When Shah Rukh Khan was submitting his college form, the man behind the counter asked him, “Naam?”
“Shah Rukh Khan,” said Shah Rukh Khan.
“Achcha? Lagte toh nahi ho,” the man guffawed.
Shah Rukh sheepishly smiled.
Pretty in pink: Shah Rukh Khan dressed up as Sita in the green room. Wigs, costumes, masks and props hang on the walls.
Meet Shah Rukh Khan, a 19-year-old BCom student at BR Ambedkar University in Agra. Welcome to the Ramlila organised by the Uttar Madhya Railway Sansthan in Agra. And here’s the connection between the two: Shah Rukh Khan played the role of Sita in the Ramlila in Agra this year.
He’d much rather have been Lakshman (because Ram is too much work) or his favourite Raavan (the role is unavailable, though). But since this is an all-male cast, he was selected to play Sita. Laments a fellow actor, who has played small female roles in the Ramlila, "When our Missus’ buy new lipsticks, they tell us, ‘Let me try it out on you first! If you wear it on stage, why can’t you wear some here?’"
Also read: A look at the greatest Ramlila in the world
But Shah Rukh, with his youthful, slender frame, does look good as Sita. “Magar Sitaji toh gori thi, kaali kaise ho gayi?” the boys tease him. They all miss their old Sita – the gora-chitta Bimal Verma (who now plays King Dasharath) had been Sita for nearly a decade before that.
But then – Verma points to his paunch – “My body changed.” The role went to Hanif, a Muslim boy, three years ago. And this made headlines in local newspapers. When Hanif moved out of Agra, Sita’s spot was once again open. And for the spotlight to remain trained on the Ramlila, it needed Shah Rukh Khan.
It happened one night
Shah Rukh by any other name may not have been Sita.
Rakesh Kannojia, the organiser of this Ramlila, is also a local reporter. “We needed someone with good character, a good face and a good reputation in society,” he says. So he landed up at the Khan residence. “And when I saw Shah Rukh, I thought he’d look good as Sita. And I asked him, ‘Sita banega?’”
“It’s not such a big deal,” says Shah Rukh’s elder sister Nazeena. “It’s just a play after all.”
The Khans don’t understand what the fuss is all about. But there have been some entertaining moments. Like the time the actor playing Raavan visited their house. “A neighbour took papa aside and warned him to be careful,” says Nazeena. “He told my father: ‘Raavan has seen where Sita lives. What if he decides to kidnap her earlier than planned?’”
All these jokes are refreshing at any rate, for a boy who has been plagued with jokes because of his name. He’s not wild about being called Shah Rukh. Many of his college friends don’t even know his real name, but, encouraged by Shah Rukh, call him ‘Rehan’. One day when they dropped by to see him, his mother turned them away because “Nobody called Rehan lives here”.
This, the “second most famous Ramlila of Agra” (for the “most famous” head to the city’s Ramlila Maidan) is held in grounds adjacent to the railway station, in Agra Cantonment. “Thousands of people – railway workers, army officers and travellers waiting for the next train – watch it every year.”
We’re here for a weekend, for the Swayamvar episode where Ram and Sita finally wed. This is Shah Rukh’s first performance as Sita, albeit without any dialogues. He’s dressed in a bright pink sari, decked up in costume jewellery and his face has been appropriately painted, made up and doused with sparkly glitter.
He coyly steps on to the stage and garlands Ram. They pose for photographs, the crowd cheers. Some kids in the front row whistle, their parents reprimand them.
This is not very different from any other Ramlila, but with such a strong flavour of the hinterland, it seems to belong in an Anurag Kashyap film.
Ram rajya: Sita garlands Ram. Shah Rukh would like to play Lakshman (because being Ram requires too much work)
The dialogues are dramatic, costumes are elaborate and the acting, surprisingly, par excellence. Disco lights flash neon colours, and in between scenes, kids from the neighbourhood step on to the stage to “perform an item.” Or large speakers blare devotional lyrics set to Bollywood tunes.
“This is the only railway Ramlila in the world,” one man tells us. “Arre, world nahi, India,” says another. “Uttar Pradesh,” clarifies a third. They look at one another. “Second most famous Ramlila of Agra,” they repeat.
The making of SRK
When he met us, Shah Rukh had already been interviewed by a dozen reporters. But Shah Rukh wasn’t always Shah Rukh.
In the Nineties, his brother went to watch an SRK film, became an instant fan and decided to foist the name on him. He’d follow the baby around calling him ‘Shah Rukh, Shah Rukh.”
Nicknames usually die out, or are replaced for official purposes by a ‘real’ name – but, like ‘Gogol’ in Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel, The Namesake, Shah Rukh stuck and became his real name.
Ironically, Shah Rukh’s brother no longer likes Shah Rukh Khan. More ironically still, Shah Rukh doesn’t like Shah Rukh Khan, the name or the Bollywood namesake. He is a diehard Salman fan.
“Kick toh badhiya lagi. Magar meri sabse favourite Salman picture hai Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam,” he says. And after much prodding, he admits he liked Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, “but only because you ask.”
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(Photos by Saumya Khandelwal)
From HT Brunch,October 19
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