After a four-year hiatus, Shah Rukh Khan released three globally successful films in 2023 – but once-ardent fans in Pakistan now feel a disconnect with the star and with Bollywood. Photo: IMAGO / agefotostock
After a four-year hiatus, Shah Rukh Khan released three globally successful films in 2023 – but once-ardent fans in Pakistan now feel a disconnect with the star and with Bollywood. Photo: IMAGO / agefotostock

How Shah Rukh Khan’s spell over Pakistan was broken

The conditions that created Pakistanis’ unique relationship with the Bollywood star no longer exist, and they are so mired in political and economic turmoil that even his cinematic offerings provide no respite

One evening in the winter of 2002, tired of the same Vin Diesel-starring action films playing at the movie club, three cadets sneaked a VCD player into the Cadet College at Mastung, in Balochistan. Unlike Walkmans, VCD players were not easy to hide in a dormitory. One could neither put them in a pocket of an item of clothing hanging in the cupboard, nor slide them under a pillow, and in a semi-military establishment like the Cadet College, everything was up for inspection, including long boots and underwear. If an instructor or non-commissioned officer discovered the player, the errant cadet would be awarded extra drills during rest time for weeks to come. Yet my two friends and I were willing to put our leisure on the line to watch Shah Rukh Khan.

Located just 55 kilometres from Quetta, the capital of Balochistan, Mastung district is a mere dot on the map, almost small enough that a Kumar Sanu alaap played at one end of it could be heard at the other. In the even smaller town of Mastung – as in small towns and big cities around the world – young people grappled with life and longing, searching for purpose and identity. As teenagers away from home, we were not concerned as much about parental judgment as we were with peer approval. As trainee cadets, the only chances we had to interact with women were on occasional visits to Pringabad – a rustic hub that, despite its Tolkien-esque name, resounded with classics from the singer duo Nadeem–Shravan. In these constrained circumstances, we watched Khan's Mohabbatein, a blend of rebellion and romance in which his portrayal of Raj Aryan Malhotra truly resonated with us. 

Shah Rukh had beguiled women with classics such as Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge and Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, and endeared himself to families with films such as Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham. He was now talking directly to us men, with his character's defiance of traditions and norms that were antagonistic to young love. We had been living in a system where we were constantly told to "man up" in a very tribal sense and were conditioned to let no form of failing bruise our soldier-like honour. But here was Shah Rukh inspiring us to risk being tender, to be open to falling for someone or something that might not fit with a code. It did not hurt that we could see a resemblance between the rigid norms of Gurukul – the school that Mohabbatein was set in and against whose rules Aryan battled – and those that governed our lives at Cadet College. 

Twenty-one years later, in 2023, I watched Shah Rukh again as he made one of the most remarkable comebacks ever in cinema. He scaled new heights of stardom, creating an extraordinary second career peak with three movies – Pathaan, Jawan and Dunki – that have already made more than INR 25 billion around the world. Few actors can hope to achieve such fan-powered success. But even as his global acclaim has soared in the last year, the impact of his dramatic return to the screen after a self-imposed break of four years has been notably muted in Pakistan. 

It is not that fans in Pakistan love Shah Rukh less than his fans anywhere else. But the conditions in Pakistan that created millions of Shah Rukh fans among millennials – who devotedly watched him through the 1990s and 2000s on pirated tapes, in small gatherings in their living rooms, since screenings of Indian films were then officially banned – no longer exist. Subsequent generations of Pakistani moviegoers, who have watched Bollywood movies in theatres and on OTT platforms through the 2010s, have chosen to favour different heroes, like Salman Khan. And Pakistanis have been so mired in their country's political and economic turmoil that even King Khan's cinematic offerings have provided no respite or distraction. 

Small-screen star

Like most of my generation, born in the late 1980s, I consumed Bollywood in my childhood by renting pirated VHS tapes. Bollywood enthusiasts across Pakistan could walk into VHS rental shops, skim through albums full of film posters, and take video cassettes home for as cheap as ten rupees per tape per night. By the time Mohabbatein was released, VCDs had replaced VHS tapes. VCDs were comparatively hard to get and were less sturdy than tapes. But for trainee cadets in Mastung they were good, one-time investments. We could only buy VCDs in Quetta's Liaquat Bazaar – the stop where we would hop off the college bus – instead of renting them as we would not come back to the market for at least two months. In the early 2000s, via dish and cable television, we also watched Bollywood film trailers on Indian channels such as B4U Music and Zee TV. And local cable operators regularly played films like Mohabbatein, equally in demand for its songs as for its story. 

