A poster for Shah Rukh Khan’s upcoming film “Raees,” on which the actor glowers behind kohl-rimmed eyes, features the phrase “Apna time shuru”: “My time begins.” It could very well be a slogan for where Khan’s own career stands today, even as 2017 marks his 25th year in the movies.
Portraying antagonist Raees Aslam — believed to be loosely based on real-life gangster Abdul Latif (a rumor that the filmmakers have denied) — is, in a way, coming full circle. In the early 1990s, after stints in theater and television, Khan got a taste of big-screen success in what Bollywood refers to as “negative roles”: a vendetta-fueled murderer in “Baazigar,” love-struck stalkers in both “Darr” and “Anjaam.” These were characters that fellow young actors at the time would have considered professional suicide. For Khan, they were a foot further into the door of a world he had until then been an outsider to.
“I’m not from a film background and my family had nothing to do with the industry,” the self-made actor told Indiewire. “I had no idea or guidance on how to ‘do it right.’ So I did it differently — I just didn’t know any better. And I think that helped.”
The antihero roles earned him critical acclaim — even an award or two — but it was his performance as Raj Malhotra, the dreamy, take-home-to-mom charmer in the 1995 blockbuster “Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge,” that sent the world swooning. Similar roles in a succession of happily-ever-after hits in the late ’90s and early 2000s further convinced audiences that nobody could portray love onscreen quite the way Khan did, with his inimitable combination of boyish flirtation, intense passion and wholesome innocence.
But his iconic brand of romance proved to be a double-edged sword: responsible for his staggering fame (he’s been called the biggest movie star in the world), yet also becoming his potential downfall as audiences began to view him as repetitive. But in the last year alone, he’s brazenly branched out, playing the sagacious confidante, and not a Romeo, to his leading lady as a mental health counselor in “Dear Zindagi.” Then he switched tracks entirely in an unsettling dual role as a 25-year-old dangerously obsessed with his movie-star idol in “Fan.”
“I wanted to do something less fluffy, something that required more from me as an actor. People do still love the ‘good’ characters. But I get very attracted to the other extreme too, the darker side, that is also a part of me,” Khan said. “I can’t express that side in real life, but if I have the choice to do so as an actor, I’ll take that chance.”
With “Raees,” he’s returning to the morally ambiguous terrain that got him noticed two decades ago, this time as the shrewd mastermind of a sprawling bootlegging network in 1980s Gujarat. Unlike his initial roles, this part calls for swagger and skill that only an actor with his experience could pull off. But Khan acknowledges that carrying two-and-a-half decades under his belt can weigh heavily, too.
“When you’ve been a public figure for as long as I have, people have set ideas about what you can or should do, and you almost lose the freedom to fail,” he said. “My actions are constantly measured against two heightened parameters of success — the ability to deliver a solid performance, and the ability to meet a certain yardstick for business. It can be difficult as a creative person to fulfil both requirements all the time,” he continued, recalling how “Fan,” while profitable by any reasonable standards, was still deemed a disappointment for falling short of the stratospheric box-office expectations a Shah Rukh Khan film has come to bear.
Taking on “Raees” turned out to come with even more pressure than Khan could predict. The film and its producers were slammed with a defamation suit by the late Latif’s son last April. It has also come under fire for co-starring Pakistani actress Mahira Khan, its release repeatedly delayed by threats from far-right political parties calling for a ban on all artists from the neighboring country after terrorist attacks on Indian security forces late last year opened fresh wounds in India-Pakistan relations. To further complicate matters, the film’s finalized release date now coincides with that of fellow Bollywood bigwig Hrithik Roshan’s “Kaabil,” a clash that will lead to unavoidable opening-day losses for both films.
But the obstacles are bullets Khan is willing to bite if it means continuing to challenge both his craft and his audience. “Even if my films don’t do as well on a commercial level, I won’t give up on seeking that element of surprise because it’s what makes me different, and being different is what made people appreciate my work to begin with all those years ago. I want to keep giving them that,” he said.
If audience anticipation is any indication, Khan has plenty of reason to stay optimistic of “Raees'” payoffs, monetary or otherwise; the film’s first trailer crossed 21 million views on social media platforms within 24 hours of its launch on December 7, obliterating records held by heavyweight actors like Salman Khan and Aamir Khan, and reaffirming his moniker of “King Khan.”
Even after “Raees” makes its long-awaited release this week, the surprises are sure to keep coming. True to the insatiable energy he’s earned a reputation for, Khan admits that while his professional success has been undeniable, creative satisfaction remains elusive. “There’s so much I don’t even know I can do as an actor yet,” he said. “Every time I complete a film, my thirst for what’s next comes back with the same gusto. 25 years on, I’m still looking for the perfect role…but at the same time, I hope I never find it.”