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Star seller: Khan says he has always had a sharp sense of marketing, but has put it to use only recently.

Star seller: Khan says he has always had a sharp sense of marketing, but has put it to use only recently.

Aamir Khan: The box-office economist

Aamir Khan: The box-office economist

Okay, there’s one thing that unsettles Aamir Khan. The stock market. “The stock market? No!" he exclaimed, and looked nonplussed when I asked him if he followed market trends. Leaning forward on the couch he was sitting on, he explained why, without choosing his words as he usually does: “I have no idea how it works. I have tried to understand it. When you say somebody is worth 3,000 crore, I’d like to think he has Rs3,000 crore. I am corrected, I’m told his shares and investments add up to that much. So then, if he sells everything, will he have that much? But no, if he sells them, his worth will immediately fall. So what does he actually have and why is he worth 3,000 crore? The market is all fantasy and illusion, you believe me."

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Khan’s public persona is crafted cool. He has a disarming candour, the kind which, for the short while you are sitting next to him, strips him of star trappings. He measures his words, but not in an obvious way—like all stars, he wants to be perceived as a good person or an interesting person. His sense of humour comes across as self-deprecating. He can also be a natural mimic. And unlike many stars, actors even, he looks at you intently, and listens to every word you say.

Star seller: Khan says he has always had a sharp sense of marketing, but has put it to use only recently.

Khan has been acting for 26 years (Qayamat se Qayamat Tak, 1988, was his first commercial success). He has chosen mostly run-of-the-mill roles, with big directors and producers. In Ghajini, inspired by Christopher Nolan’s Memento, Khan tried to break the mould. But his full-bodied, full-mouthed and ape-ish performance of an amnesiac wasn’t the stuff of bold, acting genius.

Khan’s genius is his instinctual understanding of the box office—what Indians pay for at the ticket counter, and why. He knows how to promote talent, which includes all the films he is associated with in any way. For 3 Idiots, the big promotional idea was “the vanishing act"—oh, the old Indian Everyman with buck teeth is like Rancho, people later realized. In disguise, Khan travelled to small towns and villages and talked to people, and kept them guessing. Looking back, he says the lesson he learnt from this commercial record-breaker is, “Don’t use English words in a film’s title unless it’s a commonly used one. Perhaps 3 Idiots would have reached more people if it was a Hindi title." He must be hard to satisfy.

This Khan understands economics the simple way, the way a small trader would. Someone gives him a hundred bucks to invest in something his way, he wants that person to get at least Rs500 back. “I want all those who worked with me to get their money and the man who put in his money should get double, if not five times more." Incidentally, trade analysts estimate Aamir Khan’s net worth at around Rs60 crore, below the Rs300 crore estimate for Shah Rukh Khan. So he is not the richest star of Mumbai’s film industry; but he is the star with the most commercial hits.

Village truth: Omkar Das Manikpuri, an actor from Habib Tanvir’s Naya Theatre, plays the lead role in Peepli Live.

In the years since 2005, sound, foolproof economics has eluded the film industry. Khans, Kapoors and Kumars, like kids in a candy store, got the crores they fancied. Acquisitions, not production, became de rigueur for corporate houses, with what seemed like inexhaustible funds. But in the past three years, the economic slowdown deepened the dark hole of flops. The total approximate loss the industry has suffered in the last five years, according to trade analysts, runs to a couple of thousand crores.

But the box-office economist got results. The four films starring Khan or produced by him (Ghajini, Taare Zameen Par, Jaane Tu...Ya Jaane Na and 3 Idiots) fetched a sum close to Rs500 crore at the box office.

I met Khan at his office. Aamir Khan Productions (AKP), in the western suburb of Khar, is based out of a regular Mumbai 2BHK with tile floors and low ceilings converted into an office. It doesn’t have the air of a producer’s office—the oversized posters, for example, are missing. The staff go about their business quietly and purposefully. Black and white framed production stills of Lagaan hang on some walls; wooden bookshelves hang on some (I spotted Psycho by Janet Leigh, Motion Picture Agreements by Alexander Lindley, An Illustrated History of Guns and Small Arms and The Godfather Book by Peter Cowie). Khan’s metaphors for the kind of production house AKP is: “a cottage industry" where, he has repeatedly told the media, “one sari is on a loom at a time".

