It is hard to measure the magnitude of Bollywood actor Shah Rukh Khan's fame and popularity. Long known as "King Khan" for his box office drawing power, there are fan sites dedicated to him in Asia, but even fans from Estonia, Mexico, Chile and New Zealand wax eloquent about his dimples, his hair, the intensity of his eyes and his smile.
Thanks to subtitled and badly dubbed DVDs that reach far-flung frontiers, there are few places on earth where that face and tousled hair aren't recognised.
When asked about his broad appeal, Khan says, "I have never tried to analyse my fans, why they love me, why they want my picture … I'm just glad to have them. Whenever I travel and see the response and love, I am humbled. I just want to hug them all."
If he didn't have his arm in a sling, the Indian superstar probably could have hugged thousands of his fans from Hong Kong and elsewhere who saw him in Macau last month. As he walked, bracketed by beefy bodyguards, into the Venetian Macao to co-host the 14th International Indian Film Academy Awards, the fanatical frenzy he inspires was difficult to miss.
Not bad for a father of three who turns 48 in November and who first erupted into the national consciousness as a TV star in the military themed tele-drama Fauji ( Soldier) 25 years ago. With appearances in more than 75 films since making his cinematic debut in 1992, the Indian Muslim actor's next appearance will be in Chennai Express, whose worldwide release is timed to coincide with the Muslim festival of Eid ul-Fitr.
Chennai Express is an over-the-top action-comedy about a man's journey from Mumbai to a small Tamil Nadu town and what happens along the way after he falls in love with the daughter of a crime boss. The film is expected to do exceptionally well in India and the overseas Indian (non-resident Indian) market on which Khan has an unshakable grip. Khan stars in a staggering seven out of the 10 highest-grossing Indian films of all time in the overseas market, and an impressive 12 out of the top 25.
"There's no one to beat Shah Rukh Khan's magnetic draw," says Sunil Datwani, who has bought rights to several of Khan's flicks over the past decade to show Hong Kong cinema-goers. "Of course the South Asian community comes out in full force, but there's even a Chinese Bollywood fan club. And several British and American fans you can spot in the crowd."
Within the Indian film industry as well, his contemporaries are in awe of the actor, who has turned romancing with a strumming guitar and outstretched arms into a signature art form of its own.
"I was a huge Shah Rukh Khan fan when I first met him and did my first film," says his Chennai Express co-star, Deepika Padukone. "Now, even after meeting him several times and working with him the second time around, I'm probably a bigger fan. He is just … amazing. Just … wonderful," says the actress, who made her film debut in Om Shanti Om (2007), which was produced by and co-starred Khan.
Khan brushes off the praise. "When I hear such things, it's nice but they are being too kind. They are wonderful actors and it's just their affection for me that translates into their kind words."
As Chennai Express' release date nears, its lead actor doesn't sound anxious about how the film will be received. "It is a Rohit Shetty [directed] film, and he makes these big, big movies, and the stunts and action are just amazing," Khan says. "I'm a huge Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee fan. Even without subtitles, I can sit and watch their films for the comedy and action. I don't know if the Hong Kong audience will identify with our style of action - but it has that element of humour and thrills. I hope they … enjoy it too."
Khan, who won several acting honours for the dramatic My Name is Khan (2010), knows his latest film's surreal antics and slapstick will not be everyone's cup of tea.
"When I do a serious film like Chak De India ( Go! India), Swades ( Homeland) or My Name is Khan, there is a realism to the performance to go with the style of the movie. If I did that in a film like Chennai Express, it would be completely out of sync," he says. "You mould your performance and character according to the movie - as any actor would."
And are there any fears of the film not getting into the club of films grossing 100 million rupees (HK$12.7 million) at the home box office? "None," he says with quiet confidence. "The figures are irrelevant. I just want to do better movies, better roles; work harder every Monday when I hit the set to make as many people happy as possible. I don't count the money a movie makes, I want to count the smiles that audiences have when they leave an auditorium."
Chennai Express screens at UA iSquare from Friday