Shahrukh Birthday Countdown, Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi, the Academic Review!

This is a paper I wrote for grad school, so it sounds all grad school-y and stuff. Don’t panic! The usual friendly happy review will be coming later today.

In 1994, 23 year old Aditya Chopra narrated the plot of a film he had written, the film he wanted to direct, to his best friend, the rising star Shahrukh Khan.  Shahrukh turned it down at first; he wanted to be a different kind of actor, not the usual romantic lead.  Then Adi told him that, if he did this film, Adi could make Shahrukh a superstar, “every woman’s dream man and every mother’s dream son”.  Shahrukh agreed and, within a year, DDLJ was released and Adi’s prophecy came true.  Fourteen years later, Adi sent Shahrukh another script.  This time, Shahrukh cleared his schedule and told Adi he was ready without even reading it.  Perhaps if he had, he would have had more qualms.  If DDLJ was aimed at making SRK into a star, Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi was aimed at tearing his star down.  Or perhaps Shahrukh would have agreed even faster; at age 44 he had begun to show signs through his script choices that he was tired of being the dream man and ready to be something different again.

(Something different!)

At the time of Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi, Shahrukh was at a turning point in his stardom.  This persona began to develop in the years before DDLJ, it came of age with that movie, the next few years saw slight additions to this existing persona, but in the years after 2000, Shahrukh’s film choices have shown a calculated destruction of his sophisticated on screen personality which culminated with Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi.

Whether the story of Adi prophesying Shahrukh’s success is true or not, it is an integral part of Shahrukh Khan’s star narrative.  SRK’s narrative is a combination of “boy next door makes good” and “inevitable journey of a God.”  At the same time, Shahrukh is also positioned as the perfect boy next door, someone within reach of the average movie goer.  In stories of Shahrukh’s life, he is not only “just like the audience,” he is just like his own characters, who in turn were a new style of hero, one more like the audience than the perfect heroes of the seventies and eighties. Next to the stories of Shahrukh as a God, are other stories of him as a regular boy.

Since Shahrukh is a romantic hero, it is the romance of his wife Gauri that is the main focus of most stories of his life.  This romance, as told in fan magazines and television interviews, culminated in a moment straight out of one of his films.  After dating for years, secretly as her Hindu family would not have approved of her dating a Muslim boy, Gauri announced she needed a break from the relationship and stopped returning his calls.  Shahrukh managed to trick one of her cousins into telling him she was visiting friends in Bombay.  With only that information to go on, and a suspicion that a girl who loved swimming might go to the beach, he borrowed money from his mother, took his two best friends for moral support, and left his hometown of Delhi for Bombay.  They quickly ran out of money, got kicked out of the house where they were staying, and finally ended up sleeping on the streets.  Their last day there, Shahrukh convinced his by now very hungry friends to try one last beach.  Of course, they magically found the girl as the sun was setting.

Image result for shahrukh gauri

(Doesn’t hurt that they also looked like movie stars)

While that moment was from a classic Indian romance of the seventies or sixties, what followed, according to Shahrukh’s star biography, is more in tune with the changes that arrived in the nineties.  The nineties saw the arrival of a new kind of hero and a new kind of romance.  He was the perfect Indian boy, who is also able to move easily through the west, is unabashed in his pursuit of wealth and love, but still respects the power of the patriarchy.  He was a new hero for a new time.  This new hero would not run off with the girl after he found her, he would find a way to bring a balance between societal and familial obligations and the heart’s desire.

The change was not so difficult for the audience to grasp as part of Shahrukh’s star narrative reflected the story of DDLJ.  After Raj and Simran fall in love, Simran suggests they elope, but Raj refuses.  Instead he insists on winning over Simran’s family until they approve of the match.  In the same way, Shahrukh and his girlfriend Gauri wanted to be married, but knew her family would object.  Shahrukh was Muslim, had no money or prospects, and aspired to be a film star.  Rather than break up or sneak off together, they decided to mount a campaign to win over her family one by one.  In life, as in film, true love won the day.  Considering the fact that Aditya Chopra wrote the story after having become close friends with Khan, it is entirely possible that the star’s own history influenced the path of the characters in the story.  On the other hand, it is possible that this story became an integral part of Khan’s star narrative in response to his most famous role.

