One of the coolest producers in the Hindi film industry, riding on a hot streak currently, maintains a deceptive visage of calm. His staff warns me that he has not slept for two nights. “I don’t sleep for various reasons because I get nervous, lying awake thinking whether people are going to like it or not,” says Aamir Khan, dressed in a full sleeved T-shirt, a baseball cap covering closely cropped hair and new earrings dangling from either lobe.
“It’s now got a life of its own, beyond our control,” he says, speaking of Dhobi Ghat, the latest offering of Aamir Khan Productions Pvt Ltd, which releases on 21 January. The “art-house” 95-minute film without an interval or major names in its cast is wife Kiran Rao’s maiden directorial venture.
“This is a unique case---how we are marketing (Dhobi Ghat). You normally enlarge your audience. We are contracting our audience, to get to the pure core audience who the film has been made for,” Khan says.
Khan, who plays one of the parts in the ensemble cast, has carved a significant slot for himself as an actor, hotshot producer and marketing maverick in an industry run by stars and nine-figure budgets. His last few films as an actor, 3 Idiots being the most recent in December 2009, were runaway hits. Last year, he produced the first of his small-budget films, Peepli Live, directed by another debutante Anusha Rizvi.
“Unless you make a profit, you should not do a film,” he says, riding on the back of a car on his way to Yashraj Studios in Mumbai for a screening for industry friends two days before Dhobi Ghat’s release. “I am not a businessman; I don’t think like that. I happen to be a successful producer. If I were a businessman, I would not be producing Indie films. Why am I spending 6-8 months making an Indie film when I can make a mainstream film, like Ghajini, in the same time? It’s not that I don’t know the difference. I am not thinking of profits when I am producing Dhobi Ghat or Peepli Live. I have to think of the basic reality: whatever I have spent, I must get that back and atleast 10% more. So that’s worked for me.”
Khan has made a genre of films, which have defied traditional Bollywood formula, work at the box office. Peepli Live, made on a budget of Rs2crore, collected Rs30 crore, unusual for a film without any stars. In 2007, Tare Zameen Par, a film on “child care education” was another big success, which was dominated by a child artist under his direction. Another film produced by him coming up this year, called Delhi Belly, has one more debutant director in Abhinay Deo.
Considering 2010 saw some big cast, large budget releases sink without a whimper, the question inevitably pops up: what is his take on budgets and scale considering he is championing the cause of the small film.
“With companies (read studios), I don’t understand one thing. The value a corporation is looking at is sometimes a notional value. What your share is worth becomes more important than your actual profit. That confuses me. They spend Rs 10 and lose all of it because the film did not do well. But the share price has gone up so they are happy. I feel if I have spent Rs 10 on a film, I have to earn Rs 12. Then I know it’s a successful film. Corporations have a different understanding of what’s financial success; they don’t seem to follow this rule of mine.”
“Where only Rs10, for example, is possible to make, they are spending Rs 20. How the hell are you going to make Rs 22? I can’t buy a film for what it will do in my dreams. You have to do business on hardcore realities.”
“I don’t think the issue is making a small or big film. The question you have to ask is whether it’s worth making and are you making it economically viable.”
As the car ride comes to an end, Khan, always respectful, finds a discreet room in the studios to continue the conversation. A swarm of mosquitoes replace the swarm of bodyguards. He quickly rushes out, waits for me, and heads towards the fire escape. We reach the landing between the first and ground floor. One of the film industry’s biggest stars curls up on the steps and looks expectantly.
He answers every question with complete sincerity, seldom gets distracted, despite the obvious pressures of an upcoming release. He occasionally fiddles with his baseball cap, scratches his head before answering, his response well thought out, measured, but delivered with complete clarity.
This is one of the reasons why he is perceived as a “thinking man’s star” who reaches out to a category different from the non-resident Indian fans of Shah Rukh Khan or the whistling frontbenchers of a Salman Khan---a label that comes despite the mass appeal and success of entertainers like Ghajini and 3 Idiots.
“I would hate to be known as a non-thinking actor. It would be most unflattering if my work or success was attributed to luck or chance. I hope I have given thought to my work. I hope that the value I bring to a project is not just my good luck. A label misleads the reader or a person who is not familiar with me. The fact is, everyone thinks. It’s your ability to think that differentiates. What is important is you cannot measure your work in the creative field. A thinking actor implies he measures what he does. I don’t. Thinking actor implies I calculate what I do. I don’t. I am actually most instinctive, passionate.”
“It’s the emotional connect I am looking for which makes my films work. You just have to feel. I am a feeling man’s actor, however strange that may sound,” he says, laughing.
“What we do is emotional. It’s the process of distributing the film that requires thinking. What is the potential of this film? You have to do justice to what you have made in showcasing it.”
As someone who admittedly is “good at recognising a good script,” Khan says he has not tried writing a script himself. “My feeling is I am not a writer. My strength lies elsewhere, in being a great support to a talented director because I myself began as an assistant. When I work with directors who are talented, I bring out the best in them,” he says.