Bollywood actor Shah Rukh Khan waves to the fans who were gathered outside his home at Mannat, in Mumbai Image Credit: ANI

It was a tick off the list. Surrounded by blue domes and imposing ancient architecture where caravans of the Silk Route plied their trade centuries ago, imagination ran freely during a recent trip through the central Asian country of Uzbekistan. Scanning the luggage to board a train from the capital Tashkent to the historical city of Bukhara, the guard stopped us. ‘Indian?’ To our collective nod, his face broke into a smile. ‘Shah Rukh Khan!’

From Bukhara to Samarkand, at train stations, at metro stations, and while eating Uzbek Plov, it was the same story. Otherwise struggling with a language barrier, in these instances there was no need for Google translate as people, thrilled to meet anyone from the land of the Bollywood Badshah displayed how love has no language.

In the 1950s and 60s, ‘showman’ Raj Kapoor was deeply adored in Soviet-era Russia with a cult following in the country for films like Awara and Shree 420. The global admiration for Shah Rukh Khan is reminiscent of that popularity.

What makes SRK a global phenomenon, one whose fame transcends India, Pakistan, and Dubai? His fandom as seen through travels even to European countries is universal and fans beam, as they take his name with reverence. No other Indian evokes the same response at the country’s mention and to say he is the most well-known citizen globally is not an exaggeration.

Despite attempts at cancelling Bollywood in the recent past, cinema remains our unabashed soft power with SRK its biggest ambassador. Indian cinema, including from the South is seen in countries as diverse as Japan, Germany, China, and Turkey with a community of followers that has no boundaries. Khan has also been bestowed with France’s top civilian award, the Knight of the Legion of Honour, and no political leader in the country comes even within touching distance of SRK’s brand of popularity.

More by Jyotsna Mohan

Heart on his sleeve

While obituaries were being written for Bollywood, he single-handedly, sent audiences back to the theatre with his first film in four years. Pathaan also gave a shaky industry a much-needed fillip. The juggernaut of Bollywood films may have faced hiccups on its more recent journey in India but abroad where his movies are not just screened but also translated into foreign languages, his sway and swag are pure.

Khan took over the mantle from Amitabh Bachchan who was famously referred to as the angry young man and redefined romance on the big screen to become its undisputed king.

Although he experiments with the genre and more so off late, audiences abroad see a hero who wears his heart on his sleeve with eyes that tell their own story. He is however much more than the boyish charm of Dilwale Dulhaniya le Jayenge.

Back home we have witnessed the strength of a man who did not lose his dignity even when his son was jailed on wrong allegations of drug consumption and those around him floundered, losing their basic humanity. He is a star who watches his team Kolkata Knightriders play it out on the IPL field but shares his love equally with the opponents.

The actor does not let only his work do the talking; he appeals to us much beyond films. It is a masterclass that separates an icon from the pretenders and a discerning audience, even in Uzbekistan, knows it.

Get exclusive content with Gulf News WhatsApp channel

Khan barely does movie promotions, and he never does political selfies. In an industry where entertainment is no longer the end result and where camps much like society at large are divided on ugly lines, he has not let setbacks or personal attacks by the right-wing take away his dignity. SRK’s magic also lies in him being the outsider who never lets another feel like an outcast.

On Eid, streets outside his home were overflowing with his fans as hundreds converged to get a glimpse of a man who has rarely, if at all, disappointed them. They were not waiting patiently because he belongs to a particular faith, they stand there because he belongs to all.

In a polarised country where ideology has broken down relationships, his biggest asset is that he unites and refutes any identity that questions inclusivity and tolerance. SRK has time and again shrugged off all attempts to be boxed in, but his remarkable trait is also that he does not allow his fans to be put in boxes.

Hollywood celebs and football stars come knocking on his door, yet he refuses to sign an international film choosing instead to take India to the world.

In the old town of Bukhara, as we walked marvelling at the historical sites surrounding us, a stranger with Shah Rukh Khan on his lips and a smile on his face reminded us that though history is written by the victors, love is shared only by those who do not divide and instead bring people together. They are the conquerors.