The only sound you can hear occasionally in Aamir Khan’s house is the faint bark of Imli, his Yorkshire terrier. His sea-facing apartment on the eighth floor of a building on Carter Road, in Bandra, Mumbai, is painted in shades of grey and white. The two other people who seem to be home at the moment are his personal manager Suzanne and “boy" Amos. The living room is a lived-in space: a host of paintings adorn the walls, a huge cabinet is filled with books, and there’s even a piano in the corner.

Khan has had an industrious year. He’s been shooting across Malta, Thailand and India for Yash Raj Films’ action adventure Thugs Of Hindostan, which is scheduled to release on the Diwali weekend in November. While it was recently reported that the film draws from the hugely successful Disney franchise Pirates Of The Caribbean, Khan’s team denies any connection. Instead, they position Thugs as part of a new era of film-making in Bollywood, as film-makers grapple with competition from streaming services. After the success of the Baahubali franchise, there is a growing belief that the only way to bring audiences to theatres today is to create big-screen spectacles. Thugs, featuring Amitabh Bachchan and Katrina Kaif alongside Khan and shot in 3D, certainly fits the bill. The budget already stands at 250 crore. Trade experts say it is the only Indian film currently in the pipeline with the potential to top the 500 crore earned in India by Baahubali 2: The Conclusion (2017).

Khan walks into the room after I’ve been waiting for about 15 minutes. With him is Shamath Majumdar, marketing and content development head at Aamir Khan Productions, the film production and distribution company the actor founded in 2001. Though dressed in T-shirt and trousers, Khan is sporting the Thugs look, complete with a nose ring, three ear piercings and long hair held together with a hairband (through the length of our conversation, he insists the hair is not like this in the film).

A young Aamir Khan. Photo: Getty Images
A young Aamir Khan. Photo: Getty Images

Shooting for the movie wrapped up the day before we meet, but Khan says he has also been busy with Paani Foundation, a water management NGO he founded in 2016. Water management is one of the issues that Khan’s non-fiction television programme Satyamev Jayate—which ran for three seasons from 2012-14 on the Star Network and Doordarshan—helped highlight. “For the last seven or eight years, my schedule has largely been divided equally between Satyamev Jayate, which later converted into Paani, and my film work," he says.

April and May are the busiest time of the year for the 53-year-old actor. This is when Paani runs its annual Water Cup competition, a contest between different villages in Maharashtra to come up with the best watershed management and conservation methods.

This year Khan travelled to Kolhapur, Satara, Aurangabad and Beed, for instance, to inform villagers about the contest and what the NGO aims to do through games and activities, as a prelude to the final contest. Now in its third year, the not-for-profit has a team of around 450 people, but Khan likes to stay closely involved.

The Midas touch

One of the most interesting takeaways from Khan’s later career is how he has managed to successfully combine his two passions of film-making and activism, and create an impact which Bollywood has rarely seen. It would appear that he has a sixth sense for projects that can deliver on both these fronts.

The success of his recent work appears to stem from a clever, calibrated combination of emotional impact and commercial emphases—the films tug at the heartstrings, often dealing with deeply embedded social problems, while managing to maintain the kind of hero/heroine trajectory that Bollywood audiences love. So does Khan possess the uncanny ability to tell which film (and cause) is likely to stand out?

A still from ‘Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak’.
A still from ‘Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak’.

“I wish I knew what drew me to a project," he says, lighting a cigarette before quickly checking with me if it’s alright. “I’ve often said yes (to a movie) very quickly. Sometimes I’ve taken my time. But I’ve realized I always go through that dilemma: do I really want to do it, am I making a mistake? It’s like a journey, before I commit myself, in my heart, because I’m so conscious of the fact that for one-and-a-half to two years, this is going to be my life, so is this really what I want it to be?"

He emphasizes that the goal when making a film is not money, but about enough people loving it. “All of us are trying to be loved and some of us are trying to do stuff that is different," he says. “By that I don’t mean I’m trying to be different but that my taste is different. I would not get attracted to a certain kind of film though I can tell you it is going to be really successful. There’s been a string of films that I’ve said no to, which I knew would be extremely successful but given that I’d have to spend one year living that life, I knew mere ko mazaa nahin aayega (I wouldn’t enjoy it)."

