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Shah Rukh Khan and the Fine Art of Managing Contradictions

The 'Jawan' star appeals to a wide cross section of audiences, across all demographics and genders and even ideologies.
Shah Rukh Khan in 'Jawan'.

In the era before the Hindi film industry became corporatised and single screen cinemas gave way to swanky multiplexes, distributors of films used to divide films between those for the ‘gentry’ and those which were strictly for the masses. This pithy description decided what they would pay and what they would earn on the movies. 

The gentry, i.e. the educated, urban ‘elite’ were fewer in number and the masses many – naturally, the distributors preferred movies made keeping the latter in mind, with all the masala ingredients thrown in. Gentry was a code word for obscure, slow, arty kind of films, i.e. the ones that would appeal to very few. It was also assumed that there would be no cross over audiences and that the raucous front bencher types would not bother to see an arty film and the intelligentsia wouldn’t care to hoot or dance in the aisles in film with eight songs and dances.

Very few stars crossed over either, especially from the mass to the art, though a few forayed the other way round, with varying degrees of success, Naseeruddin Shah and Shabana Azmi among them.

Shahrukh Khan has done the impossible – he is loved by the mass audiences and within that, across age groups and genders. He is loved in the small towns and in the metros. He is loved by the well-off and the middle classes, by those in fancy apartments and in more modest dwellings. The gentry and the janata. Most crucially, he has breached that one barrier that stars from another generation did not – the high-minded intelligentsia, which between writing serious papers and op-eds about the state of the nation, also queues up for his films. 

His latest film Jawan and a bit earlier, his last, Pathaan, both showed that Khan, even as he approaches his 60s, is still the nation’s favourite, much more than his two contemporaries. Salman Khan, ‘Bhai’ to his legions of fans, has virtually no fandom among the ‘gentry’ and Aamir Khan, who was fun to watch in the beginning, has now turned so serious and meticulous in preparing for his roles, is in danger of becoming plain boring. Which leaves Shah Rukh Khan ahead of the field.

Shah Rukh Khan knows this and in both the films, more so in Jawan, has pressed all the right buttons. Pathaan was not just an action film, inspired heavily from Bourne and Bond, but had heavy dollops of nationalism thrown in. More important, it was the first film after that sordid episode of his son’s arrest for allegedly carrying drugs, which soon unravelled as a trumped up charge. His son eventually came out unscathed, but it must have been a difficult time for his family. Khan had chosen not to say anything during that period, which endeared him to his fans and when Pathaan opened, they thronged to show their admiration.

Also read: SRK, I Hear You. And So Does Everyone Else.

Social media was full of Indians all over the world declaring that they had seen the film and posing outside theatres. It was all about Khan and showing solidarity with him, a kind of Revenge Watching phenomenon.

With Jawan, the goodwill for him continues, though the impulses are different. Khan has much more control, since it has been made by his own company Red Chillies Entertainment. The director Atlee, is from the southern film industry, where the movies have a particular visual and creative language, which has developed national appeal. And the director has risen to the occasion – he has thrown in everything in the film to come up with one spicy mix after another, including a surprise guest star and unrelenting action. (And a not-so-sly dig about the Aryan Khan case, where he declares that to harm his son, his enemies will first have to take on the father).

Along with that are the direct references, with virtuous intent, to contemporary events. Farmers strike? Check. Corruption? Another check. Responsible voting? A big check. It is enough to warm the cockles of a progressive’s heart, and it has. And this undoubtedly is Khan’s doing, because he knows that its all very well to win over the janata, but also crucial to keep the culturati PLUs on his side too. Is it sincere or dishonest or manipulative? Probably a bit of everything, but it seems to have done its job, because this time round, both in the newspapers and on social media, this cohort is full of oohs and aahs about him and the movie. 

However, all this is on the screen, where all kinds of liberties can be taken. In real life one has to be tuned to some hard realities. This is particularly true for celebrities and film stars in contemporary India, where powerful figures on the one hand, and trolls on the other, keep an eye for what they say. 

Recently, even as his film with all that messaging started drawing huge audiences, Khan tweeted, “Congratulations to Hon. PM @narendramodi ji for the success of India’s G20 Presidency and for fostering unity between nations for a better future for the people of the world. It has brought in a sense of honour and pride into the hearts of every Indian.”

In May, another tweet had read, “What a magnificent new home for the people who uphold our Constitution, represent every citizen of this great Nation and protect the diversity of her one People @narendramodi ji. A new Parliament building for a New India but with the age-old dream of Glory for India. Jai Hind! #MyParliamentMyPride.” 

There is no reason why Khan, a free citizen, cannot say this. These may well be his own sentiments. He may genuinely think that the new parliament building is magnificent.

Yet, one cannot help but wonder how this would play with his more ‘progressive’ fans, who generally tend to be the much-reviled ‘left-liberals’, who are against Modi personally and ideologically. They distrust him and hold him responsible for much that is going wrong with the country. Many a celebrity’s endorsement has disappointed them. Now to see their hero singing his praises-how would they react? But this is Shahrukh Khan, who rises above such mundane contradictions. 

And he shows, once again, why he is not just a star but a clever man. He can do the impossible. He takes everyone along. He can even do the impossible – appeal across the ideological divide in these polarised times. His signature move – spreading his arms wide, embraces one and all in its warm embrace.

This piece was first published on The India Cable – a premium newsletter from The Wire & Galileo Ideas – and has been republished here. To subscribe to The India Cable, click here.

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