I had another thought! Well actually, Rachel had a thought on this post and I replied to it, and then I kept on thinking. Anyway, thoughts! About sex! And also power and romance.
Sex and power are not unrelated to each other. For some people, a powerless partner is sexy, it makes them feel more confident by contrast and that makes them feel more attractive and powerful and sexy. For other people, a powerful partner is sexy, it makes them feel powerless and therefore free and therefore sexy. But then there is the other part of this, sex is a power you can hold over someone else. If they are more attracted to you than you are to them, or less able to control their desires than you are, you can use sex as a promise and a bait and a weapon. And that’s not kind or fair or loving, or sexy at all. But it can be romantic
Power can be romantic. Not wielding power, but choosing not to wield it. When Hrithik has Aishwarya at gun point and chooses not to shoot her because he loves her too much, when Salman kneels in front of Madhuri instead of playfully hitting her with marigolds, when Shahrukh takes his things and goes to sleep in the attic instead of sharing a bed with Anushka, that’s romance. All these men have power over the woman they love. But they hand that power over to her, they love her so much that they are powerless in front of her and only wish her to be happy.
In Shahrukh’s earliest films, his power was often based on wealth and social status. That is a common romance trope, it fulfills the double fantasy of having all your money and social problems solved by someone who loves you, and the fantasy of having someone with all that wealth and social status prove his love by refusing to use it against you. And there was also just a hint of physical power, and choosing not to use that as well.
In Dil Aashna Hai, Divya is a humble dancing girl and Shahrukh is the son of a wealthy man. Over and over again she taunts him, invites him to use his power and “buy” her. And his response is to refuse, he wants her to love him truly, he uses his wealth and power to serve her but never to threaten her. He uses his physical power over her once, he slaps her for offering herself to him. That is not sexy at all. And noticeably Not Sexy because there has been this power imbalance the whole film (physical, financial, class) and he has never taken advantage of it until now, because he loved her, which was both sexy and romantic.
In Deewana, again Shahrukh is the son of a wealthy man. And Divya is a widow on the run from her enemies. She is one of the most powerless in society while Shahrukh is one of the most powerful. In a memorable scene, he tracks her down to her house on Holi and grabs her and smears color on her face. But then he leaves. This is different from when Shahrukh slapped in Divya in Dil Aashna Hai. In that case, he gave in to his feelings without caring what it did to her. In this case, Shahrukh does not give in, cares more for how Divya will feel than how he feels himself. Shahrukh, by every standard, can take whatever he wants from Divya and no one will stop him. But he chooses not to. Even after marriage, he does not have any expectations. He loves her so much that he just wants to do whatever will make her happy rather than what will make him happy.
Through out the early years of his career, Shahrukh played those same two notes over and over again, the man of wealth and/or the man of physical power who chooses not to use either weapon because he loves his heroine so much. This was hardly unusual, most romance films of this era had the same idea.
But then things started to change around Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. Shahrukh was now 33 and had been a movie actor for 5 years. He was no longer working on multiple films at once, he was comfortable in his body, he was working with a director he liked and was comfortable with (Karan) and an actress he also knew well. And suddenly a new element was added to the power-romance dynamic, Sex.
Shahrukh’s character in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai is established from the start as a ladies’ man. He flirts outrageously and has multiple girls sighing for him. But then Rani appears and he feels differently for her. He sneaks into her room and easily charms her and makes her laugh. But then leaves. They meet over and over again and she is clearly interested in him, but instead of trying to kiss her or hold her hand, he talks to her about his life. And finally, he confesses his love. In the second half, he meets Kajol again and immediately is drawn to her. During their basketball game, he starts flirting and gets her upset and turned on almost immediately. He keeps ratcheting up the sexual tension between them for the rest of his time at camp. Kajol has no defense against him, her face reveals everything. But Shahrukh holds back, over and over again we see him looking away, taking a moment, giving her a moment. His sexiness in this film is so potent that it gives him power over women. But he loves Rani and then Kajol so much, he gives up that power, his sexual desire for them is great, but his desire for a true love connection is even greater.
This is a different dynamic than the usual “The woman I marry is too good for sex, the women I sex are too bad for marriage” kind of thing. Shahrukh’s characters in these films are not insulting to their sex partners, it’s not about that. And it is certainly not that they don’t feel a totally sexual attraction to the woman they want to marry. It is that this overwhelming sexual attraction is even less than this new overwhelming love connection.