Thirty at the top

The curiosity around Thugs is building. Trade experts say Yash Raj Films is sparing no expense to make it a standout example of Bollywood’s evolving cinematic vision and showmanship. It’s also a reminder that Khan hasn’t had a flop film with him in the lead role in more than a decade, even as he celebrated 30 years of stardom with the release anniversary of his breakthrough film, Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak (QSQT), in April.

“I didn’t think I’d be here 30 years down the line," says Khan. By now he has slipped off his bright red moccasins, and settled on the couch with his feet up. He speaks without the deliberative pauses he’s known for. “First of all, I didn’t know I was going to become a star. Second, I didn’t know how long that was going to last."

What he did know was that he was meant to work in cinema, given that he had grown up watching his father and uncle make films, and was familiar with the various stages of production.

A still from ‘3 Idiots’.
A still from ‘3 Idiots’.

“Everyone around me was aghast when I said I wasn’t going to do senior college, that I wanted to start working in films," he recalls. “My mother pointed out that if I didn’t succeed as an actor, I would need a backup, so I should think about graduating at least. I said, even if I don’t make it as an actor, I’ll become an editor, a cinematographer, a writer. I’d find some place for myself in the industry that would earn me more than a graduate. I was very clear that I wanted to be in the film world."

The eldest son of film producer Tahir Hussain and nephew of celebrated film-maker Nasir Hussain, known for his colourful Bollywood musical entertainers like Caravan (1971), Yaadon Ki Baaraat (1973) and Hum Kisise Kum Naheen (1977), Khan is currently one of the most successful Indian film actors. Since the period drama Mangal Pandey: The Rising (2005), not one of his films has lost money.

Things have been particularly exciting in the last couple of years. His films Dangal (2016) and Secret Superstar (2017) opened up a vast Chinese market for Indian films. It is estimated that Secret Superstar made more than 750 crore in China while Dangal crossed 1,200 crore. He has also just come on board as the brand ambassador for Chinese smartphone-maker Vivo, his first association in more than two years since e-commerce platform Snapdeal terminated his contract, after he made a comment on rising intolerance in the country under the current government, citing his wife Kiran Rao’s concerns about whether they should move abroad.

The comment led to a concerted campaign against Khan, allegedly at the behest of the head of the IT cell of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), according to a December 2016 report in The Indian Express report. This was the second time the actor had taken a stand that earned him flak. In 2006, after meeting activist Medha Patkar, he pledged his support to the rehabilitation of the poor families that were displaced by the Sardar Sarovar dam project on the Narmada river. Following protests by BJP workers in Gujarat against what they deemed offensive and insensitive remarks by the actor, the state government decided that Khan’s film Fanaa, then scheduled for release, would not be screened in Gujarat.

This activism—and the huge popularity of Satyamev Jayate—has also found criticism from the opposite end of the political spectrum, where it is sometimes dismissed as lacking in substance and seen as cinematic rather than an essential intervention. As a Wall Street Journal blog in July 2012 said, “While lending his voice and fame to such causes is admirable, Mr Khan is also responsible for allowing people to believe that there are simplistic solutions to some of the gravest problems that plague modern India."

Despite these occasional brickbats, Khan has had an impressive, uninterrupted run in the movies . The actor’s action drama Ghajini (2008) became the first Indian film to cross the 100-crore mark in the country. It is the success of this film that gave rise to the term “100-crore club".

A still from ‘Dangal’.
A still from ‘Dangal’.

“Aamir is in a league of his own," says Baradwaj Rangan, a film critic at online platform Film Companion. “If you’re a big star and you make an entertaining movie with broad reach like the kind, say, Salman Khan does, there’s a good chance a lot of people will turn up. But to make blockbusters out of unusual subjects like PK (2014) and Dangal, that’s really something. One of the toughest things to do is get a mainstream audience to watch something different. The success of such films indicates a greater degree of acceptance by the audience. They’re saying, we’ll follow and like you even if you don’t give us the traditional things we expect from a commercial film."

