In 1980, Meer took a 14-year old Shah Rukh to Pakistan. It was their second visit. After repeated requests, the Pakistani authorities had finally given Meer a visa in the mid-1970s. He had applied earlier when his sister and later a brother nicknamed Brahamachari (bachelor), because he had never married, had died. But the blacklisted freedom fighter was rejected both times. The authorities only relented when Meer pleaded that he be allowed to meet with his family before they all passed away.
The journey was long and arduous. Father and son first traveled by train to Amritsar and then to a small border town named Attari. This was the only official road crossing between India and Pakistan. Meer and Shah Rukh walked across the designated no man’s land between the two countries to Wagah in Pakistan and traveled on to Peshawar to Meer’s family home. On the way, Meer told Shah Rukh stories of his childhood and how much Shah Rukh resembled Brahamachari who also had a talent for mimicry and playing practical jokes.
The first visit, made when Shah Rukh was 12, was a happy memory. The ancestral haveli was large and teeming with people. Several generations lived together as a joint family. Shah Rukh had met far-flung relatives and romped with cousins his age. His first cousin Mansoor Khan Mir recalled Shah Rukh entertaining the family by dressing up as a girl with kajal in his eyes and flowers in his hair. There were several beautiful, fair-skinned female cousins. They couldn’t step outside without their head covered but at home they wore elaborate make-up. They took Shah Rukh with them to the teeming markets. He watched Pakistani movies and even traveled to see the Khyber Pass. But on the second visit, the veneer of affection wore thin. A common friend warned Shah Rukh that his cousins were only being nice to him because they wanted Meer to leave his share of the property in Pakistan to them.
Shah Rukh did not believe this, but as they walked back across the border, he saw new anguish in his father’s eyes. Meer had left behind a family and life in Peshawar to pursue his ambitions in Delhi. But there too, his ventures had failed. He was literally and metaphorically in no man’s land. A few months after the journey to Pakistan, Meer fell ill. Shah Rukh believed that his father died later that year as much from unhappiness as cancer.
When a blister on his tongue persisted for months, Meer went to see a doctor. The diagnosis was oral cancer. Meer’s tongue bled. He could not eat, and soon he was unable to talk. In six months, the handsome strapping man was reduced to a skeleton, bent over with the fatigue of pain. He had to be carried to the bathroom. At times, blood gushed out of his mouth like a geyser and splattered walls two feet away.
At first Meer wrote instructions for his family but as the disease ravaged his body, his writing became unsteady. He was too weak to even pick up a pencil. Shah Rukh and Meer then communicated through signs and gestures, playing a poignant game of dumb charades. It was a strange sight—a boy who can talk gesticulating for a man who can hear—but perhaps both preferred the silence. Toward the end, even gesturing became difficult for Meer.
Father Meer Taj Mohammad, mum Fatima Lateef and older sister Shahnaz Lala Rukh Khan
Despite the quick corrosion of Meer’s body, Shah Rukh never believed that his father would die. It annoyed him to watch doctors clinically poking and tapping Meer’s shrinking body. The stench in the ward was overwhelming. Meer shared the room with three other patients and an empty space usually meant that one more had succumbed. Like most sons, Shah Rukh believed his father was a superhero who would defeat the disease. A few days before his death, Meer actually seemed to be improving. He was discharged from hospital. At home, he shaved and ate some ice cream. The blue marks on his cheek from chemotherapy were fading. He looked better than he had in months.
Even when Meer was rushed back to Safdarjung Hospital, Shah Rukh was unperturbed. By now, hospitals were a familiar routine. Shah Rukh did not visit his father through the day. At around two a.m. on September 19, a nurse called to tell the family that Meer was dead. Fatima did not break the news to Shah Rukh immediately. She just said Meer wanted to meet them. This time Meer was lying alone on a gurney in another hospital room. His mouth was slightly parted and his eyes were half shut. His body was icy cold. Shah Rukh furiously rubbed his feet, trying to infuse some warmth. The sight of blood trickling out of his father’s ear would stay with him his whole life. Fatima and Shah Rukh returned home early in the morning. The driver had left by then and Shah Rukh got behind the wheel of their Fiat car. When Fatima asked him when he had learned to drive, he replied, ‘Just now.’
