The Tears Behind the Mask

Shoma Chaudhury in conversation with Shah Rukh Khan at THiNK 2012 session
The Solitude of a Superstar: The Public-Private Journey of a Dream Catcher’

With startling honesty, lyricism, genuine feeling and plenty of swearing, Shah Rukh Khan was the star turn on an exciting, at times explosive last day at THiNK. And that was before Anna Hazare went onstage. Dapper in a dark suit (Dolce and Gabbana, apparently) and blue shirt, his hair pulled into a sort of small rat tail, Khan, interviewed by Tehelka managing editor Shoma Chaudhury, spoke about a memoir about his first decade in the acting business, the sorrow and fear that spur him to act on, to seek commercial success. “Adulation”, Khan read at the end, “has the distinct quality of isolation.” Loneliness and abandonment were themes of the extracts from which Khan read. The session, ‘In the Green Room’, was revealingly subtitled ‘The Solitude of a Superstar’. It is easy to imagine that an actor whose fame spans the globe would need solitude, a place no one can reach — a reminder that he too, like the rest of us, is essentially alone.

Khan began the interview talking of his father, “the most successful failure in the world”. A man whose gentleness, whose kindness, whose ability to turn even deprivation into a game, could not disguise the fact that he was broken. “My father was a non-practicing lawyer,” said Khan, only semi-joking, “because he said he could not lie.” He later read a touching extract about a visit he took with his father to Peshawar, a visit his romantic father talked up for weeks trying to bury squalid family politics beneath nostalgia for an invented paradise. The two walked along the no man’s land between the borders of India and Pakistan. Seeing his father in tears, the son tried to reassure him: “It was a nice visit to your country.” “I think,” his father replied, “I belong not to one side nor the other but to this no man’s land.” Khan’s mother, a magistrate, was more straightforward, her feet firmly rooted to the earth. “I imbibed both sides,” Khan said, “and became a very pragmatic, practical poet.” The poetic side was in evidence in much of the writing Khan read, closing with a meditation on loneliness that drew on WH Auden. Khan’s fraught family life, the loss of his parents, his sister’s inability to cope with her grief, are the motivation for him to succeed. “I like to be,” he said, “just bloody successful.” He is willing to compromise to live the good life — the house, cars, fancy holidays — and unashamed to admit it. But he also evoked the laughter of a lonely, struggling mother and her “strange son” at a scene in one of his movies as a primary motivation. The pragmatic, practical poet.

In between the emotional revelations were a lot of jokes and an extended anecdote about the violent revenge he attempted to take on a tabloid journalist who made up a rumour about him “being physical” with (“ok, banging the shit out of”) a co-star. He spoke too of teaching his children about Islam as a religion of peace, of using My Name Is Khan to show people that he would not allow Islam to be hijacked by the suicide bombers and extremists. It may be lonely at the top, but the applause and cheers of a crowd thorougly moved and entertained must make that loneliness a lighter burden to bear.

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