SRK: A return to the roots

Published: Tue, 05/17/2016 - 07:30 Updated: Tue, 05/17/2016 - 12:42

With Fan, Shah Rukh Khan proves yet again that the star in him is alive and kicking. So whatever happened to the actor?

Nikhil Thiyyar Delhi 

Chutzpah is the quality of audacity, for good or for bad. Chutzpah was a word one associated with Shah Rukh Khan early on in his career. When established stars like Aamir Khan backed out of negative roles in movies like Darr, it was Shah Rukh who stepped up to the plate. He made the role his own, bringing a certain visceral and maniacal energy to the character which perhaps no other actor could have. The audacity was evident in Baazigar as well, where Shah Rukh subverted the rules of the game by playing a vengeful murderer. Not only did the pundits rave about his performance, the film was a box-office hit as well. Kabhie Haan Kabhie Naa is a testament to the actor’s fearlessness; he chose to play a hapless loser who does not get the girl in the end and still came up with one of the best performances of his career.

Shah Rukh’s approach to acting in those years could be best understood in terms of this quote from an interview he gave to Stardust magazine: “It seems like these stars have just come here to earn some money, fame, glory and throw their weight around. Acting be damned. They do not understand the concept of acting.”

One may be excused for believing that Shah Rukh was not interested in the trappings that came with stardom but, in retrospect, the proclamation seems ironic. The guts and glory approach to acting pretty much peaked with Maya Memsaab. Caught in a storm in a teacup over the steamy scenes in the film, Shah Rukh was never to do an adult scene again.

Much has changed since those heady first days. No longer as audacious as he used to be, Shah Rukh’s career choices post-2000 are in stark contrast to the roles he took on early in his career. Take his last three releases. Type the words ‘comfort zone’ into Google and this is what you get: a settled method of working that requires little effort and yields only barely acceptable results.

To say that Shah Rukh Khan has been safely ensconced in his comfort zone for a while now would be a massive understatement. Take his last three releases. Dilwale saw him posing with Kajol against a set of Windows 98 wallpapers. Happy New Year was essentially Ocean’s Eleven re-written by baboons. Chennai Express had enough South Indian stereotypes and subliminal racism for a cinema studies scholar to write an entire dissertation on. All the three movies had the same underpinnings: a hit director, an A-list heroine, a plot which called for your brain to be put in deep-freeze. Above all, they had Shah Rukh Khan playing himself. The hamming and obeisance to the gallery were there for all to see. As long as his films made money, he could rake in some more endorsing, everything from shaving cream and prickly heat powder to toilet seats and chappals. The actor in him had become firmly subservient to the businessman in him.

His latest release, Fan, is not really a renaissance in that sense. That would be taking it too far. However, given the state of his previous movies which essentially sold piss at the price of platinum, Fan, with its pretensions of sanity is a terrific return to form. Just as superhero franchises when they get old and jaded (Batman and Robin) opt for a gritty reboot (Batman Begins), Shah Rukh has chosen to return to his roots with Fan. The film opens with a child staring at a giant hoarding of Aryan Khanna. The character of Aryan Khanna is an unabashed reference to the real-life Shah Rukh Khan. The child, whose name is Gaurav Chandna, grows up watching Aryan’s movies. In the space of three minutes we learn why adoration has turned into worship. 

Not only does Gaurav love Aryan’s movies, he also looks eerily similar to Aryan. There is a certain divergence in their physical appearance, though, all of it perhaps intentional. While Aryan is the quintessential Bollywood hero with warts and all, Gaurav is the smooth-cheeked younger version who has a creepy hamster-like appearance. This physical resemblance opens up many cinematic and thematic possibilities, some of which are explored in depth. The scene where the grown-up Gaurav is introduced would give an ardent movie buff a sense of déjà vu. Gaurav owns a cyber café, which is unsurprisingly titled AK Cyber Chat after his idol. The setting of the cyber cafe is the same one which was used in Band Bajaa Baraat as the shop where the characters of Shruti and Bittoo set up their wedding planning business. The crowded narrow lanes, the crumbling DDA flats, the distinct middle-class vibes are all elements which have been brought over from Band Bajaa Baraat. The West Delhi milieu is something that director Maneesh Sharma clearly loves and he has replicated it faithfully in Fan. Although one wonders why every panoramic shot of Delhi in Hindi films has to be of a metro train chugging by or of the Red Fort.

Gaurav’s delusions are indulged by his parents (played ably by YogendraTikoo and Deepika Amin), who are quite proud that their son is a clone of a Bollywood actor and regularly wins the annual Western Union Moving Money for Better (one of the many product placements in the movie) contest organised in Inder Vihar DDA colony. One of the reasons why Gaurav’s parents are so indulgent of him is that he is their only child. It is clear at the outset that he has been pampered since childhood and his every whim and fancy catered to by his parents.

