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How Shah Rukh beat Letterman at his game

October 30, 2019 15:11 IST
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Shah Rukh Khan had David Letterman in his grip, giving him no quarter whatsoever, declares Sreehari Nair.

The David Letterman of the post-Late Night, post-Late Show phase is a man on a spiritual quest.

This isn't the Letterman who allowed wrestler Jerry Lawler slap comedian Andy Kaufman, while he (Letterman) sat drinking from his coffee mug.

He is a different Letterman from the one who kept his cool when Madonna called him a 'sick f***' and then rather cattily, asked him: 'Did you or did you not smell my underpants, Dave?'

This is not the Letterman satirized in David Foster Wallace's short story, My Appearance, about an actress scheduled to appear on The Letterman Show and her husband, who's worried that the savage host would cut his wife to ribbons.

Perhaps it's his advancing age or perhaps it's his pious beard, or perhaps it's the freshly buffed frames of his glasses, but Dave Letterman is not that damned-by-some-loved-by-others Prophet of Comic Chaos anymore.


As the host of his new talk show, My Next Guest Needs No Introduction, Letterman isn't chasing deliberate ridiculousness, nervous laughs or the sadistic pleasure derived from giving a guest just enough rope to hang himself.

This current version of Letterman wants more intimacy, less noise, and answers to some pretty tough and elemental questions.

And so, outwardly, MNGNNI's episode featuring Shah Rukh Khan strikes you as part of Letterman's new quest.

Using Khan as his model, Letterman wants to deduce what it means to be half a man and half something else, something larger and mythical.

The talk-show-host-turned-spiritual-inquisitor wishes to witness first-hand, the transformation of this man, who, one moment, is cooking pepper chicken in his kitchen, and the next moment, metamorphoses into this towering figure who almost makes people pee in their pants when they see him climb up the pedestal of his bungalow, Mannat.

To satisfy his impulses, Letterman not only interviews Khan in a studio in New York, he also proceeds to visit Khan's Bandra-located mansion and even participates in the sights and sounds of his immediate surroundings.

Reproduced below are a few interesting images of David Letterman in Mumbai:

Letterman playing cricket with Prithvi Shaw, and swinging the bat like Ted The Kid Williams.

Letterman purchasing, for Owen from New Jersey who he meets at Dadar market in central Mumbai, a portrait of Lord Ayyappan.

Letterman, at the Dadar market, presenting a flower to an old lady, who accepts the gift with a fazed expression that seems to ask, 'Who exactly is this bavḷaṭ manoos (crazy man)?'

All this is good, this new, flowery, spiritual side, but the Letterman of yore, that cunning fox with blinking eyes and bunny teeth, though dormant, is still bubbling under the surface.

This is the Letterman Shah Rukh Khan has to be wary of.

For this is the Letterman who has a secret agenda (one that the show's title gives you not a clue about): Iin the land of excessive divinity, he wants to see how vain the Gods are.

Shah Rukh Khan is awake to the danger that this foxy Letterman presents.

The interview conducted in New York, has a shot of him waiting in the wings of the studio, while on the stage, Letterman delivers an amusing monologue.

The shot, barely three seconds long, which renders him like a boxer who is about to step into the ring, is one great shot -- because it creates a moment where you get a glimpse of the two personalities that Shah Rukh Khan is forever hopping between: The Lovable Shah Rukh and the Shrewd Khan.

Next, in a simple yet imaginative choice for an introduction shot, the camera follows Khan instead of letting him march toward it.

A star who is framed from behind, as he walks onto the stage, suddenly grows more human -- the camera then seems to animate those wobbly features that his confident anterior may be hiding.

And so, if you observe Khan carefully here, you can feel him calculating through his stylish walk.

Now on their respective seats, the interview begins.

Letterman teases out a number which, on the one hand is an indicator of Khan's imperiousness (3.5 billion fans), and on the other hand, it's a bait.

Will he begin to choke on his own vanity, is the big question.

Khan is in a double bind right now: He must not play the fool, while making sure that he feeds the sentimental love of the crowd.

(This nausea-inducing crowd, composed exclusively of NRIs, bobbed in their chairs, and emitted cheers at the blandest of utterances. One such instance of uncalled-for cheering resulted in Letterman looking at the crowd with an irritated face.)

For me, personally, the story of Shah Rukh Khan with David Letterman is the story of how Khan -- caught between his image and his soul, between his entire career and one moment of honest reckoning, between a feverish crowd and a wily Letterman -- frees himself of the double bind.

So says the star whose dimples receive a special mention on the show: 'Pretty early on, I grasped that I am not half as talented as I think I am. And this made me realise that, listen, if I can't do it with skill and talent, then I better get into the hearts of people. And if they are loving me, let me just be nice and good about it.'

To this confession, Letterman strokes his beard, as if suggesting that he is not in Khan's bag yet.

And so the star pushes on.

Using a clever story, he goes onto construct a parallel between his mother who he had cheated as a child, and his audience who he has been shamelessly selling mush to.

Both the mother and the audience have presumably forgiven him, and out of the thin studio air, he has now formulated a hypothesis: If it is your genuine love for someone that causes you to overlook the faults in that person, consider your lack of objectivity a blessing and not a curse.


This is when the interview turns; when its mood-temperature changes.

In fact, this is when it moves away from the realm of an interview and enters the domain of existential theatre.

This is the moment when Shah Rukh, using the age-old conceit of expertly-worded modesty, builds a bridge between him and the overenthusiastic crowd, while also sending out a silent message to Letterman that he, Khan, is Letterman's wicked equal.

We all intuitively recognise that nobody with the least bit of charm or appeal is without wickedness.

