It is probably facile to offer intellectual reasons to explain Khan’s longevity in the film industry. Millions of people unambiguously love the actor to the point that public adulation for him is often dismissed as cringeworthy celebrity worship.
But why is Khan worshipped and loved so much?
Much like his films, the answer is romantic and sentimental: Khan has always expressed and represented the best that India and the South Asian subcontinent can be. He shows us a glimpse of a prosperous, plural and humane region – one that can laugh at itself without the inflamed nostrils of pious outrage.
For millions of Indians, he also remains the posterchild of the country’s story of economic growth.
In the 1990s, Khan debuted on our screens at the same time as India arrived on the global economy scene. And his stature grew with a growing economy.
As part of a series of market reforms, the country opened the telecoms sector to foreign investment which allowed new media networks to broadcast in India – these channels ensured Khan’s films, songs and interviews reached more homes than any film celebrity before him. As India liberalised its economy further, new sodas and cars suddenly entered the market, and partnered with Khan as their brand ambassador.
In that sense, Khan’s meteoric rise from a humble Delhi family to global celebrity is the penultimate neo-liberal fairy tale of success in India, an example of how to “make it” to the top without any film lineage or connections to prop him up. Khan’s stature grew with a growing economy.
With the rise of the religious right, Khan has also become a shorthand for a progressive plural past that many Indians are trying to hold on to.
Critics say intolerance has been on the rise under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government, which is widely accused of marginalising India’s Muslims.
Khan’s son, Aryan Khan, was arrested last year in a drugs case, and eventually exonerated, in a case many felt was aimed at targeting India’s most successful Muslim icon. He has always offered thoughtful comments on Indian pluralism and played more Muslim characters than his contemporaries.
Yet, his fans refuse to reduce him to his religious identity – instead, they see him as wise, witty, successful, and wildly sexy.
Discussing the malicious right-wing attacks against Khan and his mixed-faith family – his wife is a Hindu – a young fan I interviewed declared: “He is secular, but he is also very sexy.”
Most importantly, the actor has always depicted the fragility we all share as human beings.
Khan usually portrays fragile figures – the fragile lover, the fragile hero, the fragile husband, the fragile Muslim, and even the fragile villain. The men he plays are rarely at ease with themselves and those around them.
The insecurities that bother his screen characters have evolved through the progress of his career spanning three decades. They are often emotionally destitute, unable to feel fully loved and unwilling to let go of their need to find love.
Khan is also South Asia’s romantic superhero – his films are the standard that all desi romances attempt to match up to.
Data shows that his characters engage with women much more than the roles played by other Bollywood male stars. But the love Khan’s characters seek is not only the traditional love of a woman, they desperately seek the love and approval of fathers, friends and fellow countrymen.
The men he plays feel deeply, are constantly vulnerable to the gaze of the Other, and shed many, many (many) tears. Film writers often comment on how Khan can cry better than most actors in the world. These teary-eyed displays of humanity have only endeared him to countless fans.
Beyond the movies, his television interviews and public lectures have amplified his humour and humility.
I know many elite urban fans who obsess over Khan’s interviews more than his films. These media conversations mark the actor’s best performance till date: his version of the unapologetic middle-class superstar.
Khan has crafted a deliciously arrogant and poised public persona, forever seducing us with moments of self-disclosure followed by self-deprecating intellect and bitter sarcasm.
Chain-smoking, brazen, self-aware and hilarious, Khan is never boring. He goes from offering sound advice on dealing with financial insecurities and troubled friendships to cracking hilarious jokes about ageing in the film industry and his own sexuality. In all his quotes and jokes about himself and the world, there is always the hint of a man who works hard, cares deeply for his craft and enjoys laughing at himself.
In a world of uncertain and harsh realities, Khan’s fantastical images remain a source of awe, escape and entertainment.
After a hiatus, the actor has three big releases lined up for 2023. His fans are giddy with excitement, but they are also wary of right-wing social media campaigns that advocate the boycott of Muslim icons and Bollywood releases.
As our politics becomes deeply divisive, the actor’s power lies in how he can unite so many of us in smiles and stories. I cannot wait for the next 30 years of this icon – our broken culture desperately needs his wry jokes and wide-open arms.