It is perhaps instructive that no one in his immediate setting ever bursts this giant delusional bubble that he lives in. Anyone who has read elementary psychology will tell you that the character of Gaurav has developed a parasocial relationship with Aryan

It is perhaps instructive that no one in his immediate setting ever bursts this giant delusional bubble that he lives in. Anyone who has read elementary psychology will tell you that the character of Gaurav has developed a parasocial relationship with Aryan. Parasocial interaction (PSI), as originally hypothesised by academics Horton and Wohl, offers an explanation of the ways in which audience members develop their one-sided consumer relationship with the media. PSI is described as an illusionary experience, such that media audiences interact with personas as if they are engaged in a reciprocal relationship with them, and feel as though a mediated other is talking directly to them. PSI can be developed to the point where media audiences begin to view the mediated others as “real friends”.

In the film, Gaurav views Aryan as a friend, despite the fact that they have never met and never talked. It’s a recurring motif in the first half of the film that whenever his character is accosted by a guard or beaten up by the police, his angry response is that if Aryan were to come to know he would take them all to task. In this make-believe world Aryan is the all-knowing omnipresent protector and friend. Except that he is not. And this is where the film takes a permanent detour into dark and deranged terrain.

As soon as Gaurav comes to know that it was Aryan who got him picked up and thrown into jail, assuming such a thing can happen, his bubble bursts and the gradual unravelling of his psyche starts. At first it is not apparent that a meltdown is imminent. Not only does Gaurav return to Inder Vihar, he seems to be coping with the rejection in his own way. If the movie was moored in logic and reality, it would pretty much end here. Except that it does not. Gaurav sells his shop which is his only source of livelihood and decides to make his idol, Aryan, apologise for his shoddy behaviour. This is the point where the film suffers from what is called the ‘second-half syndrome’. It is hard from this point onwards to engage in the wilful suspension of disbelief that the logic-defying narrative calls for. 

One of the recurring questions that the film asks the viewer is what separates an obsessive fan from someone who needs a mental health professional. The answer, perhaps, is, very little. This is a theme which is well-explored in literature and cinema. Take the 1989 novel by Stephen King, Misery. The novel focuses on Paul Sheldon, a writer famous for Victorian-era romance novels involving the character of Misery Chastain. One day he is rescued from a car crash by crazed fan Annie Wilkes, who transports him to her home and, once finding out what he has done to Misery in his latest book, forces him to write a new book, modifying the story – no matter what it takes. Wilkes does this simply to preserve the image she has of Misery Chastain.

Fan is a similar, allegorical tale if one chooses to view it through that prism. Does a fan love a celebrity simply because of the image he has of him? What happens when that image is destroyed due to contact with reality? This is the cognitive dissonance which causes Gaurav’s character to implode gradually in the second half. The epic collapse of Aryan’s image in Gaurav’s eyes is intensely traumatic precisely because it falls far outside the perimeter of the image he has built of him all these years. The fan in Gaurav feels cosmically duped. Aryan is all that Gaurav had not imagined him to be. He is self-serving, egotistical and unapologetic. Moreover, he has feet of clay.

As long as his films made money, he could rake in some more endorsing, everything from shaving cream and prickly heat powder to toilet seats and chappals. The actor in him had become firmly subservient to the businessman in him

On many levels, the relationship between Gaurav and Aryan embodies the relationship between a father who refuses to embrace his illegitimate son. Gaurav is a byproduct of Aryan’s celebrity and a visible representation of his fandom. In refusing to embrace what he has spawned, Aryan sets off a tussle of egos which propels the rest of the film. The power equations, however, get blurred as the second half progresses. By the final scene it is crystal clear as to who holds the upper hand. Fan has many scenes where Gaurav looks up at Aryan, or at an image of Aryan: when looking at an advertising hoarding of Aryan; when waiting on the road outside Aryan’s house amidst a throng of admirers; when he is lying sprawled on the floor of a police lock-up while Aryan stands above him. In the climactic scene, they maintain those positions – the star is looking down at the fan, the fan is looking up at the star – but the roles are no longer clear.

The film ends with Gaurav tumbling to his death, in slow motion, and the last thing he sees is the image of Aryan, battered and bloodied. The film implies that Gaurav will haunt Aryan for a long time to come. Perhaps the most interesting scene in the movie is the scene where no one shows up for an Aryan Khanna show. This, perhaps, must be Shah Rukh Khan’s greatest fear: that of being a ‘has been’ whose glory days are well behind him. But Fan will probably reassure Shah Rukh Khan and his fans that,  as of now, this is an unfounded fear.

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With Fan, Shah Rukh Khan proves yet again that the star in him is alive and kicking. So whatever happened to the actor?
Nikhil Thiyyar Delhi 

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