If you’ve ever watched a Bollywood film, you’ve probably noticed that the actors often transition to a song-and-dance sequence in the middle of multiple scenes.
What you witnessed is among Bollywood’s most unique offerings: filmi gaane, meaning "songs from films." In Bollywood movies, the music isn’t just a soundtrack. Songs actively show up as part of the plot and play a vital role in moving the story forward.
Back in the 80s and ’90s (and as late as 2014), when Indian movies couldn’t show kissing or physical intimacy on screen (outside of hugs and actresses gyrating in wet sarees), the songs were important to convey romantic love. As soon as the leading pair confessed their love, a song would begin. They’d run around some trees, lip-synching to romantic lyrics, and the track would usually end with them “kissing” behind a couple of flowers.
The song was their whole romance and a whole “story” in itself. Their “date” was them singing to each other at a party or in the middle of the road or in any number of other impossibly beautiful locations.
Cut to 2023 and it’s more normalized to show intimacy on screen. But, songs in Bollywood can be used for anything and everything: celebrating weddings, declaring rage, courting lovers, or dying in a shootout. Basically, there’s a song for every plot point in a Bollywood movie.
So, what makes a Bollywood song a “hit”? It’s not just the singer, composer, arranger, or music video director — to a large degree, the success of a Bollywood song depends on who’s appearing in the song, namely, the actor of the film in question (who more often than not is lip-syncing along to someone else’s voice).
This phenomenon is much easier to explain if we take an example. And since we’re talking Bollywood, there’s no better example than Shah Rukh Khan, aka SRK.
SRK: Bollywood’s Eternal Superstar
Anyone familiar with Bollywood has almost certainly heard of Shah Rukh Khan, Bollywood’s most celebrated actor who has ruled Indian cinema for over three decades. His films are huge, but what’s even bigger is his persona and cult following.
Here’s a little taste of SRK’s power: after a handful of films that didn’t do so well, he took a four-year break and came back in 2023 with Pathaan, a movie about recovering a global virus from a terrorist played by John Abraham. This film was such a success — partially due to a combination of fan’s nostalgia for SRK and the movie’s quality itself — that it revived multiple single-screen movie theaters across India that had been closed down due to lack of business and became the highest-grossing Hindi film of all time.
Pathaan didn’t hold on to its position for long. The film was defeated by SRK’s next film, Jawan, which had the biggest global opening for any Hindi film ever. At this point, he is his own and only competition.
The release of a Shah Rukh Khan film (or even just his birthday) is a country-wide event. At openings, fans worship him and weep for joy. When Pathaan was released, it was the first film to sell out screenings at theaters in Kashmir Valley after more than three decades.
His six-story palatial seaside mansion named "Mannat," meaning prayer, is basically a public landmark. Fans crowd around his house in huge numbers every day, especially on the star's birthday and major holidays.
His newest film Dunki, released December 21, 2023, takes on the idea of “donkey flights,” a method of illegal immigration. Directed by Rajkumar Hirani (who made box-office dominators like 3 Idiots and Munna Bhai M.B.B.S.), it quickly surpassed Pathaan and Jawan in advance bookings, with 186.7k tickets already sold for the 7,885 opening day showings in India.
Stories like these are not new in SRK’s career. Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, his most iconic film, has been screened continuously since its release in 1995 at one of Mumbai’s landmark theaters, Maratha Mandir, making it the longest-running film in India’s history.
Though there is constant talk about SRK’s role in delivering explosively successful films, there’s little chatter about how he is responsible for the films’ musical success.
The SRK Effect on Soundtracks
In Bollywood (and most regional Indian movies), the story’s hero will double as a “singer,” acting out the emotions of the song via lip-syncing to (usually) someone else’s voice, normally that of a playback singer. Every Bollywood film usually contains around five of these songs (although older movies had closer to ten), and they are the most popular form of music enjoyed by Indians and the South Asian diaspora worldwide.
While SRK is not the only Bollywood actor doing this, he is the most beloved. The point isn’t that the singer isn’t good enough, or that SRK needs to step in with his evergreen charisma to save bad songs. Bollywood boasts some of the most melodic and interesting musicians in the world, and their craft and talent are not in question.
Indian listeners continue to be obsessed with legendary playback singers such as Kishore Kumar (who passed away in 1987), Lata Mangeshkar (who ruled the charts since 1940 and passed away in 2022), and Mohammed Rafi (who passed away in 1980), and they are listened to at comparable levels to their modern equivalents.
No Bollywood lover will ever claim that the singer does not matter, though as we know, the quality of music doesn’t always determine its commercial success. But in Bollywood, the relationship between the actor and the music is closer than it is in Western productions. The song reveals the actor’s feelings and heightens the plot, while the actor gives meaning to the song through their presence and participation
Shah Rukh Khan’s most memorable public image from his films is him standing with his arms outstretched, inviting the viewer in for an embrace, as he begins to “sing.” To this day, whenever SRK opens his arms, his fanbase of millions rejoices at the sight of Bollywood’s greatest on-screen lover in his iconic stance and calling card.