And this is where the power comes back in. In the films after Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, over and over again Shahrukh will have a scene where he flips the sexy switch on when he is with the woman he loves. And then turns it off again because he doesn’t want to use that power. The details vary, in K3G he is trying to romance Kajol every way he knows how, to indicate that he is seriously interested in her as a romantic partner, and she is stubbornly oblivious. He finally turns on the sexy switch just to get her attention, to get through to her. And then promptly turns it off again to continue his slow courtship of mind and heart and soul along with body. In One 2 Ka 4, Juhi is the one who has been pursuing him while he remained stubbornly uninterested. He turns on the sexy switch as a gesture, to let her know that she has his attention now. And then turns it off again in order to connect with her on a human level, talk about hopes and dreams and fears. Kal Ho Na Ho is the most explicit, he uses his sexiness over and over again to break Preity out of her own head, and then immediately pulls back and douses it off almost before she notices what happened. And in order to serve Preity and make her life better, he uses his sexiness the way another character might use his money, to charm and convince and create wonderful things in her life. Swades is another fun one, he seems completely asexual for most of the film until Gayatri confesses her feelings. And then he slowly lets out his sexiness in response. It’s a gesture of love, and trust, giving her access to this hidden part of himself. KANK is similar, Shahrukh has forgotten what it is like to be sexual, to feel attractive. He turned that switch off so hard it is almost gone. But Rani brings it out in him again. “Mitwa” shows him feeling those feelings, and then killing them because he doesn’t want to put her in that situation.
And of course Jab Harry Met Sejal is the film that deals most directly and most often with sex and power. Shahrukh’s character is fully articulately aware of his sexual power. And soon he is fully aware of his enormous attraction for Anushka’s character. He could, if he chose, seduce her as easily as waving his hand. But he chooses not to. More than he wants to have sex with her, he wants to have a life with her. His choice to turn away from this option is the same as, in another film, a man giving up all his riches in order to be equal with the woman he loves. Or handing his sword to the woman he captured.
Zero has another take on the question. Shahrukh’s character feels guilt for what he did to Anushka. He is aware that he set out to seduce her, and he had the charm and sexual attraction to make it happen. He knows exactly how much power he had over her. She did give her agreement, there was no coercion, but it also wasn’t exactly a fair fight. This is what Shahrukh could have done to Anushka in JHMS or Kajol in K3G or any number of other heroines. He could offer them sex in a way they would not want to refuse. And then the relationship would stop, there would be nowhere else for it to go beyond “good-bye” or a quick marriage that neither of them would ever be sure if they really wanted or not.
That’s the issue with sex too soon with these women. It’s not that they wouldn’t want it or wouldn’t enjoy it, it’s that sex comes with strange pressures and confusions related to your family, society, your inner morality, all kinds of things. In Main Hoon Na, for a counter-example, Shahrukh does not turn off his sexy. He turns it on all the way and sweeps Sushmita off her feet (“sorry about your sari….ma’am”). And then turns it off to finish off the rest of his job, before finding Sushmita again and promptly turning it all the way up again (“happy teacher’s day”). Because with Sushmita, there would be no issues. She is clearly a mature confident sexually experienced woman, she is even somewhat initiating the encounter. He can have sex with her without risking losing the possibility of anything else. And so he does, he lets that power loose.
Anyway, that’s all I’ve got! Here are some things for you all to consider in response:
Would Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi fit into this? Is “Raj” Suri’s way of expressing his sexuality without risking his marriage? Or is it hiding from his sexuality? Or is Raj not sexy at all, only the real true Suri is sexy?
Is JHMS the culmination of exploring the push pull of Shahrukh the Sexual Magician versus Shahrukh the Man Who Wants True Love? Where would he, or could he, go from here?
What about Dear Zindagi? Is Shahrukh’s character supposed to be consciously unfurling his sexual powers in order to keep Alia coming back to therapy? Or was that a side effect of Shahrukh playing the role?
Is Kuch Kuch an accurate dividing line? I see Shahrukh’s flirtation in Zamaana-Deewana, DDLJ, and other earlier films as played too casually, too much like a puppy experimenting and not enough like someone fully aware of what they are doing and the effect they are having.