A light rain started as they lowered Meer’s body into the ground. Bhavanimal Mathur, an old family friend, said it was as though nature itself was mourning the loss of a fine man. Fatima was devastated but she did not have the luxury of mourning for Meer. She had little money and two children to raise. When she married, Fatima had been a child herself. Naïve and temperamental, she was almost too spoiled to tend to home and hearth. But experience honed her into a strong, willful woman who refused to allow the untimely death of her husband to damage her family. Fatima was already working as a magistrate. She took over the family business interests, running a small restaurant called Khatir and an agency for oil.
Meer’s death derailed Shahnaz’s life. Even as children, Shahnaz and Shah Rukh had distinct temperaments. Shah Rukh was driven and forceful, almost seething with a quiet determination to get ahead. Shahnaz was impulsive and reckless. She was more complacent, happier to dream than do.
Shahnaz was much closer to Meer than Shah Rukh. Meer especially chose her middle name, Lala Rukh, which means ‘beauteous like a poppy’. He liked the name so much that he had suggested it to Kanhaiya Lal when his daughters were born. But Kanhaiya Lal thought the name was too foreign and exotic for his rural surroundings. Over a decade later, when his own daughter was born, Meer took great pleasure in naming her Lala Rukh. True to her name, Shahnaz had grown into an alluring woman. Her light eyes and fair skin attracted a legion of suitors.
At the time of Meer’s illness, Shahnaz was a student at the Lady Shri Ram College. Meer had insisted that she live in the college hostel. He believed that it would be an additional education. The hostel had helped to shield Shahnaz from the grind of Meer’s deterioration. When Meer died, Shah Rukh went to the college to fetch his sister. Fatima had instructed him not to tell Shahnaz and he spent most of the rickshaw ride home looking away from her. She reached the house unaware that her father was dead.
They were living then in a matchbox-sized apartment in Safdarjung. As Shah Rukh and Shahnaz walked up to their second floor flat, Shahnaz noticed the flurry of movement. She asked Shah Rukh what was going on and he mumbled something about Meer being unwell. Shahnaz walked into the house. When she saw Meer’s body, swathed in white, lying inert in the center of their tiny living room, surrounded by wailing women, Shahnaz collapsed like a tree felled by an axe. Her fall shattered glasses of water, which were placed on the floor. For days, Shahnaz did not shed a tear. Instead she retreated into a depression from which she would never fully emerge.
Shah Rukh was two weeks short of his fifteenth birthday. He never wrote poetry again. Without Meer around to record them, the jejune rhymes no longer seemed special. Shah Rukh grieved, exhausted and fiercely angry but he bounced back without pause. His eighth grade teacher Seetha Venkateshwaran recalled: ‘He wasn’t the type to miss school and his mother wasn’t the type to make him stay back. He just moved ahead.’
The St. Columba’s School, where Shah Rukh enrolled in kindergarten in January 1972 when he was six years old, is an imposing institution spread over several acres of south Delhi. Founded by the Indian Province of the Congregation of Christian Brothers, it was started on April 29, 1941 with 32 boys enrolled. The school’s reputation grew with its size. By 1955, the students numbered 2200, and a new building had been added.
The Irish Brothers were famous for discipline. Up to the late 1980s, corporal punishment was used at St. Columba’s. Smaller children were spanked. Older ones were caned on their backsides—a few whacks meant sitting on a sweater or bag all day to cushion the cuts. And the eldest boys were rapped on their knuckles and fingertips. On cold winter days, the canes connecting with frozen fingertips caused immediate blisters. The Brothers hid canes in their robes. If a rule was broken, punishment was immediate and agonizing.
The school insisted on clipped nails and short hair. Anybody with hair over the designated length was sent from school to the barber on the sidewalk at the nearby Gole market. Shah Rukh, blessed with a dense, unruly mop made this trip often. It was seven-thirty a.m. and the barber had usually just woken up. He had morning breath and eyes full of sleep but he began the haircut with the same question, ‘What style haircut do you want, Dharmendra or Amitabh Bachchan?’ Years later, Shah Rukh knew he had attained stardom when hair stylists told him that clients were asking for the Shah Rukh Khan cut.
