I am writing this at work from memory, I don’t have my King of Bollywood (the book, not the person, the person is obviously always with me in my heart) with me, so forgive errors! Forgive, but correct, I will doublecheck and fix if I have to. Also, GOOD LORD this is long!!!!! Sorry about that.
- Family Background
Shahrukh’s father Meer was born in Peshawar in 1928. Peshawar is also where Dilip Kumar, and Raj Kapoor, were born. It is a region with a large Pushtan/Pathan population, the ethnic group that populates present day Afganistan. It is also a region where Urdu is the common language, men from this region will be pale and tall and sharp featured with excellent Urdu/Hindi pronunciation. Thus, Hindi film movie stars.
Meer’s family were bamboo merchants, modestly well off. Meer was the youngest son and the spoiled child, while his brothers did not finish high school he was sent to college. This was in the middle of the freedom struggle and the whole family was heavily involved in the movement. As a teenager, Meer was jailed multiple times along with his brothers. Finally his family became concerned it was affecting his studies and they sent him away to Delhi to study law when he was 18. When he was 19, the Partition came down. Meer’s family were labeled as “pro-Hindu” by the new government, his older brother was jailed for 9 years. Meer himself was told he could not return to Peshawar (now in Pakistan) ever. And in Delhi, he was surrounded by riots. His friends started sleeping in a circle around his bed, ready to protect him if the death squads came for him.
Meanwhile in the south, Fatima Ahmed, was born to an old Hyderabadi Muslim family. The Hyderabadi Muslim community is strong, and strongly connected to the north Indian Muslim culture (which is not true of all south Indian Muslim communities). Fatima was raised speaking Urdu. Fatima’s father was a respected government engineer who was transferred from Hyderabad to Bangalore when she was a child. Fatima never finished high school, was educated at home, but was spoiled by her family in other ways, considered the most beautiful of their children. When she 16, she traveled to Delhi with her father and was in a car accident near India Gate. A young man drinking with his friend in a cafe near by rushed to pull her from the car, take her to the hospital, and donate blood. And that is how Fatima and Meer met.
Meer at the time was 30 and unemployed. He had successfully finished law school, but then had a hard time finding a profession that suited him. He tried many things, including traveling to Bombay to try to get work as a film extra before giving up and returning to Delhi. His friends from law school had moved on in life, several of them becoming powerful figures in the new Indian government. Meer took free meals and a place to sleep from his friends when they offered, but would never accept a government favor, a job or a contract. He fell in love with Fatima at first sight but knew it would be hard to convince her family to let them marry. Luckily, fate intervened. Fatima’s mother back in Bangalore had just given birth to another child, and there were complications. Meer immediately hoped on a train to Bangalore and saved her life with a blood transfusion. A year later Fatima and Meer were married. His Hindu best friend, a rising political star, hosted their reception in Delhi. A year after their wedding, their first child, a daughter named Shehnaz, was born. 5 years later, their second child, a son Shah Rukh.
Fatima had no brothers. She and Meer and their children remained close to her parents while they were living, but her sisters were never that close to her or her family. 30 years after he had been banished, Meer was finally able to return to Peshawar and see his family again. Only to find that the distance was too great, they saw him as the “rich” “lucky” one from India and were more concerned with what they could get from him than what they could give. It broke his heart. And so now Fatima and Meer’s two children have no extended family. Just each other and the new family they have made.
When Shahrukh was born, his father was 37 and his mother was 24. They had been married 6 years and life was not easy. Meer started many business (a transport company, a chain of restaurants, a canteen at the National School of Drama, a law practice, a gas station) but somehow none of them ever really made any money. Meer was too honest, too humble, too happy to have that burning fire for success. And meanwhile Fatima’s parents continued to be successful and stable down in Bangalore. So Shahrukh was sent to live with them.
