It took 1,600 screaming fans swaying along to the song “Kal Ho Naa Ho” to make me wonder how I ever could have lost my childhood love for Shah Rukh Khan.
The film superstar who helped bring Bollywood cinema to an international stage was at the Shubert Theater Thursday evening, in a one-day visit to New Haven all the way from Bombay, India. (Yes, it’s technically Mumbai now, but no one in Bombay calls it that). While Khan was there under the auspices of Yale’s Chubb Fellowship, he drew a crowd that included far more than Yale students, including at least 30 people from media outlets all over the region. A woman who said she flew in from California showed up at the Shubert at 7 a.m., according to theater staff. And hundreds of families from the area lined up at the doors before the event, in a line stretching all the way to the Taft apartments on Chapel Street.
They were all in for a long wait. The media had been lining up for a press appearance from the actor since 1:30 p.m. They sat around for another two hours after Khan was detained at the White Plains airport. The Shubert audience waited until 5:30 for a talk that was supposed to start at 4. But when “King Khan,” as he is affectionately known by his fans, finally made it into the theater, any frustration melted away.
“I’ve been waiting 15 years for this!” exclaimed one reporter as Shubert staff tried to prevent her from taking a picture with Khan in order to get the crowd moving. (She got her picture).
Even during a 5-minute-long introductory video that played before Khan got onstage, the audience went wild. As the video ran through some of the 70-plus movies he’s done since his career took off in 1991, the audience gasped and cheered at the most recognizable ones—Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham. They sang along to the snippets of hit songs, like Deewangi Deewangi. And when the revered King Khan himself finally appeared, audience members shouted out “We Love You Shah Rukh!”—to which he answered, with a bashful smile, “I love you too.”
Let me rewind for a second: Years ago, I might have been one of those fans. I remember watching Devdas for the first time when I was 11 or 12 (another of Khan’s most well-known films, co-starring the Bollywood beauty Aishwarya Rai). A remake of an older film, Devdas provided everything I was into at an age where I loved fantasy novels and musicals—intense drama, fancy costumes, gorgeous music and actors, and a tragic love story. I was hooked. On trips to India to visit family, we picked up stacks of Bollywood movies with SRK. I couldn’t get enough.
And then, as I grew older, I somehow lost interest. Part of it was frustration with plot lines that I thought were unrealistic and overly melodramatic. (Spoiler alert in the rest of this paragraph). In Kal Ho Na Ho, he loves the girl but lies to her and says he’s married because he has a deathly heart condition, and then she finds out he lied, and at the end he dies. In Dil Se, he loves the girl but she is a terrorist, and she lies to him by saying she’s married, and at the end they both die. In Devdas, he loves the girl but his parents don’t approve, and then when she married someone really rich he becomes an alcoholic, and at the end he dies.
I started to prefer more “realistic” movies. As Bollywood matured, the once-iconic song-and-dance scenes started to disappear from many films. On-screen kissing, once taboo in Indian movies, became more commonplace. Male and female leads didn’t always play the traditional roles of love interests—and in a few movies, the female didn’t even have a love interest at all. I couldn’t stand the melodrama that still characterized Khan’s films.
As he spoke to the audience at the Shubert yesterday, Khan acknowledged that many people tell him his films are too “unrealistic.” But he disagreed. “They’re a celebration of life,” he argued. And, well, life has a lot of melodrama and some pretty intense emotion. It doesn’t always have a clear storyline. People sometimes actually do break out in song—if more often in private than in public. Why not mix that all up and put it onscreen? Movies are supposed to be entertainment, after all.
And therein lies the universal appeal of Khan’s films—it’s their dramatization of everyday life, their rousing songs, and oftentimes, their downright silliness. “I will never take myself seriously…I will never intellectualize my work,” Khan declared at the Shubert. “If I do, I’ll lose it.”
As Khan spoke about the importance of laughing at yourself, of never being cynical, of just being happy, I realized that I’d moved away from Shah Rukh Khan as I grew older because I felt like that was what I was supposed to do. I was supposed to watch more “sophisticated” movies; I was supposed to be more “mature” and stop letting my imagination run wild with ridiculous plot lines. (Take Ra.One, for instance: Khan is a programmer who creates a new game in order to impress his son, who thinks he’s lame. The “villain” character in the game manages to escape the virtual world and kill Khan in the real world. Then, his son manages to bring the superhero figure out into the real world to battle the villain.)
But why on earth should I do that? As Khan told the press before his talk, “I still feel like I’m 15.” By the time he got into the theater, he was even younger, telling the audience he hopes he can always act the way he did was he was four. Why do we need to act “older” just because we’ve gotten older? Why shouldn’t people who’ve been watching Shah Rukh Khan since they were kids yell “I love you Shah Rukh” and “Take off your shirt!” in a crowded theater? And why shouldn’t we enjoy his films for what they are—pure and simple entertainment that we can sit down with at the end of a long day?
There’s no good reason. So I’m watching Ra.One this weekend….and every other Shah Rukh film I can get my hands on.