The Mumbai film industry has to date seen only a solitary Star rise to the status of a Phenomenon - Amitabh Bachchan. Now, it seems Shahrukh Khan is tantalisingly close to attaining the same sort of iconic halo, having delivered three resounding mega hits in the space of 12 months - Nikhil Advani's Kal Ho Naa Ho, Farah Khan's Main Hoon Na and Yash Chopra's Veer-Zaara.
And he is far from done yet. The much-awaited Swades, from the maker of Lagaan, Ashutosh Gowariker, is due for release in mid-December. If Swades drives home the Shahrukh Khan magic yet again, it could finally be said that there is - and was - nobody quite like the reigning Badshah of Bollywood.
Shahrukh's fate hinges on Swades Yes, Shahrukh is probably on the verge of outstripping the Big B himself. What needs to be remembered is that the Bachchan phenomenon unfolded in an era when television hadn't yet entered every home in the country and popular Hindi cinema was the only means of recreation for an overwhelming majority of the population. It was much easier for Amitabh to be, as contemporary star Jeetendra famously put it, "number one to number ten". His films did not have to jostle for space and eyeballs with other inviting forms of entertainment.
Shahrukh Khan, on the other hand, is a creature of the television age and today even the most powerful of stars must rely on the instant reach of the idiot box for publicity and promotion. The small screen has a way of making megastars all too accessible, thereby robbing them of a bit of their otherworldly aura and making the task of drawing people to the multiplexes all the more difficult.
Getting couch potatoes to abandon the comfort of their living rooms, head for a multiplex and consciously pick out a particular film certainly takes some doing. Shahrukh has been doing it with amazing regularity. Amid a plethora of options available to India's star-struck moviegoers and TV buffs, Shahrukh Khan towers over all else.
Since the release of Devdas in 2001, Shahrukh has delivered five super-duper successes, including last year's drama of marital discord, Chalte Chalte. Remarkably, each of these five films is different from the others, proof enough that it was Shahrukh and not any specific narrative formula that did the trick. Devdas was a tragedy, Chalte Chalte a drama, Kal Ho Naa Ho a breezy rigmarole woven around a love triangle, Main Hoon Na a fluffy action-oriented flick and the latest, Veer-Zaara, a typical Yash Chopra sarson-da-saga with a strong dash of heavy duty romance.
Shahrukh can sell anything from Santro Zing to cross-border love. But, sadly, the effort of carrying the burden is probably beginning to pinch. Shahrukh Khan is in danger of burning out before his time, what with his back trouble slowing him down quite appreciably. That might prevent him from actually becoming the biggest star Bollywood has ever produced. What sets Amitabh Bachchan apart from all the other megastars who have paraded across the silver screen over the decades is his unmatched longevity. Shahrukh will fall well shy.
Bachchan, now 62 years old, took his bow way back in 1969, and barring a brief hiatus in the 1990s, he has been on the run non-stop. His clout in his heydays was nothing short of miraculous. Big B continues to hold sway to this day, landing a plum role in a big-ticket film virtually every month. The box-office hits may have dried up - none of Bachchan's films this year (Deewaar, Dev, Kyun… Ho Gaya Naa) has clicked. But nobody can take away the fact that he remains a force to reckon with in the Bollywood scheme of things long after his contemporaries have faded out of the picture.
That is where Shahrukh Khan is likely to lose out. Can one imagine the 40-year-old superstar going great guns when he is past 60 and even after the likes of Aamir Khan and Salman Khan have called it a day? That is highly unlikely. Shahrukh's current status as a singular crowd-puller in an overcrowded marketplace swarming with showbiz options is absolutely unassailable. Throw the man into any project and it takes on the dimensions of grandeur.
Even at the height of his prowess, Bachchan had an infinitely easier field to play on. He may have been a one-man industry that delivered hits with unfailing consistency but he was his own competition. Today, however, the Big B has gone one up on everybody else by redefining the very essence of stardom by extending his innings well beyond his prime. No star before him has achieved such incredible durability. That alone should keep him a few steps ahead of Shahrukh Khan when a historian sits down to assess their relative star powers a couple of decades from now.