At this point in time, diehard Shah Rukh Khan fans have had many paroxysms. The sheer presumption of this headline – how dare anyone call one of India’s biggest movie stars work in progress? His indifferent recent run at the box office notwithstanding – his superstardom is never in question. But Shah Rukh Khan is Indian filmdom’s biggest work in progress and that could be the best thing about him.

Flashback to 1998. And no, we are not going to talk about a film. Instead, we are going to talk about a car. The now ubiquitous Hyundai Santro. At that point, Hyundai was a little known foreign brand in India, often confused with the better known Honda. BVR Subbu, former President of Hyundai Motor India writes in his book, ‘Santro: The Car That Built A Company’, that the company needed a ‘recognisable popular Indian’ to introduce the brand to India.

There were internal discussions, a bigger star at that point was thrown up as the first choice but Subbu instinctively felt that the brand ambassador they needed was Shah Rukh Khan. ‘Our brand ambassador …ought to project …the image …of a fearless challenger’.

What Shah Rukh and Santro went onto to achieve is now the stuff of marketing legend in a brand relationship which lasted decades – somewhere along the line, Shah Rukh also invented the rules of celebrity engagement with his all consuming involvement with the brand, ‘that indefinable something, that je ne sais , that SRK transferred so selflessly …from the his persona to the Santro Brand’. Hyundai Motors, it must be pointed out never repeated its success story with brand ambassadors after Shah Rukh Khan.

There are two things that stand out in this story. I will deal with both, one at a time.

Let’s start with the all-consuming involvement and the constant invention of the persona as he goes along. SRK can be what you want him to be, sometimes by the minute and it doesn’t matter if you are a brand giving him crores of rupees or a rookie reporter on one of her first interview assignments. Way back in the early 2000s, when I was a media reporter with CNBC India, Shah Rukh Khan launched a website srkworld.com. As an idea, it was slightly ahead of its times and will not today count as a success story. It was a good time for him to be on a business channel -and I got an exclusive 10-minute interview before the press conference.

I was not a fan and didn’t quite realise what a very big deal the interview was. I went into the interview nonchalantly enough and came out a convert – I had never met an interviewee like SRK.

He gave you all his attention, tailored his answers to the needs of a business channel and for those 10 minutes, it was like nobody else existed in the world but you. It was an overwhelming experience and the feedback we got later on the interview from the bosses at my channel was that while the interview was good, the interviewer was ‘a tad giddy’. I must confess I was.

Over the years and over less giddy interactions, Shah Rukh Khan didn’t change how he engaged with the media. It was always all consuming and entertaining and I remember telling my colleagues that it would take a special genius to muff up an interview with SRK. He could converse with a tree and he would still give it all his undivided attention. The way he interacts with a brand or an interview is reflective of his larger work approach – it is all or nothing. In an interview he gave to Tehelka in 2007, he spelled it out:

“If I am doing a film with you, you’ll think I am your best friend, I’ll make you comfortable, I’ll make you laugh, I’ll never make you have stress, you’ll say, oh god, I wish I could only work with Shah Rukh.” Shah Rukh Khan.

In a more recent interview to The Guardian in 2017, Shah Rukh reveals that he can never escape the onus of entertainment no matter what the occasion. That he is a man who invents himself by the minute given the demands of the audience. And that has been the driving force in all his choices

“I get very disappointed if I see people who aren’t enjoying what I’m doing and it’s not even value for money, it’s value for liking me. I need people to be happy after they’ve met me, if nothing else. You’re sitting with me now: you can see I’m a very boring person – but if you have an image of me being cool or funny or romantic from the films, I’ll do my best to live upto that expectation. If you tell me I’m not smiling enough, I will smile more.” Shah Rukh Khan.

Many pieces before this have pointed out the seeming dichotomy in Shah Rukh’s personal interests and his choices as an actor. He has candidly said that he does a brand of popular cinema, which his audience base wants him to do – and he will do what he thinks they expect from him. And that perhaps explains the inconsistent performance of his last few films.

As an audience, we are suddenly ambiguous and confused about what we want from SRK.

If his single minded onus has been to entertain, the ball is now in our court – what do we want from Shah Rukh Khan which will entertain us? We have been indulgent of his self -referential films (Happy New Year, Chennai Express), rejected his experiments (Fan) and been mildly mortified by efforts to go back to front lining a rom com (Jab Harry Met Sejal).

What then will make us happy and by extension make him happy? I think I have an answer. We need him to be what he is, the reason Hyundai signed him up years back and stuck with him. We need Shah Rukh Khan to be the fearless challenger. He has moved out of comfort zone – his experiments with new directors and scripts may not have given him the heady success he is used to, but we need to keep seeing him invent, challenge himself and throw us challenges. That could be his next film – the much awaited Aanand L Rai directorial Zero. And even if it isn’t – we still need him to be constant work in progress. That is his best chance. And ours too.

Because more than any other movie star before him, or after him – Shah Rukh Khan is his audience. He is us. Or as he said it eloquently last year, “I truly believe that humanity is a lot like me. It’s an aging movie star, grappling with all the newness around itself, wondering whether it got it right in the first place, and still trying to find a way to keep on shining regardless.”

Keep Shining Shah Rukh Khan. Happy Birthday!

(Naomi Datta is an independent creative director, author and content marketing specialist.)

(Courtesy: This article was first published on The Quint on 2nd November 2018.)

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