He first used this pose in the hugely popular 1995 film Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (DDLJ), a story about two non-resident Indians or NRIs (a term commonly used in India to talk about Indians living abroad) falling in love at a time when romance was heavily frowned upon in real life Indian society. It explores personal freedom and desire while also respecting traditions, and was the first notable film to depict the lives of Indians living away from their land.
SRK’s presence was pivotal to DDLJ’s earth-shattering success and status as one of the most globally beloved Indian films of all time. His character Raj became a trope in Bollywood and a familiar role for SRK in his films: the non-macho, dependable, “buys-you-flowers but also fights-off-the-bad-guys” lover who could both woo women and win over men.
Ok, so he’s clearly a very big deal. But really, how much of a difference does his presence make to the success of the songs themselves?
Take “Tujhe Dekha Toh Yeh Jaana Sanam,” one of the film’s most popular songs that any Bollywood fan can sing or hum on command, with vocals from Kumar Sanu and the venerable Lata Mangeshkar. Performed by SRK and Kajol (who played his onscreen romantic interest in this and many other movies), it currently boasts 36.2 million Spotify streams and 225 million YouTube views.
Kumar Sanu was also the voice on the soundtrack for Basaarat, a comparably huge Bollywood film released that same year. The film’s most popular track, “Humko Sirf Tumse,” has only 11.85 million Spotify streams and 11.85 million YouTube views (coincidentally close numbers on both platforms), a far cry from “Tujhe Dekha Toh.” A quick listen to both tracks will convince you that Kumar Sanu didn’t suddenly become a terrible singer in the latter. So what drives the former song's success, and not the latter? Could it be that one was performed by SRK and Kajol, and the other by Bobby Deol and Twinkle Khanna, who suffer from the devastating condition of not being SRK?
This phenomenon can be seen throughout SRK’s career. It seems to be an undeniable truth — regardless of the playback singer or the success of the film upon release, songs performed by SRK simply have longer staying power and popularity than those performed by others.
One of his next projects, aptly named Pardes (which means “foreign land” in Hindi), saw SRK returning to another NRI-focused plot. The film was a big hit and furthered his popularity in actual pardes, growing his international fanbase.
“Yeh Dil Deewana” was singer Sonu Nigam’s breakthrough hit from SRK’s Pardes. He has admitted that until its release, “filmmakers and fans alike would dismiss his talent, saying he was just another Mohammad Rafi clone.” He also peppered this track with a bit of MJ inspiration.
Aptly named Pardes (which means “foreign land” in Hindi), the film saw SRK returning to another NRI-focused plot. The film also furthered his popularity in actual pardes, and as his films often are, was the highest-grossing film of the year of its release (1997).
“Ye Dil Deewana” stands at 21.8 million Spotify streams. At the same time “Sandese Aate Hai,” also sung by Nigam but for the movie Border (another huge hit from the same year featuring Sunny Deol, Sunil Shetty, and an ensemble cast of leading Bollywood men), has collected only 17.7 million Spotify streams, perhaps another sign of the SRK effect. The difference may not seem huge, but Border was actually much more successful than Pardes when they were both released in 1997. Despite that, the SRK-Sonu Nigam duo won the numbers game.
Another SRK blockbuster, also featuring NRIs, is Kal Ho Naa Ho. Landing in the USA, his character uses charm, wit, and innuendo to navigate conversations around inter-caste & inter-religious marriage, homosexuality, and homosocial bonding within the Indian diaspora. This was a big deal because when the film was released in 2003, India was still only beginning to talk about non-conforming relationships in public. The film’s title track, sung by Sonu Nigam and performed by SRK who does his famous pose currently has 82.1 million Spotify streams and 291.6 million YouTube views.
However, “Piyu Bole,” the most streamed Sonu Nigam track from the very popular Parineeta, a film released only two years later, only has 9.5 million Spotify streams and 34.2 million YouTube views, perhaps because Parineeta doesn’t have the boost of star power and longevity from SRK that Kal Ho Naa Ho has.
“Inn Lamhon Ke Daaman Mein” (from 2008’s blockbuster Jodhaa Akbar) features Sonu Nigam’s glorious voice and the composition of Oscar and Grammy winner A.R. Rahman. It also features the craft of actor Hrithik Roshan, another Bollywood heartthrob. Roshan is known to be an incredible dancer and is one of Bollywood's most attractive men. Yet, the song he performs has lower numbers than Sonu Nigam’s “Suraj Hua Maddham,” a song starring SRK from Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham…, a film released in 2001, which was seven years prior.
