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On the road to stardom

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Shah Rukh: running for the top

In a world of blow-dried babalog, all trying to stand as tall as Amitabh Bachchan, it’s difficult to be distinguished. But with the release of his first film, the money-spinningDeewana,Shah Rukh Khan – he of the deep dimples and soulful brown eyes fame – is right up there in the spotlight, giving the winsome twosome of Bollywood, Aamir Khan and Salman Khan, a run for their banners and big bucks.

That’s just for starters. In the months to come, Shah Rukh, who was popular as Shekharan in Aziz Mirza’s TV serial Circus, will appear under some of the most enviable banners in the movie industry-from Manmohan Desai to Mani Kaul.

The 27-year-old who once worked for Rs 8,000 per television episode, now reportedly commands Rs 20 lakh for every film. After the release of producer F.C. Mehra’s Chamatkar and Viveck Vaswani’s Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman, he could very well be worth more.

And what’s more, he is finally beginning to enjoy the kind of work he has been doing. Recently, he finished shooting for director Ketan Mehta’s Maya Memsahib and Mani Kaul’s Ahmak based on Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot.

“Yaar,” he says, laying bare his carefree air, “shooting for Mani was something else. I didn’t understand the movie but I loved the art film environment: you bite into a samosa and ask yourself-Who is God? What is life? Who am I?”

As of now, Shah Rukh does not identify himself with Bollywood. Nor does the possible outcome of his venture into the turbid waters of Hindi film scripts strike him with dread. “In six-and-a-half hours I became the nation’s heart-throb,” he says referring to the 13 episodes of Fauji that transformed him into the small screen’s brand new megastar.

“With that kind of exposure, even a door knob can become a star.” Just as easily as fate brought him to the floors of Bombay’s film studios, he says he is willing to return.

Shah Rukh in Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman

But that is a remote possibility now. After spending a year taking flights up and down each week between his home in Delhi and his career in Bombay, Shah Rukh has decided to buy a flat in tinsel town for himself and his wife, Gauri. Critics are already billing him as the next great hope of an industry starved of superstars.

As film and television journalist Iqbal Masud puts it: “While Salman needs a good director, Shah Rukh directs himself. In Deewana, he makes you believe a stupid story. Besides, unlike Aamir who is a youthful actor, Shah Rukh also has style.”

The actor himself sports a healthy scepticism. Despite the fact that he comes from the rugged training grounds of theatre and television, Shah Rukh believes he has only “five standard expressions” and must do everything within the limits of those.

His directors disagree. Many think his spontaneity and nervous energy are in direct contrast to Dilip Kumar, the one actor he is accused of aping.

Says Rakesh Roshan who is directing him in King Uncle with Jackie Shroff: “He has the ingredients of a cult figure. All he needs to do is keep his head on his shoulders.” Hema Malini, who directs him in Dil Aashna Hai, thinks he will: “This is a bright, intelligent actor who has given me no trouble at all.”

Shah Rukh’s insouciance probably stems from his financially secure background. Although his father died 10 years ago, his mother, who died last year, began from scratch, running both a restaurant, Khatir, and a business in Delhi.

It was to get over the trauma of her death that Shah Rukh decided to keep himself busy with moviedom for a year.

On the sets of King Uncle

It’s a year that promises to stretch for a long time. Half a dozen films, includingDil Aashna Haiand Aziz Mirza’s directorial debut in films,Raju Ban GayaGentleman, are on the floors. And in the ready-to-be-releasedChamatkar,an incredible yarn about a ghost, he plays an adorable nerd and holds his own against the maestro, Naseeruddin Shah.

His mother, who placed him on the road to stardom, would have been proud of him. It was through her real estate agent in Delhi, Kamal Deewan, that Shah Rukh got his first big-time break. Deewan’s father-in-law, Colonel Kapoor, was making Fauji and was looking for actors.

By this time, Shah Rukh, a dropout from his MA course in films at Jamia Millia University, had already been spotted in Barry John’s Baghdad Ka Gulam, a Theatre Action Group production, by Lekh Tandon who signed him up for Dil Dariya.

What was supposed to be just’ an experiment’ saw Shah Rukh end five long years of theatre during which he had played a range of roles, varying from a dancer to a clown.

He shot the first four episodes of Fauji between the lunch breaks of DilDariya, moving from Tandon’s sets at Lajpat Nagar to Kapoor’s at Defence Colony. Four years later, he was wrapping up another serial, Doosara Kewal, for Tandon and stepping into his film career with Maya Memsahib.

Still, nothing much seems to have changed for Shah Rukh except that several reputations now hinge on his ability to draw audiences. Although he made the professional transition from stage to television to films with ease, the trappings of glitterati are missing.

With Deepa Sahi in Maya Memsahib

He still travels in his beat-up Gypsy, lives in a home devoid of any furniture, except a computer which is his favourite toy and a pair of dumb bells with which he builds his biceps, refuses to appear at premiers of his producers’ films clad in a tuxedo and keeps away from Bombay’s incestuous filmi crowd.

“At the end of 50 years as an actor, I would have left behind five days of films. Should I give up my family for those five days? I think I would rather enjoy the remaining 49 years and 360 days,” he says.

Ironically, he will place anchor in the film industry with the release of Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman, in which he plays an ambitious architect. In fact, he could have been minting money just running the business his mother left behind. Instead, he has left it to his only sister, realising that his gold mine lies elsewhere. In his winning looks and enthusiastic talent.

As producer and friend Viveck Vaswani says: “He can just look at the audience and they will melt.” In Deewana, when he runs his hands through his hair, the audiences begin to hoot and whistle. They just love the gesture. But Shah Rukh had only done it because he didn’t quite know what to do with his hands.

Shah Rukh is aware of the power of pulchritude but would like to be known as more than just a pretty boy. He is convinced that audiences don’t come to see his films because he is playing a hero: they come to see him.

His one big desire now is to play a villain and “give the Hindi movie creep a whole new dimension”. For a man who loves virtuoso actor Kamala Hasan and consciously imitates the ultimate juvenile hero, Michael J. Fox, that is a believable ambition.

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