Will Dunki complete Shah Rukh Khan's hat-trick at the box office?

With Rajkumar Hirani’s Dunki opening high, the superstar establishes his success mantra of keeping silent, shifting gears and doing things differently

By Yasser Usman

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Published: Thu 21 Dec 2023, 5:58 PM

Last updated: Fri 22 Dec 2023, 8:23 PM

The lines, “Kehte hain agar kisi cheez ko dil se chaho… toh puri kainaat usse tumse milane ki koshish mein lag jaati hai” (If you desire something deeply, the entire universe works tirelessly to bring it to you) echoing the sentiments from Om Shanti Om (2007), Shah Rukh Khan's conviction resonated as a profound truth this year. The year 2023 has been a masterclass in cinematic resurgence for the superstar.

After a four-year hiatus, he stormed back with not one, but two ‘all-time blockbusters’, Pathaan and Jawan, and now, Dunki has got a phenomenal start. Initial reports suggest Raju Hirani’s Dunki holds the potential to surpass the success of SRK's last two blockbusters. But what sparked this abrupt change in audience perception to SRK films? What alchemy transformed the lukewarm reception of his films for almost a decade into the fervent enthusiasm now engulfing his every project? The answer lies in a potent cocktail of factors, a carefully crafted symphony of reinvention in a year that will go down in the history of cinema as ‘the year of King Khan’.

Luck likely played a significant role as well. Following the underperformance of films like Jab Harry Met Sejal (2017) and Zero (2018), Shah Rukh Khan was so disheartened that he chose to take a four-year sabbatical. But this four-year hiatus, initially met with a shrug, coincided perfectly with the pandemic-induced slumber of cinema itself. As theatres shuttered and audiences retreated to their small screens, Shah Rukh retreated within, choosing introspection over celluloid.

More than two years later, when the pandemic's grip loosened and economies rebounded, social restrictions faded and a pent-up yearning for communal entertainment took hold. Shah Rukh Khan, ever the astute cultural barometer, tapped into this zeitgeist. This wasn't mere nostalgia. It was a strategic reinvention. Gone were the formulaic rom-coms of his earlier reign. Instead, Shah Rukh Khan embraced a diverse portfolio, playing a globe-trotting spy (Pathaan), a gritty vigilante (Jawan), and a relatable best friend (Dunki) that resonated with audiences starved for the immersive magic of the big screen.

Another major reason was his son’s case. The wounds of Aryan’s unjust arrest and media trial in 2021-22 still festered, and fans flocked to theatres with a mix of anger, and unwavering loyalty. More than popcorn entertainment, Pathaan and Jawan became a sort of cathartic release, a shared defiance against the perceived injustice. Dialogues like “Ye mat poochho desh ne tumhare liye kya kiya, ye poochho tumne desh ke liye kya kiya” (Don't ask what the country has done for you, ask what you've done for the country) and “Bete ko hath lagane se pehle baap se baat kar” (Before touching my son, talk to me) resonated beyond the screen, taking on the weight of lived experience.

In the age of the 24/7 news cycle and relentless PR machine, what actions would you anticipate from a movie star aiming to revive his career following a series of failures and a self-imposed exile, especially when the media has already predicted his doom? Conventional marketing wisdom would have dictated a media blitz — interviews on news channels, talk shows, reality TV appearances, relentless photo ops — but Shah Rukh Khan chose a different path, a calculated dance between silence and strategic engagement.

He opted out of interviews, avoiding the glare of news channels and the curated chaos of digital forums. Even the hallowed platform of Koffee with Karan, Bollywood's unofficial confessional booth, remained untouched. All we had were strategically edited clips from his old interviews and shows injected on social media feeds. It was a strategic move, a calculated gamble that played on several fronts.

And then, there were the #AskSRK sessions on Twitter (now X) which were like a rogue firework, bursting onto the scene with a chaotic, hilarious bang. Shah Rukh poked fun at his past flops, even his own dancing skills. This self-deprecating humour resonated with fans, humanising the seemingly untouchable superstar. He wasn't just a king on a throne; he was the jester in his own court, inviting everyone to laugh along.

There were no scripts, no PR teams, just SRK and his uncensored thoughts. These impromptu bursts of self-deprecation and wit became a phenomenon in themselves, eclipsing any conventional marketing gimmick with their raw, interactive charm proving that sometimes, the most powerful marketing tool is simply being yourself. The minimalistic promotional approach appears to be effective for Dunki as well. Even the trailers refrained from unveiling much beyond the fundamental character outlines, while the ongoing charm of #AskSRK sessions persists.

While Hirani's magic touch guarantees a certain comfort, Dunki’s primary allure still lies in Shah Rukh Khan himself. His electrifying return this year, culminating in Dunki’s roaring opening, cements this as the most potent comeback by an Indian actor in living memory.

wknd@khaleejtimes.com

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