Saba (Aishwarya Rai): Rishto ki geeli zameen par log aksar phisal jaatein hain.
Tahir (Shah Rukh): Tum sambhaal bhi sakti thi.
Saba (Aishwarya): Maine tumhari mohabbat dekh li ab tum bhi meri dosti aazma ke dekh lo.
Tahir (Shah Rukh): Ek tarfa pyar ki taaqat hi kuchh aur hoti hain.
This well-constructed scene from Karan Johar’s Ae Dil Hai Mushkil (2016) brings a divorced couple, played by Aishwarya Rai and Shah Rukh Khan, face-to-face in the presence of Aishwarya’s current boyfriend, Ranbir Kapoor. The estranged couple exchanges some acerbically-penned barbs and offer glancing insights about each other and their fractured relationship. It also brought to our minds the realization that this attractive star pair, which was reuniting onscreen after 14 years, could still strike incendiary sparks off each other!
Aishwarya (born on November 1) and Shah Rukh (born on November 2) and are cosmically compatible Scorpios, who in the right circumstances can feed off each other’s dynamism. But it is lamentable that these two A-league stars haven’t done more than just four films together (five, if you include their guest appearance in the Ishq kameena song from the Karisma Kapoor-starrer, Shakti) in a span encompassing two decades: It is 20 years since Mohabbatein released in November 2000.
Their association began earlier that same year, and on a most unlikely note. Back at the turn of the millennium, Shah Rukh was the reigning superstar and Aishwarya was the Miss World who had taken Hindi cinema by storm. Mansoor Khan curiously cast them as siblings in Josh (2000). The only memory I have of this set-in-Goa film is the song that Shah Rukh warbled with Hema Sardesai piping in for Aishwarya: ‘Apun bola tu meri Laila.’
Fortunately, this sibling act didn’t stop Aditya Chopra from casting them as star-crossed lovers in Mohabbatein (2000), his sophomore directorial effort after he had made box office history helming Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge. Shah Rukh won the Filmfare Critics Award for Best Actor for his performance. The film may have won Aishwarya a nomination for the Filmfare Award for Best Supporting Actress but she didn’t have a full-fledged romantic track with Shah Rukh. She appeared in fleeting flashbacks as student Raj Aryan’s (Shah Rukh) girlfriend Megha. While the film was essentially about Amitabh and Shah Rukh Khan battling over the primacy of love versus authority, Aishwarya's intermittent appearances as manifestations of Shah Rukh’s wistful imagination added soul to this confrontation drama.
It was left to Sanjay Leela Bhansali to project intense love between Shah Rukh Khan and Aishwarya Rai in Devdas (2002), with Madhuri Dixit as the shapely hypotenuse in this classic triangle. Shah Rukh brought a manic intensity to his role of the self-destructive and disenchanted Devdas, while Aishwarya brought a lingering air of despair to her character of Paro, who, unlike Devdas, gracefully comes to terms with the grim reality of life after becoming a trophy wife to a widower, an upper cruster with three grown-up children. Aishwarya had already made sceptics sit up and notice her as an actress and not just a beautiful face in Bhansali’s Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, but Devdas gave her the critics’ stamp of approval and earned her the patina of a star-actress. Shah Rukh won plaudits for his performance as an embittered, masochistic lover resorting to a very in-the-face performance, which inadvertently saved him the comparison to Dilip Kumar’s understated Devdas in the titular of Bimal Roy’s film. Bhansali’s Devdas was nominated for the BAFTA Award for Best Foreign Language Film and was also India's submission for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Both picked up the Best Actor and Best Actress trophies that year from various Indian publications.
Thereafter, their onscreen association has proved to be star crossed...just like in their films. Shah Rukh went on to churn out box office hits with Rani (Veer Zaara), Preity (Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna), and Deepika (Om Shanti Om), while Aishwarya teamed up successfully with Hrithik Roshan and Abhishek Bachchan (Jodha Akbar, Dhoom 2, Guru). Shah Rukh and Madhuri came together again after a decade and a half for just one sequence in Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, but proved their chemistry was still lethal.
In films spread over 20 years, the Shah Rukh-Aishwarya Rai pair has never had a happily-ever-after ending! Maybe now is the time to cast them in a mature romance that finally sees their romance fructify.
(The writer is an Indian author, columnist, TV scriptwriter and film historian. In 2017, he initiated The Dinesh Raheja Workshop in which he teaches Bollywood aspirants everything related to the media.)