As Karan Johar and Shahrukh Khan get set to debut their latest blockbuster, My Name is Khan (no, not a biopic but, rather, an exploration of life post-9/11 for a Muslim man with Asperger’s), it’s hard not to marvel at the trajectory of Khan’s career.
Khan was a theater and TV actor who first made waves in 1992’s Deewana. One only has to look back at that film to see the writing on the wall. His angry young hero, Raja, revved onto the scene at the film’s halfway mark, powerful and undeniable. He relentlessly, passionately shocked the heroine (the late Divya Bharati) out of a haze of grief for her presumed dead husband and rekindled her desires. By the film’s end, Kajal’s very much alive spouse, played by veteran actor Rishi Kapoor, passed the torch to his younger replacement. I remember seeing the film three times at a Kolkata movie theater, so entranced was I by this new actor and his energy.
In the 18 years since, Khan has become the undisputed ruler of popular Hindi cinema, King Khan of Bollywood. He may have to tell much of the Western world — and Newark airport security — “my name is Khan,” but billions of people already know it and chant it as though he is a god.
Sure, that doesn’t render him immune from criticism and censure, and I wouldn’t say he’s the definitive best actor in Indian film history, but the man has earned his success. He is a tireless perfectionist, committed to his craft. He puts his blood, sweat and tears into his work. And even early in his career, Khan wasn’t afraid to take risks. He went from hero to villain and back again — a transition very few people can pull off. (Mohnish Behl comes to mind. A charismatic, handsome actor, who, despite positive performances in films like Hum Aapke Hain Koun and Army, never escaped being typecast as a creep.) Khan’s trifecta of evil turns — in Baazigar, Darr and Anjaam — was stunning. His completely sociopathic character in 1994’s Anjaam is, in my mind, one of the most frightening characters to come out of Hindi film in the ’90s, along with Sadashiv Amrapurkar‘s Maharani in Sadak (1991) and Ashutosh Rana‘s serial rapist/murderer Gokul in Dushman (1998). That Khan has a place beside iconic “khalnayak” actors like Amjad Khan, Pran and Amrish Puri and can also be compared to action heroes like Amitabh Bachchan or romantics like Rajendra Kumar is a rare phenomenon.
And while he likely has a very well-deserved ego about that phenomenon, he also can poke fun at himself. 2007’s epic, sweeping Om Shanti Om and 2009’s heartfelt Billu Barber are proof. In both films, Khan played a Bollywood superstar, and embraced all the in-jokes and self-mocking tropes that comes with such a meta role.
It’s fascinating. I started my obsession with Hindi films with Dev Anand and Amitabh Bachchan (whose fame has not been diminished by Khan’s meteoric rise; he’s still THE quintessential Bollywood star) and have seen so many actors come and go just in my lifetime. Say what you want about his acting style or his body of work — I’m sure his detractors are many, though not quite as legion as his fans — Shahrukh Khan has something special. There’s no denying that the brash young man who cut his ladylove’s name into his arm in Deewana has carved out a permanent place for himself in the annals of world cinema.