Shahrukh Summer: Thought Post, Shahrukh as the “Heroine” and Why We Love It

This isn’t really a discussion post, but it isn’t a 101 exactly either. It’s just it’s own thing for us all to consider.

Indian film discussion uses the terms “hero” and “heroine” and “villain”. Those terms roughly translate to “protagonist” “love interest/plot goal” and “antagonist”. The hero is the central figure of the plot, the central mover of the plot. His problems define the movement of the story, his actions solve those problems, and along the way he learns and grows. The heroine is often more of a plot element than a character, either the end goal of the movie or the central complication that starts the story going. The villain receives almost as much attention as the hero, his motivations are opposite to the hero and his actions cause the problems the hero must resolve.

How does this relate to Shahrukh? Through out his career, he has over and over again avoided the “hero” roles. It’s well known and often discussed that he had a willingness to take the “villain” part, from Darr to Anjaam to Baazigar to Don. Often what that has been seen as is either a film being without a hero, Shahrukh playing a negative role. Or else that Shahrukh is still the “hero”, just a hero who does bad things. But what is not discussed (until just now, by me) is that they dynamic of these films is still villain-hero-heroine. It’s just that Shahrukh is playing the villain, the second actor is playing the heroine, and the actress is playing the hero. Juhi is the hero of Darr, Madhuri of Anjaam, Kajol of Baazigar, and Priyanka of Don. Boring Sunny Deol, Deepak Tijori, Siddharth Ray, and Arjun Rampal are the “heroines”.

By “hero” I don’t mean they act like men. They are still gendered as women in the narrative, they are just the central figures instead of the small supporting role.

You just have to break out of the gender roles of this trinity. There is always an antagonist, a protagonist, and a love interest, but they aren’t always an actor, an actor, and an actress. Sometimes the “hero” is a woman and the “heroine” is a man. When Sunny Deol is weak character in Darr, it is not to make Shahrukh into the “hero”, it is because he is secondary to Juhi. Just as Anjaam is not a film without a hero, or with Shahrukh as the hero, simply because Deepak Tijori is not present for most of it. Madhuri is the hero.

It’s interesting to watch movies where Shahrukh plays the villain, lending his big name to the more interesting role, and allowing an actress to play the hero. But it is also interesting to see the many movies where Shahrukh lets the actress play the hero by taking the “heroine” role. His first two movies, Dil Aashna Hai and Deewana, had a female lead. Shahrukh was barely a character in Dil Aashna Hai, the love interest who popped up as needed. In Deewana, he had a strong character, but didn’t appear until the second half. Divya Bharti was the hero of both movies, she had the backstory, she had the emotional journey, in Deewana she even has the first half and second half love interest that is the exclusive right of the hero in most films.

Shahrukh’s “villain” roles are interesting and different, again this is something everyone kind of knows. But his “heroine” roles are interesting too! In Dil Aashna Hai and Deewana he got to fall in love at first sight and stand up to his father and play the damaged soul saved by love. In Chaahat, he got to be the fragile victim of sexual harrassment, the tortured soul who wants to be loved for more than his body. In Kal Ho Na Ho, he got to be the magic fun figure who solves all problems and dances through life.

See how he gets to be all sexy and fun and inspire Preity to be a happier person?

Yes, the majority of his career, Shahrukh plays the “hero” parts. Or at least the “protagonist”. It is his story, his character grows and changes, his needs drive the narrative, and so on. But what makes him interesting as an actor is that he is also willing to take the other parts in the trinity, the “villain” and the “heroine” roles. Of course, this is also what has lead to misinterpretations of large parts of his filmography. Darr is not a story that makes stalking heroic, it makes the woman who confronts and defeats her stalker heroic. Kuch Kuch Hota Hai isn’t about a guy who doesn’t know what he wants, it is about a woman who grows up and changes and follows her heart. Paheli isn’t about a magical ghost who becomes human, it is about a woman wakening up to her own needs, both physical and emotional.

There are some structural issues built into the films that make the “Shahrukh is the heroine” element harder to see. It was strikingly obvious when looking at the Netflix versus theatrical cut of Zero. In the Netflix version, Anushka starts the film because it is her story, and also ends it the same as she did in the theatrical version. But in the theatrical version, Shahrukh starts the film because that is why people bought tickets. The same thing is true over and over again in his “heroine” parts post fame. Chennai Express, Jab Harry Met Sejal, Don, Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna, and on and on, the actress’ story and motivations drive the narrative. But because Shahrukh is the big name, he is introduced first in the film and the actress only comes later. Paheli, Kal Ho Na Ho, Dear Zindagi, those are the honest ones where the central character of the film (the actress) gets both the opening and closing moments. This was not the case earlier in his career, when he was a smaller name, and the actress was allowed to begin the film, to get the bigger introduction moment.

