Couple of the Week

Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol: The Fail-Proof Combo

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Bollywood’s most successful romantic jodi returns to the cinema screen
Over a period of two decades as Bollywood’s supreme deity, Shah Rukh Khan has established something of a trademark, not legally enforceable but certainly as recognisable as any other, be it Nike’s Swoosh or McDonald’s ‘M’: one bent knee, the head tossed back, the spine tilted superficially, and two arms thrown open in the air in comical anticipation. As human gestures go, even if you consider the wide variety of trademarks, it is a ridiculous posture. But over the past 25 years or so, it has been performed again and again, film after film, as generations of actresses have run into those closing arms, reinforcing Khan’s reputation as not just Bollywood’s biggest hero but its romancer-in-chief.

This weekend, the space created by those closing arms will have a familiar occupant: Kajol. The most successful reel romantic couple—or jodi—in Bollywood history will be back on the entertainment screen after a gap of several years in the Rohit Shetty film Dilwale.

The concept of jodis, of course, is a tinsel town creation. It is a branding exercise that helps the film industry turn the sum of two individual stars known for their sizzling ‘chemistry’ especially bankable at the box office. Often, it serves to create a cinematic event of cataclysmic proportions. Unsurprisingly, every few years, the industry spins out new couples with new back-stories. But few ever stick. Nargis-Raj Kapoor, Rajesh Khanna-Sharmila Tagore, Dharmendra-Hema Malini, Amitabh- Rekha, were all great jodis, but the last great one, as the general consensus goes, is that of Kajol and Khan. The 20th anniversary tribute to Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (DDLJ) which was released earlier this year on YouTube to plug Dilwale, for instance, has already been viewed more than 4.1 million times.

The emergence of the Khan-Kajol pair marked a cusp in Hindi cinema. The nonsense of the 80s and early 90s wasn’t yet over, and heroes hadn’t been able to relinquish their responsibility towards their families and still needed to avenge a sister or father wronged by a villain, while their heroines were little more than dolled-up mannequins. Even the romantic films of Salman and Aamir Khan, who had just emerged as superstars, were often about struggles against unyielding family members. The Indian audience had changed, but the films hadn’t quite.

And then, five years before the turn of the century, came Kajol and Khan, most famously in DDLJ and Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. In these films, romance was candyfloss, and the protagonists were unapologetic about being rich, looking good and travelling across Europe. They weren’t at all keen on saving the world or raging against inequality. In pulling Kajol into a moving train, as Khan did in a famous slow-motion DDLJ shot, he was also reeling in a new audience of young filmgoers game for a hedonistic experience within an otherwise family-bound life.

The two now come together again. Its competition is a Sanjay Leela Bhansali film, Bajirao Mastani, starring what the industry hopes will turn into the next great jodi, Ranveer and Deepika. The last time a Khan and Bhansali film clashed was in 2007, when Bhansali’s Saawariya and Khan’s Om Shanti Om released together. Bhansali failed miserably. When Michael Lynton, the then chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment, which had produced Saawariya, was asked about it by The New York Times, he replied, “You don’t go up against Shah Rukh Khan, no matter how good your product is.”