Money is a strange aphrodisiac. It stiffens obstinacy and softens the brain, when the reverse might be far more useful. Add a bit of face recognition, which celebrities crave and idol-worshippers offer, and the cocktail becomes so heady it takes only a moment to explode in your face. Petulance is but a step away, since celebrities consider it injurious to their health to admit guilt. Not every superstar becomes victim of this syndrome, but few escape an occasional attack of mania.

I have met Shah Rukh Khan twice, once recently; and perhaps fleetingly on a third occasion. That is certainly not evidence of proximity, let alone acquaintance. But the little I know confirmed the first impression. He is an extremely likeable and intelligent person. His finest quality is a gentle sense of humour punctuated by sharp, even caustic observation. But he could laugh at the world without injuring relationships because he included himself in that world. He had neither the manner nor the conversation of a cloud-dweller; and if he sat on a pedestal, he made sure that his feet touched the ground from that lofty perch which lifted him from obscurity.

There will be many explanations as to why he lost his temper at the Wankhede stadium. An important one could be stress. He is not young anymore; his first song on the screen was sung a quarter century ago, as any music channel on television will tell you — those songs now appear among the oldies. Age is the abyss of dread for any actor who has promised the elixir of youth to his worshippers. The excruciating gymnastics required to hide age from the tell-tale muscle tone are precisely that, excruciating.

To camouflage age is a punishing business, and torture does not become any less searing merely because it is self-imposed. You have to whip your body to deny it its natural gravitational pull towards flab. When medieval Catholic monks flagellated themselves, they had at least the comfort of doing so in the cause of God. I cannot believe that money would mean anything anymore to a middle-class boy who has earned as much as Shah Rukh did when he became a man; so the provocation can only be the ego, and that insane desire to remain atop a summit that is not merely above, but beyond, competition. Ambition is a legitimate virtue; without it, we would not have much progress. But when you are your own product, and when the measure of your worth is controlled by an image that cannot be protected from decay, wisdom demands recognition of limits. That, alas, is easier written, than done.

The hero of imagined space wafts on the cherubic celebration of adulation, even as he contends with private demons that become monstrous in those hours when an individual must remain with himself. Guilt has many dimensions. Those who survive on the admiration of others bear the cross of how much love they have given to others, including their children. Both you and your children grow older at the same time; and at some point the intersection must come, when children depart to have their own children. Time shortens on both sides of the equation. The sceptical question in your child’s eye reduces the glories of the world to an ephemeral mirage; and perhaps the temptation to win the child by an expression of power over a fawning world becomes irresistible.

Shah Rukh’s great predecessors searched for notional alchemists who could deliver them from demons. Sometimes the night passed in stupor, and the day in self-deception. Raj Kapoor, an authentic genius, danced brilliantly while singing Suno ji suno, hamari bhi suno with Waheeda Rehman, but the puff around the cheeks had changed the face that had mesmerised both Nadira and India in Sree 420. Dilip Kumar had generations at his command, but could not resist continuing long after he peaked in Mughal-e-Azam and Gunga Jumna. Dev Anand thought he could defeat time by hiding sagging skin with high collars and a scarf. Time had a harsh answer, mockery. Dev Anand should have treaded warily through the 1970s and never stepped into the 1980s, let alone the 21st century. There is nothing called evergreen. Wood merely takes a longer time to die.

The purpose of life must change for those who have crossed the middle of its finite span. Shah Rukh Khan should live in memory as a symbol of joy, not of anger. I cannot believe that he can succumb to the arrogance of wealth. That would be a disappointment too far. The human being is never master of all he surveys, but he has been given the intellect to recognise that destiny has to pause at some destination. Shah Rukh Khan invented a persona that has given us extraordinary delight. The moment has come for him to reinvent himself.


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