people who want to do anything even slightly different from the norm. The truth is that even Badla is only being called a hit because it didn’t star SRK. If he had done the same movie and the box office was exactly the same, he would have still been mocked and these trade analysts would have had a field day saying stuff SRK can’t match up to trash like Race 3 and Simmba and hence he needs to rethink his career. They’ve already decided the theme from the start and they just change the argument and content around to fit their point.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It feels like mixing of two arguments. If your thesis is that “content is king”, then you should have your expectations for films based on their content. So Badla and Dear Zindagi are both hits because they are both good scripts, respected but not famous directors, a two person lead cast but not romantic, and so on and so forth. But if your thesis is “Star over content”, then Badla is a hit and Dear Zindagi is a flop, because it doesn’t matter what the genre is, a Shahrukh movie has a certain level of expectation. I am fine with either argument, but you can’t say “content is king” and “all Shahrukh’s recent films were flops”, you have to say “content is king and all Shahrukh’s films did as they would be expected to do based on the content, the flaw is with people’s expectations not the films” or say “Stars are king and all Shahrukh’s films are flops because, despite the genre and everything else, he should be able to make them hits”.

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  5. Shah Rukh Khan made the point beautifully at the Critics’ speech; it is ridiculous to judge content and creative performance with how much money is generated by the art. If you want to have a discussion about commercially successful films, fine, but that is a very different discussion from one about “great” film. (Throwing an epic Rohit Shetty-style car crash into DDLJ or Badla would not have made either movie better in an artful or dramatic way. It was my favorite part of Dilwale, though.)
    Making the “perfect” movie truly is like catching lightening on celluloid; you can have all the right ingredients for an epic shot, but when and where it happens is totally random and unpredictable. You can set out to make a blockbuster, the way Marvel has done with Avengers, but the trick there is not making a great movie so much as it is convincing everyone *prior to release* that they have to see it. That magic word-of-mouth chatter that turns a special movie into a hit is never that predictable, nor should it be. It wouldn’t be special then, it would just be good promotion.
    Yes, collections matter, particularly so far as making back costs, but as far I’ve read, SRK never leaves his distributors with a financial loss. And yes, Chennai Express was a hit, but if I’m not mistaken, there was quite a lot of backlash that it wasn’t erudite enough material for King Kahn. What’s wrong with a fun movie, shot in AH-mazing locations with a beautiful cast, complete with pop culture references, trains, car crashes, and enough flowers to smother even the harshest critics? Do they not still call that Masala?

    “Make more romances, no not just romance. Do rom-coms with pathos. And car crashes. Make sure the heroine is beautiful and also young but age-appropriate. Don’t work out too much, but make sure you’re ripped and all the music is upbeat but bursting with heartrending sorrow. And don’t forget the car crashes. You really need to keep your NRI audience in mind while making this one, but be certain it’s all Indian all the time. Oh, and you better have a tight script. The movie will be nothing if the script is crap, and then it won’t matter if you get SRK and Kajol to star in it, no one will come. It’s gotta be worthy of Shakespeare, right? Every. Single. Time. Did we mention car crashes? Those, too. Now, go get ‘em!! Distributors, that is. Go make that blockbuster!”

    I think the critique of a movie and its actors should be separate from how much money it makes.
    I think critics should quit telling moviegoers not to see a film(s) in theaters because they “personally felt it lacked depth.” The power trip of making or breaking a movie that critics now embark on helps neither the fans nor the studios. Only the critic gets the rush of having bestowed the lowest number of stars.
    I think the music and streaming and theater receipts both foreign and domestic should count before you declare a great movie a flop.
    I think globally, people are less likely to differentiate where their movie comes from, and whether or not it has subtitles. It’s too difficult to find Bollywood movies in the US. More screens, please!
    I think I love Hindi films with dance numbers and singing and all the masala, and it would be a shame if it changed just to please a few stupid people with too many stupid opinions.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You put it perfectly, “you can set out to make a blockbuster…but the trick there is not to make a great movie”. I do think box office is part of a good film, it has to resonate with the audience in a way that makes them want to see it. But when films are only in theaters for 2 weeks and most of the box office comes from opening weekend (which is a new thing in India, just within the past 10 years), box office records come from the promotions, not the film itself. Not just the promotion budget, but how they sell the film to people who haven’t seen it yet. JHMS and Thugs flopped after massive promotions, because the kind of film they were sold as was not the kind of film people wanted to watch.

      You can tell Shahrukh to make DDLJ again, and he did! That’s Swades, that’s JHMS, good movies that you need to see multiple times to appreciate, that need word of mouth to tell people how good they are. But DDLJ doesn’t play any more, it’s hard to promote and get people to see opening weekend, and then it is out of theaters before word of mouth gets a chance. If you are looking for good movies, they won’t be the blockbusters, they will be the solid moneymakers like Badla, lower box office but longer runs. The blockbusters may or may not be “good movies”, the two things are unrelated.

      On Wed, May 1, 2019 at 3:12 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  6. I thought Raees was a hit though. Why aren’t people counting Raees as his last hit? Or does it have to be 200 crores for a superstar’s movie to be declared a hit?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Exactly!!!!!! Raees made more than, for instance, Judwaa 2 which was a “hit”. Dilwale made more than Raees. They aren’t record breakers or anything, but they made money. They just weren’t blockbusters. Shahrukh is the least successful of the Khans (although after Thugs, that may change), but he is still more successful than anyone else around. It’s an odd between place, if he was just a big star like Ajay or Akshay, his record the past few years would be impressive (the way people treat Ajay and Akshay). But he is still just too big to be dropped down to that level, so he has become the “worst” of the Khans instead of the “best” of everyone else.

      On Wed, May 1, 2019 at 8:26 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  7. As someone who really is enjoying the various creative directions that SRK has taking in the recent years despite not liking the films necessarily it makes me so angry that these “film experts” care only about box office success not to mention that this person sounds incredibly entitled! Why does an actor owe us hit films? The box office numbers doesn’t affect us as an audience personally and if an actor want to pick a specific scripts so that they can be artistically fulfilled then by all means they should be able to! Also I swear to god that I lose 10 years off my lifespan whenever some Indian film person uses Marvel as a comparison point and go on about how hindi film is bad or whatever. Marvel Studious and these Avengers movies (which have been over hyped) has been YEARS in the making with a connection of various films. Nothing was ever going to top it (not to mention that Disney has a very concerning monopoly over the film industry in general) so there’s no way you can compare the two. There were so many blanket statements made that really don’t hold up because the author missed a lot of facts that would be contradictory to his points. Thank you for pointing some of them out.

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    • I would say that an actor owes us successful films, because film is different from other art forms in how it needs to provide employment for a whole variety of people and a flop can really damage the industry as a whole. However, Shahrukh’s films of the past few years have not been that level of flop. They weren’t blockbusters, most people didn’t lose money. And the few who did (the distributors who paid too much) were paid back out of Shahrukh’s own pocket. So what’s the problem? Let him keep making artistically fulfilling decent box office films instead of chasing the hits.

      You are so right about the Avengers movies, and I’d also like to point out that in the decade-plus time they have been built up, they have had their own flops too. If you compare Shahrukh as a “brand” with Avengers as a “brand”, the hit-flop ratio is pretty similar.

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