Talking face-to-face with Shah Rukh Khan is hypnotic. If you aren’t paying attention, he will know and you’ll hardly ever find yourself in a conversation with him where your attention deviates. In an industry cluttered with actors handing out drearily generic quotes, Khan has mastered the art of making every interaction unique.
With him, the experience is so personalised (he makes sure to keep repeating your name at regular intervals), that you leave thinking that you’ve managed to capture the man like nobody yet, extracted something so deep and profound that it’s going to stir up a stream of emotions in the reader by offering a philosophical insight into the superstar’s meditative space.
And that’s where his talent really lies. He can quote verses from the Bhagwad Gita and then jump to someone as removed from Hindu mythology as Apple’s Tim Cook, and yet his analogy will make complete sense.
When I meet him at his Mumbai bungalow, Mannat, the 50-year-old superstar, who recently completed 24 years in the film industry — his debut film Deewana released on June 25, 1992 — looks like he’s had a rough night and an early start. He is dressed casually, in blue denims and a navy blue tee. Smoke covers his face as he sits in his dimly-lit library, a sprawling space with titles ranging from Bill Bryson and Haruki Murakami to Paulo Coelho and Woody Allen; to Khaled Hosseini and Gabriel García Márquez.
It’s early evening and the sky is mostly overcast with a very bleak sun dissolving away quietly in the sea behind. While he appears slightly weak, once he starts speaking ― the Trump-level confidence comes out (the only thing they may have in common), steaming cups of tea arrive, and our interview begins.
This is part one of the excerpts from a conversation with Khan. You can read part two here.
You have completed 24 years being a part of Hindi films. Your career has seen dizzying highs and then there have been some lows. Are you completely satisfied with the way things have shaped up?
I’m not stupid to be happy. I have worked 25 years of my life doing films, which means that 50 percent of my life has been dedicated to making cinema. According to the usual mortality rate, I am 3/4th there already.
Obviously the reasons for doing films change. When you are younger, you are trying to make ends meet. In the initial few years of my career, I was driven by materialistic desires. I just wanted to buy a house. Maybe one with a garden in it because, well, I wanted to walk around with my kids in a garden.
The reason now is different. At this point now, I just want to make films. A lot of things change when you keep doing it for a very long time. Two things happen: you lose the ability to surprise the audience and the ability to fail gets taken away from you.
The audience expects you to succeed all the time. When a Sachin Tendulkar makes a 200, he convinces us of his greatness. But at the same time, what he also does is that he makes scoring 100 runs a routine thing. Making 100 runs isn’t great anymore then.
You were very bullish about Fan, but it failed commercially. How did you deal with that?
It felt awful. Between Adi (Aditya Chopra, producer), Maneesh (Maneesh Sharma, director) and me, we knew it wouldn't make money; we are not stupid. The film didn't have any heroine, didn't have any songs. Plus, we released it on a non-festive weekend. But Fan is still the closest to my heart. Having said that, I think we made a fundamental mistake with it.
The fundamental mistake being?
We reduced the guy's (Gaurav Chandna) passion for his icon (Aryan Khanna) by asking for a very small thing in return for the destruction of his life. He asked him for a 'sorry'; he should have asked him for his life. He should have said, "You killed the fan in me, I want to kill the star in you." 'Sorry' wasn't strong enough a plot point to base the whole film on as Gaurav's character was destroyed. Or maybe the film just wasn't good enough. It became purposeless. And it got rejected.
Even if it didn't set the box-office on fire, Fan is still a more dignified film than some of your other recent works. The perception that Shah Rukh Khan has is that of a witty, sharp, well-read, intelligent superstar — a lot of these things cannot be said about many of your peers. Which is why a lot of people are confused when they see you do films like Dilwale (2015) and Happy New Year (2014). You don't give the impression of someone who'd enjoy watching these films, let alone produce them.
I'd say that I acted better in Dilwale than I acted in Fan. And you are right. I'm not the guy who stands and says lines like 'Hum shareef kya hue, poori duniya hi badmaash ho gai'. It's not my world. For me, it takes more persuasion to dance on the streets with 100 extras than sit down as a fan and say 'Kachche waale fan toh door se hi karte hain'. That is more me. That is my space.
But I cannot make films only for my mind. I have to make it for people to watch.
For me, Dilwale is a garish, blatant, colourful commercial film. And my problem is that I love all films. Is it my kind of cinema? No, it is not. I'd like something much subtler. I watch international shows and cinema that I connect with more easily. But I still want to do this because it's challenging to put yourself in a space that you don't relate to and successfully pull it off.
What is the challenge left to me otherwise? Just keep doing great acting after Chak De! India (2007)? I can do that. But can I do a genre which I haven't? I'm curious to find out.
But don't you realise it during the process that you have found yourself in the middle of something that isn't of great artistic value? And are you not worried about how people will respond?