Rangan reasons that the leading stars and directors of Bollywood occupy particular niches: the guy in the theatre may want to watch a Salman Khan film because he’s had a hard day and it’s going to give him the entertainment he wants; others might choose a Sanjay Leela Bhansali film because it’s going to be larger-than-life and beautifully mounted. When it comes to an Aamir Khan movie, the audience knows it will be different: unique and off the beaten track.

In the past 10 years, five films with the actor in the lead role have together earned over 1,200 crore in India alone, while Shah Rukh Khan has played the lead in 12 films that made a combined 1,341 crore. Two comedies directed by Rajkumar Hirani, 3 Idiots (2009) and PK, breached the 200-crore and 300-crore mark, respectively. Most pointedly, Dangal is globally the highest-grossing Hindi film of all time, with a large portion of the revenue coming from China.

But there is more to Aamir Khan’s success than simply numbers. The actor is known to be meticulous in the manner in which he crafts his films, demanding complete control over the various processes of film-making—“a perfectionist" is the tag commonly used, and not always affectionately. For example, Taare Zameen Par (2007) writer Amole Gupte is said to have directed large parts of the film, until Khan, the star and producer, decided to take over. These reports that he takes over the director’s role first emerged after Lagaan (2001), and it is a story that persists about him even now, while he is making Thugs.

Khan and his team seem to think often about this reputation. Two floors below in the same building is the actor’s office, where Mazumdar coordinates schedules for the day. Mazumdar makes it a point to mention that Khan “is not a perfectionist, but a very practical person".

“I hesitate to call myself a perfectionist, I think it would be obnoxious of me to claim so," Khan says. “I’m someone who tries very hard and I’m passionate about what I’m doing and I try to get it right. But because I go to extreme lengths to achieve that, I’m assuming people around me feel yeh toh paagal ho gaya hai, pata nahi kya kar raha hai (he’s gone mad, we don’t know what he’s doing)."

Vijay Krishna Acharya, director of Thugs and Dhoom 3 (2013), has a different take. “Thugs Of Hindostan involved a lot of prep to be able to make the character look effortless," he says. “Aamir says he’s a very mechanical actor, but I think he evolves even during the shooting process. Going to extremes is an important part (of the preparation) for him. He does a lot of reading and we have a lot of discussions before we start shooting so by the time he’s on set, he’s line perfect."

A still from ‘PK’.
A still from ‘PK’.

First, the struggle

The key to understanding Khan’s current method of working is to examine the struggle of his early years. After the release of QSQT (1988), the actor was firmly established as Bollywood’s latest chocolate boy. Yet Khan took more than a few wrong turns: disasters like Deewana Mujh Sa Nahin (1990) and Jawani Zindabad (1990), as directors tried to cash in on this image.

“After QSQT, the directors I wanted to work with at that time—and I had a whole list—were either not offering me films or, the couple of times they did, I didn’t like the roles," he says.

The long list of disasters helped Khan realize it was important for his sensibility to match with that of the director and producer. He could not bring the full force of his acting prowess to half-baked commercial potboilers.

“It’s tragic that people are typecast and written off easily," says his cousin and QSQT director, Mansoor Khan. He adds that the actor still cringes when he watches some of his older films and how he was forced to ham it up. “For Aamir, the difficult scenes involved dancing or loud comedy. That weren’t part of his basic personality and method. In the six or seven films between QSQT and Dil (1990) that all bombed, he realized he was choosing the director and not the script. After that he became very script-conscious."

“I was traumatized. I used to come home and cry every night," says Aamir Khan. “Every day I had to go and shoot for something I hated and didn’t believe in and try and struggle to make sense of it. It felt like I was in quicksand. You’re sinking slowly and there’s nothing you can do to stop it, you’re going deeper and deeper." One year after QSQT, Khan decided that he would not do a film unless it made him happy, even if that meant not having a career.

Fortunately for him, around this time, Mahesh Bhatt offered him a film. Khan didn’t like the script.