Mohabbatein was Shahrukh’s second film with Aditya Chopra and his first with mega-star Amitabh Bachchan.  Amitji had retired right before Shahrukh started acting in films.  He had been plagued by personal problems, ranging from rumors of infidelity against his beloved wife, to scandals from his brief time in politics, to the simple fact that he was getting too old for the kind of roles that had made him famous.  In Mohabbatein, Adi  brilliantly repositioned Amitabh as an “angry old man” rather than the “angry young men” he had played previously.  While the young Amitabh had railed against the establishment, the old Amitabh desperately tried to protect the establishment.  In contrast, Shahrukh presented the youthful present.  Not anger, but love.  The dialogue itself drives home this contrast, with the two of them constantly throwing around the question of which will win; love or fear.  The point of the film is that love eventually wins out, in other words the softer sweeter hero of the nineties defeats the angry violent hero of the previous era.  With this triumphant victory, “Raj” and Shahrukh reached the heights of fame.

(Here, the trailer lays the whole thing out for you)

Now that the character had been in existence for five years, and been crowned the new king, I think Shahrukh’s film choices began to slowly destroy it, allowing him to flourish as an actor.  He spoke to this problem in my favorite documentary Inner/Outer, saying:

I’m not comparing, but…I don’t want to see Clint Eastwood not on a horse.  On the other hand, you come down a snow clad mountain in a nice sweater and you sing to a girl and tell her you love her and it works wonders and I’m nearly forty and it still works wonders.  But as an actor, yes, it gets a little disturbing…And now I’m afraid I don’t even know how to be in a movie if there’s no horse in it…It’s a little worrisome some times as an actor.  As a star, it’s fantastic.

In 2004 in Swades, Shahrukh attacked an integral part of his “Raj” hero, the NRI lifestyle.  Not so happy after all!  While Swades killed the NRI hero, Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna (2006) killed the vision of a happy marriage.  Shahrukh the light-hearted lover, plays a bitter angry man who hates his wife.  Moreover, instead of being the young athletic type, he now moves with a pronounced limp.

(He’s no longer happily dancing with the women, he’s bitterly watching someone else dance)

All of these films dealt with the outer fringes of the “Raj” character and thus Shahrukh’s star persona.  They stripped away the connection to the West, the ideal of easy success, the happy marriage, but Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi, stripped away the essence of the “Raj” character: the fantasy of true love.  In Rab Ne, for the first time, his character has an arranged marriage.

Stemming from this change came others.  For the character to be one who would need to have a woman forced to marry him, he had to be awkward, shy, old-fashioned, and unattractive.  As Shahrukh said in interviews, “This time I think Adi and I decided that we are going to bare the engine and put it in front of the people and say if it doesn’t look very attractive, it doesn’t have fluid lines, it’s not a convertible, but this is what runs the car”.    In a way, this was a return to the origins of the character.  When making DDLJ, Adi urged Khan to “take off his mask.” He believed that “Raj” was the true Shahrukh, “an inherently nice man,” not a showy dangerous lover.  It is this idea of him to which Adi returned in Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi.  Shahrukh describes the character as “the soul of a lot of characters that Adi has written for me”. And by playing this character, he reminded people of the other parts of his life story, the ones that are not usually highlighted.

Shahrukh may have fallen in love at first sight with a beautiful girl, but it was not as a charming and confident young man.  When he and Gauri met, they were extremely young, she was the first girl he ever spoke with, the only girl he ever dated, and she wanted to break up with him because he got too serious too fast.  This is far from the westernized lothario convinced into marriage after meeting the old-fashioned Indian girl that wins his heart which Shahrukh usually played onscreen.  When they did marry, while there were dramatic elements to it (Gauri’s brother threatening to shoot him, sneaking into the house in the middle of a party, etc.), there were also boringly practical considerations, her father was more concerned about Shahrukh’s earning potential and career choice than any personal animosity.  After all, Gauri’s own parents had had a love marriage.  In addition, the first few years of their marriage were not all entirely happy.  Gauri had never been away from home before and knew practically no one in Bombay.  And yet, it is a marriage that has lasted for years, and given two children, and continues to show signs of faithfulness.  Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi shows this practical side to the romance.  And to get into that, SPOILERS

SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

The first shot of the hero and heroine is the reverse of the last shot from DDLJ.  In the original movie, Shahrukh and Kajol jump on a moving train in order to leave her family behind, Kajol in her full bridal regalia.  They are laughing and holding each other close standing on the steps as the train speeds up.  In the first shot of Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi, the train is stopped in a station and Shahrukh steps out and offers his hand to help down Anushka, dressed in full bridal wear.  She ignores his outstretched hand.  These two scenes show the mastery of Aditya Chopra as a filmmaker, each of them contains the entire relationship in a few seconds of screen time.  While in both the bridal clothes signify a new couple, they are very different couples.  In DDLJ, Shahrukh and Kajol are running from propriety, trying to move away from the old standards and traditions.  They are laughing and happy, they are physically connected, their relationship is one of freedom and comfort.  In contrast, the opening of Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi shows that the relationship is part of Indian society, they train is arriving at a small Indian station, not leaving. Further, there is no laughter or happiness on the characters’ faces, they do not even speak to each other.  And Anushka would rather step down from the train alone despite her enveloping clothes than risk even a touch of the hand with her new husband.  Clearly, this is a relationship that is constrained and uncomfortable.

As a flashback establishes, their marriage was more arranged than is common today.  There was no meeting followed by months of phone calls and letters, instead there was a hasty marriage after one meeting at her dying father’s bedside.  Anushka’s romance was supposed to be the more common “love-cum-marriage.”  She had picked out her own groom and was happily looking forward to marrying him.  On the eve of the wedding, the groom and his family are killed in a tragic accident, the shock causing Anushka’s father to have a heart attack.  With no future prospects, her father dying and her groom dead, Anushka was convinced to marry the boring safe option her father proposed.  In fact, in this case, Shahrukh is playing the role of the evil father approved fiancé from DDLJ, while his character in that film, the romantic true love, dies before the audience even sees him.

Only, as the film goes on, it becomes clear that far from the evil fiancé, Shahrukh is the perfect husband.  He makes no demands on his wife, is happy when she merely packs him a lunch, takes her out to movies every night, gives her the best room in the house while he moves to the attic storage area, and gives her money for anything she desires.  Eventually, Anushka asks for money to take dance classes.  Shahrukh joins her there after a radical make over but, when she does not recognize him, takes on the persona of “Raj” instead.  He introduces himself using the “Raj, naam to suno hoga?” line from Dil To Pagal Hai.  This character is a joke, his clothes are too tight (Shahrukh complains about the tight pants and aggressively tugs on them as soon as he is out of eyesight), his hair sticks straight up, and his dialogue is a series of film lines.  This is how Adi and Shahrukh now see Shahrukh’s most famous star avatar.

Eventually, Anushka falls in love with “Raj.”  Shahrukh’s best friend points out that of course she is in love with him, Raj is romantic and passionate, he tells her how he feels, while Surinder is silent.  Shahrukh’s response is that he cannot be something he is not.  Later, again, Shahrukh’s friend pushes him, to which Shahrukh responds that he cannot be Raj, Raj is not real, Surinder is real.  This is a strong statement considering it is said by the actor who is strongly connected with “Raj” and written by the filmmaker who created him.  Ultimately, of course, Anushka chooses Surinder over Raj.

This dual identity, Raj versus Surinder, is present in Shahrukh’s own life.  As Shahrukh says about his wife “She doesn’t know (superstar Shahrukh Khan).  I don’t think she even likes him too much.  I don’t bring him home and she is very clear that she doesn’t want to know him either.  But her relationship with her husband Shah Rukh is fantastic.”  The idea of Shahrukh as being separate from “Raj” brings in the idea that the conscious destruction of this identity was an effort to make way for a Shahrukh Khan to come forward as himself, not his persona.

Unfortunately, this is something that has still not been achieved in the years since this film.  His recent films have all been criticized for being either too much “Shahrukh” (Happy New Year, Dilwale) or not “Shahrukh” enough (Fan, Raees).  Or somehow both not enough and too much at the same time (Jab Harry Met Sejal).  I don’t really know what he can do at this point to pull the audience out of this funk.  Maybe dramatically remove his fake hair and clothes to show the “Surinder” underneath?

Actually, that’s not a bad idea!  I would love for him to go grey, to dress conservatively, to change his appearance so drastically that we can see again the boring reliable older man underneath, instead of the sexy “Raj” on top.

(yes yes, this sounds very different from my usual writing style.  This is “grad school Margaret” and also “spent 10 weeks writing and refining this one thing” Margaret. I could write this well for every post, but then there would be only one post a month.  I think, putting up 3 almost-as-good-as-this posts a day is better)

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