In the same way, his newer “heroine” roles come with many big song numbers with himself front and center to help promote the movie. And of course he is listed as producer and takes the lead in the promotion. It can be hard to see through all those things to the actual film. But if you do, you will discover over and over again that Shahrukh’s character is there to support someone else’s story, to be the comic relief or the sex object or the catalyst of change. In other words, the heroine.

With my definition, the “heroine” being the one who supports the journey of the main character, these are the films in which I would argue that Shahrukh took a step back and let the actress be the lead. At least, for most of the film, even if the opening and closing in through in a last minute revision to get people in theaters:

Deewana

Dil Aashna Hai

Maya Memsaab

Oh Darling Yeh Hai India

English Babu Desi Mem (in this case he was both the heroine and the villain, similar to Sridevi reforming halfway through Himmatwala)

Chaahat

Army

Koyla

Pardes

Dil To Pagal Hai

Dil Se…

Kuch Kuch Hota Hai

Shakti: The Power

Kal Ho Na Ho

Veer-Zaara

Paheli

Dulha Mil Gaya

Dear Zindagi

Zero (Netflix cut)

What do you think? Does that make sense? Are there any you would add to my list, or remove? I debated Veer-Zaara, but really the two heroines are the leads, Veer is just there to support them. It’s Rani and Preity’s story far more than his. And I almost added Ra.One, because if you split Shahrukh’s characters into two roles, Kareena is obviously the lead.

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16 thoughts on “Shahrukh Summer: Thought Post, Shahrukh as the “Heroine” and Why We Love It

  1. This is one of those times I really really wish more people in India read this blog and I really really wish the Indian critics and pundits read this blog. You have hit the nail on the head. The bravest thing he does and has done is not play a villain which is what everyone talks about; its that he has been very willing to play second fiddle to the hero who is a woman. This is where his damn modesty gets in the way. He may appear arrogant, but he would never say this, though he knows it too.
    On another note. I am going to be traveling, so my responses will be spotty but never fear I am reading and reading!!!

    Liked by 2 people

    • We can even see that attitude in Dangal versus Chak De. Both good movies with sincere efforts on the part of the male stars to step aside and let the female athletes shine. But then end of Chak De is Shahrukh humbly returning home and avoiding all the triumph and applause that the team receives, while Dangal has Aamir proudly taking all their trophies and hanging them up on his wall. It’s not that the movies are one to one, but that’s kind of the point. When Aamir pictured this story, he pictured a father living out his glory through his daughters. When Shahrukh thinks of the same story, he thinks of a disgraced coach proving his love of country and sport by stepping aside and letting other people shine.

      And I think more people should read me too! Especially this post, I’m surprised yours is the first comment and that it hasn’t gained more traction so far.

      On Mon, Jul 15, 2019 at 3:20 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      Liked by 1 person

  2. Perhaps people aren’t commenting because what you say is spot on and there is nothing to add. Your perceptive analysis of what lies beneath the surface always amazes me, countless “now why didn’t I see that?” moments. Thank you. 🙂
    You are absolutely right, and perhaps this adds to Shahurkh’s appeal for women, makes his characters so relatable.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, what a nice thing to say!

      I agree, Shahrukh gives woman a fantasy, not of a sexy romantic guy, but of a guy who will understand our hopes and dreams and help us to achieve them, a giver not a taker.

      On Mon, Jul 15, 2019 at 4:57 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  3. This is a classier framing than Manic Pixie Dream Boy :). I like the hero/heroine/villain structure and how it affects the way you understand the plot depending on which role you understand him to occupy.

    Don is an interesting case. I think of that as one of his trickster roles, which is a category that would overlap some of the villain and some of the heroine roles you named. The trickster provokes and catalyzes to force a crisis or reassessment in others but doesn’t himself change. If you recast Don as villain with Priyanka as hero, we would have to care about her revenge journey and the movies kind of fail on that count. We don’t really root for her to kill him at any point – even though she should be sympathetic, she’s fighting for her dead brother. I see the Don movies as antihero vs. corrupt system – we’re allowed to root for Don because he’s exposing the more respectable villains for the true bad guys they are.

