Monday, May 11, 2009

Open Magazine feature: Shahrukh's throne

Alright, so this story isn't exactly journalism. Khan didn't want any part of it. His acquaintances said they needed his permission. That left his rivals, industry neutrals, and professionals on the periphery. Rivals will say all sorts of things without evidence, so we didn't go there. Neutrals provide small but revealing insights, so we included some of their thoughts. But the professionals really shaped this story. Their criticism was even, they were fine with being quoted, and they made a distinction between the actor and the brand. One reader asked what was new about this story, and I found myself agreeing with him in part. The idea, however, was to take what was being said and create a solid narrative. I'd like to think that we managed that, although I'd remove lines such as "This isn't Raj's time anymore". That line sounds so whiny it's not funny.

By Rahul Bhatia and Madhavankutty Pillai, with inputs from Manju Sara Rajan and Rubina A Khan.

On December 12, 2008, a day when most visitors to the cinema had a Shahrukh Khan movie on their mind, an inspired marketing idea reminded them of a forthcoming Aamir Khan release. Behind the counters, passing out tickets for Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi, were cinema staff with military haircuts and a shaved parting identical to Aamir’s appearance in Ghajini, out a fortnight later. Anywhere else this would be seen as shrewd marketing. But not in Bollywood, where the idea caused grave offense. Shahrukh used the incident to point out, "I think it is a good strategy. You take the biggest brand in the country that is SRK and then use that platform to publicise yourself. I think Aamir rocks. The problem is that I cannot use any another brand because there is no one bigger than me".

Lately, Shahrukh has found it necessary to repeatedly inform readers and watchers that he is the country’s top actor. Not by the time-tested method of performing in a series of hit films or pushing the boundaries of his art, but by saying it out loud, over and over. His declarations are reported faithfully, with all possible meaning extracted and magnified by the media. Taken in isolation, he sounds like a mouthy upstart boxer: say it, and it shall be. But he isn’t. His proclamations sound as strange as a doctor insisting he’s number one (“I am the biggest, meanest, pediatrician in the country”). And so, each new announcement makes the case curiouser and curiouser: why does a man who has achieved so much have to reiterate this? What started it? Is this insecurity? Why does he sound like he is No.2? Is he?

Shahrukh, friends and acquaintances will tell you, was a star the first time they saw him. He was sharp and ambitious and willing, and said he would be a star; and in that respect, not much has changed. He listens intently, he watches carefully, and he sums up people quickly. When he enters a room, people say, he energises it. A cluster of strangers will soon be friends. He can make a journalist feel special. He’s open, and he’s witty. He remembers faces, if not names. In short, there’s something oddly Clintonesque about him.

Whatever he does, his people believe in him. Who are his people? Anyone, absolutely anyone, whom Shahrukh has touched. His employees are paid well, his assistant directors are charmed by his spontaneity and attention, and his sponsors adore his commitment. These are grown men and women who know that life outside Shahrukh’s sphere of influence isn’t pretty, and they love him for it. Speak to them and they all say the man’s a game changer. On the sets he isn’t a star. He’s an evolved version of you and me; a father, a mother, a friend, and a councilor. He treasures loyalty and repays it. Juniors say he looks out for them. They eat out of his hand. They feel for him something that borders on genuine love. Not for his work, which can be cheesy, but for the man. If you know how love works, you’ll appreciate how stunning the achievement is.

Therefore, a conversation today with his assistants about him feels like a conversation about two people. The man they love, and the guy they don’t understand in print. The pattern is a familiar one of denial (that he uttered the words), followed by rationalising (he said he’s No.1 because he has every right to. Because he is). When it comes to it, they’re as beaten as anyone else. Why would Shahrukh keep insisting on it? Well, there’s a theory.

A journalist recalled a conversation where he once mentioned to Shahrukh how good Hritik Roshan looked in Kaho Na Pyaar Hai. “He only did it for a second, but he recoiled physically. It’s the only time I saw him react that way.” The theory goes like this: competition makes Shahrukh Khan behave unusually. “SRK has always been a very insecure person despite his phenomenal success in the business,” says a person who has interacted with him. “His desire to monopolise the number one spot is almost megalomaniacal. But as much as he is a shrewd player, he is also a very sensitive and thoughtful person to those he loves, having given them apartments and cars and many such expensive gifts in the past or done cameos without charging his superstar fees.”

