of the Superstar
5th Feb 2024 . 6 min read
Written By Pooja Mohite
At the end of its theatrical run Dunki - the year's most awaited release owing to the Hirani-Khan partnership approximately made 445 crores at the international box office and 225 in the domestic Indian box office - 19 Jan 2024 report by Times of India.
Shahrukh (Hardy) declares Manu is his girlfriend because no one has ever stood up for him the way she does. The implication in the word girl-friend is that she’s probably his only female friend. Man-woman friendships may still be uncommon in small town India as much as we may find ourselves wishing they were normalised. The 36 year old Tapsee Pannu is cast opposite the 58 year old actor in the comedy-drama centred around illegal immigration to the UK. This is Taapsee’s first film with Shahrukh Khan.
Shahrukh Khan needs no more analysis and paralysis than he already has had a fair share of. Is it time to dissect Mr. Khan's leading ladies who though often neglected were very much an accomplice in setting afire the romantic and collective imaginations within India and the diaspora audience?
Zaara finds herself haunted by chimeran visions of Veer, an Indian soldier she meets in India, in this song sequence she realises she is irrevocably in love with him.
Suraj Hua Madham is a classic romance song most known for the onscreen couple’s rare chemistry.
Aishwarya and Shahrukh playing Devdas and Paro in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Devdas 2002
What was going on with the characters written for his female co-stars as he steadily seduced audiences, charmed millions, and rose to the pinnacle of celebrity success? Could the exalted romantic hero be experienced in the absence of the heroine? Didn’t they both represent romantic passions, love, madness, and obsession?
In a country as divided as India, women across all realms stand united in their devotion to Shahrukh. It is time to cause a shift in this lopsided focus and shift the gaze elsewhere - to Shahrukh's 'heroines'.
It would be otherworldly to see the rise and rise of a Queen reigning over Bollywood like SRK has. Posthumously rumours swirled that Divya Bharati was set to rule if she had survived. In the early 90’s roles were being written for the outspoken teenage actor who was the highest paid actor at the time.
It's 1992 and Laila has just discovered her biological (single) mother abandoned her on the steps of a brothel. Incensed Laila vows to find her mother and ask her burning questions without which she just cannot rest. Enter - selfless boyfriend Karan Singh (played by Shahrukh Khan)- well to do, suave Karan promises Laila he will support her every step of the way with no strings attached. A fiercely independent Laila accepts his support but considers this solely her battle.
Shahrukh & Divya Bharti in a song from Dil Aashna hai. Notice how he has lip bleed makeup on.
The Divya Bharati-led Dil Aashna Hai is a 1992 ensemble drama starring Sonu Walia, Amrita Singh, and Dimple Kapadia, this film was Dream Girl Hema Malini’s directorial debut. Loosely based on Lace, an American mini series, the Hindi version is an out and out drama about Laila’s tumultuous social and personal struggle in search of her mother. The tightly bonded trio of Sonu, Dimple and Amrita make it harder for Laila to identify her mother amongst the three of them. They confuse and mislead her. The film stumbles through its social commentary and is replete with flashbacks, songs, tears, and accusations to make its point. In this milieu, Shahrukh shines through in his pairing with Bharti. Divya has so much more to do in the film than him. It is Laila’s film. A character who just has way too much to deal with.
And, then in quick succession Deewana was released where Shahrukh plays Divya Bharati’s supportive second husband Raja whom she remarries after her one true love Ravi played by Rishi Kapoor is murdered. Either Divya Bharati had a penchant for choosing films that were focused fully on the female lead or Shahrukh was just getting used to getting noticed in cameos and smaller parts.
Fans of the star know that he is the accidental romantic hero and has always yearned for action-heavy roles. Only with recent hits Pathaan, 2023 (Siddharth Anand) & Jawaan, 2023 (Atlee) was the star able to indulge in the all-out action he always wanted to perform in his films. We can’t miss the lip and nosebleeds that Shahrukh predictably wears whenever he has been beaten up in his quest to win over his onscreen lovers or avenge wrongdoers.
Interestingly in his early career he has tormented his female counterparts by playing an insufferable antagonist. Deepa Sahi plays Maya in Ketan Mehta’s brave outing Maya Memsaab (1993) adapted from Gustave Flaubert's 1857 novel Madame Bovary. In this tale of the self-destruction of a lonely housewife -Shahrukh (Lalit) fleets in and out of the screenplay -passionate lover, and suspected murderer until their torrid affair is revealed to the Police.