The specter of cane-carrying priests and the lengthy roster of rules at St. Columba’s didn’t deter Shah Rukh. He was a master prankster. His best tricks were witty, audacious and usually put his budding acting talent to use. In the ninth grade, he borrowed an Amitabh Bachchan line from a film called Kaalia to convince a teacher that his parents and the school administration mistreated him. The teacher was his only tenuous support. Considering this and his fragile mental state, he told her, she should allow him to skip some upcoming tests. ‘Mere liye toh oopar bhagwan hai, neeche aap. Beech mein Yamraj talwar le kar vaar kar raha hai,’ he said. ‘For me, God is above and you below. In between, Yamraj, the Lord of Death, is attacking me with his sword.’ The implication being that the teacher was the only one who could save him from destruction. She bought it and allowed him to miss the tests.
By the 11th grade, he was more daring. Once, when class got unbearably monotonous, Shah Rukh feigned an epileptic fit. He fell on the floor and started frothing at the mouth. His friends, in on the con, convinced the teacher, who happened to be wearing suede shoes, that the only way to rouse Shah Rukh was by making him smell a suede shoe. The teacher promptly volunteered his. Finally they carried him and the shoe out on the pretext of taking him to a doctor. They loitered outside school while the teacher hopped around with one shoe all day.
On occasions, when the joke went too far, Fatima was summoned to school to discuss her errant son. But Shah Rukh never crossed the line enough to invite suspension or expulsion. Good grades gave him leeway. So did his sporting activities: Shah Rukh played hockey, football and cricket and led the school teams in several sports. ‘He was a boundary breaker,’ said his middle school headmaster, Brother Eric d’ Souza, ‘but he was also smart enough to live on the edge and not get caught.’
Brother d’ Souza was the resident rock star at St. Columba’s. He stretched the definition of both teacher and priest and was a seminal influence in Shah Rukh’s life. Eric was in his twenties but being younger than other teachers wasn’t his only distinguishing feature. Eric had long hair and he played the guitar. In charge of several co-curricular activities, he hung out with the boys after school and gave their adolescent angst a sympathetic ear. Students could gather in his room for a dose of music and advice. Eric initiated them into the latest Western chartbusters including Pink Floyd’s excitingly subversive ‘Another Brick in the Wall.’ He remembered each boy by his first name. He was brimming with new, dynamic ideas. Eric introduced computers to the school, writing a text book for the students himself.
But the priest was no slouch in the severity department. He insisted on academic brilliance and caned students when they fell short of their potential. If a student was capable of getting 95 out of 100 marks, 90 were not good enough. Eric, who was nicknamed kauwa or crow by the boys because he had a hook nose and dark skin, tried to instill in them the necessity of thinking out of the box and continuously raising the bar. He was equal parts nightmare and role model.
In 1983, Eric cast Shah Rukh in his first major role: that of the wizard in a musical called The Wiz, based on The Wizard of Oz. There was stiff competition but Shah Rukh got the role because, Eric said, ‘he was versatile and had enough self-belief to be goofy if necessary.’ Shah Rukh had so much confidence that he even attempted to sing the songs in the musical but he couldn’t pull it off. Eric, who had a soaring, sonorous voice, and another boy Palash Sen who would grow up to be a famous vocalist, were Shah Rukh’s first playback singers (that is they actually sung the songs, which he lip-synched on stage).
The highlight of Shah Rukh’s school days was the creation of a ‘gang.’ On September 9, 1984, eighteen-year-old Shah Rukh and four of his closest friends formed the C-Gang. The C stood for cool. Coolness was the group’s mission, function and reason for being. The boys worked toward it. Vivek Khushalani was the rich kid. His father brought T-shirts from America for the gang. Each shirt had the C-Gang logo and the member’s name at the back. Raman Sharma’s cousin, a graphic designer, created the logo. She painted a tiny but visible ‘C-Gang’ on their white uniforms so that even in school their special status was underlined. The other members were Bikash Mathur and Shah Rukh’s closest friend Ashok Vassan. Outside school, the designated C-Gang uniform was gray Nike shoes,
blue jeans and white T-shirts. The boys had laminated identity cards made in a shop in Connaught Place for 25 rupees (50 cents) each. The cards had a picture of the bearer and the date the gang was started, 9-9-84.
The dictatorial Brothers allowed the C-Gang to thrive at St. Columba’s perhaps because it was mostly innocuous posturing. Drugs, alcohol, sex were still not the adolescent rite of passage that they would become a decade later in Delhi. The C-Gang’s rebellion was confined to being cool. Even when the boys broke rules, it was always just short of being illegal. One night, they ran away from their respective homes—each one said he was spending the night at another person’s house. For a few hours, they watched planes land from a spot near the Delhi airport called Jumbo Point. The police found them playing hockey on the road and detained them until dawn. This was the extent of their teen spirit.
