The dust over the resounding failure of Shah Rukh Khan’s last movie Zero has settled now. Anand L. Rai’s directorial venture featuring the 53-year-old heart-throb in the lead role of a midget failed to live up to the expectations of the classes and the masses alike. Not only that, it triggered a debate over the future of the three redoubtable Khans – Aamir, Salman and Shah Rukh – who have ruled Bollywood for more than 25 years.
The preceding year saw the formidable triptych biting the dust with the dismal performance of their respective movies at the box office. Salman’s Race 3, Aamir’s Thugs of Hindostan and SRK’s Zero all turned out to be damp squibs in quick succession, sending shock waves across the tinsel town. But more than the movies of Aamir and Salman, it was the failure of SRK’s film that raised a concern over whether it would dissuade a superstar like him, or for that matter, any other star of his calibre, popularity and resources, from backing an out-of-the-box project to the hilt.
But first things first! Zero was not such a great movie that its commercial failure would prompt any votary of good cinema to shed tears. From weak screenplay to shoddy direction, it had its share of shortcomings. But one could not and should not find fault with SRK for doing such a film, which was certainly different from the inane potboilers, which Aamir and Salman did last year.
As a matter of fact, SRK needs to be applauded at least for trying to achieve what we always expected a superstar like him to do. Every time he came in a wishy-washy film repeating himself ad nauseam as Raj or Rahul, didn’t we wish that he would some day rise above his routine roles and do something meaningful by letting the latent actor in him overshadow the superstar we have always known him to be?
In Zero, he did precisely that but faltered. In playing a midget (a vertically challenged person, as his character was publicised) who romances a wheelchair-bound girl afflicted with cerebral palsy, he showed guts few of his contemporaries or predecessors had done over the years.
Any Bollywood watcher would tell you that such plots or lead characters, to be succinct, usually do not work in Hindi cinema. In recent years, Hrithik Roshan played a paralytic magician in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Guzaarish (2010), which remains the biggest flop of his career. A challenged hero, physically or mentally, has to demonstrate some magical powers in the end, as Hrithik had done in Koi … Mil Gaya (2003), to fit in the mould of a conventional hero for the sake of box-office. Even in the double-role movies such as Ram Aur Shyam (1967) or Ghazab (1982), there was always a “real” brother by the side of his twin sibling, invariably a weakling, to avenge the treatment meted out to him.
Truth be told, Bollywood audiences have never been enamoured of any ‘imperfect’ hero, especially in case of a big star. Maybe if Zero had a relatively smaller star in the lead, not a superstar like SRK, it may have fared better. It is not as though he was not up to the mark in the film; far from it, he had put his heart and soul into the character of Bauaa Singh. But then, that’s the price a superstar has to pay for his larger-than-life image. So will he or won’t he take another risk in future, given the rejection of his ambitious film? Will he go back to his comfort zone again, playing a Raj or a Rahul to stay in the reckoning? It will be a pity if it happens.
After all, a good film with poor box office returns has a longer shelf life than a bad commercial blockbuster. Kaagaz Ke Phool (1959) was a washout but it ranks among the all-time great today. Had its commercial failure dissuaded Guru Dutt from making good movies, he would not have delivered Chaudvin Ka Chaand (1960) and Sahib Biwi Aur Ghulam (1962). Dev Anand’s Guide (1965) also had a poor start at the cash counters before it became a cult classic and remains among the top five classics of all time in the list of good movie aficionados? Come to think of it, what would have been Dev Anand’s repertoire without Guide? Mera Naam Joker (1970) had also pushed Raj Kapoor to the brink of bankruptcy after its release but it is widely acknowledged as a classic today.
That’s why SRK needs to keep trying movies like Paheli (2005), Fan (2016), Dear Zindagi (2016) and, of course, Zero regardless of their failure in order to rise above the ordinary. The commercial loss of a few crores incurred on such films, if any, should not jolt either his stature as a superstar or his multi-million empire. He can easily withstand a few knocks in his quest for quality cinema.