With Mohabbatein, Shah Rukh evolved from a romantic icon to a love mentor, a guiding murshid. His subsequent films portrayed him not just as an idealised figure but also as a man grappling with real-life problems, or helping other men with their real-life problems. He did this at a time when discussing men's emotional struggles was even less in vogue or mainstream than it is today. His unique charm was evident in the fact that his photos were not plastered onto the walls in Pakistan's bodybuilding arenas, as those of other, buffed-up Bollywood leading men were. Shah Rukh was more likely to be found on the walls of beauty salons, from Quetta to Peshawar and beyond. His appeal was one of softness and refinement. 

Pakistan had instituted a blanket ban on the screening of Indian films after the 1965 war with India, but enterprising Pakistanis, who knew that demand for them would persist, continued to bring in pirated films and posters and made them widely available. This resulted in an entire generation witnessing Shah Rukh's first career peak on the small screen. Compared with those elsewhere in the world who got to know him as a giant on cinema screens, we forged a more personal, intimate and somewhat forbidden – and therefore so much more valuable – relationship with Shah Rukh, and with Bollywood films generally. This relationship was very different from that of the collective cheering and clapping so common in cinema screenings elsewhere in the Subcontinent. It was about friends and family members of different generations gathering around a VCR, with Shah Rukh part of this inner circle. 

The only place Indian films could get shown to something resembling a mass audience was on the busses plying Pakistani highways, which boasted video screens to keep their passengers entertained. But in these vehicles, full of strangers, a slapstick comedy starring Govinda was usually more palatable than an emotionally engaging family drama or epic romance with Shah Rukh. His magic – of cinema for warm family gatherings, cinema for young men and women exploring the meaning of love, cinema at the junction of tradition and modernity – never quite translated to the big screen in Pakistan. 

Ban, boom, boycott, bust

In 2007, Pakistan lifted the ban on Indian films. This boosted the country's fledgling cinema businesses. As the import, certification and distribution of Indian films became seamless, in 2007 Pakistan got its first multiplex – Cinepax, in Rawalpindi. By 2011, Shah Rukh's career was at the start of a downswing, as he began experimenting with new kinds of roles and deviated from the formulas that had driven his popularity. He had a few middling successes and a series of flops, followed by a four-year hiatus towards the end of the decade. 

By the time Islamabad got its first multiplex, in 2013, intimate family dramas had given way to action-comedies as Bollywood's main fare. Salman Khan, a purveyor of pumped-up masculine pride, lit up Eid for three consecutive years in Pakistan with Kick, Wanted and Bajrangi Bhaijaan. The rage for films starring Salman Khan at the time had some Pakistani producers worried that it would hamper the prospects of local films during the holidays. Aamir Khan's films also did well in Pakistan in the 2010s, and Ranbir Kapoor's Sanju was the highest-grossing Indian film of all time.

Between 2008 and 2023, the new generation of movie-going Pakistanis mostly watched Bollywood heroes full of machismo. They did not know what they had missed in the good old days of Shah Rukh, and so had little reason to be excited about his return. Those millennials who had frozen Shah Rukh's earlier, romantic avatar in their hearts now had other priorities. They had grown up, started families and were watching Bollywood on the big screen. Shah Rukh's experiments of the 2010s did not carry the emotional charge of his films of the previous two decades. 

After a decade of bilateral diplomatic tranquility and the resurgence of Indian cinema in Pakistan, in early 2016 the old barriers were resurrected after tensions flared along the India–Pakistan border. Indian cinema associations banned Pakistani artists from participation in Indian films. In retaliation, exhibitors in Pakistan declared that they would not import Indian films, and this boycott stayed in place for 11 weeks. In 2019, after another round of border tensions, Pakistani exhibitors once again boycotted Indian films. 

So it was that, in January 2023, the highly-anticipated Pathaan did not play in Pakistani cinemas, and there was no marketing of the film in Pakistan prior to its release. I was surprised to see little social-media hype around it on this side of the border, beyond the ridiculous controversy over Deepika Padukone's saffron-coloured swimsuit, sparked early on by the film's trailer. Pathaan could only be seen in Pakistan once it was released on OTT platforms, but even then Netflix and Amazon Prime cater to such a small niche in Pakistan that most of the country took little notice of an event as big as Shah Rukh's comeback. This may be because while the world celebrated Shah Rukh's long-awaited turn as an action hero, we in Pakistan needed him to still be the romantic uniting everyone in love. 

