THOSE WHO LIVED through Bollywood of the 90s while some youth still flowed through their veins would remember how, after the era of insipid movies the preceding decade, Shah Rukh Khan came in as a wave of fresh stammering air. And yet, anyone who revisits those very same movies in the light of the aesthetics that followed in the new millennium often wonders what exactly they were applauding. Movies like Baazigar, which gave him a reputation as an anti-hero, or Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenege that made him a romantic superstar, seem clumsy and cringeworthy today.
It is possible that this change is a result of his fan following maturing with the times. But Shah Rukh has a bigger problem because the generation that followed is clearly not taking to him. Salman Khan and Aamir Khan thrive with them, and despite the odd flop, consistently churn out movies that rake in over Rs 200 crore at the domestic box office. Shah Rukh has just two in that club and the last was four years ago. Even Akshay Kumar and Ajay Devgn have more movies that made over Rs 100 crore than him. Zero, his latest movie, on which so much was at stake given his run of flops, is finding it difficult to touch the Rs 100-crore mark. It is inching painfully towards it after about two weeks, but the box office verdict is clear: the movie has been rejected by the audience.
What can explain it? He has tried experimenting. He has tried the out- and-out commercial. He has worked with directors who have made critically acclaimed movies. He has worked with directors who have a record of movies that break box-office records. None of it has borne results over the past four years. One factor is the burden of superstardom itself. Movies that would get a certificate of a decent performance by medium-rung stars are poor showing when it comes to a Khan. Superstars are judged by the standards that other superstars set and Zero is about Rs 100 crore short, no matter what the final tally will be. Also, he alone among the three Khans seems confused about the territory he wants to conquer. Salman has no pretensions to movies that will be remembered a century later. Aamir wants to always make memorable films, even if their commercial appeal is not visible. Shah Rukh wants both worlds and ends up with neither, just shallow self-indulgent characters, like in his movies Fan and Zero.
And possibly as a consequence of his ambivalent ambition, he is now not seen with those directors who understand him best and gave him his biggest hits, like Karan Johar and Farah Khan. Shah Rukh Khan’s own instinct for what makes movies work is rusty. Zero is about a dwarf who makes it to Mars. After its debacle, which actor would want to leave planet Earth in his next movie? But Saare Jahaan Se Achha, his next release, is a biopic of Rakesh Sharma, the first Indian who made it to space.