In one of my worst fears, I—a part-time stand-up comedian—am jailed full-time for a joke, while influential people from the film industry write columns to show solidarity. This worst fear becomes slightly bearable when I imagine that among those tweeting in my support is Shah Rukh Khan. (I know nobody would write a word if/when it actually happens in reality, and I would totally understand.)
But it turns out, worst fears can’t compete with reality in 2021. As it happens, I’m writing a piece to stand with Shah Rukh Khan. But am I really? How can I stand in solidarity with a person I don’t know at all? We have interacted only professionally a couple of times after I wrote the lyrics of Jabra Fan anthem for his film Fan (2016). I can claim to know his Raj and Rahul and Kabeer, the shy Sunil and the goofy Maxie, but do I know him? Do I know what the real SRK’s hopes or fears are? Significant details like what song he plays when he misses his mother, or insignificant ones like whether he prefers ghee-jeera katadka or rai-kadi pattaka chhaunk in his arhar daal? He has made many movies where the viewers cry with his characters, but what kind of movies makes him cry? The futility of war types (Saving Private Ryan) or the futility of existence types (Never Let Me Go)? All that self-effacing humour he displays in his interviews—is that self-awareness or defence mechanism against predatory journalism? I don’t know.
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I think it was Bertrand Russell who said you truly know a person only when you know their tragedy. That opens a small window. I guess I know his tragedy. We all know this tragedy, the tragedy of last names in our nation. Names here come encoded with the life journeys we are most likely to have. Names have compartments, like a government office’s dusty almirah full of files, containing codes of our privilege, oppression, access and how we are perceived in society. This huge almirah remains loaded on our backs through our lives. As a shiny gift for some, as a curse for others.
When I first fell in love with SRK’s movies in the 1990s, I didn’t see this burden on his back. At that time, his nervous energy and raw charisma (especially in his earlier works like Fauji, Circus, Maya Memsaab, Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa and Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman) overpowered any other marker of awareness about him. Film gossip and interviews were difficult to access in those days. All we knew or cared for was that he was a regular boy from Delhi who made it big in Mumbai. He had some theatre experience and wanted to make good, middle-of-the-road cinema. Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge arrived soon, and he jumped to another planet—of larger-than-life emotions and success. There were still glimpses of the innocence and vulnerability occasionally, say when he played Mohan Bhargav (Swades) or Raj Mathur (Chalte Chalte), but the boy-next-door’s chopper had started landing in castles-far-away.
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Then, sometime in 2007, he played Kabir Khan in Chak De! India. A hockey player forced to prove that he’s not a traitor by coaching the national women’s team to a World Cup victory. The film ends on a happy note with Kabir Khan being welcomed back into his mohalla and applauded for being a true patriot. What the film doesn’t show is the temporary nature of such welcomes. Kabir Khan didn’t know that he would have to prove his patriotism again and again. He didn’t know that his tragedy was not the missed penalty, but an accidental, un-erasable name.
Later, SRK explored further layers of this tragedy with My Name Is Khan (2010) and Raees (2017). But these were only movie characters—the real SRK still remained very much protected by a fort of self-earned privilege. So again, how do I stand for a person I don’t know? And how futile it sounds in the overall scheme of things—on a planet of 8 billion humans, one random person standing for another.
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The answer is simple and complicated at the same time. We don’t stand for anybody else—we stand for ideas we believe in, values that make us survive this ever-crumbling world; we stand for our own peace and truth.
In this case, SRK might mean little to me beyond nostalgia, but he symbolises many things. He is the assorted candy-box of all our post-liberalisation dreams. A world of possibilities, unlimited by name or place one came from. He’s the third type, as the Chak De! India song goes Teeja tera rang tha main toh (I was your third colour), in the line of typical Hindi film heroes. His on- and off-screen persona, of an easygoing, vulnerable, sensitive man is markedly different from the two types of Hindi film leading men that preceded him—the self-pitying romantic hero of the 50s and 60s, and the angry, assertive, macho man of the 70s and 80s. In DDLJ, he tells the woman he was hoping to elope with “Apnon se bhaagkar hum jaate bhi toh kahaan jaate” (Where could we go without our loved ones)—a line impossible to imagine in an earlier decade, because the 50s hero would never elope and the 80s hero would never care for love.
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Incidentally, the object of address in Teeja tera rang is our national flag, the tiranga (tricolour). The classic story structure, the core of all human communication from mythology to daily gossip, has three acts. In mathematics, two is an ordinary line and three is the beginning of a geometric shape. Almost every religion on this planet has three as a sacred figure. Without the third, there is no story, no shape, no synthesis.
Standing with the idea of SRK means trying to break the endless loop of World Cup wins and accusations of being a traitor. It means trying to smash and throw away the many invisible almirahs on the backs of many invisible Indians. In the choppy sea of symbols threatening to overwhelm us every day, even the most popular movie star of the last three decades is reduced to one. But he is a symbol worth rooting for.
(This appeared in the print edition as "The Third Colour")
(Views expressed are personal)
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Varun Grover is a stand-up comic, writer, poet and co-creator of Aisi Taisi Democracy