I still remember the first time I met Shah Rukh Khan. It was around a decade ago and he was shooting for Karan Johar’s Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham. I anchored a show called Cover Story on Star World and we were filming an interview with Amitabh Bachchan. Because Bachchan and the rest of the cast were picturising the Shava Shava song, he suggested that Star might want to set up on a sound stage in the same studio. That way, it would be easy for him to give the interview.
It was while waiting for Amit to finish doing the trademark toilet-flush action that came to characterise that song that a member of my crew had an idea. Why not ask Shah Rukh, who was already on the sets, to also give us an interview?
By then, Shah Rukh was Bombay’s biggest star and the industry had begun to be corporatised. You did not simply go up to a major star and say something like, “Listen, we are waiting for Amitabh to be free. So why not come to the sets and shoot with us?” You went through legions of PR people, set up the dates in advance and never ever suggested that the set had actually been prepared for somebody else.
To my astonishment, Shah Rukh agreed. “Give me a few minutes,” he said. And then, while the crew chatted among ourselves, we suddenly looked up to find that Shah Rukh had arrived unannounced on the sets and slid into the guest chair on the other side of the anchor’s table.
We shot the interview in real time. I asked him about Hrithik Roshan, who everybody suggested would usurp his crown. Shah Rukh was respectful of Hrithik but insisted that he faced no threat from him. Then, considering that I did not know Shah Rukh at all and had nothing to lose, I hurled a grenade into the interview. At that stage, Bollywood insiders speculated that he was gay or, at the very least, bisexual. But of course nobody had asked him this to his face. I broke that rule and asked how he reacted to the rumours. He was momentarily surprised but then recovered and handled the question with aplomb.
Later, when film journalists asked him about my question and my nerve in daring to ask it, he laughed about the incident. “I don’t know why Vir Sanghvi asked me that,” was a typical response. “Perhaps if I had said yes, he would have asked me out on a date.”
Of course Shah Rukh was right about Hrithik. The film industry is big enough for both of them and for Salman and Aamir and many others. And over the years, as I have interviewed Shah Rukh again and again, I have always been struck by his confidence and his refusal to even entertain the possibility that things could go wrong for him.
Last week, at the HT Summit, when I hosted a session with Shah Rukh and Katrina Kaif, I noticed that none of the confidence had evaporated. Nor had the accessibility. He is the one star I know who treats everyone in the same way and has no time for nakhras or attitude. Throughout our session, he was the Shah Rukh of old: easily approachable; willing to answer questions about anything; and well-mannered and chivalrous (he was extremely protective of Katrina Kaif who, he reckoned, did not have his experience at handling live sessions).
And yet, I think Shah Rukh Khan has changed. I told him that he had matured beyond the days when he kept insisting that he was the best at everything he did. (“Even when I shave, I have to believe that I am the best shaver in the world,” he had once told me.) “Maybe,” he said. “But I am still the best.” And perhaps he is. But he seems older and wiser now. I asked him on stage about the public meltdowns, the assault on a film director, the fight at a cricket stadium, and the public quarrel with Salman Khan. On his own, without my having to use the phrase, he insisted that he was not going through a mid-life crisis. Nor was he under the influence of alcohol or any other substance when he had these altercations.
So, why does he do it? And does he regret it? Short answer: he has no regrets. His assault was justified with a joke: “Three fights in five years is not so bad, yaar.” On Salman, he was uncompromising. Perhaps they will make up. Perhaps they won’t. But it’s something that will happen on its own when the time is right. He gave no indication that he had any interest in hastening the process. As for the incident at the cricket stadium, he left no one in any doubt that he believed he was justified in his anger. But, he said, it is not necessarily a good thing to show anger in front of kids.
Even in the one area where I thought he would offer some soft words of apology – the shameful way in which his franchise treated Sourav Ganguly – he was completely uncompromising. He had not a single regret about the decision to first sideline and then drop Sourav.
Many years ago, when I interviewed Shah Rukh for Brunch, I compared him to Tony Blair. It is said about Blair that he has never met anybody who he could not charm or win over. That’s true of Shah Rukh too. When he turns on the charm, he can usually get around pretty much anyone.
But the Shah Rukh we saw at the HT Summit seemed to be the kind of guy who did not particularly care whether he could win over anyone at all. And he seemed to have lost interest in being seen as charming and likeable. His attitude was: this is me. This is who I am. Take it or leave it.
I asked him about the transformation both on stage and later. His answer suggested that after 21 years at the top, he is wearied of trying to be all things to all people. He has got tired of seeming likeable. And the controversies have now exhausted him to the extent that after a point, he doesn’t really give a damn.
Obviously, Shah Rukh’s fans will have their own views on the metamorphosis. And there will be people who know him much better than I do (we journalists tend to make broad generalisations on the basis of interviews even though we often don’t see the private person when we talk to the public persona) who may dispute my assessment of the change in his personality.
But frankly, I think it is long overdue. He is now in his mid 40s. He can no longer be every mother’s darling son and every teenager’s heartthrob. As he complained on stage, audiences still expect him to play the romantic hero even though he is past that stage. (At one point, he spread out his arms in that famous romantic gesture and said that people even expect him to brush his teeth in that position.)It’s not easy to be as omnipresent as Shah Rukh Khan is: in the movies; on TV; at live events; at cricket matches; and in every second ad campaign. Obviously, there will be a backlash. People will get fed up of seeing him everywhere. And critics may feel that the cute persona that made him famous has now begun to jar a little.
So, I’m glad that Shah Rukh has decided to be his own man. If he is angry, he shows it. If he is upset, he talks about it. And if he’s insulted, he lashes out. He has always been honest in his interviews but all of us who heard him at the HT Summit were struck by his candour. As he said, “I decided on the plane to Delhi that I am not going to continue being diplomatic.”
I much prefer him this way. He seems real and genuine. He is no longer a prisoner of our expectations or of the image cultivated over the decades. This is the real Shah Rukh: flesh, blood, anger, humour, and as always, that engaging intelligence.
From HT Brunch, November 25
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