Sands of Time – Part III: When Shah Rukh Khan Met Fyodor Dostoyevsky

“I always had the impression that Godard made films faster than the time lived in normal life. And I needed to go slower than that. I just needed to go slower. Suppose (there is) a static guava on a static table, and the camera is static – then the only thing that works there is time. As soon as there is movement, the idea of ​​time is alienated. – Mani Kaul


Shah Rukh Khan’s father was from the same neighborhood – now in Pakistan – as Dilip Kumar and Raj Kapoor. It literally meant “a market of stories.” These three men were destined to shape modern storytelling in the subcontinent as nobody’s business. It is breathtaking.

Many years later, Meer Taj Mohammad gifted his son, little Shah Rukh, a book by a Russian author called Fyodor Dostoyevsky. The book was called L’Idiot.


It was the 1980s, a crazy time when India was gradually shedding the shackles of its past and taking small steps towards a global future. In a southern suburb of Delhi, a coterie of talkers, effervescent young people have gathered to do theater. Among them was a wide-eyed youth called Manoj Bajpai. Tired of being turned down by the National School of Drama three times in a row, Manoj had turned to Barry John’s TAG theater troupe to sharpen his tools.

Many years later, in an interview, Manoj spoke warmly of a co-actor who rode around in a Maruti van (which in the ’80s was the fanciest ride a middle-class kid could to have). He took it to the Taj nightclub – they also shared a cigarette or two, and when the safes ran dry, even beedis. This young Manoj co-actor, barely 4 years his senior, who studied comedy with him at the feet of the venerable Barry John, has probably not tasted beedi in over a quarter of a century or more. His name is Shah Rukh Khan.

Barry John, who came to India at the height of flower power and hippie paradise, created the Theater Action Group (TAG) in the early 1970s. He put together a motley group of young people, held workshops with them and put on plays wherever possible: in school, in colleges, in dormitories, in youth festivals, anywhere they could handle and go to a makeshift stage. TAG was around ten years old when Barry and Shah Rukh crossed paths. Shah Rukh Khan had been on and off stage even during his school years. This continued when he was in college.

The theater was also a great place to meet girls, at a time when there was no proper dating scene and Tinder was still 30 years old. Now, if a young Mr. Khan was directing the musical Annie Get Your Gun with the students of Lady Shri Ram College to score points with the ladies or to satisfy his passion for acting, we still don’t know. … but we could venture a guest. In any case, it was during the production of this musical that TAG was approached, and Shah Rukh ended up being part of the group.

His friends Benny Thomas and Divya Sheth accompanied him. Barry did not believe in the education of his proteges. His job was to let them do their thing, only intervening later to rule them, or pushing them very lightly. It was a great opportunity for Shah Rukh, with the electricity that lived inside him struggling to explode. He jumped onto the stage in sheer abandon, playing lead roles in plays like Old King Cole and The Incredible Vanishing.

Many of these roles required slapstick comedy, which involved falling hard on stage, slapping, kicking, and getting your co-actors to make the audience laugh, which quite often included school kids. But there was also a more serious fare like Brian Clark’s Whose Life Is It Anyway, an intense plea for euthanasia. And even in those early days, Shah Rukh Khan was quite the star. In stationary platforms like a theater stage, he found ways to be flamboyant, flashy, and loud. But it was rarely superficial or frivolous. Like most boys in South Delhi, Shah Rukh spoke well, read well, and had a fondness for the arts.

The TAG team was asked to participate in a film called In Which Annie Gives It These Ones, directed by Pradip Kishen, who knew the group and their mentor. Although he was hired, no lead role in the film was suited to contain Shah Rukh Khan’s maverick, and he was content with a walk-in appearance from a senior gay. Shortly thereafter, television arrived and Khan found the first celebrity glow in a TV show called Fauji. And that’s when the mad genius called Mani Kaul realized it. Mani saw in Shah Rukh – in his own words – “a strange mixture of a handsome and slimy person”. He found in Khan’s voice “an unspoken moan”. He was in the process of designing a Hindi / Urdu adaptation of Dostoevsky’s flagship novel The Idiot.

Mani Kaul was an institution like no other in Indian cinema. A disciple of the original enfant terrible, Ritwik Ghatak, Kaul was possibly one of the most uncompromising filmmakers this country has ever produced. His work encompassed cinema in its truest and purest form. Unwavering in its study of the human self, of stillness, of silences and of the general music of the universe, Mani Kaul’s cinema returned to the Upanishads and their multiple layers. And it is this sensitivity that he merged with that of Dostoyevsky when he conceived Ahmaq of The Idiot.

No one in their right mind would call Shah Rukh Khan an intellectual – nor would he fully accept the acceptance of the epithet. But he never lacked intelligence and sensitivity. He was enjoying some success on television, and the popular Hindi cinema of the time was too modest and childish for him to get into it. He had begun to envision a career in television for himself. The platform was thriving and Doordarshan, the national broadcaster, was more open than ever (or since) to encourage raw talent. Also, his then-girlfriend wasn’t too keen on seeing his suitor running around the trees in garish costumes. So Hindi movies were a no-no – at least until that point in his life. But Mani Kaul was not your typical Hindi filmmaker, and the role he was offered was fascinating. Additionally, Shah Rukh had a history with the book Ahmaq was based on.

Shah Rukh played Raghujan, a version of Rogozhin, one of the iconic villains of world literature. It was his first “negative role,” so to speak, containing snippets of some of the other villains he was meant to play. Raghujan was an obsessive lover, friend turned foe, and ultimately a cold-blooded killer which is why a knife stuck so deep into someone’s skin would make so little blood. Although their sensibility and worldview resembled chalk and cheese, Shah Rukh Khan and Mani Kaul, both adhering to their own styles, found a way to work together. The film was never shown on a large scale, but eventually aired on Doordarshan in the early 90s.

Shah Rukh would never come back to Dostoyevsky, Mani Kaul or their ilk again, nor did he consider Hindi cinema to be inferior to him. In fact, it would become Bollywood’s most enduring symbol, its brightest beacon.

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