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”.
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.
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:
Dil Aashna Hai
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)
Dil To Pagal Hai
Kuch Kuch Hota Hai
Shakti: The Power
Kal Ho Na Ho
Dulha Mil Gaya
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.