There is maybe no movie star on Earth with a bigger following than the “King of Bollywood,” otherwise known simply as SRK. Many Americans, probably unknowing of this fact, may have learned about him from Ms. Marvel, whose protagonist gushes over the dreamy legend. “There is no such thing as a bad Shah Rukh Khan movie, ”she says, and without confirming or denying that, it is hard to argue that he is one of the most magnetic performers in the world. Whether playing a romantic hero, a godlike figure, a goofball, or a deranged psychopath, Khan always finds a way to steal the show, and your heart. These films serve as an incomplete but well-rounded introduction to his work.
Raj Malhotra in Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995)
If you are going to watch one SRK film, this is the one. Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge is one of the most beloved Indian movies of all time; it also catapulted Khan into super stardom and began his shift away from villainous to romantic roles. Khan plays Raj, a carefree, wealthy student living in London, who falls hard for Simran (Kajol) while backpacking in Switzerland. To win over her conservative family, Raj unveils layers beneath his childish exterior, revealing himself to be equally concerned with Indian traditions, piety, and commitment. DDLJ did not just change Khan’s career, it helped shape his image as the cosmopolitan NRI (non-resident Indian), who is always able to juggle his worldliness with his love of his tradition and home country. It is also an example of his wonderful chemistry with Kajol, who would go on to play his love interest time and time again.
Aman Mathur in Kal Ho Naa Ho (2003)
As Khan’s legend grew, it became almost unavoidable in his films; he often plays characters with a supernatural ability to improve the lives of everybody around him. In Kal Ho Naa Ho, Khan can flaunt all his signature traits. He is overly cheerful and witty, rich, and is well-adjusted in the United States. He is also unbelievably generous and sentimental and can queue up the waterworks with little warning in any melodramatic situation. As Aman, he brings joy into the life of his new neighbor Naina (Pretty Zinta) and her best friend Rohit (Saif Ali Khan). Naina inevitably falls in love with him, but he devises a plan to have her fall in love with Rohit, for heartbreaking, spoiler-tastic reasons. This film is emotional, bombastic, and is possibly the most Shah Rukh Khan of all Shah Rukh Khan performances.
Amarkant Varma in Dil Se .. (1998)
Another essential aspect of Khan’s persona is that when he wants to be with a woman, he really, really wants to be with them. (More on that later). A prime example of that is Dil Se .. where he plays Amarkant, a big city radio-journalist who falls hopelessly for Meghna (Manisha Koraila), an Assamese separatist who does not reciprocate his feelings. Intertwining a real-life political conflict with forbidden love makes for high drama, and a highly intense Khan performance. It is slightly painful to watch him ignore countless rebuffs, no matter how transfixing his eyes may be. It is rare to see a Khan character fail so miserably to get what he wants, and the raw emotion he delivers in his unrequited quest is unsettling. As it slowly morphs into a political thriller, Khan gets an opportunity to play an action hero, but he is unable to play a cool killer, instead using his unbridled emotion to muscle his way out of tough situations. It is a very tense watch, but it also features beautiful musical sequences, such as the classic Chaiyya Chaiyya.
Rahul Mehra in Darr (1993)
Before DDLJ, Khan was already making a decent name for himself playing psychotic villains. As Rahul in Darr (also known as Darr: A Violent Love Story), Khan makes his performance in Dil Se .. remains pretty normal. Rahul is in love with Kiran (Juhi Chawla), but not in a cute way. Despite her relationship with Sunil (Sunny Deol), Rahul insists he will have her, and so he stalks her across the country, calling her late at night and occasionally peering right into her window. Oh, and he also carves her name into his chest, tries to murder her boyfriend, and slowly ingratiates himself into her extended family. He calls his dead mother on the phone every night, and shockingly, does not have many friends. It is disorienting seeing Khan play such an evil character, but it is easy to see how he would become a star; despite being third billing, he completely steals the limelight from the other characters and injects vital energy every time he appears on-screen. And that intensity, those burning eyes– you almost root for him just because he wants her so damn bad!
Rizwan “Rizzu” Khan in My Name Is Khan (2010)
One of the most daring roles of Khan’s career comes in this tearjerker, where he plays Rizwan Khan, a man with Aspberger’s living abroad in San Francisco. Despite his social difficulties, he still emits that SRK charm and wins over Mandira (Kajol) and her son Sameer (Arjun Aujla). But after 9/11, Islamophobia and tragedy befalls his family, and he embarks on a quest to let the world know that he is not a terrorist. Khan plays his role very jittery, avoiding eye contact and stammering, in a way that initially is hard to adapt to, given his larger-than-life presence. Despite the sensitivity of such a role, and his showy interpretation of it, it grows on you to the point that his syndrome becomes just another detail of his heroic, well-realized character. It also reveals itself to be a typically messianic Khan character as he inadvertently starts a national campaign for religious tolerance.
Om Prakash Makhija / Om Kapoor in Om Shanti Om (2007)
This tribute to Bollywood’s illustrious history is maybe the most flat-out fun entry on this list. Khan plays Om Makhija, a struggling actor who, after dying in an accident, is reborn as superstar Om Kapoor. As Makhija, Khan is somewhat pathetic, but a sweetheart. As Kapoor, Khan gets to play an overly confident, vapid superstar who slowly softens as he uncovers the spirits within him. While Khan seems too self-aware and lovable to be playing a fictionalized version of himself, he still knows exactly how to play a hotshot. And this film proves he earned it, as his comedic gift is in full force here. Full of opulent set design and numerous cameos from Bollywood legends, Om is a relatively stress-free joy ride down memory lane, and it has Khan in a lighter mode than usual.
Mohan Bhargava in Swades (2004)
Another word to describe Khan’s acting style would be “big.” But in Swades, he shows a level of restraint and naturalism that is hard to come by in his other work. As Mohan, a NASA engineer living in DC whose life changes on a trip back home to India, Khan subtly shifts from cocky expatriate to a humbled observer of Indian village life. He does most of it without any of the wisecracking, overly intense lusting, or sobbing that define his onscreen persona. Matching the realism of the film, he is calm and studied as he helps modernize the village of Charanpur using his scientific knowledge and ability to bring the villagers together. It is a classic role for Khan in that he plays an NRI who easily changes the lives of so many around him, but it also proves that, when given the opportunity, he can truly disappear into a character.