On April 14, 2017, the San Francisco International Film Festival honored Shah Rukh Khan in an exclusive ceremony with this hyperbolic introduction: “To muster an American equivalent to Shah Rukh Khan, you’d have to combine several high-wattage celebrities (Brad Pitt plus Tom Cruise plus Will Smith), and it still wouldn’t be enough. Khan—or ‘SRK’ to his fans—is not only one of India’s biggest-ever stars, his fame has transcended borders and brought him worldwide acclaim.”1 Preempting the San Francisco honor, The Los Angeles Times issued a similar imperative when it did a story on Shah Rukh Khan as “the biggest movie star you’ve never heard of.”2 Other examples provide more than ample evidence of Khan’s global enshrinement: paradoxically, if Khan’s fame is that astronomical and legendary, then millions of people should already know him as one of the most recognized faces of Bollywood. Why then does he need this exclusive identifier? Who knows him and who doesn’t? The real question, then, is what sort of cultural work the repeated invocations of SRK’s magnitude do, and how that moniker might differ between north and south. Crowning SRK as the King of Bollywood is not just a way of signposting Bombay as the largest film producer of the world, it is a way to draw attention to the secret power Indian film stars enjoy, a means for acknowledging South Asian stardom as an area of economic and cultural surplus. Thus, a vital task of this dossier is to unpack the textual, aesthetic, industrial, and affective intensities that undergird “the-biggest-star-you’ve-never-heard-of” soubriquet. Indeed, the invocation of SRK’s fans as a multitude of viewers imagines South Asia as a mass formation clustered around stardom. Questioning this uncritical casting of all South Asian fans as an undifferentiated [End Page 121] mass, the essays in this collection approach the recent SRK starrer Fan (Maneesh Sharma, IN, 2016) as an object that maps Bombay cinema’s transformation into an expanding, globalized, media economy grounded in local practices and political economies specific to the global south. Situating both SRK and Fan as epicenters of a different order of stardom, and as illustrations of a cultural and filmic system with distinct aesthetic, ideological, critical, and creative functions, our essays investigate the SRK myth as an example that distinguishes Bombay cinema from the star-economies characteristic of Hollywood.
Principal here is a resilient emphasis on the cult of the person through the figure of the film star as a cultural object with no equivalent in American cinema, not even if Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise, and Will Smith were put together. We argue that the myth of SRK as a celebratory moniker structures a felt crisis of film stardom in the South Asian context, where movie moguls like Karan Johar have expressed fear that the mammoth scale of Shah Rukh Khan’s stardom may well be the last of its kind. A crisis of film stardom, then, is nothing less than a crisis of cinema as a sign, perceived to be under threat by the global and the digital. We believe that Fan orchestrates a visceral, uncomfortable, and hot-blooded account of Bollywood remaking itself in the wake of new media economies: its uncanny idioms constitute a remembrance of multiple pasts while anticipating potential futures.
As its lead and one of the most enduring stars of Bombay cinema, SRK provides an ideal opportunity to revisit older modes of cinephilia alongside robust, more contemporary, fan cultures. The five essays of this dossier offer rich and wide-ranging reflections around a single film—a model that provides a vantage point for anchoring multiple approaches in specific aspects of a single example, thus combining close, fine-grained analysis with more wide-ranging frameworks that have implications both within and beyond Indian cinema studies. In particular, we ask the question “what is cinema?” through a dedicated consideration of the fan as a critical object and as a corollary of the star. Key questions include: how does cinema amplify or subvert regimens of communication between star and fan...