All five boys came from different backgrounds. Raman’s father was a pilot. Vivek’s was a businessman who manufactured equipment for oil and gas wells. But these disparities were rarely discussed. They hung out at Nirula’s cafe in Chanakyapuri and played video games for twenty-five paise (a fraction of a cent) each in the basement of the Chanakya movie theater. For these outings, they pooled their meager pocket monies. When they could, they went bowling at the Qutab Hotel bowling alley. They could rarely afford five star hotels and nobody talked about whose father was richer. The boys went to parties dressed in identical C-gang clothes and often forced the other dancers off the floor by doing the moonwalk and break dancing. They spoke in language left over from Hollywood films: ‘Yo,’ ‘Yaooza’ and ‘Hang ten!’ were favorite expressions.
Hollywood was the sacred source of all that was trendy. Made-in-USA labels were fiercely desired status symbols. Not all the C-Gang members were affluent enough to go abroad—Shah Rukh didn’t travel West until he was 28 years old. But like city youth across the country, they imbibed the talk, walk and attitude from American films. Ironically many of these were B-grade, and almost all were dated. Stringent import laws meant that Hollywood products would only hit Indian screens a good 12 to 18 months after a US release. Which meant that long after American teenagers had stopped shearing sweatshirts to look like Jennifer Beals in Flashdance, Indian teenagers would be aping the fashion.
But even passé Hollywood glamour was preferable to Bollywood. Hindi films were decidedly down market. The youth and intelligentsia in urban India looked down upon Bollywood as opium for the unwashed masses. This disdain wasn’t unfounded.
The 1980s were the dark ages of Hindi film. New technologies had altered the entertainment environment. Bollywood was thrown off balance, and even the most successful filmmakers found themselves flailing around, trying to regain their rhythm. In 1982, color television came to India. The videocassette recorder or VCR followed soon after. For the first time, the audience had a choice. Movies were no longer the only option. In the year 1984-85, the color television industry grew at an astounding 140 percent. For a certain class of people, going to the movie theaters became both unnecessary and unattractive.
There was little to draw them out. Hindi films were in an artistic wasteland. Amitabh Bachchan still ruled the roost. In May 1980, India Today, the country’s leading weekly newsmagazine, anointed him ‘The One Man Industry.’ But this colossal clout at the box office had stifled creative vision. Amitabh’s directors, afraid to tamper with his superhero image, continued to flog the Angry Young Man formula until it turned flaccid.
After a decade of Amitabh’s vigilante fists, music had been relegated to the sidelines. Songs were merely fillers. So were the actresses. The heroines in Amitabh’s films were largely glamorous damsels in distress who provided visual relief from the violence. The titles reveal how a world-class actor calcified into a cliché: Desh Premee (Patriot), Andhaa Kanoon (Blind Justice), Inquilab (Revolution), Aakhree Raasta (The Final Road), Shahenshah (Emperor). It’s difficult to determine whether the uninviting content deterred viewers or whether the indifference of viewers forced filmmakers to woo them with even more coarse content. But theater audiences now largely consisted of lumpen young men or what the Bollywood trade calls the ‘front benchers.’ They seem to prefer basic action and loud emotion.
A slew of directors—who had originally worked in the Tamil film industry in South India—catered to the front benchers. From 1983 onward there was a spate of shrill, gaudy melodramas. Hindi cinema has never placed a premium on subtlety, but even by Bollywood standards, these films were grossly over-the-top. Himmatwala (The Brave), the most successful of the ‘South-style’ films, featured a fantasy romantic song. These sequences, in which the leads are transported by romantic emotion to places of stunning beauty, are a Bollywood staple. But here the leads found themselves on a beach, performing hyper, acrobatic dance steps amidst hundreds of brightly painted earthen pots. The pots made such an impression that a year later, another film Tohfa (The Gift), had the same actors on a similar beach doing furious dance steps in gigantic concentric circles of brass pots. Dharmesh Darshan, a leading director from the 1990s, summarized the movement succinctly, ‘Suddenly, Bombay cinema instead of national going international became national going regional.’