His supporters say the allegation of insecurity is nonsense. Wouldn’t anyone behave this way? But what makes it strange is that in his highly image-conscious profession, Shahrukh seems to have forgotten a basic tenet: stay on message. The CEO of a sports and celebrity management company, who requested anonymity, says that there was a time when Shahrukh used to come across as someone very humble. His appeal was, in marketspeak, reliability, friendliness and accessibility, and it had reach. Aamir had trust, but not reach. This is image, the thing we react to internally, well before it is manifested in our conscious opinion. In our minds, Aamir was the better actor but the more reserved one – unlike Shahrukh, who acted out mad fantasies with abandon. This, the CEO believes, began to change two years ago when two things happened. “One, everything became about Shahrukh the celebrity. It began with Kaun Banega Crorepati. Meanwhile, Aamir’s steady run continued. He opened up to the media. He became more likeable, and because he chose his films selectively, he came across as being more credible. And his reach increased.” People began seeing more of Aamir because he let them. And with every passing snipe or defence of his territory, they saw more of Shahrukh than they wanted to. “He forgot that the guy they liked was not SRK the megacorporation, but SRK the individual, the Raj they all knew.”

The Eternal Raj

Raj. Every Raj and Rahul comes to understand this fact early in life: his name is not his alone because Shahrukh appropriated it a long time ago. In small towns the names are an implication of romantic love. In large cities they imply filmi love. Shah Rukh holds on to the two as a man holds on to his youth. In Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi he was Raj Kapoor, a smooth operator serenading his unsuspecting wife. It was the 14th instance in his 65-movie career where he played a character with either name. This is hardly a coincidence. Fourteen years ago he performed his most famous role, as the romantic Raj Malhotra who wouldn’t elope without parental consent. Critics say he hasn’t left Punjab since, even as Aamir has taken greater risks and exposed himself to new challenges.

While Shahrukh took on simple romances that allowed him to be Shahrukh, Aamir re-invented the tapori, and played a cop in a smart thriller (before two absolute turkeys). Then Lagaan happened. It was first offered to Shahrukh. He declined, Aamir took it, and then came the Oscar nomination. Ever since, Aamir was typecast as experimental, while Shahrukh was himself; safe on familiar ground. But in the invisible side of cinema, the business side, Shahrukh was a fascinating innovator. He foresaw the possibility of a man becoming an industry. On the screen, however, he was becoming a cliché, a ghost from the past. So unexpected were his turns as a scientist and a hockey coach in Swades and Chak De India that fans aren’t sure what to make of him. One said he didn’t know which Shahrukh was the real one, and that is a revealing comment. He isn’t seen as an actor. He’s a good guy, a friendly guy, who made it big. A film like Swades throws off people because they’re trained to see Shahrukh the personality, not judge his skills. That is why Chak De was remarkable; it became bigger than its main actor and told a story. It seemed the kind of role Aamir would take on.

“That there is competition between the Khans is no secret. Both Shahrukh and Aamir are great strategisers when it comes to making their movies succeed,” says a producer who went with a script to both actors. It was an unconventional role. Aamir didn’t bother to get back but Shahrukh called the man over for a meeting which stretched half a day. After a couple more interactions on the phone, Shahrukh backed out. “Possibly because the character was just too unconventional for him,” says the producer.

Many industry people don’t agree with the notion that he plays safe. They say Shahrukh’s daring lies not in his roles (although his choices here aren’t too shabby they say, pointing to Paheli and Rab Ne…), but in his decisions. He produces movies with his own money, they say, unlike Aamir, whose productions are in large part financed by PVR, the cinema chain. “He puts his money where his mouth is,” a producer and friend of Shahrukh says. “Now that’s risk-taking. Now he runs a sports franchise. Of course he’s No. 1.”

What is a Brand?

The curious incident of the dog on Aamir’s blog now feels like a strangely silly chapter, despite Aamir’s protestations of innocence. However, people close to the matter say he was taking the mickey. That he’d had enough with Shahrukh, and decided to give it back. Shahrukh responded, and Aamir escalated the jibes. They read like the kind of entertainingly inane argument siblings have (“Your elbow’s on my side”). These statements were made only in part jest. After one lob and parry, Aamir complained that Shahrukh had lost his sense of humor. The bone of contention was over who could claim the number one status. Aamir’s supporters had a line of four straight hits to back them, while Shahrukh, even with only three hits in 17 releases (including special appearances), mystifyingly insisted on being called number one.

But then he isn’t just a movie star. He does introduce himself as a film maker. So there’s some logic, however skewed, at work. Perhaps for Shahrukh, he’s No.1 in an empirical sense. King of everything. Which fits in nicely with the ‘megalomaniac’ tag that seems to go everywhere he does. A trade analyst says, “He was a very calculating man from the beginning. The diversification into IPL is a sign of that. He’s even started making television serials now. He’s got a Marwari brain. People say he takes Rs 30 - 40 crore, but no one really knows what he takes. He’s always been a very reasonable man. Only in the last 3 to 4 years has he hiked his price. Otherwise till then he was charging Rs 2 to 3 crore, when he could have taken much more. Nowadays, he takes some percentage of the profits. He’s the only actor who reads the financial newspapers daily. You can’t fool him.”