I cannot be cynical about how people will respond. I have done trashy films, I have done good films and I have done some bad ones. There is a huge acceptance for what I have done.
As an actor, choosing the film that I want to do is the freedom that I should have. When you sit with a story, sometimes you just want to do it. Like I mentioned, sometimes I realise it's not my world, but I get molded in that space only to see if I can pull it off. Sometimes I fail; other times I succeed. The success doesn't make me want to do the same thing again. Or the failure doesn't want me to not do it ever again. Instead, it makes me want to do it all over again. Because that part has to be done. I can't get it wrong.
While you pin it down to your creative freedom as an artist, one can also read it as you not taking ownership of making bad films whenever you falter.
No, it's not that. I love all films. I remember watching this film with a very close friend of mine. After two trials, everyone knew the film will tank. I told him I loved the film. He told me, 'Kyun aise bol raha hai yaar mujhe khush karne ke liye (why are you saying this just to please me)' but I had genuinely loved it. I'm a film lover. And the biggest problem in life is if you love something, you are blind.
I can sit down here and talk about the worst film of the world and the best film of the world with the same passion. Does that make me stupid? No. It's just that I try to see the beauty in everything.
l'll tell you a little story. It's from the Bhagavad Gita, actually. It's about Arjuna and Krishna, when they both were walking down the road and there was a dead dog on it. So Krishna asked, what do you see? Arjun said it is such an ugly sight! The entire flesh is rotting. Krishna said, 'Don't you see the teeth? They shine like pearls. Do you see how beautiful they are?'
I only see the teeth. And I am not philosophising.
Do you then also feel that since you love all kind of films, you end up taking some bad decisions and associate yourself with films that you may not be proud of?
I am indecisive at times. And I have been wrong about my own choices.
Karan Arjun (1995) is one of the biggest examples. It's again one of those movies which is not my world, with its kuttey kaminey fight. I could just not understand the movie and Rakesh ji (Rakesh Roshan) kept assuring me that it will work. When I went to see the film with distributors, there was not a moment during the entire film when people were not clapping or crying. It's one of my most successful films after DDLJ. And that is when I realised that I don't know how a movie will turn out.
For that matter, I never thought Swades (2004) would be a great film. I wanted to do Jodhaa Akbar (2008) with Ashutosh Gowariker instead. I told him that Swades is a nice film but it will tank. But he was confident. When I asked him why he wants to do the film, he told me that it was because his father wanted him to make a film like that. And that was what convinced me. Otherwise, I didn't see much commercial value in Swades. We did because it gave Ashu an opportunity to make his father proud.
But perhaps what Ashutosh observed was the fact that certain films suit your sensibilities more than others. That doesn't mean you are incapable of doing the over-the-top mainstream fare.
Perhaps. Once this person called me up and told me that he felt I was interesting as an actor because I was ugly. I told him to fuck off. Don't cast me because I am ugly. Cast me because I am talented. Cast me because I can play ugly or handsome when I want. I am an actor. Wherever my arms can reach out, wherever my breath can reach out, that is my space. You can't take that away from me.
I can be a part of Mani Ratnam's world. I can sit with fight masters and talk their language. I can sit with the head of states of the world's biggest countries and chat with them over a formal dinner. I can sit down with Mr. Tim Cook and talk for 2 hours. And I can sit with AbRam's nanny and really enjoy myself. I can become who you are. And films are like that.
So you dare not tell me that something is not my space. No director, writer, storyteller or filmmaker can tell me, I would love you in this film, this is not your space.
I won't do the film if you think it is not my space. But you got bereft of an actor who is versatile. I can do a Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa (1994), I can do a Chak De, I can do a Ra.One (2011), I can do a Chennai Express (2013), I can do Asoka (2002), I can do Swades, I can do Yes Boss (1997), I can do a Baazigar (1993), I can do a Fan, and I don't even want to count my biggest hits in the history of Indian cinema -- Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998), DDLJ, and Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2003).
I am Shah Rukh Khan and I can do everything.
Doing everything in Shah Rukh Khan's world also includes dancing at weddings. While star performances at weddings are a common fixture now, it was practically unheard of in the '90s when you started it. I believe you even faced flak for it initially.
See, I believe in the dignity of labor. Whatever job you do, it is dignified. And if anyone disagrees with me, I don't even understand it. I do it with a lot of effort, with all the right means. So if people say I am selling myself for it, I cannot even see it. Whether it is dancing at a show, hosting a program, doing a TV show or Fan.
I do it with the same dignity like that of the lady who cleans my house. I thank her 20 times. I never look down upon her. In fact, I have always told people that the most respect I have is for my chauffeur. I come back home at 6 and sleep. He is called back at 12 and he is ready to take me wherever! I have a security guard 24x7 and I don't know when he eats or sleeps.
But would you say your willingness to dance at weddings or even starting the trend of doing endorsements stemmed from your materialistic desires like you mentioned earlier? Or was it the preceding poverty that made acquiring wealth an important catalyst for your ambition?
