He is a Muslim in a deeply divided, Hindu majority nation; he has spent penniless nights in Bombay; his sister suffers from permanent depression; his father died in a stinky cancer ward in Delhi’s nightmarish Safdarjung Hospital. Meet Shah Rukh Khan, the King of Bollywood.
He is Time magazine’s cover boy; Korean fans wear T-shirts sporting his face; his posters sell alongside that of monkey god Hanuman in the holy streets of Benares; his Bombay bungalow is a sight-seeing tourist attraction; his bodyguard gets sex offers in exchange for closer access to him! From the Champs Elysees to Grand Central Station, he has been mobbed by adoring fans.
What makes Shah Rukh Khan different from others? He is not the only Muslim superstar of India. His films are not the only box office smash hits. He is not the only one to lip-sync to super hit romantic songs. In fact, a thousand books could easily have been written if he had failed.
For instance, his skin color is not fair; his acting skills are too loud; he is less muscled than neighborhood gym boys; and he is rumored to be gay! How did this Khan become a Sultan?
Author Anupama Chopra spent more than three years interviewing more than 90 people – including Shahrukh Khan himself – in finding the answer. As a leading film journalist, she has written for India Today and The New York Times. Her earlier book on the classic film Sholay won the National Award for being the best book on cinema in 2000.
She herself is a woman with connections. Her husband, Vidhu Vinod Chopra, is one of Bollywood’s top filmmakers. Her sister Tanuja Chandra has directed many flop Hollywood remakes. Her brother Vikram Chandra is an established, Berkeley-based author. Her book is now the talk of the town.
“Whoever reads this book will have a clear and insightful understanding of Bollywood and, of course, me,” says Shah Rukh on the cover. The blurb is disconcerting, as authorized biographies always are. Could some of the anecdotes simply be myths (did he actually spent a hungry night in Bombay’s railway station?) encouraged by the superstar or his friends to spin his image? In spite of these doubts, The King of Bollywood excels in unraveling the early life of the king.
The Legend of the King
Perhaps Shah Rukh Khan’s origins set him apart from his superstar colleagues. While almost all are good actors, some better than others, they happen to be beneficiaries of the film industry’s naked nepotism. As sons, brothers, nephews or grandsons of film legends, their little fists clutched on to credit cards and signed contracts even as they emerged from their mother’s womb. Shah Rukh’s father, in contrast, was a poor poetry lover who was, in his wife’s words, “an honest failure.”
Born in Peshawar, Meer Taj Mohammad was trapped in Delhi following the Indian partition. Even though he later married for love, and had two intelligent children, his life was too disappointing and ended too soon. When young, he went to Bombay to become an actor but sensibly returned back to Delhi after a few days of humiliating struggle. Courtesy of dishonest partners, almost all his business ventures ended in loss with the family constantly shifting from one dowdy rented apartment to another.
While dying of oral cancer, Mr. Mohammad’s body weakened, his tongue bled, and the proud Pathan could not go to the toilet by himself. That this man who could not afford a private ward in an inexpensive government-run hospital had a son who would one day become famous and so rich that he could buy an entire luxury hospital if he so wished, is surely the stuff fairy tales are made of.
The fairy tale, some allege, is full of fairies. Although the star has two kids and is believed to be happily married to his childhood love, the rumors never dissipate and rumor mongers love connecting the dots of his supposedly queer life. As child, Shah Rukh imitated the coquettish mannerisms of the sexy actress Mumtaz; his first screen role was that of a gay college student; one of his closest filmmaker friends is openly gay; he himself once spoke of someday winning an Oscar for playing a gay role. He remains Lux beauty soap’s only male model in India! In a culture where alternative sexuality has no place and no honor, it is astonishing that this actor, the object of much speculation, can be accepted so heartily from grandmothers to granddaughters-in-law.
Shah Rukh’s unique place in Indian filmdom becomes more curious because his defining successes went against the convention. He started his career by playing the crazed kind of villains who bumped off unsuspecting girlfriends from high-rises, murdered friends, and stabbed the luckless husbands of attractive women. His graduation to good boy roles was equally maddening. In a time when films were about college couples eloping to escape from frowning families, Shah Rukh’s character, in one celebrated classic, instead insisted on asking proper permission from the heroine’s angry dad. Such portrayals of a hip beer-drinking guy, thinking in English, and espousing uniquely Indian values (like not taking advantage of intoxicated Indian girls) endeared him to all those, in all parts of the world, who want to look modern but feel foreign with western sensibilities.
Ms. Chopra is perhaps not being over-enthusiastic in linking the Shah Rukh phenomenon to the strange rise of modern India. The county is unshackling itself from poverty. Malls are mushrooming. Joint families flock neighborhood McDonalds for Happy Meals. Dating and divorce, long considered the playthings of the West, are becoming common. In 2005, the coveted middle class numbered over 250 million people – only 50 million less than the total population of the United States. Silicon Valley sits scared of being Bangalored.
Truly, India is no longer a developing nation but an emerging superpower. Yet, there are glaring contrasts. Over 17,000 debt-ridden farmers committed suicide in one year alone. Poverty-stricken slums stand cheek-by-jowl with deluxe hotels. Thousands of Muslims are killed in communal riots and their murderers are voted to power by supposedly secular citizens. Daughters are smothered in the womb itself. Gay sex is outlawed.
In such a schizophrenic society, the persona of Shah Rukh Khan – a guy who wears DKNY but obeys the parents; who sings in Manhattan but muses on Punjab; a heterosexual who could be a homosexual; a seductive dancer who never lip-kisses a heroine; a Muslim believer with a Hindu wife; a hearty heartthrob who never traveled to the West till 28 but gifted a gushing fan with a round-trip ticket to any destination in the world; a go-getter who became everything from nothing – is truly an icon of our times. Read this book and don’t skip his upcoming autobiography.Powered by Sidelines