These are from the “First Day First Show” book (buy it here! There’s a lot of really good well-written stuff in it) by Anupama Chopra. It’s a collection of the best writings from the first years of her career, when she was a journalist researching and writing long form articles and interviews. They are both good on their own, and also a fascinating time capsule for that period of Shahrukh.
Back in the day when Anupama was a real journalist, she spent days at a go getting a sense of her subject, there was no tight twenty minutes question-answer format. She effortlessly wove in a variety of background information and quotes from others along with the interview itself. And so we have a snapshot of a moment in time, what Shahrukh in that moment meant to other people, how he described himself, how people saw him.
This first interview is from his very earliest years. One thing that strikes me is how inaccurate it is. Little things like saying his first film signed was Maya Memsaab, not Dil Aashna Hai. It’s not an important fact, and back then it would have been hard to cross-check and confirm a small thing like that about a new actor.
Shah Rukh Khan is shirtless. On a typical Mumbai afternoon, he is Ram Jaane, a cynical criminal in a film of the same name. A think gold charm knotted at the neck rests on his boyish, smooth chest. A chunky gold bracelet and a pea-sized diamond ring add tapori (street-tough savvy) grit. Throwing on a perfectly tailored purple jacket over purple trousers, he puts a sneer in place, runs a hand through the blow-dried bouncing hair and declares, ‘I love this, it’s so dude-y.’
Khan is Bollywood’s dude du jour. Three years in the business, he has had eleven releases, many of them successful. The latest, Karan-Arjun, is predicted to gross over Rs 50 crore. Recently, a Movie magazine opinion poll of 10,000 respondents ranked him as the nation’s favourite hero after Amitabh Bachchan. And last month, he won his fourth FilmFare Award, this time the Best Villain for his role of a psychopathic lover in Anjaam. Beating powerhouse actors such as NAseeruddin Shah and Paresh Rawal to the prize, Khan created history of sorts–he’s the first Hindi film her to win in the villain category.
Khan’s market value is soaring and, naturally, everybody wants him. He has six films on the floor, works two shifts a day and has no open dates till October 1996. But that deters few. A steady stream of directors and London-based promoter Farhad Hussain, who is offering Rs 1.5 crore for twenty-one days of shows in Europe and America, drop by. Studio technicians, reliable industry sources, refer to the twenty-nine-year-old as ‘Khan saab’. Fans send him seventy-five letters a day and two months ago, an ageing couple from Latur showed up at his gate, claiming to be his long-lost parents.
Khan has won the game by breaking the rules. The first television actor to cross into big-league stardom, he has made a career out of rejected roles. Armaan Kohli was supposed to play the industrialist son in Deewana. Vivek Mushran and Aamir Khan were original choices for the Shree 420 remake Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman. Afraid of tinkering with a traditional 70mm image, Aamir rejected the obsessed lover’s role in Darr and Salman Khan refused to play the bloodthirsty avenger in Baazigar, Khan grabbed both and reinvented the Hindi film hero.
But then, he has consistently stretched the straitjacket, and successfully straddled commercial and parallel cinema–a feat not even Bachchan could manage. The first film he signed was Ketan Mehta’s Madame Bovary-inspired Maya Memsaab. Later, he did Mani Kaul’s Ahmak, based on Dostoyevsky’s The idiot, and Kundan Shah’s bitter-sweet Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa (KHKN). These days he is shooting for directors as varied as Aziz Mirza, Mahesh Bhatt, Mukul Anand and Subhash Ghai, and has become all things to all people. Anand calls him ‘the new face of the industry’ and ‘the face of the disciplined actor I can put forward to the corporate world’. Bhatt calls him ‘a dynamo’ and Mehta sees him as “a modern actor’. He is not restricted by the method school of acting. He can portray several experiences simultaneously and has an instinctive tuning with the times. ‘He is the mascot for the 1990s,’ says Mehta. Khan breaks into a dimpled smile when asked what the magic is. ‘I don’t know. I’m on a roll, and all I can say is, “God, don’t let the good times stop.” The explanation perhaps lies in his boundless energy. Khan never pauses. Fuelled by an improbable diet of caffeine, cigarettes and chicken, he shuffles constantly and enacts rather than speaks. The limpid brown eyes are always scanning the surroundings. Sleep, he says, is a waste of time. On screen, the energy translates into rapid-fire speech, quivering lips, non-stop gesticulation. So the endearing, vulnerable, boy-next-door turns into an equally convincing psychopath. Says Bhatt, ‘Innocence plus manic energy–that is Shah Rukh’s voice.’
