Shah Rukh Khan at Yale’s Timothy Dwight College, New Haven, on April 12 (Photo: Jay Mandal/ On Assignment)
Shah Rukh Khan has just had his Steve Jobs moment at Yale’s Timothy Dwight College where the Indian global superstar was honored as a Chubb Fellow last evening.
His 3723-word speech, which he delivered a little too rapidly but still managed to make it effective, had shades of Jobs’ much cited 2005 commencement speech at Stanford; not in terms of the content of Jobs’ speech, of course, but in terms of its mood of unconventionality.
Khan being Hindi cinema’s most recognizable international face had had to resist the temptation of drawing on that experience and instead mostly focus on what it would take for the students of Yale to make something out of their own lives.
Unlike many Hindi movie stars who try to wing it at such events and crash-land, it was quite evident that Khan had put in work into the speech. He was clearly conscious that it was not an event where he could simply send his reputation as a charming celebrity as a stand-in. The biggest advantage of being as inordinately famous as Khan is that there is already preconceived credibility about you. To slightly paraphrase Oliver Goldsmith the jests of the famous are ever successful. (He said the jests of rich are ever successful).
Except for the fairly common and wince-worthy mistake of using “many a nights” the speech, whose copy I have, was reasonably well crafted. This passage, for instance, captures the interior workings of an actor rather articulately.
“Life as a creative person is like being on a tight rope. I begin to lose myself, in my own melodrama. It's frustrating that I find myself living up to other people's interpretation of what I ought to be. And when faced with dissent, I start losing my love affair with my audience. It becomes a tight balance** act, to keep doing what I do best and not be bothered by the reactions of people I do it for, in the first place.
I dance harder and cartwheel longer and pirouette on my rope - stretched, taut, beneath my feet.
And I try not to slip, I can slide but never fall off. All this while, I have a smile on my face and signing autographs. All I am is a funambulist trying to balance my action and exterior reaction to my naked show of who I am inside.”
For someone like Khan, whose life now is a relentless cavalcade of privilege, deference and flattery, half the battle is won by merely showing up. That is a massive advantage. For those of us who are neither famous nor wealthy the jests have to be particularly striking in order to be successful. Khan could have read the names from Yale’s 1967 yearbook and still set off waves of cheers and screams of approvals.
I suspect when celebrities speak there has to be a significant percentage of people in the audience who just see their lips moving, mute their sound, and hear precisely what they want to hear.
In Khan’s case though, there was a fair bit of substance, as much as one might come to expect from someone being swooned and drooled over his every waking moment.
I am sure his three points of being a funambulist, mindful of what it means to have the unconditional love of one’s parents and fear of failure as the fuel that propels one towards success went down well with an audience which was already seasoned and primed beforehand in the man’s enormous celebrity.
Incidentally, Khan was once again detained at the airport for an hour and a half by the US immigration because his name always raises a red flag in the Homeland Security’s list of people it is watching. He was cleared with profound apologies, which the Indian government says are not enough or acceptable.
His detention story was broken by my young friend Yoshita Singh of the wire service Press Trust of India (PTI). Yoshita described her experience of waiting for Khan to arrive with the deliberately melodramatic, “Pehle bhooke pyase SRK ka intenzaar kiya…(Waited for SRK hungry and thirsty) Fir raat mein neend gawa ke unki vyakhya ka ullekh kiya (Then losing my sleep wrote about his speech).”
Journalist Yoshita Singh
Yoshita’s story scored big with the incident becoming a bit of a diplomatic spat between India and the United States. India’s Foreign Minister S M Krishna was quoted as saying, “"This has become a habit of detention and then apology, this cannot continue. We need an assurance that this won't happen again.”
By the way, in this particular picture Yoshita looks like someone ready for a major part in one of Khan’s upcoming movies.