A producer says, “You’re looking at Ghajini. Tell me how much it made. 280 crore? 290 crore? (None of these numbers, readers have to note, have been confirmed.) Well, what was the film’s budget? Look at the return on investment. Rab Ne had a greater return on investment than Ghajini. Why do you think people want to work with him? He gives you everything. He wants to be completely involved. And your film is guaranteed to make money! Of course he’s No. 1.” No room for doubt, then?

Just when you think they’re about the acting, they tell you, no, it comes down to money. Of course. “Shahrukh first tasted blood with Main Hoon Na. He had produced movies before, but nothing had worked like this,” an acquaintance says. “Only then did he decide to go full tilt with Om Shanti Om.” Perhaps that’s what Shah Rukh means when he says he’s No.1. Everything he touches turns to gold. It explains the gold on his team uniform.

Advertisers say he’s the biggest brand by far. A creative head who worked with Shahrukh says, “I think SRK is still the biggest name for brands. The reason is that SRK’s stardom is a self-propagating machine. And it has an accumulated effect on his stardom and fame. He’s sheer eye candy. Aamir Khan makes you think, SRK makes you watch. He has what we in advertising call the ‘screensaver syndrome’, it doesn’t mean much, he’s there and you’ll keep looking at it.

“The great difference between Aamir Khan and SRK, and the reason why SRK is the bigger brand is that, SRK’s fame is not derived from his movies. He’s gone beyond that. AK is very strongly associated with his movies. Aamir’s standing with the audience and their desire to emulate him draws directly from the success of his films. I don’t think that holds true for SRK. He’s beyond the stardom machine. Like Sachin’s fame is no longer associated with how he played his last innings, the brand SRK is no longer associated with how his movies do.”

But is branding about money? When you take money out of the equation, and include the many intangibles of art, suddenly Aamir seems to have no equal. That is why a photojournalist who covers Bollywood says that Aamir is clearly up there. In his mind, Shahrukh has some distance to cover. “It has to do with success and the kind of movies which he makes successful. Take a role like Taare Zameen Pe, in which he enters the film just before the interval. Which actor in Bollywood would possibly agree to such a role? And yet, because of Aamir the movie went on to become a superhit. Whenever Shahrukh has tried to do any sort of offbeat roles, he has inevitably flopped.”

There is comfort in familiarity because managing your own image is easier when you are in familiar hands, hands that belong to friends and people you’ve known for a long time; they’re as good as family. They know what he can do, and know what he isn’t capable of. They know what makes Shahrukh unique. The actor, otherwise resistant to a change in his acting technique, relaxes. He’s in familiar territory. He can be himself with friends. This is where Aamir scores over his rival. The only image he needs to maintain is his own -- as India’s most experimental actor.
And that’s why there’s a gradual change in perception.

Some Stars Fade

Ask yourself a few questions. Why do you visit the movies? Would you watch a movie for its star? Would you watch a movie without a star? It isn’t much of a choice, but you know the answer. Now rewind to fifteen years ago and ask yourself the same questions. That’s why Shahrukh doesn’t make you feel the way you used to. This isn’t Raj’s time anymore. There’s more to life than love, which is why Swades and Chak De worked for so many people in cities (Audiences in NY and London don’t count; they’re still living in 1994). There’s autism, and hockey, and anterograde amnesia (not to be confused with retrograde amnesia, which a bump on the head in the 1970s gave you). That is why, as the public image guy put it, “This disconnect between who Shahrukh is and who he was hasn’t yet spread outside the cities. But if he keeps this up, it will.”

The small circle he works with keeps his image intact, but that image, a result of his obsession, hasn’t kept up with the times. The circle is claustrophobic. In fact, few movies could compare with the intense suffocation of Rab Ne, which revolved around chiefly three characters. It feels like a miscalculation. Audiences don’t expect you to declare yourself numero uno. Not with the run he’s been having. It feels misplaced, like he’s holding on to something slipping away. Audiences know. They just know.

If Aamir is No. 1 today, and there’s no dearth of support in that corner, it’s partly due to Shahrukh’s unwillingness to come to terms with a basic truth. There’s a point when spontaneity on tap is no longer spontaneity. There’s a point where every exuberant wave feels practised. There’s a point where you say so much more when you aren’t being witty. His subordinates love him because they know him, and they know he’s a great guy. That’s because he’s natural with them. But with educated audiences – people who live in a complex world - he gives them unnatural simplicity, a forced youthfulness, a tight t-shirt and orange pants, all in the name of the grand entertainer. There’s no formula. It’s common sense. You expect an adult to act his age, so what if he’s a star?

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