Shah Rukh Khan And His Subversive Streak

It’s not very often that Shah Rukh Khan challenges himself these days, but with Fan, he goes back to the time when he played dark characters, and where he made us feel his pain and passion.

It’s a given that narcissism is part of being a star – and stardom needs to feed on the adoration of fans. Without the fan, there can be no star. So far, so simple. Subversion rears its unexpected head like a quiescent cobra when the mutually reinforcing star-fan dependency is poked and prodded by a star-actor willing to risk his image. Is it a calculated gamble, rooted in arrogance? Or foolish bravery (more likely bravado?) Sheer chutzpah? Could it even be the resurrection of the pure actor, to banish the wearisome performer who keeps repeating himself in inanities like Dilwale and Happy New Year?

We don’t get to ask these questions of Bollywood stars. Shah Rukh Khan challenges us to shoot these discomfiting salvoes  – at him, as Bollywood’s Badshah, and also the phenomenon of stardom, the uneasy mass psychology that creates the shifting loyalties of a star’s fan base, and at us too, as a society that blurs the line between fan and fanatic. Would it be an exaggeration to say that film stars are the only popular icons in our country, along with a few chosen cricketers?  It’s no wonder that this adoration often tips over into worship, in a land abundantly endowed with gods and goddesses for every personal predilection. Film stars are the latest addition to this teeming pantheon.  Why then rock the smoothly sailing superstar boat with a subversive Fan, that could potentially blow up in his face? As an audience, we are notoriously resistant to edgy thrillers with noir overtones that come unvarnished, with no placebos of conventional romance. It is a dark, probing look at a relationship that goes horribly wrong, when the spurned fan turns an implacable foe to teach his fallen god a lesson in common courtesy he expects as his due.

Gaurav Chandna is an unforgettable character, who plunges from euphoria into despair. He steeply descends from a cherubic neighbourhood young man, who glories in his borrowed identity as  Aryan Junior, living vicariously through imitating his idol, to a flawed, fallible, tragic being. Director Maneesh Sharma has a character written with depth and detailing by Faisal Habib. Habib and his dialogue collaborator Sharat Kataria get the nuances of Dilli patois – the subculture of a lower-middle class kaloney – down to the last inflection. SRK, aided by prosthetics to make him a chubby faced (but with the dimple in place), slightly buck-toothed, engaging kid, reinvents himself with the kind of true zest that shows up the fakery in the many blockbusters he has reeled out so regularly. As Aryan Khanna, the ageing superstar threatened by a cocky newbie, SRK essentially plays himself in everything but the screen name – poised, articulate, experience making the famous charm  even more engaging .

A few telling scenes establish that it is SRK playing himself under a fictional name: early interviews and speeches from award platforms, hysterical crowds at Mannat on his birthday, where he gives darshan to his gathered devotees, arms held out in a welcoming embrace as his signature pose. As the older man who turns ruthless to teach Gaurav a lesson in what not to do, SRK doesn’t shy away from revealing a rather ugly, calculating side, even if it’s meant to set the erring young man on the right path. The transition is seamless: from smooth sophistication to gawky self-satisfaction, reprising elements from the edgy, obsessed stalker of Baazigar, Darr and Anjam into the corrupted innocence of the doppelganger. This helps us overlook some of the over-stretched narrative glitches in the second half, because the confrontation between the original and his copy is a triumph for the actor.

Fan makes us go back in time to savour the superbly badass avenger of Baazigar and the obsessed lover of Darr, who makes us feel his pain and passion. You are once again aware of a star, who started out playing dark characters, transform into everybody’s favourite lover boy, who defined romance for two generations. Then came the earnest, poignant sincerity of Swades – Gowarikar’s under-rated conscience-rouser with a heart –  where he re-acquainted us with the reality of rural India, as he made his own life-altering discovery. It was minus every mannerism that we had grown accustomed to, and even accepted as part of the screen persona that radiated megawatt charm.

Kundan Shah brought out the vulnerability of a youngster dubbed a loser by his family and his reconciliation with failure in Kabhi Haan Kabhi Na. It was a character that we cherished and identified with. As for Chakh De! India, SRK’s Kabir Khan was a grouch and a hard taskmaster, who lined an inspirational figure with the angst of personal redemption.  It was the romance of the sports film, where he mentored a gaggle of girls (each with a backstory) into a winning team and made Chakh De India our sports anthem.   As for My Name is Khan, SRK was bold enough to make a statement to India and the world outside that a Muslim identity is not synonymous with terrorism. It was much before the intolerance debate started, and the superstar made his point with precision – even as we cringed with embarrassment at the inverted racism of a narrative  set in a nation that had elected its first black president.

