Shah Rukh Khan is on to his third interview for the day. By the time the sun has set, the movie star will probably have talked himself hoarse, but it has to be done, this whole media interaction malarkey, this fake intimacy, this exposing of the self to inquisitiveness and fielding uncomfortable questions about the status of one’s love life (which may have nothing to do with the wife), this rebuttal of talk of a superstar on the wrong side of 40. Yet, it’s hard to tell what Khan really feels about the prospect of meeting the press ahead of his forthcoming movie Jab Tak Hai Jaan.
The 47-year-old actor and producer could be bored, angry, exhausted or enthralled, but he won’t break the unwritten code between celebrity and journalist. One of the most famous visages in India, and the face of Bollywood for the rest of the world, looks a bit weather-beaten at the moment, but Khan is a true professional when it comes to letting the outside world into his inner sanctum.
Which, for the moment, is the cosy study in his office behind his home in suburban Mumbai. Amid wall-to-wall bookshelves and leather sofas that squish and sigh as though they were alive, Khan gets into familiar mode. Reporters who want no more than a quote or two usually come away with headlines, an opening paragraph, blurb-worthy statements and closing remarks after interviewing Khan. He is smart and charming, takes care to address journalists by name during his replies (always a winning trait), answers questions at length, ducks tricky queries with élan and lands jokes and puns ever so often.
“I have always thought that a performer or an actor should be giving,” Khan says. “When I started out, I was told that stars have to be reclusive and enigmatic, they have to have a wall of PR (public relations). I have always believed I am here to give because I have got so much.”
He has been trying to tame his runaway tongue of late, he says, and keep his self-deprecating humour and wry observations to himself. “I don’t have many things I have done that can be embarrassing or not easy to handle with a bit of humour,” Khan says. “I used to be more irreverent but I am becoming cagier now. My wife has told me not to host film awards since my irreverence is misconstrued by people. I used to like press conferences, but they have now become banal. I am becoming more and more closed to openness. You are looking for a quote of mine in a story you have already written.”
Khan’s wariness could also be the result of a recent series of unfortunate events in his life, including the lukewarm response to his home production Ra.One last year, heavily denied rumours of an extramarital affair with actor Priyanka Chopra and the resurgent popularity of his close rival, the ultra-macho and ultra-massy Salman Khan. There was also the unsavoury brawl in May between Khan and officials of the Mumbai Cricket Association at Mumbai’s Wankhede Stadium during the Indian Premier League, or IPL (Khan was banned from entering the ground for five years). Fortunately for Khan, the IPL team he co-owns, Kolkata Knight Riders, won the championship.
Jab Tak Hai Jaan, directed by Yash Chopra and produced by his banner Yash Raj Films (YRF), is an intensely emotional moment both for YRF and Khan. Chopra died on 21 October just weeks before the film’s release; Khan has had a lengthy and career-altering association with Chopra and YRF. However, there is another indelicate, yet nagging, issue at hand. The biggest hit of the year and probably one of the largest money-spinners of all time, has also come from YRF, but it starred Salman. Ek Tha Tiger is one of a handful of films that have earned more than Rs.100 crore at the box office, but so have Rowdy Rathore and Barfi! The pressure to deliver nothing less than a King Kong-sized success can wilt even the strongest competition.
Khan has had to put out other fires in recent months, and his off-screen behaviour has earned him bad boy status, which was Salman’s monopoly for years. Until recently, Khan’s flamboyance has been more economic than personal. He is one of the best-known success stories associated with liberalization in the 1990s—the perfect example of the can-do rhetoric that swirled through the country in the years following the opening up of the economy to global capital. “The rise of Shah Rukh Khan can be understood as a metaphor for a country changing at breakneck speed,” wrote Anupama Chopra in her 2007 book King of Bollywood: Shah Rukh Khan And the Seductive World of Indian Cinema. Khan shaved off some of the edginess associated with his initial years in Hindi cinema and came to exemplify middle-class values of single-minded dedication, focused ambition and hard work, which helped him make the best of the early reform period. “If you make people happy, the money will follow,” Khan says. “That’s why I kept on doing well, because I made people happy.”
Our matinee idols work hard for their money. Rather than elevate them towards exclusivity, fame makes them more accessible to, and dependent on, image managers, advertisers, the media and the public. Since Khan is a pioneering multitasking marquee star, there is nobody more familiar than him with the rigmarole of non-acting-related activity, including pre-release publicity events, advertising campaigns, stage shows and showroom inaugurations. Khan carries the right-here right-now quality that has marked public discourse since the 1990s in his very person: He exudes ambition, vigour, adventure and chutzpah.
On screen, he flings his arms wide to declare the extent of his desire. Off screen, he has embraced all the trappings of success—a sea-facing mansion in Mumbai, the company Red Chillies Entertainment, numerous brand endorsements, a wife who’s a style icon in her own right, ownership of an IPL team.
But Khan is now in the unenviable position of watching his rivals catch up. Everybody else is now also thinking smart. Movie stars are avoiding controversies and cashing in on the explosion in box-office business by setting up production companies, chasing brand endorsements and conducting intense pre-release promotions. They are following in Khan’s footsteps, in a way, by banking on their personal capital and converting their life stories into balance sheets.