It’s not clear how long Shahrukh was there. He knows he returned to Delhi at age 5, but was he with his grandparents from birth to 5? Or 2 to 5, or 1 to 5? It’s possible Shahrukh himself is not clear on that point. 5 is very young, how many details can he remember? Even his sister would have only been ten when he returned. But what is clear is that, for some reason his parents preferred for him to live with his maternal grandparents as a small child and they brought him back when he was 5.
From 5 to 14, Shahrukh had a generally average happy childhood. Money was always short, but his parents still managed to maintain the basics that made the family “middle-class” rather than “poor”. Shahrukh and his sister were sent to the best local schools and then local colleges. Not the overseas education that the very rich were achieving in this era, but the best of the solidly middle-class education. They lived in middle-class neighborhoods, small apartments but in nice areas. And they enjoyed extra-curriculars, sports and theater and all the rest. But after the money was spent on those necessities, there wasn’t a lot left over for anything else. Food was sometimes a little short on the table. Vacations were unheard of, even movie tickets were too much of a luxury. And I suspect there was a bit of free-floating anxiety about if they could make rent that month, or pay the grocer, or buy new clothes. But Shahrukh’s parents loved their kids and loved spending time with them. They made their home a happy home and their kids feel secure, and safe, and loved.
Shahrukh was close to his parents during this time, in the way you would expect. A small family with no other relatives near by, and Shahrukh was 5 years distant and a gender away from his only sibling. He used to massage his mother’s feet, and go out for the day and sit in a bench and watch traffic go by with his father. His sister was going to school ahead of him, and then college, bright and popular and successful.
And then when Shahrukh was 14, it all fell apart. It started with the long anticipated trip to Peshawar. Shahrukh went with his father, it was a father son kind of trip, to meet his relatives for the first time and learn about his heritage. And it was heartbreaking. Shahrukh watched his father become sadder and sadder as the trip continued. Finally on the way back to India, standing in the no man’s land between the two borders, his father broke down crying, saying that this is where he belongs, between two countries, no home at all. Shahrukh watched his father cry, and I think something broke inside him in that moment.
A few months later, his father came home and announced he had cancer, and somehow in Shahrukh’s mind, it was all tied up together. That trip poisoned his father on the inside, killed him somehow. And then it reached out and took his sister too. The day she returned home from college to find her father’s body laid out, she fainted and hit the floor so hard the glasses sitting on the table shattered. She was never the same again, that was the start of her illness at age 19 and the bright happy popular young woman was gone.
When his father started to die, they had to rush to find a driver and a car to take them to the hospital (Fatima never learned to drive), and then he died. Shahrukh and his mother left the hospital in shock and reached the parking lot to find the car there, but the man who had driven them over gone. Shahrukh got behind the wheel and started the car. His mother asked him when he learned how to drive, he told her “Today.” That was the end of his childhood.
Shahrukh carried his father’s death and his sister’s illness always with him, but he was also strangely innocent and naive in a lot of ways despite his tragedies. At age 19, he was finishing high school and went to one of his first boy-girl parties. The girls sat on one side of the room and giggled and the boys sat on the other side and stared. And finally, Shahrukh got his courage up to cross the room and ask one of the girls to dance. And then to meet him the next day at the swimming pool for a coke date. He rode a bike with his friend, she met them there with her cousin, they split a coke and talked for 5 minutes, and then they were “dating”.
Shahrukh tells that story a lot, along with a few other stories. Like how years later Gauri wanted to take a break and went to Bombay, and Shahrukh took money from his mother and followed her with his friends, finally finding her magically on a beach. Or how he won over her whole family one by one until they agreed to their marriage. But what he doesn’t talk about, what would be hard to talk about in simple soundbites, is that whole sweep of 7 years from the coke date to the wedding.
