India is a massive, crowded country of hustle and grind. With so many people, competitive drive isn’t just inevitable, it’s admirable. Indian audiences look up to stars who they believe exemplify the rugged warrior virtues that spell success: lithe, statuesque Amitabh Bachan, brawny Sanjay Dutt, or Salman Khan. It’s rare that someone comes along who represents the average Indian, and is loved for it. India doesn’t usually have the wistful admiration for the reticent, yearning everyman. But if the country had their own versions of Jimmy Stewart and Gary Cooper, they’d probably be very close to Dilip Kumar, Naseeruddin Shah, and Shahrukh Khan.
For connoisseurs of Indian cinema, in terms of acting, there’s B.D.K. and A.D.K. - before Dilip Kumar, and after Dilip Kumar. In 1949, he gave an intense, anguished breakthrough performance as the unrelenting love interest of Nargis in Mehboob Khan’s Andaaz. Throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s, he was one of the leading stars, and the only one who was respected for his genuine acting talent. In character and career path, Kumar resembles Laurence Olivier, an urbane tragedian with an occasional penchant for light comedy, as well as Humphrey Bogart—someone wounded by life, cynical, but still rising to the occasion. His greatest performance, as the defiant prince Salim in Mughal-E-Azam (1960), brought together his fascination with history, his theatrical desire to inhabit a great historical character, and his nuanced, vitalizing performance. It is one of the greatest Indian movies with the archetypal dilemma of all Indian heroes at the center - the choice of pride vs. duty.
Naseeruddin Shah is the great maverick of Indian stars. He’s so off-beat and unconventional in his choices, that he’s not even your traditional star. Sharp-eyed and wiry, he resembles Jack Lemmon in the ‘60s, full of nervy energy and mordant wit. He’s best known to international audiences as the resilient patriarch of Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding (2001). In the ‘70s he collaborated with art film directors like Shyam Benegal, Shekhar Kapur, and Muzzaffir Ali in contemplative pieces, like Junoon (1978), Masoom (1983), and Umrao Jaan (1981). In Umrao Jaan, Shah proved his sublime gift for character-acting by taking a minor role, that of a brothel-madam’s son and indolent pimp, Gauhar Mirza, and transforming him into an unforgettable comic portrait of ineffectual dandyism (the scene where he tries to pass off Umrao Jaan’s poetry is his own is marvelous in its feigned pomposity). Shah continues to show off his skill year after year in films like The Great New Wonderful (2005), director Danny Leiner’s bittersweet series of vignettes about New Yorkers coping with their lives in the wake of 9/11, and in an enigmatic portrayal of a shady Bihari politician in Vishal Bhardwaj’s take on Othello, Omkara (2007).
Shahrukh Khan’s reputation precedes him. He’s huge. His celebrity is at level with Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor at the time of their Andy Warhol silkscreen portraits: movie actor as cultural icon. Swarms of people gather at his shows, his movies, and whenever he is hosting an event. How did someone whose appeal is that he’s an accessible, everyguy grow into a superstar? Something similar happened to Tom Hanks, yet few people want to mob him when he’s in public. People have to be literally restrained when Shahrukh walks by, and not just teens, but middle-aged women and men as well. Shahrukh’s movies in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s had him as an awkward, yearning teen. Early on he showed great range in playing both heroes and villains. His relentless stalker in Yash Chopra’s Darr (1993) was a disarmingly poignant portrayal of a morally repugnant character, not unlike Peter Lorre’s child-murderer in M.
His affability and gift for musical performance shot him up the ranks to being one of the most versatile, bankable actors. In 1998, two movies made him the most popular star in Indian commercial cinema, the deliriously inane, but wildly popular Badshaah and Karan Johar’s endearingly schmaltzy Parent Trap send-up, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. His popularity grew, and in recent years he’s shown a gift for nuanced acting in films like Kal Ho Naa Ho (2003), Veer-Zaara (2004), Swades (2004) and Don (2005). He’s one of India’s most well-rounded stars, a thoughtful actor as well as a great dancer and performer, but most important, he’s someone Indians identify with intimately; he could be the teasing neighbor, or the winsome cousin, or a protective brother. Watching him talk to his awe-struck fans on the game show he hosts on his off-season from making movies, Kaun Banega Crorepati (the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? ) is really quite amazing: he’s unusually giving and open for someone so famous, and the audience responds with unabashed enthusiasm and gratitude. In spite of all Shahrukh’s celebrity, he’s never forgotten from where he came.
Dilip Kumar, early ‘50s
Shahrukh Khan in Swades, 2004