Energy translates into style, and for Khan ‘style is prime’. ‘I don’t believe in acting that doesn’t have style,’ he says. ‘I’m not into becoming the character. I will always be Khan playing the beggar or goonda or villager.’ This, however, has its limitations. Style makes a star but substance makes the actor and critics are already harping on Khan’s often overdone mannerisms. Kundan Shah believes they have populist appeal. ‘Mannerisms endear you to an audience,’ says he, ‘but they can also become a pitfall. Khan’s persona is becoming bigger than the roles, so the script must adjust to the actor. The actor doesn’t adjust to the script.’ Not one for introspection, Khan is, at first, open to the criticism: ‘I have only five or six expressions…yes, it is a limitation as an actor.’ And then, he becoems expectedly bratty, ‘I know people think I’m gimmicky. B@#*! to them.’
The arrogance was in place even when Khan was a Rs 8000 per episode TV actor. Producer Vivek Vaswani remembers meeting him in a suburban Mumbai coffee shop in 1991. ‘He made it very clear that he didn’t want to do films. But the attitued was “I’m the greatest actor in the world and there is no argument over it.”‘ His friends say that his startling ascent in filmdom hasn’t altered much. He now lives in a penthouse overlooking the sea and is contemplating buying a BMW, but underneath the trappings, the public school-educated Delhi boy remains the same. Sitting in a colour-coordinated black-and-white living room, he is able to mock fame. When a masseuse, who has been waiting all morning to tone up his shoulder muscles, voices impatience, Khan turns to wife Gauri and says, ‘Please tell her I am the star.’
Well, it’s not his ‘star’ value which notches up points for his wife, who is the most important person in his life. Their friends coem from the modelling circuit and she doesn’t socialize with the industry: ‘His career doesn’t interest me even one per cent.’
Actually the two seem like a yuppie couple who took a wrong turn at Film City. ‘Shah Rukh can live without oxygen but not without Gauri,’ says Vaswani. ‘They never fight. When she shouts, he listens. He is absolutely besotted with her.’ Once during their seven-year courtship in Delhi, the fought and she came away to Mumbai without telling him. He followed her–his first trip to Mumbai–without any idea of where she was staying and combed the beaches–she lives to swim. Bollywood lore has it that he slept on Marine Drive and finally found her sven days later at Gorai beach. Khan says he cannot do a scene if she is on the set: ‘I’ll be acting in front of someone who knows me really well.’
Gauri says the character who comes closest to her husband is KHKN’s Sunil–compassionate, bumbling, insecure but essentially good-natured. Khan wants very much to be good because he believes that good guys finish first. And though he has consistently denied playing the industry’s numbers game, he admits to being insecure and even worried. Recently he returned from London on an Air India flight which was holding a Shah Rukh Khan festival and watched a few of his films in a row. ‘The experience’, he says, was ‘humbling’.
There is no sense of achievement at all. The brash volatile star will chase a film magazine reporter out of a studio for writing that he’s having an affair, but later he will also go to the reporter’s home and apologize. He insists that arrogance which led to tiffs with colleagues and reporters stems from insecurity. ‘I’m still nervous before each shot. I don’t know my job. I really don’t know what I’m doing.’
The lack of knowledge has helped. Aziz Mirza, who directed Khan in Circus, says the actor’s biggest asset is his ‘non-film background’. Khan’s father was in the transport business and he grew up in a Punjabi neighborhood in Delhi. Anticipating fame, he sat on a garden wall as a five-year-old, blowing kisses at passers-by. His first role came at the age of eight when he played a monkey in a local production of Ramayana. An interest in acting led to his joining Barry John’s Theater Action Group and, eventually, television. But the film career started in earnest only after his mother’s death in April 1991. His father had died a few years earlier, and films became a way to escape the pain. ‘I didn’t join films to become a great star. I wanted a change from my mother’s memory. I started believing in God after my mother’s death because then there is heaven and hell and I might meet her there. I think of her as a star. She is a solid point of reference in my life. And I figure if I’m in films, if I’m 70mm, it is easier for her to see me.’
