The Marilyn Monroe in Shah Rukh Khan


To know why Shah Rukh Khan is a superstar, all you have to do is rent Dulha Mil Gaya (Trinidad, Fardeen Khan, enough said). His 15-minute cameo lifts the 2010 movie out of purgatory and gives it one of the most romantic gestures in Bollywood history, a middle-aged millionaire who gets up early so when his girlfriend is awake, he can focus on her. To know what we really want from superstars like Shah Rukh Khan, unfortunately you need the good fortune to see an off-screen performance.

At the recent India Today Conclave, among such enormous crowd-pullers as Sarah Palin and Narendra Modi, there was no question that SRK was still the headliner. With extreme seriousness, he read a lucid speech largely about the business end of Bollywood. No sentimental anecdotes, no stories about his mother or his love for home-cooking—a tune so familiar in celebrity speech that after a while you only see lips moving.

What was intriguing was what came later—a high voltage act of a man who knows that no one really expects him to say anything intelligent, that he would be congratulated for developing a thought. Through the speech and the Q&A session, he calibrated his needle-sharp wit.

He began ironic and self-referential but these gags cracked not a smile out of the well-heeled gathering. When he casually tossed out a few in-law jokes he got the easy guffaws. The weighing of the crowd’s expectations was visibly fine-tuned down to what level of vocabulary a Bollywood actor is expected to use without drawing attention to himself as a ‘serious’ person.

So when SRK used the word ‘frisky’ to describe himself, a split second later he followed it up with an ingĂ©nue’s disclaimer—half sly, half-sexy. ‘Frisky? Is that the right word?’ Marilyn Monroe would have been so proud.

No one expects truth-telling in question-answer sessions of conferences—whether big or small. We all know it is a ritual. But what if someone refuses to play along? For every time that SRK said something banal, such as his children making him happy, there were also plenty of hair-pricking moments when he said almost talking to himself—such as his mood swings making the whole family unhappy. Not a reaction from the crowd. How do you know when you are a superstar? When you tell the truth and people only hear lullabies.

Of course the clown is sad, that is how the story goes. But the session ended with a heart-stopping moment. It was as if the naked emperor—knowing his citizens are all sycophants—announced he has no clothes, he will have no clothes, and he is turning a nudist, damn you.

The final question. An organiser asked, “We are all dying to know. Is there still a six-pack under your shirt?” SRK responded to this familiarity with a practiced revelation of his flat, brown stomach. The crowd—as they say—went wild. They also went deaf. So they chose not to hear what he said to the person who asked this last question. “This interview can continue if you like. I can show you what a Muslim looks like on the inside.”

Who does SRK have more contempt for? Himself or the people who love a cipher? He’s never going to tell. As the session broke for tea, the crowd murmured in satisfaction of having been entertained, pigeons convinced the cat had danced for them.

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