Maya (Deepa Sahi) tells Lalit (SRK) “Khoobsurat nazaro se man nahi bharta, khule aasman mein dam ghoonta hai” (Beautiful sights don’t fill my heart, under the open sky I am unable to breathe). Lalit, a clumsy, over-excited young man wholly taken by the much older and married Maya’s allure, continues to shamelessly flirt as she tries to get away from him. He persists to discover what she likes and finally asks her out to a movie. Maya has several lovers in the film, Shahrukh stands out for playing to perfection the light and dark traits of a young man hopelessly traversing lust with a married woman.
Shahrukh and Deepa Sahi seen together in Maya Memsaab as Lalit and Maya who cannot stop meeting despite trying to call it quits.
Speaking of bigger parts Kiran’s (Darr, 1993 by Yash Chopra) happiness was fully and successfully overtaken by her college classmate Rahul who she never talks to or notices although he has been dedicatedly & secretly stalking the curly haired, carefree Kiran who can’t wait to get together with her naval commando boyfriend Sunil played by Sunny Deol; who looks like a commando to a fault.
In this psychological drama the obsessed guy next door, the creepy stalking of Kiran when she’s single, married or on a vacation meets with empathy instead of derision from viewers. How and why the audiences were drawn into Kiran and Raj’s track instead of rooting for Kiran and Sunil whose marital bliss Raj has botched from day 1 was film history in the making.
To Kiran’s horror the phone calls and proclamation of love has a strong underlined demand to belong to Rahul. As circumstances toss her between kidnap, forced marriage -the anti hero Rahul became a cult figure. Tu haan kar ya na kar (you say yes, or no). It didn’t matter what she wanted. He wanted her. Never before SRK, has a villian, been rooted for. Several years later Darr would be accused of glorifying stalking or setting the stage to talk about Rahul’s trauma and his inability to come to terms with his mother’s death. Did Kiran ever overcome her trauma? Does the ring of a late night phone call still send chills down her spine? Does she walk home and look over her shoulder?
This poster of Darr tells us everything
In Chahat (1996) Reshma played by Ramya Krishnan avenges Sunil & Kiran.
Reshma is a rich girl. Naseeruddin Shah plays the older brother, who never denies her anything, she sets her heart on. Shahrukh is a charming folk singer from Rajasthan living hand to mouth in Mumbai. Reshma keeps drowning glasses of whiskey while seeing Roop perform, intoxicated as she sits across from him.
Reshma’s seduction of Roop with money, power and threat of violence reduces Roop to an object of her desire and it's great to see Shahrukh play Roop on screen where usually a female character would be objectified and victimised.
Following a sticky bloodied trail of violence, love, obsession and revenge how can we miss Baazigar (Gambler), Haar ke jeetne waale ko baazigar kehte hai (the one who wins after losing is the real Gambler)- both Seema and Priya (Kajol and Shilpa Shetty play sisters in the film). Both women are fooled into falling in love with the smooth talking con-man who calls himself Baazigar. Seema (Shilpa Shetty) is in love with Ajay and it's no casual college romance, when he asks her to commit suicide with him, she agrees. At the marriage bureau an unsuspecting Seema who can’t wait to marry her simple, nerdy, shy boyfriend until she has two seconds of a horrifying realisation - He’s going to kill her!!! By now, she’s already dead.
Pooja Bhatt plays Pooja who Roop loves and Ramya Krishnan obsesses over the honey voiced Roop.
Priya (Kajol) tells everyone who bothers to listen that her sister could have never chosen to end her own life. She decides to interfere in the Police investigation and nab her sister’s murderer herself if she has to. Whenever Priya is close to discovering Seema’s killer, her lead dies. Eventually a suave Vicky woos and seduces Priya into marrying him until ofcourse in the climax Priya discovers how Vicky has wanted to destroy her family since he was 15.
Poor boy avenges the heartless capitalist Madan Chopra but also dies in the attempt. Priya despite realising she has been conned the whole time cries and empathises with revenge- seeking Vicky who has done the unthinkable with her family and her. This empathy from within the film’s characters and the audiences was a strange feature of Darr, Baazigar and Anjaam (SRK, Madhuri, Deepak Tijori). In all of these roles in varying degrees Shahrukh stalks, cheats, betrays, kills but oh the heroines just love him and so do the audiences.
Baazigar, climax scene in which Ajay dies
In 1995 Simran escapes from the clutches of her authoritarian, seriously intimidating father played by Amrish Puri (cannot get over the legendary actor’s eyes).
The eyes, yes we were talking about this.
In DDLJ Simran is visibly stressed, she’s simple enough to believe alcohol consumption has caused memory loss because of which she may have lost her virginity to Raj who she doesn’t like but is starting to like? True fans will agree that at the end of the trip a manifestation of Raj dreamily bids her goodbye in a red and white striped t-shirt, Shahrukh looks like a dream, simply gorgeous.
