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First Loves: The King of Kitsch

Like any great love affair it begins with the ‘idea of love’.

Its unfortunate when the men you loved when you were younger don’t age the way you’d like them to.

Like any great love affair it begins with the ‘idea of love’. If you are a girl of a certain age and your one cache is your ability to absorb pop culture by the shovelful, you need an object of love. Someone you can pretend to be slightly crazy about so that the others in the school bus can look at you and giggle knowingly when his song plays on the radio. And since Atul Agnihotri is taken, you choose Shahrukh Khan.

The newspapers and the magazines feed your ‘obsession’ by interviewing him relentlessly. You are indifferent to the movies per se, but you cant help be a bit taken in by all the hair- that walking advertisement for hair moisturisers and conditioners that glistens just so when he strums his guitar and sings about the magic in her eyes.

It is still the ‘idea of love’ you’re contending with when you move into a new city and new school. You read Rushdie, and quote angsty poetry – surely it can’t be a real crush? A ‘crush’ in itself is an emotion meant for a baser person than you; an-almost-woman- who dreams of Byronic heroes- dark and tortured souls, part-Heathcliff- part-Rochester? But the city has a few distractions and the only way to spend a weekend is at the movies- and you can’t help it. You sort of laughed at Duplicate (What? He excels at physical comedy!).

You start building an ethos around the object of your affection as your education continues and you read and watch more.  You are in a Liberal Arts college watching sophisticated Rohmers and Tarkowskys and you can no longer admit to having a ‘thing’ for a 30-something old trying too hard to fit into those fluorescent DKNYs. (As you grow older you appreciate that even the brands he chooses are altogether too ‘yuppie,  too ‘wannabe’).

The male-centricism of his movies, the lack of agency his heroines exhibit, the 5-songs-and-a-dance-formula, you talk intelligently about this over undrinkable black coffee; but find yourself defending him if someone else dare say a word.  Let him not be a great actor or even a particularly empathetic one, but let no one doubt that he is the greatest of the Khans.

Then there is this one movie. One director-  Mani Ratnam- who understands exactly what you do about this man. That he is a ball of energy, of vitality, of physicality, of near-electricity, almost dangerous in his near manic desire to please. And he distils that into a movie. You aren’t allowed out often, and this is still far back enough in time that you cant ‘download’, so you make do by standing in line for cheap tickets and watching the movie every weekend for a while (it doesn’t stay for long).

And you play the songs on loop- on an ancient audiocassette  (even as the cooler ones among your friends have already moved to discmen and CDs); and wonder what uns means

Then for a few years there’s nothing. You discover ‘real’ love. You discover Hollywood ‘actors’ (not heroes). They don’t dance – except ‘ironically’, and they pretend-support serious causes.  Every November they compensate for their mindless fluff with a ‘prestigious’ film –often set in historical times. They ‘transform’ themselves for roles, becoming uglier or thinner, or blonder or tanner -or decades older, as the role demands.

He seems to have stayed put playing himself. You still watch all the Friday releases- but he’s larger than life now, and you once liked him in spite of yourself for his every man-ness. That seems to have disappeared with time.

And then one autumn there are two movies. One- a problematic but oddly moving story about a ragtag team of misfits (You pretend it’s the message of empowerment, but really it’s the stubble that draws you in).  And the other a hilarious pastiche of everything he once stood for. You are relieved to discover, that just like you, he revels in the ridiculous. His winking breaking of the fourth wall reminds you that behind all the sparkle, there’s a kernel of intelligence (or that’s what makes you feel better about your taste). Suddenly all the silly doesn’t seem to matter so much, since he’s in the joke.

The cinema around you is changing. People want ‘realism’, less song and a little more weight to their stories. He seems to be a relic almost (and when pitted against some of the lithe, luminous younger actresses- he looks a relic- let’s face it). There is an occasional spark of the wit and charm that attracted you to him earlier. In the movie-within-the-movie of Billu Barber, in a beautifully articulated column he wrote about being a Muslim in India, in an extended train sequence in Chennai Express, and in the way he revels in the slimy suaveness of Don.

But there’s more to dislike. You cannot overlook the age gap any more. You worry that he’s marketing more, and acting less; that he is incapable of reinvention. You hope that the sudden tales of hubris and Sunset Boulevard-ish diva behaviour are media constructs (Just like you, their love for him seems to have soured a bit). And there is also the young interloper Ranveer Singh, who displays all the traits he did when younger- an abandon, a sense of humour, an over-the-top sensibility that makes you cringe and laugh at the same time.

But news trickles in – as it does- about the next couple of movies he’s working on. And in spite of yourself, you’re drawn again. A period bootlegger? A slightly crazed super fan? Those are roles you can see him in. They promise to challenge his actorly muscles, and your viewing sensibilities, without straining them so much that the gaps show. And you begin to feel better about liking him again. At least until they announce that Alia Bhat will be playing his love interest, and that the movie will be part sponsored by Amul Undergarments.

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