    Dil Se, though, switching it around to be Manisha’s movie makes me like it so much more! Her story is the emotional undertow throughout and drives all the major events. Both actress and role are strong enough to carry the hero part, tragic ending and all.

    Veer Zara, the problem is he’s the bridge between the past and present. It could easily be rewritten as Preity’s story, but you would have to show more of what happened to her after the arrest. Which, on the other hand, would probably make it a better movie.

    Kal Ho Na Ho no argument whatsoever, the clearest Manic Pixie Dream Boy role, plus item dances, definite heroine.

    KKHH again, yes, this is Kajol’s movie. And again, giving her a bit more to do to transition between past and present would have strengthened the character and the film.

    Zero – noticing a post SRK fame problem where the actress’s role is the hero but it’s underwritten. (I would also put Chennai Express in this category.) This could be Anushka’s movie, but we have a big Kat-shaped gap in the middle of her story. I would hate to lose the Kat sequence, but that section existed for Bauua not Aafia. In the Anushka hero version, we would get Aafia reading about Bauua and Babita in the papers, angrily deciding to keep the news of her pregnancy to herself, fighting with her family and spending long days at work hiding her belly under loose clothes and furiously calculating how to get the ship to Mars. There would be a near-catastrophic work failure, followed by a tearful late night scene by the baby’s crib where she realizes how alone she feels, despite new boyfriend Maddy in the picture – she can’t quite reveal all her messiness and fears to him. When Shah Rukh popped up again it would be more obviously the answer to both her problems, the only way to save the mission competing with only way to make her family complete. A plausible alternate Zero, but not quite the movie as is.

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    • Yaaaay, a comment! Thank you!

      I think the first Don is still Priyanka’s story, we see her plan and react and make decisions. If we consider Shahrukh as the “villain”, it works, because the villain role is often as strong as the hero role. Like Nawazuddin in Raees, or Amrish Puri in Koyla. Shahrukh’s story has no completion no real character journey, unlike Priyanka who grows and changes and so on. However, I think it gets fuzzy in Don 2.

      Maybe the issue with Zero, Veer-Zaara, etc. is that Shahrukh is playing the heroine role but gets screentime because he is a man that another “heroine” would not have. In Veer-Zaara, we have a character who remains ever faithful to love, staying in one place (emotionally and physically) for years. And we have another character who goes out in the world and does things. And a third character who rescues the first. Shahrukh is a classic “princess in a tower” character, it’s just that the film gives us more time with the princess than with the adventurer going off on the quests.

      If you look at the narrative as a whole, over and over again it is the woman who changes, whose needs and decisions drive the action, whose achievement of her goal is the “happy ending”. Only Shahrukh gets more screen time which means it seems as though he is the hero just because he is around more. Dear Zindagi was the only film that managed to break that pattern.

      On Mon, Jul 15, 2019 at 10:41 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • I think you’re right about Don 1. I was thinking about Don 2 because I just rewatched it. Priyanka doesn’t have much to do in that one, and Don is more antihero than villain, vs. the first movie he is all villain. That’s actually an interesting case to think about what it would look like if the genders were flipped – would he be allowed to win? I feel like it’s rarer for women to be lucky enough to get cast in these complex villain or antihero roles, and when they do the character is always punished at the end of the movie. The closest I can think of in Indian film is Tabu in Andhadhun? Surely there are many more I haven’t seen…

        And yes, exactly, post fame the female hero characters are underwritten and the SRK heroine characters get disproportionate screen time. For example, I think I would like Chennai Express better if it opened with Deepika running away from her family instead of Shah Rukh and his grandpa. Then it becomes a story of how Deepika’s plans to break free of her family get derailed by this guy on the train, but then she falls for him and ultimately faces down her father to claim her future instead of trying to hide from him. You’d still need to fix that last fight scene, though, where she just stands around gasping as macho SRK bleeds for her. At least give her the speech to the father instead of having Shah Rukh speak for her.

        Interesting to think about what it means for SRK the actor that he’s done a lot of roles where he needs to keep audience interest in the character despite not really changing or driving the plot forward.

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        • Aitraaz is the famous funniest female villain movie. PC plays an over the top seductress and Bad Woman, super fun! But yes, it’s rare. And usually they are reformed and become “good”, which I find kind of patronizing, like because they are woman they can’t be treated seriously as threats.