The engaged Simran is in love. She confesses and pleads with her mother to call off her marriage with Kuljeet. Her father won’t have it. Simran has no agency until Raj also realises his love for her and decides to make everything acceptable despite Simran’s insistence on eloping. So Simran has her father and boyfriend decide for her during milestone moments in her life. Both men have good intentions. Simran iconically overtakes a rapidly departing train and makes a run for it while she can, from the father who has her dance to his rules all her life to the boyfriend whose quest for winning parental consent is now fulfilled, few broken bones, so what?
Simran played by Kajol realises she’s in love with Raj, still from DDLJ
DDLJ reinforced that family consent in relationships must be earned regardless.
In Ashutosh Gowariker’s Swades (2004) -a reticent teacher, Gita locks horns with the US returned NASA scientist Mohan for their adoptive mother Kaveri Amma. Gita beats Mohan at the calculator, fights him so he can’t break her family up and goes over to his RV to confess she’s fallen for him. When it's time for him to leave, she stays put. She makes choices throughout the film and her falling in love with him doesn’t alter her vision for herself. Gita makes choices even when it breaks her heart. Her character, perhaps written bravely no doubt, has juiced her agency to the maximum and gone above and beyond to express her moral compass and dexterity.
The sexual tension is played to perfection by Gayatri Joshi (Gita) and SRK (Mohan) in Swades as she drapes his dhoti.
Meghana a trained suicide bomber stubbornly avoids the impossible-to-deter Amar in Mani Ratnam’s Dil Se, 1998. Without Meghna’s steely resistance to life and love Amar’s determined wooing of this mysterious woman would flail and die. The stormy night at the railway station and the 7 colours of madness in Satrangi Re, is all there is to say in this impossible love story that ends in an explosion much like their impractical passion for each other. The internal chaos mimics the impossibility of their external circumstances. They cannot find peace, not in this lifetime.
Manisha Koirala and Shahrukh are struck by impossible to fulfil love in Mani Ratnam’s Dil Se.
In Atlee’s Jawaan Shahrukh leads 7 girls akin to the Professor in Money Heist. They trust his mission because he takes on a fight solely to restore their lost pride. The classic Man Vs System trope that can seldom fail. In terms of monikers Nayanthara is perhaps the only female actor to be formally acknowledged as a (Lady) Superstar. She recently shared, she feels scolded and doesn’t enjoy being addressed as one-reported by Republic World.
As author of Desperately Seeking Shahrukh Shrayana Bhattacharya states It feels impossible to write anything original about an icon as self-aware and intelligent as Shah Rukh Khan. Through nearly three decades of films and media interactions, the man has consistently displayed a remarkable grasp of his own cult. The actor often describes himself as “an employee of the myth of Shah Rukh Khan” -Love, Respect, Awe: That's The Way Shah Rukh Khan Looks At Women In His Films.
We deeply miss witnessing a female star’s pivot to STARDOM akin to the scale male actors in India have enjoyed. It's the curious side of the business, painful even. Is it possible to imagine a woman actor garnering the stardom that SRK has deservedly earned? Even 1/4th of it? Is stardom and fan-love measurable? If metrics are to go by, this is a phenomenon that hasn’t occurred yet.
Maybe women audiences find it easier to love a male star, knowing the inherent gender norms with which women have been raised, taught. The side effect of misogyny or survival in a male dominated world may have taught women to be wary of each other. In an environment fraught with gender bias it becomes difficult to express or shower a female actor with adulation. Surely there is palpable admiration, envy and a desire to imitate but has a female fan gone above and beyond for their woman icon? Is it safe to say that the unconditional love bestowed on a male star has eluded female stars?
Would you agree that without the existence of the heroines there would be no romantic heroes. No one to woo, love or serenade, no? We keep our eyes peeled for the fickle trending winds to change course and fan the flames for the super-stardom of remarkable women actors.
End note -
The writer is an incurable SRK fan. She co-runs the gender & identity writers’ program @Storiculture with Sruti Lodha whose editorial eye has shored up this article. SRK is single handedly responsible for noteworthy 36 years of film-work and so this article has had to make hard choices and give up on mentioning a whole lot of brilliant work by remarkable artists who have worked with the superstar.
WHO IS AFRAID OF SHAH RUKH KHAN? NEOLIBERAL INDIA’S FEARS SEEN THROUGH A CINEMATIC PRISM, Alessandra Consolaro, Università degli Studi di Torino, Dipartimento di Studi Umanistici, Governare la paura - 2014, luglio - ISSN 1974-4935
Shah Rukh Khan: Attitude towards female actors undergoing a positive change, Indian Express, April 9 2019.