Thank you Naina for suggesting this post! I wrote a post a few years back on how Shahrukh uses his sexuality onscreen and how it has developed, but it is time for an update based on his latest movies, especially Pathaan. (original post is here)
I ended the original post with this question:
“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?”
My original post talked about the evolution of Shahrukh’s onscreen persona as he became more comfortable with using his sexuality to seduce his heroines. The basic idea of SRK onscreen is that he has more power than his heroine, simply by virtue of being a man in a patriarchal society, but he chooses not to use it. That evolved into specifically a sexual power, he had this pattern in his characters of using sex as a carefully honed weapon in courtship. He wanted love, he wanted the Whole Person, but sometimes he would use a moment of sexiness to wake the woman up to his interest in her, to make her pay attention to him. And then he would reign it back, give up his power to her. He knows he can get sex any time, but he wants True Love from this woman, not just sex.
Pathaan upends this pattern. It pulls on a different thread that has been present in Shahrukh’s performances all along but has not come to the fore as strongly before. What if Shahrukh himself is the victim of his own sexuality? As much a pawn in the sex game as the woman?
This was present in some of his very early films, in particular Guddu and Zamaana Deewana and Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman. He is young, he is wild, and then he meets this one girl and all of a sudden he is overwhelmed by desire for her. And she by him.
This films are from a different time in India, and in Shahrukh’s career. Today there is a much stronger “modern live in relationship western woman” versus “innocent Indian girl” divide. In the early to mid-90s when Shahrukh was starting out, and for decades and decades before that, Hindi film was filled with educated middle-class or wealthier young heroines who dated, flirted, did all kinds of things and it was Normal. They weren’t NRIs, they didn’t have a tragic past, they weren’t older career women, or orphans, or any of that. It was just a normal thing, on film, to show young people dating.
I’m not talking about the reality of the country, just the reality of Hindi films. There’s a larger question here of aspirational versus realistic representation. For decades, going back as far as Awara, there was this idea of Hindi film heroines being stronger and more independent and more EVERYTHING than most Indian women were in reality. And there was this idea of young Hindi film romances being more free and easy and fun than romances were in reality. Couples went to nightclubs together, went swimming together, did big modern song and dance numbers, and then happily got engaged with the assumption that their families would accept it. The radical progressives who started the Hindi film industry wanted to show a world in which love marriages were normal, women had rights, all those good things. So making a movie in which two teenagers from wealthy families fell in love and got sexy-sexy together was a-okay. No “sharam” from the girl, no “izzat” from the boy.
I’m not saying this was true of ALL movies, but it was a common thread in a lot of them. And that included Shahrukh’s early films. Along with movies in which he protected his heroine’s “sharam” and gave her the power of yes and no, there were movies where he and the heroine fell in love together like little puppies and jumped feet first into sex.
But then we get to the late 90s, and suddenly a lot of things are changing for Shahrukh onscreen, and for Hindi film in general. Young romance began to fade out, to be replaced by “adult romance”. Especially for Shahrukh who was entering his Hot Businessman era. Romance and sex is a lot scarier for adults than for teenagers, and it was a lot scarier for an Adult film industry than it was back when Hindi film was ignored. Now, suddenly, Hindi film was thrust into the role of Societal Ambassador for India and all eyes were on it. Shahrukh, now playing “adult” roles in films that had international releases, could no longer do the sort of carefree happy equal attitude towards sex, the one where he was as swept away as his heroines by unexpected desire.
And so there is an era in which Shahrukh is always just SLIGHTLY more in control than the heroine. Yes, he is attracted to her, but as a Man he is more experienced with desire, more in charge of his body, more EVERYTHING. It is no longer a level playing field as it was in those first few teenage films.
Again, the main thrust of his sexuality on film has remained consistent, he knows how to be sexy, how to play a sex scene, how to create desire in the woman he loves. And he enjoys her desire and his desire as part of a larger fabric of a relationship, it’s never JUST about sex and also never NOT about sex.
But there is a counterpoint to that which I think is coming more and more to the fore in the past few years as he becomes more visibly older onscreen. The counterpoint is those times when Shahrukh, the Sexual Being, does not even consider acting on his desires because (although he is attracted to this woman) he assumes she is not attracted to him. And then it is up to the woman to draw out his sexual power, let him know she wants it and he can release it, to start a game with him.
For some reason, it is in Deepika movies that I see this most strongly. Their chemistry has this lovely warm vibe where she is the one who has to make HIM feel comfortable with his feelings. Despite her being obviously younger and more traditionally attractive than he is. Happy New Year is where it’s most blatant, she is all beauty and sex and everything, and Shahrukh gets so flustered by it he doesn’t know what to do, while she keeps pursuing him. And then there is Pathaan. Shahrukh is established as being very old (for a movie hero that is), and Dips as much younger than him. Younger, but still an adult, she lives alone in London, she has a medical degree, she isn’t some innocent young woman.