Another often overlooked attribute of SRK’s public persona is his self-deprecatory wit, which co-exists with his often reiterated claims of being the best. Chennai Express was mindless entertainment, but it had bits that paid mocking tribute to SRK’s Raj-Rahul avatars. This self-referentiality is clever: it makes acceptable fun of a honed stereotype and yet reiterates its continued validity.  From this safe perch to the admirable courage of Fan is brilliant, for the way SRK and the team that made the film push the envelope when it comes to examining the symbiotic relationship between a superstar and his fan. It goes beyond the clever twist to the original versus doppelganger thriller genre. There is an honest attempt to examine the psychology of the fan so obsessed with his idol that he is content to live as a copy, finding identity and success in mimicking the star.  Fan gives primacy to the copy and sails on the assumption that we know both the public persona and the private individual under the superstar phenomenon.


It is not the first time in Hindi films that a star has played himself/herself, or that directors have not explored the fan-star relationship. Hrishikesh Mukherjhee encased a non-preachy, avuncular lesson in the warmth of his familiar humour, when he had a modest, self-effacing Dharmendra revealing  the deception that highlights a star’s heroism – all this to disabuse a teenaged Guddi’s  romantic idolatry of her hero and to make her know the difference between the real and reel. Amitabh Bachchan has sauntered into many films playing himself – deliciously sulky, for example, in Ki And Ka, when wife Jaya takes a dig at the stay-at-home husband doling out role-playing gyan – with the kind of reassuring dignity we associate with him.

Bachchan’s presence as himself was key to Anurag Kashyap’s Murabba, the short story that was part of the quartet Bombay Talkies. Kashyap shows the generational devotion of a small town UP family to Bollywood stars – grandfather sending honey for Dilip Kumar, and the father sending his son to Bombay with murabba for Bachchan. The current generation’s experience of the film industry is bittersweet, though Bachchan dutifully eats half of the murabba, and the rest it to be consumed as prasad by his bhakt back in UP.  A similar echo is found in Ram Gopal Varma’s Masti, where a young man runs away from home to meet his dream actress and rescues the exploited orphan under the glamorous star. In a lovely little aside, the young man finds a poster of Rekha stuck inside the door of his disapproving  father’s cupboard – to suggest that every generation has its dream icon, to be worshipped and yearned for in secret. The difference is that the male actors inspire this dangerous frenzy and fervor, resulting in identification of self with the star – an adoration not accorded to the heroine. It is interesting to speculate why.  Is it because the male fan base can fantasize about the actress as an object of desire and fulfill it vicariously by identifying with the male hero?  This is something for social scientists to research.

Anurag Kashyap directing Amitabh Bachchan and Vineet Kumar Singh in the Murabba scene in Bombay Talkies

This brings us to another linked subject. Unlike the star-turned-politician phenomenon so visible in Telugu and Tamil cinema, why has this not happened at the level of pan-Indian Hindi cinema? Unlike regional cinema’s cohesiveness of language and ethnicity, the Hindi film hero is projected to appeal to an all-India audience, so identifiable caste and regional markers have to be blurred, if not done away  with altogether. I was lucky to be present at Prof. S.V.Srinivas’ (of Azim Premji University) lively presentation of the fan club politics of Telugu superstars NTR, Chirvanjeevi and Pawan Kalyan – the hypnotic rhetoric of their speeches (specially NTR), the hysterical response to their idol’s  screen and off-screen presence, followed by the analysis of caste dynamics. All three have carved out political careers based on their screen image and caste equations.

Luckily or otherwise, the fans of Bollywood heroes are not so well organized, politically and along personal loyalties. They are very visible, yet amorphous and diffused. There is no effort on the part of stars either, to galvanize them for any political or even personal gain. Amitabh Bachchan burnt his fingers after a brief flirtation with politics – more out of personal loyalty to Indira and Rajiv Gandhi –  and this seems to have served as a cautionary tale to others. The star MPs and MLAs are lightweights – including the irrepressible Shatrughan Sinha – and are dutifully  paraded at  election rallies. Is this yet another significant marker that divides the North and South?