What makes Shahrukh Khan the stuff of dreams and desire? Even he would not be able to tell you, says Soumabrata Chatterjee.
“I am an image. Shah Rukh Khan is an image…and I’m just an employee of that image. Now whatever that image, some girl sees pink, some boys see black, some women see beautiful, some people think ‘overrated’, it’s an image. None of it is me. It’s like, you know, when you make a shadow with your fingers and you make a dog, there is no dog, it’s actually made out of fingers. I can’t show you the fingers, because the magic goes. So you think it’s a dog or a butterfly, whatever you like. I can’t break your myth that I’m working for Shah Rukh Khan and I can’t believe in it myself. Because the day I do, I’ll be torn apart. I won’t know what happened!”
In a telling passage from one of his earlier interviews (not the one quoted above), Shahrukh Khan declares that he works for SRK and that he is a damn good employer. This tongue-in-cheek comment forms the core of Shahrukh’s fandom. Never has been a megastar so conscious about his star status and the problems which lie within.
Full disclosure: I am a huge fan of Shahrukh Khan. Not that I think he is the best actor around or that he does credible films worth of celebration. He just is. There is no explanation for his stardom. Well, if you attempt to extract a point about celebrity culture in India from this phenomenon you would realise that there is no tangible reason behind all of this. It just is.
In one of his multiple appearances on Koffee with Karan, on being asked to describe his stardom in one word, the man says that it is “divine”, as opposed to the “cerebral” quality of Aamir’s fandom. What appears at first to be a compliment for Aamir isn’t so much when you read “divine” as a philosophical concept. Divine entails the suspension of all worldly laws, of happiness, of sadness, of money and blockbusters—there is something ethereal about the stardom of SRK. It is transcendent in some sense; it does not align itself with the earthly hours of waking up, doing work, and coming back to home. Beyond this everyday life of cerebral activity, there lies something which is beyond all of this, and that is the source of SRK’s star status. I am not suggesting that SRK is truly Christ-like in his earthly avatar, but we need to understand the ideological implications of such an invocation.
Divine entails the suspension of all worldly laws, of happiness, of sadness, of money and blockbusters—there is something ethereal about the stardom of SRK. It is transcendent in some sense; it does not align itself with the earthly hours of waking up, doing work, and coming back to home.
In every business, you come across many people who you don’t think would make it so far. In WWE, Triple H didn’t think John Cena would amount to anything, and the next thing you know he is a global star. SRK’s story is not that different. Coming from Delhi, a small-framed, big-nosed, scrawny guy with no film or political connections just cannot make it. It is just not possible. Yet here he is, and has been for the last 25 years.
What makes SRK the stuff of dreams and desires? It is definitely not his style, not his physical attributes, not his looks. In fact, he was much like how Saif was when he came to the industry. A boy among men. But boy, he grew to be a man! He is, of course, not the best actor around. He is not the best romancer around too, as opposed to popular opinion. Before DDLJ, he came across as this boy with a haphazard hair style who spoke very fast. But there was always something about him, something odd which did not fit into the scheme of affairs. He was not a game-changer in the traditional sense of the term. He was just odd, weird in a divine sense. He could not be put, packaged and sold off like a commodity in neat categories.
He just believed he was the best. He still does. Anything he does, it is this self-confidence, almost self-congratulatory in a philosophical sense, that keeps him on his toes. If I don’t say it, nobody else would say it, he said. And he was right. What did the guy know about how to make the industry his own? There is of course an elaborate mythography surrounding him. That he shouted on his first night in Mumbai that he would rule the city, that he was not allowed entry into Mannat and pledged that he would be its owner some day, that his mother thought he looked like Dilip Kumar. Please note that by mythography, I don’t mean fiction. There is something between fiction and the real, and that forms the space of our imagination.
What makes SRK occupy this elaborate yet liminal space of imagination? For starters, he is weirdly conscious of it. In another interview he suggests that he is a whole lot of different things to different people. There are multitudes of fans, who think of him and respect and love him in variant ways, and he is not just one of them. He is either all of them or neither of them. Nobody would know. Not even he does.
And this rings true if you think of all the megastars who have boasted of such a fan base over the years, be it Rajinikanth or Amitabh Bachchan or even Govinda. Rajinikanth’s parlor tricks, which often involve him running faster than a bullet, or the angry young man image of Mr Bachchan or Govinda’s eclectic dressing style, all of these are not just put-ons in a cinematic sense of the term. They participate in a deeply embedded cultural process of knowledge production and imagination regarding these stars. In his first TV interview, in Aap ki Adalat, SRK thought it best to describe his acting style in term of copying not one of his illustrious predecessors but all of them. It is not a minor point to notice that SRK’s fan base has stayed with him through his experimental years (Darr, Baazigar, Anjaam) and then of course the mindless potboilers the last three years.
Let’s come to Fan for a moment. It is a very un-SRK film. It always was. At times, the film falls through, especially in the second half. Nobody is interested in Aryan Khanna, the star. He is not SRK; he is just another one of those megastars. The real value of SRK was in Gaurav and the way he dances, without inhibition or a definite sense of masculine surety. The stardom of SRK is both manufactured and real to an extent, and after a point you don’t know where to draw the line.
He suggests that he is a whole lot of different things to different people. There are multitudes of fans, who think of him and respect and love him in variant ways, and he is not just one of them. He is either all of them or neither of them.
The scene where Gaurav meets Aryan for the first time is the best example of that. Gaurav fumbles and stutters like any normal fan would if he witnesses his obsession before himself. It is the other which is bigger than his ego. In fact, at the end Gaurav admits that he has no identity except his obsession. It is not a pastime for him. It is not his occupation. It has transcended that stage. His self is invariably asserted over his love for the other. But this other is unattainable, of course, because of ideological and real political problems. They meet to leave each other forever.
Yet for Aryan, his other, Gaurav, is a small distraction, something which can be easily dealt with; in fact, it is the monstrous other here which needs to be learnt a lesson. But in the end, even after Gaurav is dead, Aryan visualises him among the masses. It is the indestructible other, which keeps coming back, keeps on haunting him, asking questions about his fandom and ethicality towards being responsible to the other (his fans). Gaurav and Aryan are not characters; they are symptoms of the celebrity culture we have, which issues from the religiosity we possess in our daily lives.
It is said that modernity is secular and that the modern state recognises religion not as its base but just one of its components. Yet, religion features in our everyday lives—we worship cricketers; we put up idols and burn them sometimes too; we put up temples of a major politician against whom criminal charges have been attached. We are invariably connected to religiosity in different ways.
Even after Gaurav is dead, Aryan visualises him among the masses. It is the indestructible other, which keeps coming back, keeps on haunting him, asking questions about his fandom and ethicality towards being responsible to the other (his fans).
Religiosity here is very different from institutional religion. It is not Hinduism or Islam or Christianity. It has more to do with the affect value of religion. We celebrate SRK’s birthday as if he were our own. We huddle outside his house. We feel we need to know everything about him including the brand of cigarettes he smokes. Such obsession, such madness, often has to do with the idea of divinity, the burst of emotions which cannot be catalogued or programmed. It just is.
For those who understood my point after reading this article, fine. For others who thought I was just praising SRK, well, I’ll quote Gaurav: “Rehn de, tu nahin samjhega.”
SRK does not understand his stardom. He can try, but he can never gauge what made him a megastar. That’s why he is correct when he terms it “divine”.