Shah Rukh Khan: The new action hero on the block

With Pathaan and Jawan, will he use his stardom to rewrite the genre or will the genre rewrite him?

Published : Jan 26, 2023 10:25 IST

A still from “Pathaan”.

A still from “Pathaan”. | Photo Credit: By special arrangement

To be charming and to be erotic—the former looks you in the eye, the latter looks itself in the mirror. There is generosity in the charming. There is narcissism in the erotic. To look into the mirror while having sex; to snap a casual shot of flexed arms or exposed abs in the gym mirror; to look at a mirror in passing, even if it is only the window of a car or auto; to look into the mirror and see possibilities of beauty, and the validation of that beauty, eros. To look into the mirror.

Shah Rukh Khan has, since the late 2000s, specifically since the song “Dard-e-Disco” in Om Shanti Om, when he unveiled his eight-pack abs, has taken that leap, from the charming to the erotic. The abs in the song—cut, baked, oiled, and polished—were, as film critic Rahul Desai noted, meant to be a parody in the film, a very forceful wink at the way stardom is now inextricably tied to the body, not to personality, not to vanity, not to craft.

And yet, it was the parody that people took seriously, that Khan took seriously as he dived into roles that drew their charisma from his shirt being precarious and slippery, whisking it off every now and then. Look at the diaphanous swirling patterned clothing in the latest song from Pathaan, “Besharam rang”, how it is buttoned and styled to expose more than conceal, to leave less to the imagination than to the eye.

Khan’s new body

This shift, in Om Shanti Om, produced a rumble in both his filmography and his fandom. Author Michiel Baas in his book Muscular India: Masculinity, Mobility & the New Middle Class cites anecdotally how “Dard-e-Disco” was one of the seminal moments when gym membership for men soared. Khan, who had fashioned himself into an ideal man for any woman—the charming romantic hero—was now fashioning himself as an ideal man for any man—the fit, flexed hero. Khan was looking to broaden his fanbase, not to replace the charming with the erotic but to layer it, and lasso men, too, into his pool of thronging fans.

Khan’s new body, as I see it, was not for the women (or for queer men) who had already fallen for his charm, but for male fans to gawk at. Khan is really intensely unerotic; he embodies a diligent, sincere, studied checklist of hotness, or what is deemed hotness. The erotic is messy, unwieldy, reckless, something heaving and breathless, which Khan is just not able to pursue and perform. The body then was for the men who were looking for the ideal male type—lean, muscular, veiny.

Did this layering, this lassoing work for you? The question can be asked differently in this way—if you saw Shah Rukh as your dream romantic partner, did you now think of Shah Rukh as a sexual partner too? Author Shrayana Bhattacharya in her book Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh: India’s Lonely Young Women and the Search for Intimacy and Independence spent years travelling across India, asking women about their relationship to Khan, a man who has giggled them into affection, into fandom, and how it has changed, if it has changed at all.

Broadly, there seemed to be a consensus. When he moved towards becoming the “action star”, the women just as smoothly and suddenly moved away from his movies towards his interviews, where the charm, the quick-witted intellect, the intuition, was still bubbling—and clothed.

Shah Rukh is unmistakably a secular ideal, a Nehruvian child. A Muslim who grew up in a Hindu neighbourhood, playing Krishna in street plays, studying in a Catholic School, marrying a Hindu, to become not just successful but iconic, totemic, an image of the nation itself. This ideal was, however, constructed based on where he came from—his past. Where he is lunging towards will give us a more clear sense of how his specific stardom will rewrite the very rules of stardom itself.

More space to women

For example, Bhattacharya in her book notes how Shah Rukh Khan’s films on an average give much more space to women than other star films—this she finds out by studying the proportion of dialogues in a film given to a woman. As he pivots towards the action genre, with upcoming films like Pathaan and Jawan, a genre notorious for paltry feminine presence, will he use his stardom to rewrite the genre? Will he reframe ideals of masculinity or will his stardom fall prey to that very masculinity?

In Pathaan, amidst a blazing Babylon of cross-continental wreckage, Deepika Padukone sveltes through both the intensity and playfulness of her character while Dimple Kapadia remains Khan’s boss, whom he always respectfully refers to as “ma’am”. Padukone is a lover and at times adversary to Khan. In the promotional run-up, the production house Yash Raj Films described her character, rather awfully, as “a total femme fatale”. The femme fatale trope has often been a comfortable, conspicuous way to couch one’s anxiety about the free and beautiful woman leading an independent life. The woman’s body, used to fashion an argument for freedom, was now used to layer an entire genre of feckless, destabilized masculinity. At worst, these films tended to hate women.

