Hindustan Times ST (Mumbai) - Brunch
Three-headed emblem of love
You don’t have to be a Shah Rukh Khan fan to see what the fuss is all about. Even those of us who roll eyes at his too-muchness have our moments of complete surrender. Reading Shrayana Bhattacharya’s Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh: India’s Lonely Young Women and the Search for Intimacy and Independence, an economist’s deep dive into working women’s romantic aspirations, reminds you of all that you love about the man. (Man-child? Manmachine?) But when you think about the post-’80s era, it’s difficult to look at SRK in isolation. The other two Khans pop up instantly in the three-headed emblem of Bollywood romance.
I grew up with a very strong incentive to idolise Salman Khan: the unabashed adoration that a sibling felt for him. And Maine Pyar Kiya (1989) was quite the recommendation. Plus, those Thums Up and Relaxo chappal ads on Doordarshan were gold. Over three decades, my feelings have turned from starry-eyed wonder to heavy-hearted disappointment to sour-tasting revulsion. I worry about Bhai fans, subscribing to his brand of toxic masculinity. “But he has a heart of gold! He does charity! He’s genuine!” I hear the bhakts say. Why defend the invincible? is my weary response.
Two films shine on in memory, nonetheless. One—andaz Apna Apna (1994), in which Salman plays the bumbling foil, Prem, to Aamir Khan’s street-smart Amar. One can’t help but find his terrible acting endearing, in sharp contrast to the commanding Aamir. I absolutely love the continuity issues of the cult favourite, with Salman’s hair serving as a cautionary tale for any third AD. Then there’s Bajrangi Bhaijaan (2015), which I hate myself for loving. Treating women of all ages with care and respect, even dressing in a burqa to escape arrest— there’s a role model for the bossy Khan.
The three Khans have been ruling Bollywood for decades now and their films co-exist as peacefully as they do
moving admirably from character to character. What worries me, however, going by a recent spate of ads, is that age-old affliction that hits middle-aged men: they take the adage ‘Age is just a number’ a bit too seriously. And so, we have commercials with the actor pushing 60 scootering, dancing and selfie’ing like a millennial. Ageing male stars, unlike their female counterparts, are clearly not served a reality check by market forces.
Like others who share my earthy-hipster leanings, I belong to the Swades (2004), Chak De! India (2007) and Dear Zindagi (2016) school of SRK love. (Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa  is in its own rarefied company.) Of course, one has a special affinity for the romantic confections that the bobblehead hero peddles, but it’s mind-boggling how easily he flicks a switch to give the public, however niche, whatever it wants. From proclaiming his love for the youth-brand Pepsi (“Main bacha hoon, toh mujhe meethi cheezein pasand hain”) to taking over as the Thums Up mascot with messy hair, groomed beard and a fit yet unintimidating body, he’s transitioned to late middleage like a shape-shifting superhero. Don’t like his films? There’s a riveting Ted Talk to absorb or an entertaining interview to devour, as Bhattacharya’s book explains. Quite the package.
And so, the myth lives on. Floppy hair, body-hugging tees, cheeky grin, self-deprecating wit—srk is the celeb we all deserve, equal parts admirable and laughable. These days, whether he’s raising his palms in prayer at a funeral or putting his arm around his son’s lawyers, he has fingers pointing at him. I’m rooting for him to rise above the rot.
that even if it won’t be okay, you will still be okay, and the delusion that the universe isn’t actually out to get you personally?
To be honest, I’m actually jealous of every one of you presumptuous enough to leave your fates quite literally to the winds. Because I do wish that I didn’t have pangs of panic each time I find myself in a gathering of more than four people at a time; that I wasn’t perpetually triggered with anxiety at the harrowing possibility of getting COVID and passing it on to someone I love; that my body was able to overcome the crippling horror of reading, not long ago, the dire SOS messages desperately seeking aid floating unanswered online for weeks; that I could shut out the memories of grief for the people I’ve known and lost to the pandemic; that I was just able to... move on.
But, as my nervous system would have it, I’m unable to just... move on. After significant efforts, though, I have found the inner strength to move (or stumble) into the new old normal, to a version of the carefree life I had left behind, with friends I have missed seeing and hugging and being in the beautiful company of, experiencing again the collective joy of laughing and crying with a community during a live event or at a movie theatre (yay!). And all I need to be able to feel safe, is to be safe.
So ultimately, I’m just a man, standing in front of a maskless world, asking you to stop asking me about my mask. And maintain social distancing, thanks.