When they met, “dating” was a childish game that didn’t really mean anything. Gauri kept going to high school, and freely roaming the city and meeting up with Shahrukh. They spent a lot of time at his apartment with his mother around giving them snacks. Gauri lived in a combined family, her father and uncle sharing a house, Gauri growing up surrounded by cousins and parents. They were middle-class, like Shahrukh’s family, and liberal middle-class, their daughter could wear short skirts and jeans and roam about and get a fashion degree. When Shahrukh and Gauri were “dating”, a silly boy-girl thing that was coke dates and bicycles and laughing with his mother, it was perfectly harmless and acceptable for people of their place in society. Gauri wouldn’t tell her parents about it necessarily (Shahrukh was in a different position being male, and older, and with no family besides his mother to have an opinion), but if they had found out, they wouldn’t have been horrified, just a little angry.
What’s different is that the silly boy-girl thing somehow didn’t die away. Instead it changed and grew as they changed and grew. They started fighting, a lot. Shahrukh was terrified of losing Gauri, especially as his mother grew sicker and sicker and so did his sister. He would follow her, yell at her, torment her. Gauri would back away, increasing his fears, until she came back because she had to come back. And eventually (as he grew up and so did she), he would simply tell her what he was feeling and break her heart. Gauri loved him as well, so much that she was torn up by everything he was going through. Maybe if his mother hadn’t been sick, if his sister hadn’t been as well, if he hadn’t needed her so much, maybe their relationship would have died away. But personally, I don’t think so. I think if Shahrukh had been in a happy stable place, it still would have turned into marriage, just maybe in a different less dramatic way. This is a couple that just fits together.
Shahrukh started working as an actor before he finished grad school. His mother was running a sweet shop and working as a magistrate (thanks to Meer’s old political connections) to make ends meet. Shahrukh got the role in the locally filmed TV serial Fauji and that turned into a job offer for two more serials filmed in Bombay. Which turned into three film offers. Shahrukh was living in an extra room in Bombay in the house of one of his producers, working 20 hour days. And every night he would run out to the phone booth on the corner and call his dying mother in Delhi. And then his girlfriend. They were apart for months and they both knew it couldn’t keep going like this. Long distance was too painful. Lots of fights, Shahrukh could give up his dreams and move back home and they could keep secretly meeting. Gauri could run away from home and secretly marry him in Bombay. Or they could break up. And in the end, they chose the fourth impossible option. Break the news to Gauri’s family that she has been in an intense secret relationship for 7 years with a boy they have literally never even heard of. And then ask for their blessing for her to marry him and move thousands of miles away.
Shahrukh tells the story as him winning over Gauri’s family, like he is a lone hero doing it all by himself. But if you read between the lines, it was Gauri who arranged it. Gauri had Shahrukh meet her “cool aunt” first, surprise them at a lunch at a restaurant. The aunt was, indeed, very cool and immediately supportive. And then Gauri invited him for a big general house party, they managed to pull her father aside and get him alone and Shahrukh explained who he was and that he wanted to marry his daughter. Gauri’s father was shocked and furious at this total stranger announcing he had been in love with his daughter for 7 years and was going to marry her, and ordered him out of the house immediately. Gauri’s mother walked in during all of this and got all excited about seeing the young actor from “Fauji” at their party, and very confused as to why he was leaving so suddenly. That was just the start of the drama. From Shahrukh’s side, the stories he tells, Gauri’s brother came to his house and showed him a gun and warned him away. Her father ordered him out of the house. It’s all very scary, but he kept going and trying. We don’t know Gauri’s side, we don’t know what she told her family or threatened them with. But I have to imagine that her influence with the people who loved her was far greater than anything Shahrukh, this stranger, could have offered or threatened. And it was Gauri who told Shahrukh what to do, how to win them over. Their marriage, with the blessing of her family, is as much or more a tribute to her love than his.
They were married, with full glory and triumph. Again, these were two very liberal Delhi families in a liberal kind of social group. A cross-religious marriage was unusual but not unheard of in their social group. Especially with Gauri’s family giving full public support, arranging a Hindu ceremony (legally meaningless though it was) of blessing after the legal registrar marriage, this was an occasion of celebration not shame. Shahrukh looks nervous and responsible, Gauri is glowing. For whatever reasons, reasons we can’t know, this is exactly what she wanted in life. Marriage to a strange sad lonely poor boy who clung to her like she was the only thing that mattered on earth. She was 21, he was 26.