Pathaan has the India-Pakistan dynamic as a central plot point, highlighting the contentious revocation of Article 370 of the Indian constitution and its impact on India-administered Kashmir. It had good and bad undercover agents from both countries as its main characters. Critics from both India and Pakistan have offered varied interpretations of its narrative. Some alluded to soft Hindutva undertones, among other gripes. The Pakistani actor Faysal Quraishi railed at Pakistanis who fell for Pathaan: "You all are going gaga over Shah Rukh Khan and all he has done is defamed your army, the ISI and the country." Most Pakistanis who watched Pathaan only responded with a few jokes – they said that it was like the hit Indian police procedural CID on acid, or that Indian filmmakers chose the prettiest women to play agents of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence while Pakistanis chose the ugliest men for such roles.  

The film was different in its tone and treatment to Shah Rukh's big hits of the 2000s with India-Pakistan themes. The 2004 release Main Hoon Na used the repatriation of prisoners between India and Pakistan as a crucial plot device. Today, with so much of the Mumbai film industry having succumbed to India's ruling Hindu nationalist worldview, it seems unbelievable that a mainstream Bollywood film would emphasise the importance of unity, understanding and reconciliation between the two countries. Veer–Zaara, which came out in the same year, told the story of a romance between Veer, an Indian Air Force pilot, and Zaara, a Pakistani civilian – a saga of separation and reunion over 22 years. This film was about the enduring power of love to transcend borders and societal norms, and captured the shared culture of the now-divided Punjab.

A Shah Rukh Khan fan dances in front of a poster for Jawan in Kolkata. Jawan could only be watched in Pakistan when it was released on Netflix, which was also when most Pakistanis were preoccupied with Israel's attack on Palestine, a fellow Muslim nation. Photo: IMAGO/ZUMAwire
A Shah Rukh Khan fan dances in front of a poster for Jawan in Kolkata. Jawan could only be watched in Pakistan when it was released on Netflix, which was also when most Pakistanis were preoccupied with Israel's attack on Palestine, a fellow Muslim nation. Photo: IMAGO/ZUMAwire

Jawan dropped on Netflix on 2 November, Shah Rukh's birthday. The response to it in Pakistan was even more lukewarm than to his first release of 2023, possibly because there had been no controversies accompanying its trailer. Jawan's release on Netflix came a month into Israel's bombardment of Gaza. The crises of Palestine, a fellow Muslim nation, have always been an integral part of the Pakistani consciousness. That Jawan demanded our attention in the middle of the latest atrocities in Gaza and the West Bank seemed not only intrusive but also insulting. 

"I honestly thought it would be an insult to consume what I had assumed would be a 'happily-ever-after' narrative at a time when the world was, quite literally, in flames," a fellow journalist and Shah Rukh fan told me. "I had to force myself to watch it because I had to write about it, and I actually felt quite guilty about how much I enjoyed the film." But my friend conceded that she held on to the hope that Shah Rukh offered in Jawan. "It was, perhaps, a temporary balm – different from Shah Rukh's other work in its overt political takes, yet similar in a way where the superstar carried the offering. However, Jawan doesn't end with a fixed universe. It ends with a message of rectification and reflection and that, perhaps, made it more palatable and more immersed in reality."

Pakistan is still waiting for Dunki, premiered in Indian cinemas in December, to be released on OTT platforms.

Another, even if minor, factor for the muted response in Pakistan to Shah Rukh's 2023 releases is the long-overdue growth of the Pakistani film industry. In the past year, the big-budget, sweeping epic The Legend of Maula Jatt, starring Fawad Khan, wowed audiences here. The film's humongous success is testament to the rise of Pakistani cinema. But though the film might have distracted us from Shah Rukh, we need to recognise that the Pakistani cinema industry is still too small to flourish independently. It is the regular influx of Bollywood films that has allowed the resurgence of the cinema-going and movie-making culture in Pakistan. 