Not Pathaan, which is why I found that the description countered the film’s tenderness. Padukone flips, both her allegiance and her body, but that never strains the sincerity that she holds in her heart as a Pakistani woman in love with her country and not necessarily its institutions. The love she shares with Shah Rukh, a casteless, classless man without a religion or origin story, is never allowed to reach beyond the intense closeness, never allowed to collapse into a kiss. The kiss, that ultimate gesture that eases the pressure on the heart, does not seem an important part of the erotic project in Pathaan. Would that be too much?

That is the curious thing about stardom. It is a deeply unstable category but a deeply useful one to think of in terms of the times from which it emerges and in which it embeds itself. American writer Ursula Le Guin takes Virginia Woolf’s definition of heroism as “botulism” and the hero as a “bottle” further, looking at the hero as a container, “a thing that holds something else”, someone who receives, a character that requires “neither resolution nor stasis but continuing process”, someone who isn’t conceived to solve a problem, but as the only one capable of solving a problem.

Le Guin takes anthropologist Elizabeth Fisher’s Carrier Bag Theory of human evolution—which posits that it was not the knife or club that was the primary tool or “cultural device” but the container that can carry the gathered or plucked food—and uses it to talk of the hero in literature. I am borrowing it to think of the hero in cinema.

A still from “Pathaan”. Shah Rukh Khan, who began his leap up the cinematic ladder as one predicated on romance but is now trying to lunge into action, is gunning to be both and, in some sense, to be neither. 

A still from “Pathaan”. Shah Rukh Khan, who began his leap up the cinematic ladder as one predicated on romance but is now trying to lunge into action, is gunning to be both and, in some sense, to be neither.  | Photo Credit: By special arrangement

What do our stars contain?

Stardom began as an aspiration to see a shining silhouette in the limelight and imagine it as your romantic partner. Take Rajesh Khanna, considered India’s first superstar. Journalist Sidharth Bhatia writes: “Rajesh Khanna was every mother’s son, every sister’s brother and every girl’s handsome boyfriend.” Between 1969 and 1971, he flung 15 superhit films—including Anand (1971), Haathi Mere Saathi (1971), and Amar Prem (1972)—one after the other at his adoring, lusting fans, with not a single flop blemishing the record. The toast of town, with swarms of girls kissing his cherry-red Impala, writing him lovesick letters, he was on the cover of the first issue of Stardust in 1971, and later, in 1973, the BBC made a documentary on him titled Bombay Superstar.

Then, Amitabh Bachchan’s stardom made its swaggering entry as Khanna’s was on the wane. Bachchan’s was not a romantic stardom. It was angry and exaggerated, violent and valiant. His characters were not charming—they were often awkward with women—but were gifted with strength and grit. Repeated twice in Deewaar (1975) is the line: “Dekhna ek din yeh ladka zaroor kuch banega [Just watch, one day this boy will surely become someone].” Suddenly, the idea of exceptionalism—physical, moral—had entered our imagination when thinking of the star. People have often read this stardom as an anti-establishment shout, a disillusionment about what was promised but never fulfilled when we became a democracy, a republic.

“Shah Rukh Khan’s new body is for men who are looking for the ideal male type—lean, muscular, veiny.”

If we keep Khanna and Bachchan as two totemic moments of stardom, it seems that Khan, who began his leap up the cinematic ladder as one predicated on romance but is now trying to lunge into action, is gunning to be both and, in some sense, to be neither. Bachchan’s violence was entirely anti-capitalist. Khanna’s charm was entirely anguished. Khan’s is neither.

And yet, he is here. When terrible things happen to his family, the collective grief of strangers on Twitter explodes. Hope is articulated. Praise is generous. Criticism is shushed. Be kind. Be open. A lot about a country and its condition can be read from the hero it produces, from the hero it thinks it needs. And that we do not just see ourselves as fans of Shah Rukh, but see ourselves as needing him, seeking him, desperately, says everything and nothing about who we are today.

Prathyush Parasuraman is a writer and critic who writes across publications, both print and online. He also authors a newsletter on culture at prathyush.substack.com.

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