After marriage, they moved to Bombay, living in one room together while Shahrukh worked crazy hours trying to get his career started. He brought Gauri along as much as possible, on location shoots or just hanging around sets, included her in ad campaigns, invited her to industry events. He asked her to pick out his costumes for her too, gave her a real reason to be around so much. It was the only way they could be together, for her to join his life. It was a kind of miserable life for Gauri, going from a beloved 21 year old with family and friends and a city she loved, to living in one room running around after her husband because he was the only person she knew in the whole city. And yet in all the photos, there she is smiling. Happy just to be with him.
4. Bombay Family
When Shahrukh started working in Bombay, he had a dying mother, a sick sister, and a miserable girlfriend waiting for him in Delhi. And in Bombay he had a producer who had promised to help him find a place to live and steady work. Shahrukh clung to that first producer, lived rent free in an old apartment the family had, went over to his house for dinner most nights. He clung to everyone who was kind to him in those early years. Once Gauri joined him, he clung even more because now he was trying to build a family for both of them.
Shahrukh remained faithful and loyal until now to those first few friends, Aziz Mirza and Ashutosh Gowariker and Kundan Shah and a few others. But it was after that, after a year when he had begun to find his footing and had brought a wife to join him, that he found his true lifelong family in Bombay. He had to know who he was first, before he could reach out and find the people who would truly love him for that, not just pity him.
Salman Khan was one of the first. Not because they were working together or Shahrukh was a rival or anything like that. But because Shahrukh and Gauri were lonely young people in the film fraternity and the Khan family felt responsible. They invited them over for dinner, board game nights, long lovely evenings where they could feel warm and loved. Decades later, the little baby girl they played with on those evenings got married, and Shahrukh went over the night before her wedding to kiss her head and give her the blessing of a big brother.
And then Yash Chopra, lovely Yashji who was always smiling and kind and understanding. And who saw something in this strange new actor that made him offer him a great role in a great film. Maybe they would have remained warm and caring co-workers and no more, but on the set of Darr Shahrukh and Aditya Chopra discovered each other. Shahrukh and Aditya somehow went right into the heart of each other. Two intense strange young man who found a perfect pair. Yashji and Pamela, they weren’t used to their odd son Adi making friends, they brought Shahrukh right into their family after that shoot. Shahrukh worked with Yashji and Adi 5 more times after that, but it wasn’t just about the work. When Yashji lay dying in his hospital bed, Shahrukh was in the room with him, his third son.
There’s Juhi too, also on that first film with Yashji. Shahrukh doesn’t talk a lot in public about his connection with Juhi, just says they are friends and tells stories about being shy with her on the first movie. But 5 years later they were filming Duplicate together in Prague when Juhi’s mother was randomly killed in front of her in a car accident. Shahrukh stood by her, cheered her up, supported her. And a few years after that, he made her his business partner in his production house, and made her brother their first CEO. And then her brother, only in his 40s, suddenly had a stroke and fell into a coma, a coma which lasted for years. Again Shahrukh was quietly there, up to the funeral, supporting Juhi. It’s an interesting friendship, it doesn’t seem to include their families, or even other friends. You don’t see Juhi and Karan Johar and Ranbir Kapoor hanging out, or Shahrukh with Juhi’s husband and children. And yet in the hardest times of Juhi’s life, it has been Shahrukh who is there holding her up. And Juhi is the one Shahrukh chose to make his partner in business, the one who owns half of what he owns.