“I asked him for a day to think," says Khan. “Those were the toughest 24 hours of my professional life because I had to act on what I’d promised myself, that I’ll never do a film unless I love the script, trust the director and the producer is someone who’ll let us make the film properly.

“The next day when I went to meet him, I said I couldn’t do it. I was nobody to say no to him but the script didn’t work for me. That one day was a turning point in my career. Had I compromised my beliefs, I suspect my career would have gone in a different direction."

Khan would not name the script he declined. Bhatt then asked him what kind of films he liked, at which point Khan referred to Roman Holiday, the 1953 classic romantic comedy starring Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn. Bhatt then brought out a fat book of classic screenplays from his shelf, a compilation that also included It Happened One Night, the 1934 film from which Dil Hai Ke Manta Nahin (1991) is adapted. Khan immediately loved the idea.

In the 1990s came a spate of hugely successful films like Rangeela (1995), Raja Hindustani (1996) and Ghulam (1998). But many would agree the watershed moment came with Lagaan in 2001. Made at a budget of 24 crore, the Ashutosh Gowariker-directed venture was only the third Indian film to be nominated in the Best Foreign Language Film category at the Academy Awards.

A still from ‘Lagaan’.
A still from ‘Lagaan’.

The ‘Lagaan’ lessons

“With Lagaan, I turned producer. Until then, there were many times that I was trying to tell my producer and director to work a certain way, but there was a limit to how much I could push," he says.

For instance, Khan felt that the age-old Bollywood practice of shooting a film in schedules, spread out over a year or more, where actors worked on multiple projects at the same time, was bizarre. It is now a norm in Bollywood that most leading actors work on one film at a time; Khan led the way, doing far fewer projects than his contemporaries. He also insisted on doing sync sound. As an actor, he’d have to perform on set and then recreate the emotion months later, while watching the scene in a sanitized, sound-proof dubbing room.

“When I turned producer, I could take these decisions," he says. “Shooting in one schedule, using sync sound, making sure the production value is in tune with what the material requires. I think these things played a role in how Lagaan turned out. A certain quality of work happened, and thereafter too I’ve been working that way, even if I’m not the producer."

“If that involvement can help reach the heights they have with audiences, critically and commercially, then it’s what everyone should be working with," says producer Siddharth Roy Kapur, former managing director and CEO at The Walt Disney Co. (India), who has worked with Khan on films such as Rang De Basanti (2006), PK and Dangal. “He will never dilute the essence of the film by doing something that just grabs eyeballs. Because what he adds to a project is just so tremendous in terms of creative ability, it’s a chance for everyone to learn from his thought process."

Khan takes up various social issues through the narrative of his films—from the importance of women’s empowerment in Dangal to the need for recognizing children with special needs in Taare Zameen Par (2007).

“His choices have been unexpected. He hasn’t gone for films that are seemingly conventional or safe," says Acharya. “But be it Taare Zameen Par, Delhi Belly (2011) or Secret Superstar, these are all films that should have been made. And that’s where he used his strengths as a leading man and star, which is a rare combination. We may think the general audience only leans towards entertainment but just the fact that it’s not boring makes all the difference."

Khan’s team is anxious to get him on to the next commitment for the day, so I rush through a couple of questions. Imli is nestling quietly on the couch, a shadow of her unruffled master.

“Failure scares me," he confides. “I get nightmares that my film has released and theatres are empty or on the first day, people are like, what was that? But that fear has never stopped me from doing what I want to do. Throughout my career, I’ve done things people told me would fail. Everyone said Lagaan was not going to work. During Rang De Basanti they said four Bhagat Singh movies had already been made. Even during Dangal, when I met colleagues or fans and they saw me looking fat and old, I could tell that they felt my career was over."

Thirty-four years since his screen debut, Khan knows people often feel he’s been on some mad trip. “That’s the excitement of doing things nobody believes in. But you believe. I’m very frightened about everything I do, but that never stops me from giving my best and choosing to do what I want, no matter how strange and absurd it may seem to people," he says, walking me out. Imli follows in full faith.

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