In this new pattern, the woman initially pursues, makes her interest known. Shahrukh retreats, is a little nervous, is uncertain, and then finally turns and joins in her game. He still knows the power of his sexuality and knows how to use it, but he won’t do anything until she makes the first move. Until she “releases” him, as it were. Makes him feel comfortable enough to reveal a part of himself that, as a mature adult man, he has learned to repress and control, and not assume a younger woman would want.
Does that make sense? Does that match your feelings of SRK in his more recent films?
Do you think this is a pattern he will keep as he ages, or is there a new phase coming still?
Can you think of examples earlier in his career when he has used the “the woman has to make me comfortable and safe before I reveal myself” sexual pattern?
Thank you for writing this! I don’t have great thoughts at the moment (just woke up), but I’ll be thinking about this!
Thank you thank you thank you! Where do you think the dynamic in Dear Zindagi fits? I mean there’s no relationship there but there’s an exchange of sexual energy in a way
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DZ is the great equalizer. He plays a role where he must not be sexual in any way that is overt, yet like in many therapeutic relationships, sexual attraction in the mind of the patient (and with countertranference in the mind of the therapist) is a human reaction to the closeness that exists between a patient and therapist, and stands in for other feelings of closeness and intimacy that are hard to express as the relationship is so unlike any other in a person’s life. To follow Naina’s way of breaking it down, he ‘s bordering on moving into the 4th life stage, but only bc this relationship is taboo. He still exudes sexuality that is picked up on by Alia, and uses his self-control to keep the relationship where it must stay, for both their safety. He allows her to experience him in her own way for her own growth but maintains the critical boundary that in a way, replicates the handing of the reins to her as he has done in his stage 2 films.
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Yes! I think that’s one of the most interesting examples, because in that case the woman fails to “unlock” him. We sense the sexuality dormant in him, but she isn’t the one to make it fully come out.
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I wonder if there’s a connection here with the “Vanprastha Ashram” concept (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/V%C4%81naprastha). Indian film trying to show an older man who has withdrawn from wealth and pleasure into duty as salvation. And then a bit of the lore of Menaka (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Menaka) play thrown in who in a way is trying to lure him and he is resisting to focus on his duty.
In india i grew up studying and getting told these stories over and over and perhaps the films infuse the same concepts to make it seem natural to the audience?
That’s a really good analysis that is central to the traditional way of life…I also grew up hearing many stories about our family and other families through this kind of lens. Art imitates life vs art driving the cultural narrative. More to say but on way out of the house
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Oh wow, I love this idea! And if I am remembering right, often there is an idea that the nymphs are trying to distract a holy man BECAUSE he is so powerful and has amassed so much through his studies. That fits too, it’s not just that SRK is playing older characters, he is playing older characters with power, and the sexuality sort of causes them to stumble (most clearly in Pathaan, but also in Happy New Year and a little bit in Dilwale).
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Yes!!! It was to distract vishwamitra from amassing all blessings, weapons and power
The end of Besharam Rang has definite Menaka vibes!
I want to also say that i love that photo from Manwa Lage
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Where does Zero fit into this? I know you dislike the movie, but his sexuality in it is obvious, an almost bluster that he thrusts out because of his short stature. Hidden from Katrina because he knows she will never have him and lorded over Anushka because he sees himself as her sexual superior. A film where he actually uses sex as a weapon, to devestating consequences.
But as to his newer form of sexuality, of being made to feel comfortable by the woman before it comes forth, isn’t it really the audience that needs to be made to feel comfortable? When the heroine is so much younger and we are supposed to like the hero, doesn’t society dictate that he HAS to wait until her interests are known? And I need to see Pathaan a couple more times; because Deepika is spy-like I have a hard time reading her character to know where her true desires lie. But in the film it seems Pathaan also has a hard time reading her, so that is well done.
Yes! I talked about Zero a lot in my last post because I feel like it shows the flipside, what happens when he DOES use sex as a weapon. He destroys this woman’s life in so many ways, and eventually feels the guilt and responsibility of it.
For this post, I would say Zero fits in with the pattern of “this is a situation in which he should have waited for the woman to express interest because it was not equal or appropriate” only he didn’t do that, despite being older and more confident and all those things.
I agree it is for the audience, and I think that’s why it is so smart! Because the other Khans (and Akshay and Ajay and on and on) don’t bother, they expect us to swallow them pursuing younger women and it’s GROSS.
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I read that he has added something to his contract from 2022 to state that he will only work with women he has worked in the past or if it is someone new, they need to be his age. He wants to play his age. Not sure if this is true or gossip but I’m very impressed
Hi, I just started following your blog recently and am new to Hindi cinema. It is interesting what you say about older movies depicting more sexually forward heroines. What are some examples? I have very little knowledge of older era and want to explore more, especially as my assumption is that it was a more conservative time.
Hi! And Welcome!!! The earlier films feel more distinctly “different” from Modern western films, so be aware of that. But if you are okay with that, for stronger female heroine’s I would recommend An Evening in Paris, Dream Girl, Awara, Aradhana, Qurbani, and the original Don. The women tend to have jobs, goals, ambitions, and are romantically confident.