And finally, Karan. After Adi, Shahrukh’s first real friend in the film industry and in Bombay. He assisted on DDLJ, Adi’s first movie, and met Shahrukh on set. He met Gauri too, she came for the location shooting like she always did and Karan showed her around. By the end of the shoot, Shahrukh made Karan promise he would direct and would direct Shahrukh. Karan made Kuch Kuch Hota Hai with Shahrukh and somehow, by the end of that shoot, they had one of those magical rare relationships that cannot be defined and yet also cannot be killed. Shahrukh was Karan’s muse, he inspired him. And he was also his big brother, the husband of Karan’s new best friend Gauri, and eventually Karan’s co-parent as well. Shahrukh’s first child was born while preparing for Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and Karan was there from the start. As the kids grew up, Karan was there to pick them up and drop them at school, to calm Gauri down when she worried too much, to buy Shahrukh clothes when Gauri couldn’t any more, to really be the family they didn’t have.
Shahrukh has said over and over that Karan is even more Gauri’s friend than his. And I think that is true, and that is why Karan is so special to him. The one person in Bombay who is allowed into the very center of his life. Gauri was lonely and out of place in Bombay, Karan made her feel safe and happy and like she belonged. He still does that for her, he is the one Shahrukh calls when Gauri needs someone to cheer her up, he is the one there to help Gauri say good-bye when her kids leave for boarding school, and Gauri is the one there with Karan when his mother goes into the hospital. They are all lonely people, the three of them, an orphan, a woman pulled away from her home and family, and an only child who never thought he could have a family of his own. And so they filled each other’s gaps, gave each other the love and belonging and acceptance they couldn’t get anywhere else. That’s a strong thing, and a real thing, and it is one of the central parts you have to understand in order to understand Shahrukh. In his life, there is Gauri, there are his children, there is his sister, and then there is Karan. In Karan’s life, there is his mother, there is his children, and then there are Shahrukh and Gauri and their children. Everything else, everyone else, comes behind.
Shahrukh and Gauri were married for 7 years before they had children. That’s a long time in Indian culture. Shahrukh has said that at one point Gauri claimed to never want children. I can believe it. Gauri isn’t the usual type of woman, that’s why she wanted to marry an unusual type of man, she would be brave enough to acknowledge to herself and say out loud if motherhood wasn’t what she wanted. On the other hand, it is clear that Shahrukh always wanted children, wanted any kind of family. It doesn’t have to be said, it is obvious, that for Shahrukh having Gauri was worth giving up kids. And for Gauri, making Shahrukh happy was worth becoming a mother. It’s an everyday kind of sacrifice that millions of couples make for each other. But those 7 years tell me that Shahrukh meant his sacrifice, was happy with just Gauri for a long time. And that Gauri meant her reluctance, it took her 7 years to be ready to make that sacrifice.
And then once Aryan was on the way, the predictable miracle occurred and all doubts disappeared and they became loving dedicated, almost obsessive, parents. It wasn’t an easy pregnancy, or an easy birth. Gauri really struggled. But then Aryan arrived, a happy healthy bouncing baby. They took him everywhere. Just as Gauri used to follow Shahrukh set to set in the early years of marriage so they could be together, now she and Aryan followed him place to place and set to set, whatever it took so he could be close to his baby. And two years after Aryan, Suhana, their daughter. The family of 4 traveled the world, babies never out of sight of their father and mother. It was a different time then, before cell phone cameras and social media. Of course, this was also the era when the mob was calling with regular death threats. Gauri and their children were constantly surrounded by bodyguards and police protection. But they were also able to play with friends in the yard, have school plays, just be kids so long as their famous parents weren’t around. They went to regular Bombay private schools, the same type that Shahrukh went to when he was a child, they had sleepovers with friends and house parties. Their parents picked them up and dropped them, sat in the audience and cheered them on at tae kwon do matches, went to their school plays. Remove the bodyguards and the mansion, and they were enjoying the same childhood their parents had.
