Global Star Profiles: Shah Rukh Khan

by Meher Tatna March 27, 2020
Indian star Shah Rukh Khan

Ashley Allen - CPL T20/getty images

In 2008, Newsweek listed him as one of the top 50 most powerful people in the world, a list that included Obama, Oprah and Osama Bin Laden. In 2011, the Los Angeles Times called him “the biggest movie star you’ve never heard of . . . perhaps the world’s biggest movie star, period.” In 2014, he was conferred the “Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur” from the government of France, his second such honor after the “Officier de L’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres” in 2007.

He has been called “King Khan,” the “Badshah of Bollywood” and “King of Bollywood.” His fans call him SRK.

Shah Rukh Khan, a superstar for 30 years in India, has 3.5 billion fans across the world, particularly in Germany, Canada, Russia, Australia, and the Middle East, and more people have heard of him than of Tom Cruise. His movies hit the top 10 every so often on the US charts. He has 30 million fans on Facebook, almost 40 million on Twitter and 21 million on Instagram.

Khan, now 53, a Muslim born in Delhi, was raised by his grandmother in his early years. He moved to Mumbai to follow a girl, he told David Letterman on My Next Guest Needs No Introduction. Knowing only that she liked to swim, he looked for her on every beach in Mumbai till he actually found her. They married in 1991and he and Gauri Khan, who is Hindu, have three children.

Aside from his acting career which encompasses 80 movies, Khan presides over a business empire. He is the owner of a film production company; is co-owner of two premier league cricket teams; has appeared on numerous TV shows, including hosting India’s version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, Are You Smarter than a Fifth-Grader? and TED Talks; produces concerts and sells out arenas like the Hollywood Bowl all over the world; and is the brand ambassador of countless products like Tag Heuer, Pepsi, Nokia, Dish TV, and Hyundai.

For some reason, he is not that well known in the US outside of the Indian diaspora. He has twice been profiled at US airports because of his Muslim name and detained till his identity was established. “Whenever I start feeling too arrogant about myself, I always take a trip to America,” he said during a speech at Yale University, after he was released the second time from LAX. “The immigration guys kicked the star out of stardom.”

And though he was a presenter at the Golden Globes for Best Foreign Language Film the year of Slumdog Millionaire in 2009, some producers of the show had to be convinced of his stardom before the booking was made.

At a press conference with the HFPA in 2011, for his film Ra One, Khan explained how he sees his movie stardom. “The only entertainment available in our country is cinema,” he told our members. “And of course, television, which is also 50% derived from cinema. India doesn't have the culture of rock stars yet. We don't have musicians or singers becoming famous and holding concerts, like you have here. We don't even have sports as entertainment in a very big way. So, with films being the only mode of common man's entertainment, whenever people do well in cinema, somehow people really think that you are the chosen one. To get to be chosen between 1.2 billion people and suddenly make it so big. If you're traveling around the world, every fifth person knows you. And so it's quite amazing actually.”

He readily admits that the adulation he receives is way out of proportion to his talent. “It's just shocking how much they love you, and especially people away from the country. They feel it’s the only connection they have left with India. So, it's kind of an emotional bond, rather than a professional bond with stars. In the US, everyone is, oh, he's a big star. He's a professional, so wonderful to see him. But in India, it's like, oh, he's my guy, you know, it's a very emotional bond. That's why they love you a lot. And they hate you enough also equally.”

He explains the downside of his fame. “They get very angry with you if you disturb their vision of what they expect you to be. If you become a movie star, people expect you to be a certain kind of a good human being. Because if you're the chosen one, there must be something really nice about you. You can't be a bad guy and be a star. So, you kind of have to try and live up to the expectation. Speak the right thing, because it is a little constricting to be a movie star. And yeah, people make temples, so you're kind of a demigod. So you have to behave demigod-ish-like even if you're not.”

The level of celebrity worship in India is astonishing. Aside from the temples built in his honor, fans travel thousands of miles to get a glimpse of Khan. Every year on his birthday and on Diwali, they gather outside his home in the blazing sun for hours just to see him wave and blow kisses for a few minutes. They dress like him, follow him, obsessively watch his movies, collect memorabilia, send marriage proposals. The adulation is almost the same in other countries.

Here’s the LA Times describing Khan’s reception in China last year for the Beijing Film Festival where his movie Zero was the closing night film. “Screaming fans surged toward actor Shah Rukh Khan as he stepped out from the arrivals gate at Beijing Capital International Airport. One fan who had traveled from faraway Xinjiang placed a dark embroidered hat common to China’s Uighur ethnic minority on his head, as others embraced and kissed him. Another fan gave him a dutar, a traditional Central Asian lute that she’d flown all the way from the region.

“Sha Sha!” they cried, using his Chinese nickname.”

A lot of Bollywood films actually make more money in China than India.

One of Khan’s movies, Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, has run for 20 years in India. For some reason, that film captured the hearts of his fans in Germany where he extremely popular. It was released as Wer Zuerst Kommt, Kriegt Die Braut. Khan shot to stardom in Germany when his blockbuster Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham was shown on television in 2006. His films show on the television channel RTL II where the dialog is dubbed but the songs stay in the original Hindi. He was mobbed by fans at the 58th Berlinale where he presented Om Shanti Om.  He told the magazine DW, “I don't think that with our type of cinema or with the songs, it's about understanding the language. It's about what people feel. And it appears to me that people in Germany are very fond of our films, which appeal to their emotions." He is routinely mobbed if he films in Germany. There is even a magazine called Ishq in Germany that focuses only on Bollywood.

Khan has a large fan following in Russia as well. Russian SRK Club is a fan account on Twitter. He has fan pages on vkontakte.ru, a popular social networking site, where fans quote dubbed dialog from some of his popular films. On a satellite channel called India TV, Russian fans can see Bollywood films. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev made a ceremonial visit to Khan’s house when he visited India in 2010.

In 2016, Khan visited the Morocco Film Festival. The BBC reported that he was surrounded by thousands of fans all screaming and waving, trying to touch him and get photos. He was literally treated as royalty, being the guest of honor of king Mohammed VI who honored him with the ‘L’Etoile d’Or", the first Indian to be so honored.

In 2019, Khan was in Melbourne to receive an honorary doctorate from La Trobe University. Here’s the Guardian Australia:

“No doubt it was the most raucous graduation here in years. During the official speeches, the La Trobe chancellor and former Victorian premier, John Brumby, quipped that there weren’t usually so many people here to listen to him address graduation events. “It’s Shah Rukh,” came a voice from the audience, without a hint of irony. Later another interjection, one of many: “Make love to me,” said a man in the crowd. For a university courting the international student market, Khan’s appearance is a coup of epic proportions.”

The ultimate accolade for a movie star has to be a statue in Madame Tussaud’s wax museum. Khan’s likeness was installed in the London museum in 2007, followed by others in Los Angeles, Hong Kong, New York, and Washington.

Or maybe it’s gaining a brand-new fan in David Letterman who traveled all the way to Mumbai to interview him for the Netflix show. Letterman actually climbed onto Khan’s roof to gape at the thousands of fans that had showed up on his doorstep to greet him. He said to Khan at the end of his show which was taped in New York: “After each one of these sessions, I think to myself, that’s a very smart, very lovely person from whom I have learned things. And you would maybe be at the top of that list.”