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Shah Rukh Khan: How Bollywood’s Romance King Became an Action Star

Over three decades of his movie career, Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan’s boyish charm, twinkling eyes and dimpled smile have become synonymous with charming romantic heroes he’s best known for playing. This year, he’s returned to the screen transformed – a rugged, action star.

In a scene from his latest film Jawan, a bald-headed, menacing Khan is seen surrounded by terrified passengers as he holds a metro train hostage. He soon bursts into song and dance, much to the confusion of his captives.

The film’s trailer had warned audiences: “When I become a villain, no hero stands a chance.”

Khan, a household name in India, is also one of the country’s most popular stars with millions of fans domestically and abroad.

His return to movies after a hiatus is Bollywood’s biggest success story this year. In place of the tender romance hero is “a lean, mean, fighting machine”, as film critic Anupama Chopra calls him.

Khan has forayed into action before with films like Don (2006) and Raees (2017) but these rarely emphasised the larger-than-life persona his latest hits Pathaan and Jawan have.

Ms Chopra says it signals a “new phase in his career”.

Khan began 2023 with the spy film Pathaan in which he was seen racing against time to save the country from a terror attack. The film broke domestic box office records to cross $120m (£98m) in four weeks. His latest film Jawan – showcasing the actor in a double role and multiple avatars – surpassed the record last month in 18 days.

“The persona we’re seeing on screen now is very different from what we’ve seen in earlier films,” Ms Chopra says.

Khan’s initial success in films came in anti-hero roles – a stalker in Darr (1993), an obsessive lover in Baazigar (1993), a vengeful antagonist in Anjaam (1994). But the 1995 blockbuster Dilwali Dulhania Le Jayenge firmly established him as a romantic hero.

Since then, he’s acted in a host of dramas and comedies but remains the king of romance. His signature pose – arms spread out wide as he mouths the words to a romantic ballad – has defined many of his characters.

Jawan and Pathaan keep the wit and charisma of this persona but feature Khan as a muscled superstar performing gravity-defying stunts.

Critic Rahul Desai says the two films have revived his career and stardom.

They manage a tough balancing act every director working with Khan must face, Ms Chopra says – “fan service, bolstering the myth [of the star] while giving something new to the audience”.

Khan’s four-year absence from films came after a series of setbacks in his personal and professional life. In 2016 and 2017, his films opened to middling reviews and lacklustre box office. Since 2018, his appearances have remained confined to cameos and voiceovers. In 2021, his son Aryan Khan’s arrest over drug possession became national news. The fake charges were eventually dropped.

Pathaan and Jawan channel Khan’s personal and professional frustrations in the “most obvious and visual way possible”, Mr Desai says.

The two films have different styles yet their message is similar – a patriotic hero surrounded by allies of diverse religious and regional backgrounds who work together to save a country in crisis.

The theme stands in stark contrast to a category of recent Bollywood films – like Kerala Story (2022) and Kashmir Files (2021) – that have received praise from Prime Minister Narendra Modi and leaders of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). These films claim some connection with either Hindu religious beliefs or nationalism. Though unpopular with some critics, they have been hits.

In Jawan, Khan plays the son of an army officer (also played by Khan) fighting to clear his father’s name of trumped-up charges. He wears multiple hats as he takes on a corrupt political system to bring justice denied to the common man.

Khan’s films have often merged fiction and life, Mr Desai says, “Our enjoyment is derived from the illusion that we’re watching him as much as the men he plays,” he wrote in his review of Jawan.

“Earlier, these movies were self-reverential, celebratory in terms of his superstar legacy,” Mr Desai tells the BBC. “The difference now is that films like Pathaan and Jawan fictionalise his identity and opinions as a person (celebrity, father, lover, patriot), and his relationship with the country/establishment in the current climate.”

The subtext is not entirely new to his films – critics say a lot of his older films also had political undertones.

“A film like Swades (in which he plays a Nasa engineer who returns to live in India) was talking about a certain kind of patriotism,” Ms Chopra says. “But what’s happened in the last few years in India and in his life has led to much deeper reading of political undertones.”

Since Mr Modi’s nationalist government came to power, activists say the frequency of hate crimes against Muslims and other minorities has increased. The BJP denies the accusations, but its leaders rarely condemn such incidents.

“This year’s blockbusters have understood and designed Khan’s comeback not just as an actor but as a Muslim superstar in a country governed by a Hindu-majoritarian party,” Mr Desai says.

“A lot of the viewers don’t realise that they’re actually rooting for the tolerance and old-school secularism he represents when they watch these movies,” he adds.

A scene from Jawan referenced by critics and audiences alike is Khan’s monologue on the importance of voting and political accountability.

Several political parties, including the ruling BJP and the opposition Congress, claimed it referred to the other.

Ms Chopra says its a good sign “when you do something that has impact across the board”.

Khan’s success with these films “has propelled him back into a space where he’s not just a nostalgic idea anymore”, Mr Desai says.

But Shrayana Bhattacharya, author of the book Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh, says Khan has always been too loved to need a “revival”.

Ms Bhattacharya spent 15 years interviewing the superstar’s fans for her book. “No-one ever reduced him to the banal binaries of identity politics,” she says.

Excited fans have mobilised to see their favourite actor after a hiatus, Ms Bhattacharya says. “They wanted to express solidarity and enjoy themselves. Fun is subversive in its own ways.”

Khan still has a lot to offer as an actor, Mr Desai says. “I look forward to him ageing, getting more secure with his stardom, going beyond making statements and choosing more diverse roles.”

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