But slowly, everything started changing. And part of that is because of decisions Shahrukh and Gauri made as parents. They did not force their children into posed photo shoots, nor did they try to hide them away. Photographers, celebrity, it was taught to them as a fact of life. And in their childhood it was an easy fact, but it got harder as they got older. Aryan in particular, it is rare to see a photo of him smiling. Seemingly just because he hates the photographers. And it didn’t get easier as he hit his teen years. Suhana, she smiles in photos all the time, the camera loves her and she loves it. But as she hit puberty, the response to her photos became less “what a cute little girl” and more “HOT! Her boobs are enormous”. Or, “disgusting, what kind of young girl shows so much skin”. Not good things for a 14 year old to read about herself. What do you do as a parent? Do you force your son to smile? Do you put your daughter in coveralls? Or do you just let them be themselves, whatever they want to be? Shahrukh and Gauri opted for the third option but, after a certain point, it was just too hard for any teenager to be themselves when their private instagram accounts and facebook pages are hacked, when they can’t go out with their friends without photographers swarming. And so Shahrukh and Gauri did something their regular average middle-class parents never would have done, they sent their children halfway around the globe to a boarding school. A boarding school where they would be safe and free and happy in a way they couldn’t be at home. This isn’t a school that is about grades and prestige, it is a tiny little place in the middle of London that specializes in children of very very famous parents who just want to be normal.
Aryan and Suhana grew up together, and Gauri and Shahrukh grew as parents with them. Those were the years when Gauri was a full time wife and mother, dedicated to keeping this family together. When they were remodeling their house Mannat, when they were finding their friends, when they were figuring out their lives. It was a very different kind of family that Gauri and Shahrukh’s third child AbRam arrived to.
AbRam’s birth itself brought on controversy and attacks. Rumors started that something was happening long before any official announcement. And of course the ugliest rumors started first. AbRam was the child of Shahrukh and a woman with whom he had an affair. AbRam was a last attempt to have a son (because Suhana wasn’t good enough). Or simply, AbRam was a desperate attempt to fix a falling apart marriage. The reality, in the years since his birth, seems to have been extremely simple. Shahrukh and Gauri felt their family was not complete. They went to a doctor, got advice, and found a surrogate. The surrogate gave birth to AbRam early, he was in the NICU for weeks. They finally brought him home, took care of him, helped him grow strong, and only then announced his birth.
It is the period when AbRam is in the NICU that I keep coming back to. During that time, Shahrukh gave interviews, went to parties, filmed his movies. And Gauri, presumably, spent all her time at the hospital. This is what their parenting had become, the best thing Shahrukh could do as a father and a husband was to NOT be with his sick child. To instead be out in the world, keeping the cameras away from his family. If AbRam had never left the hospital, we (the public) would never even know this child had existed. Shahrukh’s sacrifice would have let his family mourn in peace. And in fact, that may have happened more times than we know. A couple doesn’t usually turn to surrogacy until they have survived everything else they can possibly try.
Shahrukh is still making that sacrifice, but now he has AbRam to keep him company. While his wife and older children are hidden away, Shahrukh and AbRam face the press, the crowds, everything else. For most parents, those early years of childhood are when the child is most fragile. For Shahrukh, it is when the child is most protected. AbRam can’t read the gossip press online, he doesn’t know or care what people are saying about him. And who could say anything bad? There may be people with the darkness of soul to attack a 14 year old girl for wearing a short skirt, but is there anyone ugly enough to attack a little boy for what he wears, or says, or how he looks?
Maybe that’s why Shahrukh’s children are all so strangely protective of him. Because they know how much he needs people, needs them, and how he pulls away to protect them. They will give him hugs, presents, tell him he is the best Dad. They will put up with last minute flying visits to college campuses, and let him hang out in the room while they play games with their friends all night. Last year, it was Suhana who planned out Shahrukh’s birthday weekend to get him away from work and relax. Aryan, who doesn’t want to be an actor, agreed to dub The Incredibles and later The Lion King with Shahrukh so they could spend time together.
His children are where Shahrukh finds happiness, the only place he finds true happiness I think. After his own childhood of confusion and tragedy, here is a second chance to live a life of hope and freedom and security through the eyes of his own three children. Who will never want, or fear, or have the sense that they are not loved.