Khan vs Khan

The people of Pakistan, scarred by recent political and economic crises, have a different Khan on their minds of late – the former prime minister Imran Khan. Over the past two years, Pakistan's national morale has steadily deteriorated, the nadir coming with the no-confidence motion that ousted Khan from power in April 2022. Khan had had an unusual and unlikely journey from political neophyte to prime minister, which made him, despite his contentious views and occasional lack of foresight, a beacon of hope for many in a landscape dominated by long-standing political dynasties. His ouster made him an emblem of integrity and sacrifice in many minds, and sparked widespread disillusionment. Even more young, educated people now contemplate seeking refuge in foreign countries. The majority of Pakistan's population still in the country switches between broadcast television channels looking for assurance that their struggles are not solitary. We grapple with soaring inflation, unemployment, currency instability, and market uncertainties, compounded by the diminishing reputation of our once-revered Pakistan Army. Any remaining resilience to our self-inflicted political and economic crises was eroded by severe flooding in 2022, which submerged a third of the country. We are still to fully recover from its effects.

Under these circumstances, most Pakistanis have succumbed to the compulsion of watching politics instead of films. This compulsion has extended into the current winter wedding season. At a wedding I attended recently, the joy at the matrimonial union was eclipsed by cheers and celebrations over Imran Khan getting bail in a case where he is charged with leaking state secrets. While the wedding DJ played melodious tunes by Arijit Singh, the attendees constantly refreshed YouTube on their phones for the latest news updates. 

By forcing Khan out of the political picture, his rivals gave him a permanent place in people's imaginations. Watching news anchors and infotainment has become a round-the-clock national pastime, for which we have shunned our traditional entertainment. The renowned guitarist Faraz Anwar recently told me, "Our addiction to news has reached such heights that even I find myself glued to it for hours, without a clear reason." In keeping with this addiction, we have come to look for heroes not among movie stars but among people who in real life embody moral value and sacrifice – such as the journalist Arshad Sharif, who was shot dead in Kenya under suspicious circumstances.

With Pakistanis' sentiments now deeply entwined with politics, demanding narratives that mirror their experiences, even many once-ardent Shah Rukh fans in Pakistan now feel a disconnect between themselves and the star. 

The star and the man

Shah Rukh once hosted the Pakistani cricket team in Mumbai. He spoke against rising intolerance in India and his films were targeted by Hindu nationalists as a result. There was a time when we, the commentators, would shame Pakistani actors for not campaigning for peace or opening doors like Shah Rukh did, and they would acknowledge his magnanimity and stature by saying he is above the forces that control the two countries' relationship. 

During his hiatus, fans who had been starved of his presence on the screen and offered only unsatisfying titbits on social media were elated to see him offering prayers at the revered Indian playback singer Lata Mangeshkar's funeral. Equally, they were outraged to see Shah Rukh then being slammed for allegedly spitting as he was offering the prayers. There was even more outrage among his supporters and an outpouring of sympathy when his son was arrested for allegedly being in possession of narcotics – a case that many assumed was a politically motivated attack against the most popular practising Muslim in India. Many in India's upper class especially have started to view Shah Rukh's films as a form of protest. 

Shah Rukh has learnt the hard way not to comment on politics or social injustices in today's increasingly intolerant India. But fans who watch unrelenting horrors on the news and jump from crisis to crisis in their lives still want India's most famous and beloved Muslim to speak up from his unparalleled platform. It is this unreasonable expectation that has left fans disappointed when Shah Rukh has stayed silent – whether during an attack on students at his alma mater, Jamia Millia Islamia in Delhi, or during the myriad attacks against Muslims in India, or during what is happening in Palestine today. It is the very hope that Shah Rukh always represented through his life and work that leaves us disappointed with his new on-screen avatar and personal reticence. The unreasonable yet entirely understandable expectation from fans might also be tainting their relationship with his movies. 

That evening in 2002 in Mastung, we finished watching Mohabbatein and were punished for being late to the Fajr prayer the next morning. We did not mind that extra drill. The VCD and player had already been smuggled to the next hostel, and were then smuggled to another, to be eventually confiscated after three weeks of being carried around and secretly cherished by a number of cadets. We were told it was crushed in front of junior cadets to set an example. But our love for Shah Rukh overcame the obstacle of the college's rules, and it has overcome greater obstacles since. As a staunch believer in dreams and in Shah Rukh, I hope to see Pakistani audiences escape their ongoing flood of anxieties and problems and start believing in his magic again.


Correction: An earlier version of this piece carried incorrect details about the first multiplex in Pakistan. This has been rectified. Himal Southasian regrets the errors.

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