It would be disingenuous if this story ran without this disclaimer: as a diehard Shah Rukh Khan fan who has adored the man for the better part of two decades, I'm willing, as hard as it is humanly possible, for his upcoming movie, Zero, to waltz straight into the hearts of the audience, and break the box office in a way that has eluded Khan for some time now.
I really, really, so badly want it to.
I suspect most ardent fans of the megastar have been feeling the same mix of hope and trepidation in the days leading up to a big release – and let's face it, if it has anything to do with Khan, it's always a big release – for several years. Hope, because we'd like nothing more than to see him reinstated to his former glory and silence all the haters who leave no opportunity to gleefully announce that he's "over" and his career is "finished"; and fear, because we're not yet ready to consider the awful notion that there might be a grain of truth to the pronouncement.
With SRK now 53, it leaves me wondering how long can it be before even devoted fans tire of the increasingly longer gaps between movies that are worth waiting for, and stop showing up at cinemas? From being the biggest movie star in the world in 2014, out-earning even Tom Cruise and Johnny Depp, to altogether dropping off of Forbes' list of the world's highest-paid actors in 2018, the past four years haven't been kind to King Khan, as he is popularly called. Sure, some of his movies, most notably Chennai Express, Dilwale and Happy New Year have made obscene amounts of money, but the general sentiment over his more recent cinematic choices has been that of resignation, and a hunger left unfulfilled.
How did a man who could make entire generations of women swoon and drop everything to rush into his arms on screen every time he threw them wide open, end up in a string of movies with no heart? How did someone who could hypnotise his hero-loving audience of the 1990s, changing their virtue and getting them to root for a murderous, vengeful anti-hero (Baazigar, Darr, Anjaam) allow himself to be pigeonholed into middling performances and insincere scripts? Where did the gravitas of Chak De's Kabir Khan, the impish smile of Paheli's ghost, Devdas's piercing gaze, and the earnestness of Swades's Mohan Bhargav go? Strictly speaking, the last time both the critics and the box office gave Khan a combined green light was in 2012, when he shared screen space with Anushka Sharma and Katrina Kaif in Jab Tak Hai Jaan, a bittersweet romantic drama.
Cut to six years and seven movies later, the trio has reunited for another love triangle mounted on an even bigger canvas than their previous big-budget outing together. Sharma plays a Nasa scientist with cerebral palsy, Kaif essays the role of a superstar actress with an alcohol addiction, and Khan plays a 38-year-old rich, overindulged, vertically challenged, single man from a small town in India, who has trouble finding himself a bride due to his height. A strange series of events see him wooing not one, but two women who can only be called way, way out of his league, for completely different reasons. Zero is a film about Khan's character discovering himself, his purpose, and his true love. It has also been made on a staggering budget of 2 billion Indian rupees (Dh104 million), and is the most expensive Khan film to date. VFX technology – the kind used in The Lord of the Rings – has been used heavily to shrink Khan's character to three feet. The movie also borrows elements from the superhero genre.
But there's more to this deep-seated desire to see Khan reclaim the title that seems to be slipping away than a fan simply not being prepared to see her favourite star's glory days fade away. Even if he never makes a movie again, or decides to hang up his acting shoes after a few more neither-here-nor-there performances, there is no changing the fact that he was the first template of love for an entire generation of his fans. Like him or hate him, you can't take that away from the man.
The reason I want Zero to be a stupendous, roaring, critical and commercial success is that after almost three decades of entertaining people, giving them a reason to smile, feel good about themselves, and daydream about love, it's time that he gets to live out his dream. If Khan is approaching the twilight years of his career, he deserves to go out being remembered as more than the boy next door that everyone wanted to claim as theirs. If this is simply the next stage of a career destined to glow brighter once the period of disruption ends, what better way than for Khan to hoist himself out of the complacent trenches of rom-com on the back of a character so much smaller than what the mythology of his persona is used to?
And then there is the little point about Zero being inspired by superheroes. Khan's passion for action and superhero films is not exactly a secret, even if it's not as widely spoken about as his wildly successful forays into romance. It is a preoccupation and ambition that is impregnable to reason, or argument. It's the reason he is toying with the idea of making a sequel to Ra.One, despite its crushing failure. Ironically, romance, the genre that he owes his embarrassment of riches to, has never stoked Khan's creative fires. Aditya Chopra, during an interview for the book SRK25 Years of a Life, said that Khan almost turned down the script of Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge – the movie that created his romantic lover- boy image – because he wanted to be offered an action-packed script instead. He'd always rather be offered a script that includes a lot of action instead, which probably explains his erratic, unfathomable choices in recent years.
It would be poetic justice if SRK's swan song, or resurrection, whichever this might be, is credited to a movie like Zero – there is an unmistakable parallel to be drawn between Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge and Zero. While one established him as the unlikely, scruffy-looking poster boy of romance no one saw coming, the other could quite possibly give Bollywood the wiry, imperfect, unexpected superhero it needs.
As we wait to find out, all we can hope for is that: picture abhi baaki hai mere dost (there's more left to this movie, my friend), to paraphrase Khan's famous quote from Om Shanti Om.
Zero is in cinemas across the UAE from December 21