Whether or not Khan continues to dazzle in the coming months, when a flurry of his movies hits the screen, he is cheerfully confident. ‘I don’t set limits for myself,’ he says. ‘My standards are so high that I can’t see them.’ Fans are milling outside the make-up room door while producers sit inside plotting the next hit and a director waits to create more magic. As he strides to his next shot–in purple suit and buoyant hair–Shah Rukh Khan has reasons to believe he will live forever. (April 1995, 6 months before DDLJ)
The next interview is from 3 years later. Anupama is still trying to work him out, put together this dedicated hard worker with the “over actor” and what she calls his “yuppie” qualities. One thing that strikes me which she still does not realize, which I think is a sign of how little Shahrukh revealed of his true self back then, is that his background wasn’t “yuppie” at all. His attitude towards success and money, which puzzles her, comes from a childhood of gentile poverty and tragedy. But Shahrukh isn’t talking about that, not yet. The other thing that strikes me is how many of the people who are talked about here are still part of his life now. Juhi Chawla, the Panday brothers, Karan of course, and Aditya. And even Juhi’s husband Jai gets a mention. By 1998, he was building up his little team of friends who would last and last. And Mahesh and Rakesh are here too, talking about him and not knowing that years later their children would benefit from his patronage of their career.
First Day. First look. He steps out of his trailer in Film City, black jeans, black bandanna, black earring. Smoke surrounds him, trailing out from what he calls ‘my luscious lips’ and from the glass of tea. It is the only aura he has. There is nothing to suggest celebrity, no scent of the star so worshipped that when he flicks away cigarette butts people pick them up as souveniers. ‘I enjoy that,’ he says. ‘It’s embarrassing,’ he adds. Contradiction is his best friend. Here at the set, no one calls him chief, boss, God. He is plain, simple Shah Rukh. Except he’s no plain, simple guy. When our photographer is asked to leave the set by a production manager, he reminds you of it. His face creased with that smile that makes women go all silly, he tells the unit had, ‘Theek hai. Usko bolo Shah Rukh bola, India’s biggest star.’
Shah Rukh Khan, thirty-two, going by whatever his mood is, is flippant, outrageous, arrogant, intelligent, impossible to trip and pin down. Ask him a question, and he responds with attitude. Hey dude, how come you have three hits running–Dil To Pagal Hai, Pardes, Yes Boss–when all you’ve got is five expressions. ‘Aw, gee,’ he replies. ‘It’s just that the rest have only four.’ Comic bluster aside, he must be wondering too that hard work and ‘my mother holding God’s ears and telling him to take care of me’ doesn’t quite explain the phenomenon that’s unfolding. This is, after all, a man who spends mornings deflecting advances from women who have left their husbands and want to marry him.
He has Rs 50 crore-Rs 60 crore riding on him (every film of his costs a minimum Rs 6 crore-Rs 7 crore, his fee being a rumoured Rs 1.5 crore-Rs 2 crore), and no wonder producers turn white if you ask what would happen if he, you know, were to expire. He’s people’s favourite, and at this point Amitabh Bachchan fans may as well leave the room. Every year since 1994, the Movie magazine poll has asked who’s the favourite hero; every year Bachchan won. Not this tiem–he got 24 per cent of the vote, Shah Rukh got 47. Awards, of which he has so many, explain why he’s rented a bigger house. This year’s quota was the Filmfare Best Actor Award for Dil To Pagal Hai (he was nominated in the same category for Pardes too). That makes it three Best Actor Awards, a Best Villain, a Critics Award, a Best Newcoming Award. No wonder he once giggled: ‘All that’s left is the Best Actress.’
Look in the oddest of places and he turns up. Even in Indian Market Research Bureau (IMRB International) surveys. As Probe Qualitatice Research–one arm of IMRB–director Dina Dastur says, ‘Housewives pick him as a good role model for their kids. Bachchan was a star, Khan is more real.’ No kidding. Parents of a young boy approach him to speak to their son who believes Shah Rukh is his father; an old lady turns up claiming to be his mother.
Even trade pundits, masters of the art of the hem and haw, admit he is (as of now) Number One. Sunny Deol, the other contender, can have the bullack cards and village belles and rule in all those places yet to be invaded by yuppies; in the cities here and abroad, Shah Rukh rules. Suited, booted, all style and guile, he’s leading Bollywood’s new hip generation. Says Film Information editor Komal Nahta, ‘He’s God overseas.’
So dude, let’s be clear on this. With those brown eyes proclaiming innocence, Tommy Hilfiger clothes, glib tongue, you must be the pinnacle of Bollywood yuppiedom, the style and star of the 1990s? He grins. ‘The 1990s? Make that the star of 2010 or maybe 2020.’