And yet, this is doubly true of Shah Rukh whose wickedness is central to his charm.

It is this wickedness that pushed him to crack a joke about the tardiness of the Indian film fraternity, at a recent event, held to commemorate Mahatma Gandhi's values. (Except for SRK's brief wink, this was otherwise a get-together of sincere speeches and glum faces, as if a commemoration of Gandhi meant a celebration of humourlessness.)

You can preview Shah Rukh's wickedness in the way he often twists arguments in mid-sentence, bringing to life a distant memory or cancelling an obvious imagery, and thus guiding us toward an unexpected place in our own consciousness.

It is his wickedness that has, in the past, inspired him to jump into situations without knowing what the outcome would be.

To draw just one point of distinction, Lagaan was a simple man's idea of risk.

Asoka, on the other hand, was a risk that only a wicked man could have taken.

And so, with the sounding of the expertly-worded and smartly-timed modesty, the New York studio becomes a setting for the clash of two egos and their submerged wickednesses.

Letterman wants to expose the dirt behind the greasepaint; Shah Rukh Khan will do Letterman's job for him.

He makes no bones about the fact that his career has been built on a series of good and bad motives.

His high points are those when his good and bad motives, such as his love for acting and his desire for fame, motives that represent his generous and his selfish side respectively, have agreed with each other for a brief period of time.

As an example of someone who could not balance two such opposing motives, he cites his own father: 'He was very honest, and so perhaps, he wasn't successful.'

You can pretty much guess who all Letterman must have consulted as part of his research.

You can guess, also, the chestnuts that these usually consulted names, or 'experts,' would have supplied: The Delhi boy, orphaned at a young age, self-made man, romances women as if he meant it, witty, loquacious, Badshah of Bollywood... blah blah blah.

Now wait for Letterman's guest to break open these chestnuts, one by one, and reveal never-before-revealed kernels of meaning.

During the part of the interview concerning the early loss of his parents, Khan refrains from discussing the experience in schmaltzy terms.

In fact, he de-sentimentalises these events.

He even devises a farce, a piece of clowning, centered on his desperate attempts to stop his mother from making it through the door.

He describes such losses as if they were essential rites of passage, and hints, that in one sense, his parents's deaths may have liberated him.

He is not just witty, this Khan from Rajendra Nagar, he's a philosopher; and he's not just a garden-variety philosopher, but a philosopher with an existential edge.

He has a knack for not classifying experiences as Good and Bad.

What matters to him, clearly, is how much psychic life, how much physical life there is in every moment. And he then rushes into the next moment with just as much anticipation.

In terms of his vocabulary, he must seem to Letterman both natively impressive and exotically impressive.

He combines chaste English with the most casual of Hindi and Urdu idioms -- he is, thus, bouncing in and out of Letterman's world.

As a matter of fact, his straddling of East and West is so effortless that it is Letterman who has to now keep up.

And there are times when Letterman cannot keep up.

Such as when, Khan talks about his grandmother raising him at her place because 'she had four daughters and she needed a boy, and because' -- and he coughs at this point, as if saying a quick prayer of forgiveness in his mind -- 'by then, grandfather was too old to produce anything.'

The irritating audience laughs, but the joke is lost on Letterman, who, by now, is not just in Khan's bag, but begging for a ticket to his inner sanctum.

The 'experts' who supplied the clichés also supplied the journalistic gossip -- his gang from school days, the night spent at a police station, his fight with the press.

But to give Letterman his due, he didn't sub-contract the job of watching Shah Rukh's movies to an intern or a production assistant.

He has sat himself down and watched some of those movies, or at least caught some scenes in passing.

IMAGE: David Letterman celebrates Eid with Shah Rukh Khan. Photograph: Pradeep Bandekar

It's not too hard to guess what Letterman must think of Khan's acting.

And so, when he asks the star which actors have inspired him, it's the wily fox's final throw of the dice.

To the discerning eye, there would appear a certain fineness, a certain intelligence, about Shah Rukh Khan as an actor, which his stardom has never truly permitted him to build on.

But to Letterman, the casual onlooker, it would be easier to see Khan as a heart-warmer than, say, a thespian.

Shah Rukh knows that there's something self-aggrandising, even sad, about a heart-warmer proclaiming that he most looks up to Laurence Olivier.

And so, he cuts his idols, very carefully, from the same fabric that he has been cut from.

Michael J Fox, yes. Peter Sellers, yes.

He is too smart to mention Daniel-Day-Lewis or Brando and have Letterman think to himself, 'That's just dropping big names as consolation for the small life he leads as a serious actor.'

As with his choice of favourite actors, Shah Rukh's interview with Letterman was a testament to his moment-to-moment commitment to not letting Letterman gain the upper hand.

Khan's is a face that has evidently been cast in the furnace of ambition.

His is also a face that radiates an aversion for foolishness, a face that seems almost a proscription against speaking and behaving like a fool.

And so, it's only understandable that such a face wouldn't entertain the thought of losing to someone like Letterman, whose mission in life is feasting on the unconscious pretensions of over-conscious celebrities.

Sure, on that night in New York, Shah Rukh Khan had Letterman in his grip, giving him no quarter whatsoever.

Most importantly, however, he raised the talk show host's quest to a higher level.

Letterman, who had come to witness the vanity of the Gods, was exposed to the most human of Gods -- a God who reveled in his own shortcomings, and who claimed to have floundered as much as he had conquered.

And when the once-savage host declared in conclusion, 'You're maybe the loveliest and the smartest person I've interviewed on this show,' the dimpled boy from Delhi, with a wild river of ambition still running through his heart, had turned Letterman into a believer.

This, while allowing Letterman to retain his faith in the eternal charm that wicked men and women possess.

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