Young people should remember — by following your dream, you may not be able to settle the people you are responsible for. I come from a very poor background. I have seen my parents eating food with daal that had more water than substance. They would make a joke about it — "Today let's have watered-down daal". Or my mother would say, "No, I am not hungry today, I had food outside." We were not stupid to know that she hadn't eaten. We knew our constraints. We were a very educated family, very soft-spoken, secular and happy and nuclear. But we were poor. And I did not like it. I wanted that to change that very badly although my school was beautiful. We were never humiliated for who we were.
I didn't have shoes for school because my parents couldn't afford a pair. I was aware of this, so I did not pester them either. My father died because we did not give him enough expensive injections that could beat his illness. So my mother told me, you have got to be a little practical. And that changed me.
Now I say this to everyone: don't be a philosopher or a teacher without being rich. Money is extremely important — earn it when you can.
I was the first actor to start doing ads. My first commercial was for Tata Tea. I think only Dimple Kapadia and Hema Malini used to do them for Seema lights and bulbs and that too out of friendship with some people.
Everyone was like, 'Are you mad? Why are you spreading yourself thin?'
Yet I went ahead.
Today, things are much nicer. I have many rooms in this house, some of which I myself haven't been to. I have a nice garden where I spend a lot of time with my three kids.
All of this did not make me compromise with my core essence, which is doing films.
Yes, I do bad ones. I do good ones. I do some very dissatisfying ones and some satisfying ones. And regardless of what people think, I don't charge money for acting in films.
Is that a fact?
Of course. I won't say it otherwise and you are free to cross-check this. I tell all my producers, pay me the money if you can. And if they have lost money, then I don't take it. This is from Day 1. And I am not saying it to be pompous. I am the king! Kings don't take money, they give. But where does a king earn from? He earns from every opportunity that he gets.
Ask anybody around the world: how does Shah Rukh Khan do business? They will say he never talks money. If he likes the job he will do it. And I have been kind enough to have big businesses. My logic of business is that I like it even if it breaks even. Like my IPL team, Kolkata Knight Riders is in profits for the first time in years. We're the only money-making company.
It isn't a lot. Very little. Something that I can probably make by just showing up at a wedding.
My message to the youngsters really is that if there is a side business that helps you get the basic necessities of life, then you can have the luxury of art by your side.
Do you fear a day when you'll be standing on the balcony of Mannat and there won't be people waiting outside to catch a glimpse of you?
Yes. But — and there's a big but — that would be a day when India won't be making films anymore. That's the only way this could happen. Till we make films, there'll be people out there waiting to watch me.
Isn't that something most people, who sit in the proverbial ivory tower, would like to believe?
Perhaps. But not me. Though I am aware that people think that about me. People think I am delusional and that I live in a bubble. My friends tell me I am out of touch with reality. And that's perhaps true, yaar. I drive a hot Ferrari; I live in a palatial bungalow. My only interaction with real people is with people on a movie — a place for fiction. They wave at me and ask for autographs. I oblige sometimes, sometimes I don't. And then I come home and sleep. But you know what? I can feel all those people. When a film does well, there are 700, when it doesn't there are lesser. And it's been so many years. They are still out there. That's a reality, not a delusion.
Doesn't that make you feel responsible for providing them better entertainment, something of value and not just escapist fluff stuff?
Sure it does. And as the years have gone by, I have been working harder than ever before. I have been consistently honing my craft, if not the art. I write more, I read more. I try to do something different, even if it's within the same setting. There must be something different about Raj, Rahul, Aryan that people like, right? Are they fools to like the same thing over and over again? They're smart enough to see the nuance and appreciate that. My critics complain that I do only love stories. You can't generically dismiss me off as a lover boy. If mothers like me as an ideal son and women want to marry me, it is because they see the subtleties of Shah Rukh Khan, not just the caricature who has his arms widespread.
But to a large extent, you have caricaturised yourself. You created the outstretched-arms, lover-boy image and milked it to the fullest.
Yes, and that's because I am quite a self-aware actor in the sense that I know what my audience wants from me. And I will give it to them because it makes them terribly happy. I also see it as a joke. if you remember I made this caricature as part of an ongoing gag in Main Hoon Na (2004), when Sushmita Sen's character comes.
It was a joke created by me, on me. I am perhaps the most self-deprecating star in the world. And that's because I'm good. You can't be self-deprecating if you aren't good at all. And I'm not being arrogant, I am being honest. I'm good enough to be humble.
I joke that I have only 5 expressions because I know I have 50. I don't have to scream my lungs out to prove how good I am. I am not even the star who retweets his praises, those tweets that go, OMG! We love you! You're great. I have a job which I do well it's my only goddamn job. If I didn't do that well, I failed.
This concludes the first part of our interview. You can read the second part here.