At the sets, between shots, he talks. Incessantly. Comic soliloquies punctuated by cigarette puffs. The entertainer never at rest. He’s opening up, showing you his heart. He’s actually taking you for a ride. ‘I just use the press to practice my acting.’ Once he chased a journalist who wrote of some imagined infidelity; now he smiles: ‘I haven’t done that for some time, must be losing my edge.’ He exhales irreverence and no oen has immunity. Just now he’s educating co-star Aishwarya Rai on subverting the industry. Like how to sleep through screenings of other people’s films: ‘Once a director woke me up and asked, “How was my film?” I said it was so deep that I felt I was in my mother’s womb and went to sleep.’
So Shah Rukh is wrapped in cling-film of cockiness. So, why not? It’s what has made him. Heroes in Bollywood aren’t born, they’re constructed. There are rules to be followed to gain stardom, a prescribed staircase to be walked to heaven. Dress well, young men are told, wear shirts that are advertising hoardings for Versace, designer jeans so tight they could put your reproductive organs in danger. Be modest, respect your elders, repeatedly say, “Without Ghaiji I would be nothing.’ Remember, married heroes alienate women fans, if you have a wife, lock her in the cellar. Play established roles, stay on the beaten path; the action hero who kills his sister’s rapist is a judicious choice; the lover who runs away witht he girl is fine too.
It means of course that Shah Rukh must be a figment of our imagination. Or maybe he’s just historically challenged. For he’s taken an entirely different elevator to success. He has no hairstyle–call it a ‘Sadhana cut’–and with his baggy trousers and shirt, crumped, sweaty and half tucked-in, is a walking, sartorial nightmare. ‘Arre,’ he explains, ‘all my clothes are from some film’s wardrobe.’ He has no muscles. He can’t dance, though he swears, “I’m Michael Jackson.’ He’s not just married–‘two producers actually asked me to cancel it’–he flaunts his relationship with wife Gauri. He won’t pose with actresses for film shoots, yet happily mocks his own celebrity status ‘Successful stars usually say, “I’m a humble servant of my masses.” I just say I’m the best.’ But best of all he plays roles other actors break into hives just thinking of. As he laughs: ‘I’m the only actor whose sister has never been raped.’
His resume is nothing but an eccentric compendium of roles, all suggestive of a certain temerity. The killer in Baazigar (a role rejected by Anil Kapoor and Salman Khan), psychopath in Darr (audience actually clapped when he stabbed Sunny Deol), mute bonded labourer in Koyla, pimp in Yes Boss, the second fiddle hero in Pardes. ‘These are novel roles, they have shock value,’ he explains. But it hardly detracts from his unshakeable conviction in pursuing the bizarre, his constancy in believing stardom has a back door. As he admits, ‘When I signed Baazigar, other producers said you can’t do this to us. When it succeeded, the said I’ll never do well as a hero.’ Audacity has paid off and as Mahesh Bhatt says, ‘He’s not been frightened of making a fool of himself.’
It seems a trifle rude to mentiont hat for all his unusual roles, he can be a rather usual actor who things S. Khana nd Company is the only (over)acting school in town. Critics like Ashish Rajyadaksha say, ‘He can’t hold complicated narratives, he goes over the top.’ For Shah Rukh, this is yuppie hell; he knows he’s still ana ctor in the making, he just can’t admit he’s not God. It shows in his answers. He mutters that Robert De Niro is stylized too, then argues that he has spent time learning from Naseerudddin Shah; he maintains that he is completely different in Mani Ratnam’s forthcoming Dil Se, then sneers that he plays to the gallery not the critics. Still his exuberance has many defenders. Rakesh Roshan says, ‘If he’s limited, it’s only because we directors are limited.’ Madhuri Dixit calls him, ‘a great actor, a generous actor who never steals a scene because he knows unless everybody is part of a scene it won’t work.’
His virtues include a crackling intensity, an unrestrained enthusiasm that flows from him as he says, ‘I go into every film thinking it’s better than the Titanic.’ Sleep is not part of this man’s cycle. He is relentless. Says friend Karan Johar, presently directing him in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, ‘He gives you fifteen suggestions every take.’ Add directors Abbas-Mustan, ‘Sometimes we have to tell him enough, go home.’ He won’t sitting there trying to twist his character further, as Madhuri says, ‘adding bits and pieces that create magic’. Whatever, he has forged a contrary appeal that works. Hindi cinema offers the unreal, the absurd, a tryst with fantasy characters; yet Shah Rukh brings a down-to-earth affability to the screen that has found identification. ‘Other characters the audience can’t identify with. But they see me and say “Hum to aisa hai”. There’s a quality about me that’s reachable.’
