Shah Rukh Khan, the Bollywood superstar, turns 55-years-old this year.
Khan is many things to many people—hero, movie star, idol, a zero-to-hero icon. For me, he is defined by his chemistry with the actresses he is paired with.
Khan often works with the same actors many times, especially Kajol, Juhi Chawla, Madhuri Dixit, and Kareena Kapoor. But personally, my favourite of Khan’s heroines is Preity Zinta.
In the 2000s, Khan and Zinta starred in three major films together: Nikkhil Advani’s Kal Ho Naa Ho (2003), Yash Chopra’s Veer-Zaara (2004), and Karan Johar’s Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna (2006).
Your mileage may vary on the quality of these movies, however, they were essential to both Khan and Zinta’s careers.
All were hits at the box office and award contenders. They are also larger-than-life love stories, but not standard boy-meets-girl movies.
Rather they poked and prodded at storybook romance, crafting challenging, twisty, and unique love stories that made you feel something beyond the passivity of being entertained.
Kal Ho Naa Ho (2003) – Dir: Nikkhil Advani
KHNH is SRK being his most King Khan—at first. But as the film goes on, he becomes devastating and wrenching.
His clownish act reveals deep anger and sadness for the life he cannot have, yet he never shows jealousy or resentment.
His love is boundless, his dedication perfect. Khan and Zinta together have visceral chemistry, playing right into their star personas, but with an undercurrent of tragedy.
Theirs was the love that could only take form with a third person: Saif Ali Khan’s character. They needed him to be complete, and he needed them.
SRK doesn’t fight to possess the woman he loves, but he fights to ensure her happiness without him, giving this love triangle a unique but sad twist.
Veer-Zaara (2004) – Dir: Yash Chopra
Veer-Zaara sets out to be a conventional rescue romance—a DDLJ with the India/Pakistan conflict as a backdrop if you will.
But what makes this movie different is that Preity Zinta has hardly ever been a damsel-in-distress; even in such a traditional role, she’s too modern a movie star.
Their love story switches who saves who in the end, with Veer in his own “tower” and Zaara coming to save him at the last minute.
This film breaks from clichés with romance, allowing Khan and Zinta to soften their personas just a bit and rework how we think big-screen romances function.
Zinta’s inherent agency in her performance makes room for Khan to be a different sort of dashing hero, one whose heroics involve sacrifice and pacifism instead of violence and aggression.
Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna (KANK) (2006) Dir: Karan Johar
Khan always had a bit of an edge to him. He can be kind of a jerk, yet he’s usually irresistible.
In KANK, however, he’s bitter, resentful, angry, just absolutely a mess.
His scenes with Zinta are hard to watch; their arguing and discontent are tragic especially when contrasted with their earlier romances.
Their characters were in love, but then life happened and the distance between them grew.
They are locked in a conflict without a simple out. KANK is controversial for “condoning cheating,” but I find that to be a naïve take.
Zinta and Khan play a broken married couple, whose marriage ended long before any actual infidelity.
The movie acknowledges that good people can do bad things, react the wrong way, make avoidable mistakes, and still be okay in the end.
This is the great thing about Shah Rukh Khan. He has different chemistry not only with each of his co-stars but also different chemistry with each actress in each specific film.
With KHNH, they showed that love is a powerful force, that takes many forms and isn’t straightforward.
In Veer-Zaara, they embodied devotion that could withstand the Indian/Pakistani conflict, creating a love story too powerful for mere borders.
KANK pushed buttons and defied Bollywood tropes with a marriage story that has no rosy solution.
Shah Rukh Khan is King Khan for a reason, delivering these three major films that play with his image, his chemistry with Preity Zinta, and the nature of movie romances.