It is a testament to Amitabh Bachchan’s talent that even when his films faltered in the 1980s, his fan following didn’t. This included Shah Rukh. Shah Rukh continued to be a devotee, memorizing dialogue and sequences—a favorite was a line from a film called Shahenshah: ‘Rishtey mein toh hum tumhare baap lagte hain, naam hain Shahenshah,’ the tough street vigilante played by Amitabh growls, his right arm inexplicably covered in chain mail, ‘Think of me as invincible and be afraid, they call me Emperor.’ But alongside the faux street grit of Bachchan, Shah Rukh cultivated the swagger of John Travolta in Grease. His references were Bill Cosby and Family Ties. The walls of his bedroom were adorned with posters of Cheryl Ladd and Samantha Fox.
In January 1985, Shah Rukh graduated from St. Columba’s. He was given the Sword of Honor, the school’s highest award, presented to the student who excels in academics as well as sports and co-curricular activities. Shah Rukh, then 19, was the star of the year.
The rigid Christian environment of St. Columba’s and the friendships he cultivated over thirteen years set Shah Rukh in a Westernized mold. He was articulate, erudite and in many ways, already the yuppie that he would play in films after a decade. But that was not the whole story. Shah Rukh’s urbane sheen and sophisticated English was leavened by a rough earthiness. One of the earliest film directors to hire him was an art house auteur named Mani Kaul. He was adapting Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. Though Mani Kaul felt that Shah Rukh had too much of a ‘baby face’ to play the sinister Rogozhin, he still cast him because he found Shah Rukh ‘a strange mix of someone beautiful and slimy.’ Shah Rukh was equal parts sophisticated haute bourgeois and lumpen ruffian.
This was appropriate to the city he grew up in. Delhi is a peculiar mix of urban and rural. Posh housing colonies stand next to villages. In some areas, only a stretch of road divides sprawling homes worth millions of rupees from mud hutments. The crumbling ruins of earlier centuries jut out at impossible angles reminding residents of the rich history of the city: the earliest architectural relics in Delhi date back to 300 B.C. Delhi has been the capital city of seven empires and in it, several cities collide: the New Delhi built by savvy Punjabi businessmen who arrived during Partition; the old Delhi of Mughal emperors; the colonial Delhi designed by British architect Sir Edwin Lutyens; and the rustic Delhi, coarse and brutal like the neighboring states of Haryana and Uttar Pradesh.
At St. Columba’s, Shah Rukh was the unfailingly courteous diligent student. His seventh grade teacher Savita Raisingh recalled showing Shah Rukh’s meticulously neat, indexed homework to other students as an example. Every day, on the bus ride home, he would help her carry her books. But Shah Rukh was equally fluent in the more uncouth culture that flourished outside. Hindi gaalis or curse words peppered his language. Fights were not uncommon. Shah Rukh saw knives pulled and blood flow. He followed Meer’s golden rule: if the opponent is bigger, hit him on the head with a rock and run.
When he was twelve years old, Shah Rukh went to the Uphaar cinema in Green Park to see the Amitabh Bachchan film Parvarish (Upbringing). Two friends were with him. Tickets were sold out and the three boys started negotiating with the black market man outside the theater. They were surprised when he offered to sell them tickets at the regular theater sale price. The boys agreed and Shah Rukh went with the scalper into the underground parking lot to conduct the transaction. But the regular-priced tickets had a hidden cost. In the darkness of the parking lot, the scalper unzipped his pants and asked for a favor.
Shah Rukh was initially afraid. He ran away. But later on, he and his friends had a good laugh enacting the scene. The incident did not damage Shah Rukh. ‘It wasn’t a moment that scarred me or even made an impression,’ Shah Rukh said, ‘it was all part of growing up.’ He imagined that the man is perhaps still a scalper, selling tickets now for Shah Rukh Khan films.
These contrasting tones were instrumental in Shah Rukh’s success as an actor. Though he became famous playing the rich romantic hero, he retained a basic Everyman sensibility, which connected across audiences. Amitabh Bachchan played the ordinary man who takes on the system but he was very much a star on a pedestal. He inspired a reverential low angle view. But Shah Rukh Khan remained the superstar boy next door. The audience viewed him as an ideal husband, son, brother, friend. He wasn’t an inaccessible celestial being but simply the most charismatic member of the family.
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