Streaks of blood flowed from bulged up wounded hero’s arms, as his love interest waited scarred in one corner of this ramshackle train station, could be a warehouse too, like a pale flower about to drop dead anytime.
The acoustics of this single screen cine theatre somewhere in Central Bombay hounded strange thud sounds - “Dishoom Dishoom”!
Sometimes if one has an aural impair one also hears it as Bishoom, but whatever the genus of the word may be, this little audio along with hero smeared in blood, tucking the heroine on a side half embrace has been the poster image of masculinity across popular Indian cinema more specifically Hindi cinema from mid seventies.
There was ‘other’ kind of heroes too, few and far apart. They would gift a bouquet of tuberose to their love interest or recite a couplet of passionate poetry but nobody cared much for them.
And then came a hero who looked back in doe eyed glance when he and the heroine parted in an ultimate ‘palat’ (turn over) sequence.
In so many ways the dialogue that was a part of Shah Rukh Khan’s early work Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman (1993) would become a metaphor of how the 57-year-old mega celebrity would represent himself onscreen in coming years, turning over the idea of hero and his masculinity onscreen. He would often play the vulnerable, looser guy next door with no ‘prospective future’.
Today Khan a man loved across gender, class, caste and religion is a representation of gentle, affirmative, inclusive masculinity that South Asia hasn’t known.
In a region where toxic masculinity and resultant violence against women are ways of life, Khan’s portrayal both on and off-screen has been his way evoking a different manhood. Khan has been a silently portraying of how “Men Should Be”, progressive, vulnerable, affirmative.
Pertinently, the last available data of gendered violence in the country reported by National Commission of Women (NCW) India is 33, 906 on the first day of 2023 (till the end of 2022). Pakistan and Bangladesh too had been reporting rampant violence against women.
But this isn’t a piece on crime and violence but about a different version of Masculinity, which when imbibed may lead to changes, helping in a recalibration of how men feel about women.
The Secret not so Secret Rule of Change
How did Khan slowly and consciously cultivate an altered understanding of Maleness over the years, which he practices beyond his screen persona.
In 2016 Khan became the face of smash hit campaign of Dubai Tourism named #BeMyGuest.
The sleekly shot first video (clocked 20 million views in just two weeks) followed Khan as he took the world on a guided trip of Dubai’s best and must-sees. In that three minute short, Khan was shown to interact with tourists and locals alike.
From a bunch of beyond thrilled women passengers who flew on an aircraft with the star to a local woman jogger in her middle age, who trips noticing Khan as her fellow jogger (Khan gently helps her to find a balance and resumes jogging with her) to shoppers and absolutely shell shocked guests many of them women in the luxury restaurants everyone was awestruck.
It was interesting to notice how Khan responded to each of these ladies with his gentleness; an elemental trait of ‘his kind of manhood’ and this wasn’t even a film.
Deep diving through Khan’s filmography one notices a palimpsest that nourishes this unconventional masculinity.
Apart from the three roles that Khan took up in his early career between 1993 -1994 (Darr, Baazigar and Anjam), at no point Khan’s roles have been on the lines of hardened manhood, in fact between the mentioned three ones came Khan’s one of his career best Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa (1994) that literally set the tone of Khanish manhood; of vulnerability.
Sunil Shah his character in the film, is a looser, flunks at the college, always goofs up and is unable to propose his love interest who in turn is already committed to his friend.
Next year Khan establishes his poster image of Raj Malhotra, a hero who never looses his cool by moving away from anger towards affective masculinity. Clearly he is not the blood-smeared villain bashing hero but someone who gets beaten up to a pulp and yet does not budge from his core idea of love.
In the climactic sequence of Aditya Chopra’s Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (1995) Raj endures pain to break the mold of the popular saying of South Asia Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota. (Real men don’t feel the pain) reversing tenderness often looked upon as “feminine”.
DDLJ (acronym) became the watershed moment of deconstructing manhood that his predecessors have tried intermittently in their films and were labeled as career exceptions (Dharamendra in Satyakam and Anupama, Dev Anand in Guide, Shashi Kapoor in Jab Jab Phool Khile).
From DDLJ, Khan deploys the fluidity of maleness into what would transform as a new masculinity, to be accepted in the years to come.
But Khan did it steadily. Every now and then his roles had something more than accepted norm of a hero!
In Yes Boss (1997), he plays a stooge, caricatureish that can easily pass off as “non hero”. Before his fans assumed this as Khanish, Khan was back with another foil of ‘maleness’ by being ‘submissive’ to all the females around him in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998) (adores daughter and mother and plays down on his male ego as he reunites with his best friend turned love interest).
Rahul Khanna his character in the film is happy to have ‘tomboy’ as his best friend before they reunite as a couple. Khan nonchalantly sets another new trend.
In Chalte Chalte (2003) Khan shows that his character can let his partner initiate romantic intimacy.
By the time Khan plays Baua Singh, a man of short stature in Zero (2018) who chooses to marry a well-known scientist with cerebral palsy, he has successfully redefined “masculinity”.
Zero counters the idea of “Mr. Right” full-throated substituting it with disability and a shrewd mind - integral to hero’s characterization in the film.
While Baua Singh is literally the ultimate turn over, establishing Khan’s very own gentle masculinity, the building blocks were evident in his earlier Main Hoon Na, where the actor is an army officer on a mission but stammers and fumbles to express his love pleading through funny expressions with his heart literally singing), followed by a range of films like Paheli (2005), Om Shanti OM (2007), My Name is Khan (2010), Dear Zindegi (2016) in all of which Khan has been “indefinably masculine”.
Khan believed in every bit of it. It was connected to his own life values; of a middle class upbringing, interfaith marriages, secular and syncretic India. In real life he worked to found a non-profit organisation dedicated to the Acid Attack survivors of India, helping them live afresh.
This was his way of telling again that masculinity did not mean “where a woman is seen as a troublesome burden or an object of lust, a silent, uncomplaining outlet for male carnality” (Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh, Shrayana Bhattacharya 2021).
He continued. Nothing deterred him from giving women an affirmative space and to do that he often took help of his incredible sardonic humor!
In the Diwali of 2021 Khan appeared in a Cadbury advert and the first dialogue he utters is “hero lag raha hoon na” (Am I not looking like a hero), indeed he did look like one, unruffled by his receding hairline, and growing crow feet in the corner of his eyes.
Fast-forward to January of 2023 Khan was back after 5 years of hiatus with phenomenal success of “Pathan”, a story of a spy on a mission. Internet broke everyday with the rising trade figures as Khan came forth to promote superstar Deepika Padokone’s self care brand 82°E.
In his unimmitable style within those few minutes of the promotional Khan plays through the entire range ideal man; of first appearing as a male consumer who doesn’t know how to use skin care products (he says at one point – I do kich kich – a scritchy sound, associated to conventional male behaviour ) to someone willing to learn from his woman colleague, a female fellow artist “gently”(Padukone mentions the word gently). By the end of the longish advert Khan has again affirmed his kind of vulnerable manhood, way too pitch perfect.
One is reminded of a 2017 Ted Talk of Shah Rukh Khan addressing a packed house, “Because the present you is brave, the present you is hopeful, the present you is innovative and resourceful and of course the present you is annoyingly indefinable, So I truly believe …”
I believe Khan was talking to himself…
Nilosree is an author, filmmaker