what next, SRK?

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Who would you liken Shah Rukh Khan to?

Who would you liken Shah Rukh Khan to? The voice on the other end of the phone is American, and the question is very similar to the ones I get asked on and off by journeymen journalists who want a quick fix on Bollywood from their limited Hollywood perspective. Tom Cruise or Tom Hanks?

After a bit of back and forth, we settle on one of the two. Hanks would be more like Aamir Khan, with his way of working and choosing roles. Ergo, Shah Rukh is more like Cruise. My interlocutor rings off, happy with his byte-sized nugget which would fit into his piece on the top stars of Hindi cinema. What about Salman, I ask, don't you want to know about him? He's the guy who opens the biggest of them all. Not really, he says. Shah Rukh is fine. Aamir is okay too. Salman, he pronounces it Sal Man, who's that?

Put it down to ignoramuses who are clueless about the superstar strata in Bollywood. Or the SRK effect in the international market. Aamir Khan's 3 Idiots has been a smash hit in both des and pardes but before that, his reach was comparatively restricted. Salman beats everyone when it comes to huge opening domestic weekends, even with his duds. But globally, the Khan with the mostest is the moppet with mop and the dimples and those curved eyebrows. And right at this moment, even locally, it is SRK's time: his act in Yash Chopra's final film, Jab Tak Hai Jaan shows a star being played nearly fully to his strengths.

Of the Khan trio, Shah Rukh is really the only one who can play both youthful loverboy and older romantic hero even though he's just demonstrated in JTHJ what a laughable kisser he is. SRK's tried his hand at action, and he's done his bit of shooting and scooting in his last outing:

Don 2 was a long romp through fast-paced chases and cars and guns, but I haven't managed to take him seriously when he's like this, because I suspect he's laughing on the inside when he's sighting alongside a pistol. He's gone serious and played a man with a conscience in one of his best films, Swades. He's played the joker — he's good at clowning, sometimes I think he's the best clown we've got in Bollywood, and that's hard to do well — in so many of his films. He's played a robot. But I've liked him best in those in which he has had the chance to romance his ladies in varied ways: both the papa-knows-best-and-I-will-take-my-dulhaniya-only-when-he-gives-his-nod, and tu-aati-hai-ya-main-aaoon-expletive-excised.

All that the first one, Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, did was change the way Bollywood made love stories. But before SRK went that route, he was very, very bad. Everyone remembers him in Baazigar and Darr, but one of my favourite SRK films is the nearly-forgotten Ram Jaane, in which he plays a guy who knows only how to snatch and grab. There is no faux coyness with which he reaches for the girl whom he loves, and whom he thinks, mistakenly, loves him back. There's just pure passion, and that scene with Juhi Chawla is right up there in my SRK compendium. The only thing that matches is him in a couple of stunning sequences with Manisha Koirala in Dil Se, where he makes the yearning a tangible, palpable thing.

In some of his earlier films, you can see just how raw and unpolished he was. But with the directors, he really sparkled, like Aziz Mirza with whom he made Yes Boss, and Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani, or with Kundan Shah in Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa, or with Yash Chopra, or with Karan Johar who converted SRK into a Bollywoodian Peter Pan, he parlayed pure charisma into his roles, and made them completely his own, deliberate stutter, conscious mannerism and all. Like some stars who coast on a few favourite gestures (the arms thrown open, embracing the world and his lady love, the leaping upon a bed which may or may not have a girl in it, the somersaults, the crooked smile), he is easy to mimic. But not even the best mimicry artists can get a handle on his high-voltage energy. That is totally Shah Rukh's own.

But this is an SRK in his late 40s playing 25, though I will take him trying to do youthful over Aamir's laboured efforts at ditto in 3 Idiots. The lines show, and it takes all his charm to make us overlook them. Is the smart SRK brain thinking of what will take him to the next level, in which he can actually play his age? You may get older, but if you've done charm offensives before, that's what you can continue to do. The tricky part is to keep looking for the new while holding on to the old — the essential SRKness —which keeps his fans, as well as plain viewers — coming back for more.

Because if there is one star who needs that next step, it is Shah Rukh. Not Aamir who reaches for character, not Salman who aims for Salman, but SRK who tries for a new expression to add to his self-confessed armoury of 'five'. In Jab Tak Hai Jaan, he showed he could do a couple more.

What next?

shubhra.gupta @expressindia.com

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