Where does that leave Khan? At this point, sceptical of suggested shifts in audience tastes and the craze to make movies that earn at least Rs.100 crore at the box office. “Why not Rs.200 crore? Why not Rs.2,000 crore?” he says. “We have heard these figures before. I think the media coverage of cinema has become flippant, happy. It’s fast and furious, but there is also no analysis or understanding. I’m not saying that you don’t have the brains for it, but you don’t have the time to analyse the creative aspects of a film. So the feeling is, let’s make it simpler, let’s give it a figure.”
"If you make people happy, the money will follow. That’s why I kept on doing well, because I made people happy."
It’s “redundant and silly” to reduce film-making to number crunching, Khan says. “The only thing that was enigmatic about a film was that you asked 10 people about it and they had 10 different opinions. Numbers are given to make the reader understand creativity at a basic level. It’s not about the essence of the film any more. As simple and commercial as my films may be, I don’t like reducing them to this figure. Simple doesn’t have to mean the least common denominator.”
His new movie is another one of those “simple”, straight-from-the-heart love stories that he is best known for. Khan’s 20-year-long filmography includes names as diverse as Mani Kaul and Mani Ratnam, but his work with the Chopra clan has been the most fruitful for his career graph. Jab Tak Hai Jaan, which comes out on 13 November, sees Khan in familiar lovey-dovey, guitar-strumming mode. He is paired opposite Katrina Kaif and Anushka Sharma as a musician-turned-army officer (it could be the other way round too since YRF has been tight-lipped about the plot). “Yashji called me and said, why are you doing these action films like Don and Ra.One, you haven’t done a love story since Veer-Zaara—a love story about nothing else but love,” Khan says. “Every few years, he kept coming back to me and said, let’s love. I am now set for the next eight years, and then I will really start missing him.”
Every film that Khan did with Chopra was a turning point, he points out. “People say, it’s the same old Switzerland, it’s the same old heroine, but then why do these films work?” Khan says. “Because they are all like air, like nature—you can’t live without them.”
Kaul put Khan’s nervous energy to good use in Ahmaq (1992), which was based on Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, while Ratnam took his will-die-for-love image to its logical extreme in Dil Se.. (1998). But three film-makers have, for better or worse, most decisively shaped Khan’s screen persona. Chopra capitalized on Khan’s brief bad boy phase in 1993 by casting him as a psychologically damaged stalker in Darr, and then turned to the dimpled bundle of energy to play the post-reforms version of the sensitive poetic romantic type that he had created in the 1960s. Chopra’s Dil To Pagal Hai, made in 1997, dressed up the age-old triangular love story in designer rags. Khan and his co-stars wore colour-coordinated clothing and danced to routines created by contemporary dance director Shiamak Davar. The heart remained resolutely Indian, however—pure, virginal, duty-bound, sacrificial, endlessly romantic.
Chopra’s son Aditya, in Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995), Mohabbatein (2000) and Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi (2008), and Karan Johar in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998) and Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham... (2001), further built on the Chopra romantic type. The success of these movies eclipsed Khan’s better work in such films during the same period, such as Pardes (1997), Baadshah (1999), Josh (2000) and Swades (2004).
Khan would rather just “kick open the door and kill somebody” at this point in his career. “I have not done a stereotype, but I have created a hero type,” he says. “I’ve always wanted to be an action hero—my life dream is to wear a white vest with blood on it, have a gun in my hand and a woman by my side,” he says. “That’s why I love Don and Ra.One. I would love to portray another bad guy who’s amazingly smooth and subtle.” He is technically in a position to produce exactly such a movie, but the trade isn’t so simple.
Khan is still down by Rs.4-5 crore of his own money on Ra.One, he says. He has to shoulder the pressure of handling an office with a staff of 150 people (Red Chillies also runs a visual effects division) while shaping his professional future. “I have never done any calculation, I don’t like to meet my accountant,” Khan declares. “The decision to make a film rests with me. If I like the script, I like the people, I will do the film and market it heavily. My business sense is basic. Have we paid salaries? Have the electricity and water bills been paid? When I lose money, I dance at weddings or do television shows and I give the money back to the office.”
He wants to experiment as a producer, but within reason. “I want to make films that others don’t want to make—I want to bring excellence, class and international scale to our movies,” he says, sounding like an old-world studio head. “I don’t want third-generation Indians in England to say, Indian film ke liye theek hai (it’s not bad for an Indian movie).”
Could showing up for meetings on time be a start, perhaps? It is easier to wait for Khan than to wait for Godot—he does eventually turn up, unlike Samuel Beckett’s creation—but it is no less a test of endurance.
Most journalists who’ve interviewed even minor film celebrities have had to watch the hands of the clock crawl for hours. The appointment with Khan is for 4pm, but since a queue of sorts is already in place, an audience is finally granted only at 6.20pm. The people who run Red Chillies keep trying to discipline him, says Khan. “I have a group of lovely ladies who run my life, who tell me to finish on time, be at work at 9am and throw words like answerability and communication at me,” Khan says. “I avoid the office, but the ladies are persistent.”
Jab Tak Hai Jaan releases in theatres on 13 November.