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He did not arrive with an entourage, but with one attendant who seemed to have everything Khan would ask for, including the puff he required for his under-eyes. The tall, docile man sent a driver home for dark-coloured shirts for the shoot, and also helped with the shoot.

“Do you like the promos?" Khan asked me. “I thought I’ll make fun of myself."

Peepli Live is made with a budget of Rs10 crore. It is a satire about farmers in Peepli, a fictional village—their predicaments and helplessness. A farmer threatens to kill himself and the media converges on Peepli to devour the story. “It is not about farmers’ suicides as it has been reported. It is about any farmer in India whose only option for sustenance is moving to the city. Why would they not want to live in the village where they are born? It’s a comedy about that," Khan clarifies.

The star of the promotional videos, already on air, is Khan himself. Characters from the film—a news reporter, an old lady and others—pontificate on Khan in simulated candid camera shots. “Every film is not Lagaan, what does he think he is doing?" asks the news reporter, standing in front of a stall where packets of “Aamir Khan chips" hang from ropes. An old lady lying on a charpoy is sympathetic: “Aamir Khan can definitely do it!"

Khan says he has used the story’s material to promote the film—revealing one character at a time, so that when people watch the film they already know its characters. Last month Khan addressed a press conference that previewed Peepli Live and on the same the day, he also joined Twitter (Peepli Live is following many people I know on Twitter). So far, the director and writer of the film, former journalist Anusha Rizvi, has largely avoided the media.

Khan heard from Rizvi in 2004 while he was in the middle of shooting Ketan Mehta’s Mangal Pandey: The Rising. Rizvi wrote to him saying she had a script called The Falling and urged him to read it. He ignored her. Months later, when Rizvi disclosed that she worked for NDTV, Khan agreed to meet her and asked for an oral narration of the script. He was convinced this film would work. The shooting for Peepli Live began while 3 Idiots was on the floors. “I visited the sets once, a courtesy visit. And then saw the first cut. It was flawless."

Khan often takes months to decide if he likes a script. He insists on many meetings and often becomes friendly with some of the writers, but does not necessarily produce their films. Khan says he has recently employed his brother, Faisal Khan, as the script supervisor of the company—Faisal looks at the scripts that arrive in the mail (he does not accept email scripts) and passes on the appealing manuscripts to him. Once a film’s “first cut", or the director’s version after his or her first edit, is with him, he is the purveyor and decision maker. That might explain why director Abhinay Deo’s Delhi Belly has been ready for months but is not, in Khan’s words, “in an advanced stage of post-production".Dhobi Ghat, directed by wife Kiran Rao, in which he also acts, is his next release.

For one kind of professional or artist, this is a dictatorial producer. Not for Rajkumar Hirani, who says: “I would any day have an actor who is involved and has suggestions than someone who is clueless. If I know what I am doing, an intelligent actor will respect me. Aamir is involved, but that doesn’t mean I have to take every suggestion he gives me." Another writer-director says: “Aamir does not interfere with the idea. The script is yours, but he has a big say in execution at the post-production stage." Only some people can understand Khan’s need for control.

The rumour goes that the only time Khan came to the sets of his wife’s directorial debut was when the shoot required him to be there as an actor. He plays the role of a painter who lives in a noisy, crowded neighbourhood. For some scenes, which had to be shot guerrilla-style at Mohammad Ali Road in Mumbai, Khan rented a room and stayed there so people wouldn’t see him coming out of his car every day. He says Rao is a very creative director and knew exactly what she wanted. Speculation is on—how exactly will Aamir Khan promote Kiran Rao.

On the longest-running cliché about him, Khan’s own words are, “I don’t interfere with directors when they are doing their job. I never visit sets. In fact, once I was driving down Carter Road and saw a shoot in progress. I stopped to look and saw that it was my film, Jaane Tu…Ya Jaane Na. I said hi to Abbas (Tyrewala) and Imran and the others and carried on. But yes, if I am part of a film in any capacity, I feel responsible to my audience and to myself, and I try to ensure that it doesn’t disappoint. So I am not a control freak…you could say quality conscious."

He goes on to tell me why “control freak" is an overused term, used to mean many things. Some smart people don’t consider it a criticism.

Peepli Live releases in theatres on 13 August.

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