Bollywood movies often release songs before the movie to garner audience interest. SRK’s latest film Dunki, set to premiere December 21, 2023, released several songs in advance, the first two being “Lutt Putt Gaya” (sung by superstar Arijit Singh) and “Nikle The Kabhi Hum Ghar Se” (by Sonu Nigam). Since its release on November 22, “Lutt Putt Gaya” has accumulated 6 million Spotify streams and 63.7 million YouTube views while “Nikle The Kabhi Hum Ghar Se,” released December 1, has gotten 16.4 million YouTube streams — all before fans could even see the movie.
However, Arijit Singh’s “Ve Kamleya” (from Rocky Aur Rani ki Prem Kahaani), released in mid-July 2023, only got 5.2 million Spotify streams and 16.4 million YouTube views in its first month. Bear in mind that Arijit Singh is currently the most popular playback singer in Bollywood, and “Ve Kamleya” featured two major (although not SRK) stars, Ranveer Singh and Alia Bhatt.
Then there’s Shaan, another Bollywood playback powerhouse who has tasted commercial success in both Bollywood and indie circles. In 2007, his track “Deewangi Deewangi” from the SRK-led Om Shanti Om (the highest-grossing Hindi film ever at the time of its release, which SRK has a habit of making) ricocheted up the charts and currently has 314.5 million YouTube views. “It’s The Time to Disco” from 2003’s Kal Ho Naa Ho is another fixture on “Shaan’s Best Hits” playlists. The song features SRK shakin’ a leg, and it helped the track dance all the way to 30.6M Spotify streams.
Shaan, however, hasn’t sung for SRK’s on-screen characters as frequently as Sonu Nigam. Safe to say, however, that every time he has done so, he has tasted industry-bending success. Unfortunately, the song he created for SRK to perform in Dunki was cut, but Shaan teased that it may be used in a future project.
King Khan's Loyal and Devout Fanbase
Obviously, men love SRK. He wouldn’t be ruling Bollywood for three decades if they didn’t. When a new SRK film opens (or if he, you know, is even seen in public), their admiration of the star is clearly visible.
There’s no question that SRK has male fans. But, since this piece is about the uniqueness of King Khan, we have to talk about his relationship with women, both on and off-screen.
In a world of hyper-masculine men dominating screens by kicking in skulls and making it rain hellfire, SRK stands out for being kind. He will brawl with a hundred men, but his on-screen and off-screen persona maintains a disarming vulnerability.
A perfect example of Khan’s sensitivity is the film Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi (“A Match Made by God”). SRK plays an average, timid, unassuming middle-class man who marries a beautiful young woman (who does not love him) at the request of his dying professor. Desperately in love with her, he tries to get her to love him by pretending to be someone else, the “macho man” he thinks she would want.
Watch him try to be “manly” for a second before realizing that isn’t him. He’s the man who listens, takes note of what his beloved desires, and goes all-out to get her exactly that.
Khan, like every actor, has picked violent, problematic roles. His female fans are often vocally critical of them. But they also admit that his roles provide an oasis of understanding in women’s perpetually misunderstood lives.
In a piece for the BBC on a book written by Shrayana Bhattacharya about SRK’s female fans, journalist Aparna Alluri described a specific passage that struck her:
Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge was one of Khan's biggest hits and possibly Bollywood's most successful and beloved romance - but the mother of a fan girl was struck by something I don't think I ever noticed: "It was the first time I had seen the hero peel a carrot in a film and spend so much time with the women of the household."
Khan isn’t afraid of being “feminized”. He embraces the company of women and doesn’t look down upon their interests, desires, and agonies. As a young Muslim garment worker told Bhattacharya, “I wish someone could talk to me or touch me the way he does with Kajol in Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, but that's never going to happen. My husband's moods and hands are so harsh.”
Far too many Indian women, across all economic backgrounds, don’t have the luxury to imagine a “happily-ever-after” for themselves. They spend their lives relegated to the position of a second-class citizen due to societal and cultural forces. For them, Khan’s characters, or even just his songs, signal freedom. As the article notes, “many of his poorer fans never watched a movie of his until much later in life, relying instead on songs to feed their fandom.”
For more privileged women, SRK is the ideal they grew up with of a deeply loving man who makes mistakes, admits them, and is willing to make amends.
In his films, he is very comfortable working with, and romancing powerful women — the no-nonsense Interpol agent from Don, the Indian women’s hockey team in Chak De India, the capable hostage negotiator, and a team of female vigilantes in Jawan, the lethal ISI agent in Pathaan — the list is endless.
For more than 30 years, Shah Rukh Khan has been the undisputed king of Bollywood. Despite putting out quite a few “flops”, no one can ever dispute his longevity and seemingly endless appeal across generations, genders, and geography. To this day, all SRK has to do is wave or spread his arms wide open, and hearts will soar, break, and skip every time.
YouTube views were taken from the most viewed, currently available upload of the song.
Graphics by Nicki Camberg and cover image by Crasianne Tirado; data as of Dec. 20, 2023.