King Khan – whose moniker reflects decades of box office dominance – is a rare unifying figure across India’s multiple geographic, linguistic, and religious faultlines.
By: Mohnish Singh
Shah Rukh Khan is Bollywood’s most popular star and at 57 still its biggest sex symbol, whose silver-screen repertoire of dance, romance and shoot-em-up heroics made him the cinematic avatar of a changing India.
“King Khan” — whose moniker reflects decades of box office dominance — is a rare unifying figure across India’s multiple geographic, linguistic and religious faultlines.
His latest film “Pathaan” was an event akin to a national celebration, shrugging off boycott calls by Hindu hardliners and packing out theatres with boisterous crowds.
Fans regularly make the pilgrimage to the gates of his Mumbai mansion and wait through the day to catch a brief glimpse of a man who basks in his status as a public icon.
“I am very happy being a star. I can never be tired of it,” Khan told AFP in a 2013 interview.
“I love the amount of people that love me, the crowds that collect, the controversies, the responsibilities I have, the success and even the failure. It’s an exciting life.”
Khan was born to a Muslim family in New Delhi and did not hail from an established acting dynasty.
His early 1980s TV roles showcased his natural charisma but it took him several years to break onto the big screen, and he risked being typecast as a villain after his riveting performance as an obsessed stalker in “Darr” (Fear).
But the biggest Indian blockbuster of 1995 catapulted him to international stardom and resonated with the profound social changes underway in his country.
“Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge” (The Big-Hearted will Take the Bride) saw Khan play a Londoner who falls in love with another diaspora Indian while sightseeing in Europe.
They decide to wed — against the wishes of her father, who has promised her in marriage to another man back in India.
It was released in a decade when the country’s economy and its urban middle class were liberalising, with young men and women enjoying a lifestyle more affluent than their parents while chafing against their rules.
The film remains one of the most popular in the Bollywood canon, and it has screened at one Mumbai cinema every day — except for a Covid interruption — for the 27 years since its release.
Film critic Namrata Joshi wrote that Khan spearheaded a new kind of “romantic family hero” in Indian cinema, displacing the angry young man archetypes that matched the angst-ridden national mood of earlier decades.
“Many see SRK embodying… the spirit of post-liberalisation, feelgood, ambitious, assertive India,” she said.
Along the way, Khan’s self-deprecating humour and striking good looks cemented his place as India’s chief heartthrob.
The book “Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh”, published in 2021, discusses the intimate desires of modern Indian women through their shared fandom for Khan and the sensitive masculinity he represented.
No film in his extensive repertoire has done more to burnish this persona than 1998’s “Dil Se..” (From the Heart), in which Khan pursues a mysterious woman across India’s most spectacular natural landscapes.
Today it is fondly remembered for its dazzling choreography — elaborate even by Bollywood standards — including Khan’s serenade to dozens of dancers atop a moving steam train.
‘So much love’
Khan’s visage on movie posters became a virtual licence to print money and a string of hits over the next two decades made him fabulously wealthy.
His assets include the Kolkata Knight Riders cricket team in the Indian Premier League, and a film production company.
Recent years have seen a string of personal and professional setbacks, including the 2021 arrest of his son in a drug related case that was later dropped.
Khan, like other acting stars from India’s Muslim minority, has also increasingly been targeted for criticism by Hindu nationalists.
“Pathaan”, Khan’s secret agent action thriller comeback after a five-year absence from the silver screen, was the latest of several highly anticipated Bollywood films subject to a boycott campaign.
Ultimately Khan’s star power triumphed over his critics, and ticket sales for “Pathaan” smashed India’s opening day box office record.
Khan afterwards was lavish in his praise for fans who made the film a success.
“There is so much love from all sides,” he said, “and we can never show enough gratefulness”.