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With India being home to the world’s biggest movie production industry, it is evident that Indians take their cinema seriously. Indian cinema lovers are also known to venerate and love their movie stars with equal fervours and King Khan at 57 is one of the most loved stars in Hindi cinema, or Bollywood. So, when a tweet from an American journalist compared Shah Rukh Khan (SRK) to Tom Cruise, Bollywood fans on the social media seemingly rose up as once in protest. "SRK is SRK. He isn't Indian Tom Cruise but rather a national treasure, he is a man beyond his films,” one Twitter user wrote. The comment section to the original tweet is full of such statements from apparently enraged fans.
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"King Khan" - whose moniker reflects decades of box office dominance - is a rare unifying figure across India's multiple geographic, linguistic and religious faultlines. His latest film "Pathaan" was an event akin to a national celebration.
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Fans regularly make the pilgrimage to the gates of his Mumbai mansion and wait through the day to catch a brief glimpse of a man who basks in his status as a public icon. "I am very happy being a star. I can never be tired of it," Khan told AFP in a 2013 interview. "I love the amount of people that love me, the crowds that collect, the controversies, the responsibilities I have, the success and even the failure. It's an exciting life."
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Khan was born to a Muslim family in New Delhi and did not hail from an established acting dynasty. His early 1980s TV roles showcased his natural charisma but it took him several years to break onto the big screen, and he risked being typecast as a villain after his riveting performance as an obsessed stalker in "Darr" (Fear).
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But the biggest Indian blockbuster of 1995 catapulted him to international stardom and resonated with the profound social changes underway in his country. "Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge" (The Big-Hearted will Take the Bride) saw Khan play a Londoner who falls in love with another diaspora Indian while sightseeing in Europe. They decide to wed - against the wishes of her father, who has promised her in marriage to another man back in India. The film remains one of the most popular in the Bollywood canon, and it has screened at one Mumbai cinema every day - except for a Covid interruption -- for the 27 years since its release.
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No film in his extensive repertoire has done more to burnish this persona than 1998's "Dil Se.." (From the Heart), in which Khan pursues a mysterious woman across India's most spectacular natural landscapes. Today it is fondly remembered for its dazzling choreography - elaborate even by Bollywood standards - including Khan's serenade to dozens of dancers atop a moving steam train.
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His assets include the Kolkata Knight Riders cricket team in the Indian Premier League, and a film production company.
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Recent years have seen a string of personal and professional setbacks, including the 2021 arrest of his son in a drug related case that was later dropped.
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"Pathaan", Khan's secret agent action thriller comeback after a five-year absence from the silver screen, was the latest of several highly anticipated Bollywood films subject to a boycott campaign. Ultimately Khan's star power triumphed over his critics, and ticket sales for "Pathaan" smashed India's opening day box office record. Khan afterwards was lavish in his praise for fans who made the film a success. "There is so much love from all sides," he said, "and we can never show enough gratefulness". 'Pathaan' crossed Rs 700 crore worldwide in 9 days.
Image Credit: Yash Raj Films