With over 6000 television episodes under his belt, David Letterman is a talk show legend. Shah Rukh Khan is less easy to sum up.
Letterman was overwhelmed by the swarming crowds outside Khan’s Bandra house, but appeared unaware of India’s fan-culture — where Khan’s place is but one of many ‘pilgrimages,’ a list topped by Amitabh Bachchan’s bungalow, his Sunday ‘darshans’ having plagued Juhu traffic for decades. A dubious number of “3.5 billion fans" was mentioned, something Khan attributed to “Time or Newsweek," conflating the two in unmistakably Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron fashion, as if it doesn’t matter which American periodical said it as long as an American periodical said it. Letterman’s metric for Khan’s success appears only to be the number of his fans, and while not particularly insightful, that isn’t a bad place to start.
Why, though, did Letterman fill this studio with a diaspora audience, the kind that cheer uproariously at the word ‘Punjab’, and squeal every time Hassan Minhaj (on another Netflix show, Patriot Act) says “auntie"? For the first episode of Letterman’s series, the audience didn’t know who the guest would be, and someone guessed Bill Clinton before Barack Obama showed up, flashing that rockstar smile to arena-filling applause. In Shah Rukh’s case, the dimple-worshippers seemed exclusively desi.
The actor was, inevitably, brilliant. Shah Rukh Khan is our wittiest leading man, glib and silvertongued, and provided hits. My picks would be Khan explaining how Michael J Fox influenced him (“his use of space and the ease of his acting"), how his mother passed away the day after he showed her an episode of a TV series he had acted in (“so no amount of criticism of my work makes me feel bad anymore"), and, finally, his priceless answer to Letterman’s question about how India feels about the current US President, one I won’t repeat here because it’s worth the price of admission, so to speak.
There was, alas, no question about Khan’s feelings towards India’s own government, though Letterman — who wondered which country India fought for Freedom (“The British? Okay") and muddled the name of the only Shah Rukh movie he mentioned (“DDJL?") — may genuinely not know what’s going on. After all, he bumped into a man called Owen on the streets of Mumbai, and eagerly bought him a mythological Laxmi painting. Okay then. No attempt was made to dig into Khan’s performances, persona, process, artistic intent. Letterman was content to bask in the actor’s magnetism, let the crowd applaud Khan’s dimples, and call the actor “so darned cute."
In 2015, Letterman quit a 33-year hosting career. He had been a trailblazer, unafraid of overlong monologues or awkward silences, and now appeared wary of talkshow trends dictated by memes and celebrity games. After two years of beard-growing, came My Next Guest Needs No Introduction, a Netflix coup where the grand old host singled out guests for longer conversation, about more than vacation anecdotes. First was former President Barack Obama, “another man who had just left a long term job," as Letterman said.
With guests as far ranging as Malala Yousafzai and Kanye West, the show is intriguing — partly because Letterman asks truly basic questions. This can be both excellent (like Jay-Z’s unabashed glee at Letterman knowing nothing about crack cocaine) and awkward (like Malala, not knowing what to politely say after the host wondered whether Islamic countries would ever elect woman leaders after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, even though there have been several.) The lack of homework from this befuddled gent is meant to be charming.
This episode is for Khan diehards to smile at, and for Letterman’s usual crowd to skip. (It is even packaged individually by Netflix, outside of Letterman’s series, titled simply My Next Guest, as if this time even Letterman is seeking an introduction.) Talking to Jay-Z, Letterman and the musician spoke nakedly about marital infidelity. With George Clooney, Letterman elicited warmth, and stories we’d never heard. It is profoundly disappointing to see him tackle Khan through such a superficial lens.
The problem may not be Letterman himself, but America’s unwillingness to engage with icons they do not already know. Shah Rukh Khan is quite a concept, and it is easy to picture Americans having trouble understanding — or introducing — a man who will not eat hot wings but instead cook for Dave, while thousands chant an actor’s name outside his house. Letterman was thunderstruck, while Khan would be well have been underwhelmed.
As a talker, Khan is always in form. He’s cleverly sly, quick to retort, simultaneously both pompous and self-effacing, and disarmingly candid, as seen in conversations with all manner of interviewers, from Simi Garewal to Rajat Sharma. For a big occasion, he deserves a questioner as fearless, as eager to push the envelope. Netflix got the right subject, but picked the wrong show. Bring on Zach Galifianakis. Shah Rukh Khan would slay Between Two Ferns.