          That’s a really interesting point about Shahrukh the actor!!! Maybe it’s because he just loves entertaining people? In Chennai Express, it’s maybe 10% sincere emotion and character growth, and 90% mugging and jumping around and entertaining us.

          On Tue, Jul 16, 2019 at 11:40 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  4. This is so great! I read it last night and was too sleepy to comment and I’ve been thinking about it all day. Because of course you’re right–in so many of his films, Shah Rukh steps back and the “heroine” (his female co-star) drives the story. In fact, I know I’ve seen interviews where he says almost exactly that–that the female characters in his films are not objectified but the narrative is really driven by those characters. If I can find any, I’ll post them here.

    And I agree with Molly too: I really wish more Indians and especially Indian critics and pundits would read this. Maybe especially those critics and pundits who are always examining Indian films through a Western lens, and complain that Hindi cinema, and Shah Rukh in particular, are too bound by Indian film “norms.”

    I have a couple of films that came to mind today and I’d like your take on whether they fit your criteria for Shah Rukh as “heroine.”

    Yes Boss, celebrating 22 years tomorrow (which I only know because my Twitter timeline is full of this!), is one where Rahul falls for Seema early, and she eventually comes around. It is true that they’re both chasing big dreams, and Rahul goes through all kinds of antics to please her and win her, while ostensibly “helping” his boss. But Juhi is the one who learns and feels the love of a family when they’re at his home pretending to married for his mom’s sake. It is she who finally wakes up to what a creep Sidharth is and what a gem Rahul is. Not sure if this fits the bill, since Rahul also has a journey here, wherein he finally decides that breaking with his boss is worth it to save Seema.

    The other one I thought of is Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi. Sure, Suri plays at being a totally different person, becoming Raj to win over Taani. But it is Taani’s journey. She’s the one who evolves over the course of the film. Shah Rukh’s characters are there to help her get to the goal line, but Suri remains Suri throughout and insists that nothing will work unless Taani falls in love with him, not Raj. So it’s all about him winning her over, but she has to travel the path to get there.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I was thinking about Yes Boss and Rab Ne too!!!!! Yes Boss is tricky, because Shahrukh’s character gets a backstory and a journey and motivations and all of that. But on the other hand, Juhi’s character gets a lot more than a normal heroine would, and it is her decisions that change things in the end. Maybe we should create a new category for this kind of movie? Male Hero-Female Hero-Villain?

      Rab Ne though, yes! Anushka doesn’t have nearly as much screentime as she should, but on the other hand her character is the one who has her heart broken, healed, grows, changes, and so on. While Shahrukh remains always himself, and is only there to serve her story. It’s a lot like Kal Ho Na Ho, now that I think about it. Only in KHNH, we started with Preity and continued to get far more of her live, including voice overs, than Shahrukh. Rab Ne has the same plot, a broken sad woman who is cured by magical and happy Shahrukh. Only we spend way more time with Shahrukh than Anushka, because Shahrukh is the Star and Anushka is the teenage new discovery no one knows.

      On Wed, Jul 17, 2019 at 9:45 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • Ooh, good point. Raj is total Manic Pixie Dream Boy, now second on my list of most Manic Pixie Dream Boy SRK characters after Aman in Kal Ho Na Ho.

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        • I’m trying to think of more for you, but all I am coming up with is particular songs. He really isn’t afraid to be puckish and delightful song by song! “Tanhayee”, “Main Koi Aise Geet”, and so on.

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  5. This post is so great. I love de-gendering things to protagonist, antagonist, and love-interest (or in thrillers, a McGuffin).

    This reminded me again of how terrible the name Jab Harry Met Sejal is. Ranbir really jacked up this movie’s chances by coming up with that name. It should have just been named Sejal. The whole movie only makes sense if one understands it as her internal and external journey, with Harry and Europe being catalysts only. And the villain in the movie is Sejal’s conditioning and self-doubt. The external baddies are just there to move the plot along, awkwardly. And of course the ring (her independent adult persona) is the McGuffin.

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    • I would also have been happy with Harry-Sejal, but “Sejal” is prettier. “Butterfly” would also have been a great title, evoking the idea of Anushka emerging from her cacoon and the kind of light flitting from place to place that was the plot.

      Your discussion of how this movie could have a villain reminds me of the college class my sister took on Indian film. Very superficial and fun, and her teacher described HAHK as having a hero, a heroine, and of course the villain-the staircase.

      Like

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