The woman finds him, whichever set he’s on. Dressed in a salward-kurta, from a Mumbai suburb, she’s back today, a stranger with a fatal attraction. She sits and sits, courting him silently with her eyes, then finally in the evening she corners him. Berating him–‘Main subah se baithi hoon’–she ties an ‘I Love You’ bracelet on his writest. He stands, not smirking, neither impatient nor disdainful, waiting as she fumbles. ‘Utaarna mat,’ she pleads. He lies gently. ‘Kabhi nahin, magar shooting ke liey nahin pahen sakta hoon.’ There’s a softness to him. A minute later, look again and it has vanished, and he’s all laughing pomposity. ‘Even if Hollywood offered me Titanic, I wouldn’t take it. Of course if it was Shah Rukh Khan in and as Titanic, that would be something.’
Contradiction shadows Shah Rukh. It is apparent in his success, it is evident in his manner as a man. Over three days of interviewing, he is ebullient, expansive. Yet, say his friends, the extroverted demeanour is a mask. AS the actor confesses: ‘I’m lonely, I also hate being alone. I need to be with people, with an audience. An empty hall is my worst nightmare.’ Mahesh Bhatt calls him a schizophrenic, a manw itht wo people lurking inside, working ceaselessly to fill the emptiness within him. ‘I’ve seen him in his most stressful moments, when the newspapers reported he was next on the magia hit list, yet he came and did a comic scene for Duplicate. He is an ordinary man with extraordinary determination.’
Much of the twenty-six-year-old boy–to see his zest in his early films precludes the usage of the word ‘man’–who came to Mumbai with Rs 15,000 in his pocket and stayed in Aziz Mirza’s flat, has not disappeared. Just the lifestyle has altered. The days of driving a beat-up Gypsy have gone. Now he owns a Pajero and a Mercedes, and has a bank balance that might rival some African countries’ GDP. (Of course he says he doesn’t have money to buy a new car.) He enjoys these accoutrements–‘I deserve the money I’ve made but it’s also just a periperal’–he enjoys public adulation too, yet he is wary of its addictive lure. ‘I know people are just reacting to my persona, not to me. And if I get used to it, in five years I’ll be screwed.’
Finding him is easy. If he’s not on the sets, he’s at home with his brat pack–Johar, director Aditya Chopra, Chikki Pandey (Chunkey’s brother), Jai Mehta (Juhi Chawla’s fiance)–fiddling on his computer or playing board games. The obsessive lover of Darr plays M-M-M-Monopoly! To them the arrogance that defines him elsewhere–and he does admit. ‘When I meet pompous people, I think, “Shit, I’m like that”‘–does not tell a complete story. Abbas-Mustan who say ‘he’s a habit’, shine when they recout how Shah Rukh, having won the Filmfare Award for Baazigar, came straight to ehri house in Bhendi Bazar. ‘He said he couldn’t go home witht he trophy without meeting us first.’ Johar talks of his sensitivity. Of a day in Prague when Juhi lost her mother. ‘Yet, he managed to make Juhi smile. He told her, “By now your mom must have met my dad and they’r probably discussing our careers and how we’ve done so well.” He never left her side, making her feel her mother had gone to a truly special place.’
His wife Gauri, who he’s calling about twenty times a day since she’s in Delhi, is his anchor–‘She just wants to be Gauri, I want to be Vijay, Ramesh, Anil, Badshah’–it is these friendships, shorn of sycophancy, that root Shah Rukh in reality. Mirza noticed this. ‘I thought success would affect him but I find him more mature and mellow. Luckily the people around him aren’t busy saying, “Aapka jawaab nahin.” They say, “Aapka jawaab hai.”‘
In his AC trailer, midway through a shave, he vocally grapples with his future. ‘Two years left of whacky films, then maybe something else.’ Nevertheless, he’s already agreed to just thirteen scenes or so in a Madhuri-driven film, ‘because Madhuri deserves a film for herself’. He’s wondering too about what legacy his son deserves. ‘I want to leave him five films to see and not get embarrassed. I don’t want him to see my films and say, “Oh Shah Rukh’s not my dad, he just adopted me.” I want him to say, “Hey Dad, you were cool.”‘ So how many films done so far qualify? ‘Just one really. Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa.’ In the film, he plays a loser who fails his exams, loves a girl who marries someone else. It is a role, he says, that resembles him the closest. Um, er, perhaps it should be pointed out that this loser is driving a Mercedes. But what the hell. Maybe Johar was right all along when he said, ‘You can’t explain Shah Rukh Khan. You can only experience him.’ (March 1998, 4 months after Aryan was born, 6 months before Dil Se, 9 months before Kuch Kuch Hota Hai)