Shah Rukh Khan is the ultimate dream of the Indian advertising agency, says Julien Cayle of the Australian School Of Business in “Shah Rukh Khan and the Creation of the Cosmopolitan Indian male“. He certainly was a great boon to the advertising industry in India,
endorsing more than 25 brands, from computers and cars to vegeatable oil, facial creams, noodles, and cream biscuits. However this ubiquity rather than hurting SRK’s image, helps to make him the quintessential pan-Indian male.
SRK, atleast in advertising and consumerist terms, epitomizes what it means to be ‘Indian’ today. According to Julien SRK has become,
one of the symbols that can represent the idea of India in the minds of audiences.
I have previously alluded to the ‘Bollywood nationalism’ of India’s middle classes, where the Indian nation is represented by its consumption opportunities not its democratic or pluralistic values.
SRK has become what he is today, because he has played a diverse set of roles and appealed to a very heterogenous audience,
He has played Hindu (Devdas) and Muslim (Chak De) characters. He has been a country bumpkin trying to adjust to urban life (Chahaat) and urban executive trying to succeed in the big city (Yes Boss); a non-resident Indian working on a NASA project in the US (Swades) and an Indian pilot in love with a Pakistani woman (Veer Zaara).
To these I can add the Punjabi NRI (DDLJ) and the Goan (Kabha Haa Kabhi Naa)1. SRK’s popular appeal is thus based on his ability to straddle the fundamental fault lines of life in India today,
village and city, poverty and wealth, modernity and tradition.
So he remains popular among the lower middle class, the urban poor and the small towns due to his remarkable adaptability and also his unassuming, boy next door type of personality. Indeed he repeatedly stresses his,
humble beginnings in New Delhi, of losing his parents at an early age, of love for his family, all of which increase as the regular, approachable guy.
But SRK’s appeal to the consuming middle classes of the metros are not solely due to these earthly values. It must be noted that the metro youth of India increasingly see themselves vis a vis their counterparts in the developed West. To them SRK represents the ‘global’ Indian, assertive in the global arena yet connected to his Indian roots. Cayla gives the example of the Hyundai i10 commercial:
What does this commercial represent ? The key stress points are the fact that the i10 premiered in India (highlighting the emergence of India as a major economic player) and the blonde girl (clearly identified as the West) representing an effiminate, weak West trying to catch up with an assertive, masculine India. This of course is a complete fallacy, economic integration with the West is absolutely integral to the transformation of urban India. And in the relationship between America and India, the former is still very much the dominant partner, in any sphere1.
Julien says that the emergence of SRK after Amitabh Bachchan reflects the transformation of the,
citizen-patriot of the 1970s to the consumer-patriot of the new century
If this is indeed true, it reflects a most disturbing development.
Now for my question 🙂 . What if SRK went on Hajj ? Would he still remain a pan-Indian icon. Would the upper caste Hindu middle classes accept him ? They mostly know him as Raj, Rahul or Rohit. Would they accept this assertion of his Indian-Muslim identity ?
1: The role that really endeared him to the masses for the first time
2: A very cursory glance at much of the pop/intellectual/economic culture of India will reveal a huge influence or admiration of America. In no way am I implying that this is a bad thing. It is merely enriching an already very rich mosaic of cultures.