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Actor Shah Rukh Khan: Charming the masses 30 years on

November 1, 2022

The Bollywood icon, who turns 57 on November 2, has a vast Indian and global fanbase. DW's Brenda Haas finds that his charm both onscreen and off plays a big role.

Screenshot Instagram Schauspieler Shah Rukh Khan
The 57-year-old actor has buffed up for his upcoming film 'Pathaan' scheduled to release on 25 January 2023Image: Instagram/Shah Rukh Khan

The closest I've come to Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan (yet) was when I was invited to stroke a lock of his hair that was taped onto a page of a fellow reporter's notepad with Khan's signature beneath it.

"You took his hair?!" I asked my openly and utterly besotted colleague, who'd triumphantly returned to the office bearing the lock like a trophy after interviewing him. 

The year was 2001 and SRK — as the actor is known among his fans worldwide, who have been estimated to number 3.5 billion — was in my native Malaysia filming scenes in and outside the capital Kuala Lumpur for his film "One 2 Ka Four" (One, Two or Four).

A media and fan frenzy erupted wherever he went, since by then he'd sealed his reputation as the undisputed "King of Romance." He'd played the male lead in a string of "boy-beats-all-odds-to-get-girl" films, starting with the blockbuster "Dilwale Dulhania La Jayenge" (The Big-Hearted Will Take Away The Bride) in 1995.

DDLJ, as the film is known for short, remains the longest-running film in the history of Indian cinema. As of October 2022, over 27 years after its first release, it is still being shown at the Maratha Mandir theater in India's movie capital Mumbai. Incidentally, it was also the first of his films to be introduced in Germany, triggering SRK fever among German fans, too.

It was in this film that he first struck a pose — outstretched arms and a welcoming, dimpled smile — that many, including US talk show host David Letterman, who interviewed him on his Netflix show in 2019, have tried to mimic. It became a Twitter hashtag in June this year, where #ShahRukhKhan was followed by a special character resembling his iconic pose.

His Bollywood colleague Aamir Khan (they are not related) even made a wry cultural reference to this in his recent release, a Bollywood-ized version of Tom Hanks' "Forrest Gump" titled "Laal Singh Chaddha" currently playing on Netflix.

But back to that lock of hair: My colleague had it framed, telling the quizzical shop owner that it belonged to her dead husband, probably to avoid seeming like an unhinged fan. To be clear, she did get SRK's okay to pluck it off of his jacket. 

Romancer with a 'no kissing' contract

Born on November 2, 1965 in New Delhi, India, Shah Rukh Khan's initial ambition to be an athlete was dashed after an injury during his teens. He later moved to Mumbai, giving himself a year to make it in the Indian film industry that generally favors insiders bearing famous surnames.

He first dabbled in television and played anti-hero roles, since directors initially found his looks "not chocolatey enough." Soon thereafter, he rapidly rose to stardom, with his name now synonymous with the term "Bollywood." And romance, of course.

A woman lies in the arms of Shah Rukh Kahn, who has his hand on her forehead.
Shah Rukh Kahn, seen here with co-star Aishwarya Rai in the film 'Devdas,' describes himself as shyImage: picture-alliance/Mary Evans Picture Library

But what exactly is it about this actor who has 42 million followers on both Twitter and Facebook and 31.3 million on Instagram? Why does he have fan clubs in countries as disparate as Tanzania, Canada, Greece, China, Peru and Germany?

"Bollywood became famous for love stories, and it seems that these are mostly consumed by women. But romance is actually one of the hardest genres to succeed in, unless you have an actor who has chemistry with everyone and can still make it seem like only one is right for him," Vera Wessel, chief editor of Ishq, a German language Bollywood-focused magazine, told DW. 

"Shah Rukh Khan is the best of both worlds: He can act like a big flirt, but in the end when it comes to commitment, he eventually stops joking around and we fall for it," Wessel added.

World Bank economist Shrayana Bhattacharya, who authored a book in 2021 titled "Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh: India's Lonely Young Women and the Search for Intimacy and Independence," wrote that the actor's portrayal of fragile figures — whether as lover, hero, husband, Muslim or villain — and his "teary-eyed displays of humanity" onscreen endear him to fans.

The star himself often downplays his heartthrob status, insisting that he is "very shy." In 2010, he told BBC's Jonathan Ross that he had a "no kissing clause" in his contracts because he is uncomfortable doing it. He has since sparingly smooched in some of his later films.

A poster for the film 'Om Shanti Om' with fans in the background waiting with a sign.
German fans wait for the actor at the Berlinale 2008 festival where he promoted his film 'Om Shanti Om'Image: Rainer Jensen/epa/picture-alliance/dpa

Humor and humility

His razor-sharp wit and self-deprecating humor also increase fans' love for him and make him a favorite media interviewee. For instance, in his TED talk titled "Thoughts on humanity, fame and love," which he presented in Vancouver, Canada, in 2017, he began with: "I sell dreams, and I peddle love to millions of people back home in India who assume that I'm the best lover in the world. If you don't tell anyone, I'm going to tell you I'm not. But I never let that assumption go away."

With perhaps the exception of his three children, whom he fiercely loves and protects, no topic seems off-limits, be it his aging, films that flopped, or the occasional scrutiny of his sexuality. For the record, Khan, who is Muslim, and his Hindu wife, Gauri, have been married for 31 years.

Having clocked 30 years in the Indian film industry this past June, the star has made more than 80 films. He's set to release three films in 2023, after an almost three-year lull caused by the COVID pandemic.

And judging from fans' rave reactions every time he makes a promotional drop on social media for an upcoming release, it's evident that the star still hasn't lost his charm.

Edited by: Sarah Hucal and Louisa Schaefer 

Brenda Haas | Porträt
Brenda Haas Writer and editor for DW Culture