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If Shah Rukh Khan were not an actor he would have certainly made a great copywriter with his ready repertoire of sharp one-liners. He pulled our leg for asking “Shabana Azmi like" (read intellectual, pretentious) questions but went on to talk at length on issues beyond Om Shanti Om (OSO) and his six pack abs. The extended interview with Namrata Joshi was conducted, between shots, in his makeup room. And, yes, he did keep his shirt very courteously on.
You seem to be playing more Salman Khan than SRK in this OSO song?
What I am doing right now is a take on what heroes do in 2007--bare bodied dance. It’s a mix, generically, of all the stars of the 1990s and 2000s. It’s about being bare bodied, cooler, with longer hair, saying “babe” and “yo”. Some of these heroes are also untalented, unprofessional like me. In the film I am playing two different people from two different generations, 70s and 2000, but the commonality is that both are bad actors.
So in the first half I act like a 70s star, behave like a 70s star. I am impressed with Rajesh Khanna and Dev Anand, I don’t mimic them but there are moments when you might see their reflection in me. Then there is the special walk. I do walks for my films that nobody notices. This is the bane of my life. I do walks to prepare my characters and no one takes note of the fucking serious actor in me (laughs). There is a way in which the 70s guy walks--chest out, shoulders pushed back. There was the comb in the side pocket. It was as though the whole world was looking at you. It was the way the heroes were. I am doing a generic 70s hero, not any specific individual.
We even have genuine junior artistes from the 70s in the film; they were so touched. Even junior artiste crowd has changed now. You can’t have the same people in a Dhoom 2. They are older, they are not hip, they are not yo, they are not hip-hop. You would have actually seen those faces in the films of the 70s. I can’t put a name to those faces but then I can’t put a name to my own family.
Which is your favourite era in movies?
I like movies; every era has its good cinema. My favourite films are what are favourites for everyone. Sholay, Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron, Padosan, Bhoot Bangla, Parvarish, Namak Halal, Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak. I have a range. I loved Rang De Basanti and Black. Going back I love Mughal-e-Azam, I like Dilip Saab’s Aag and Amar. I like Balraj Sahni’s films. I can see the worst film with the same amount of love with which I see the best film. I love making movies. I will die making them.
Any era which didn’t work for you?
1980s, I think, was quite rubbish. People started losing it. The anti establishment, Angry Young Man finished in the 1970s, 1980s became tacky. Ajeeb si filmein thi; all the masalas went wrong.
Why are you always so self-depracatory? You’ve always been running down your nose, your hair, and just now you ran down your talent saying untalented like me…
I am not saying my nose is ugly, I am just saying it’s not as good as Akshay’s (Kumar). I don’t really believe I am superb. I have a few good qualities. I am very hard working. I do believe hard work can overcome disabilities, shortcomings. I was not the most good-looking guy when I entered the industry, I don’t think I was the best with stunts, I wasn’t the best dancer or dialogue deliverer. I was not the most talented. I have always been as normal as they come and I can’t fool myself that suddenly over the last 18 years I have become the best looking guy, the best bodied, the most talented. There is a huge amount of acceptance that has made people believe that chalo achchaa hi hai yaar. I have been given that leeway and I appreciate that leeway. I certainly can’t start believing that I was always the Greek God.
I don’t think you need to be extremely fantastic to achieve what I have done. I am easy about the things I do. There are bigger and better stars than me. Salman and Aamir are far ahead. Amitabh Bachchan is the biggest superstar you can’t cross; Rajesh Khanna you can’t touch; Dilip Kumar is a legend. I am not modest or a humble about my acting. But am I the best dancer? I think Hrithik is awesome. I think he is one of the most conscientious actors I have seen. Am I under pressure because I am a superstar? No, Abhishek is under maximum pressure, there’s huge baggage that comes from being Mr Bachchan’s son. Everybody has a lot of goodness attached that I can’t match up. Am I a good comic? Govinda is awesome; Juhi Chawla is mind blowing. I can’t touch them. I can’t lie to myself; I can try and better myself over the years. I think I am a good actor; I am not a bad actor. I believe in entertainment. I am not vain. It’s not as though I am belittling myself, I am just being real about myself.
Artistes are supposed to be the most insecure people. Do you mean to tell me you are not insecure at all?
Such great things have happened to such a normal guy like me. There has to be a lot of reality attached to it. I am a nobody; who shouldn’t have been able to do all this but I have done it. If I am unreal about who I am, about what I am doing, then everybody is going to see through it. If a guy like me can make it -- that itself is a complete lie. They talk of me and say he is intelligent, speaks very well, smart hae, media handle kar leta hae, he has a good choice of films. Now that is not remarkable at all. I keep myself detached from all this talk. I believe in giving my best and then moving on. Everything else is a myth. I tell everyone that there’s this myth I work for; there is this myth called Shah Rukh Khan and I am its employee. I have to live up to that myth, convince people. People expect me to speak well extempore; they can’t see me read from my notes. So I’ll do it, I am an actor. I can’t start believing in this myth.
With Chak De you seem to have won over people who were not quite your fans earlier…
They have been lying; they had always been my fans. I think people set boundaries, parameters. I am this kind of person; I am not going to like SRK. I am not going to sleep with women; I am not going to be an alcoholic. Ok, don’t be an alcoholic but don’t despise an alcoholic. Can you see beyond his alcoholism? They say there’s nothing substantial in me; I can’t be Aamir. That’s fantastic; I don’t want to be Aamir. They criticise my ads, say that I can sell anything, even my mother. Now I can’t lift this veil, this parameter, this boundary they have set.
You seem obviously upset and hurt…
The work I do, and the way I choose to act in those films makes some people say “I am not gonna like him”. He is pouting, doing love stories set in Switzerland. Think beyond it and you might find that expression of mine was good. I don’t think anyone of us has taken a girl in beautiful clothes to Switzerland and said, “I love you”. I don’t think anyone of us has sat down in a beautiful Porsche and sung Tujhe dekha to yeh jaana sanam…. It’s escapist; it’s beautiful because our reality is very harsh. I like to escape to video games. I think giving vent to my aggression in video games is better than beating people. I do a lot of things in my films that I know I can’t do in real life. I live a fantasy life and give escapism to lot of people. But that doesn’t mean I am not a good actor.
I am an expert at filmmaking and I know that people confuse acting with roles. I think Jack Nicholson is fantastic as Joker. I think he is great in a One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest but the role of Joker--it’s very difficult to act like that, the laughter, the way he looks. You do a serious minded film, with serious intention, like Swades and you are obviously not going to be chhichhora. I am going to act like this engineer who comes back to his village to light the bulb. But Raj or Rahul is not going to do it. This is Mohan Bhargava; he will do it. As an actor it’s equally fulfilling to have done Don. It’s a little more frivolous. There’s a joker in it and I enjoyed that too.
I always believe that my next film is the best one otherwise I can’t wake up in the morning. I think Chak De is beautiful but I think OSO is also beautiful. I like to tell stories but I am not so self-obsessed that I will only do films where I can act. My logic is, you give me a role and I will make it the best. That’s my job otherwise why am I SRK? I do have my limitations as an actor. “Shah Rukh Khan lag raha hae…” Arre I am not going to become Rajesh Khanna. I can’t remove my dimples. I can only grow a beard, cut my hair short. And these are just crutches.
I have no apologies for any kind of cinema that I do. The idea is to entertain in as many ways as possible in one lifetime as an actor. Fortunately I have been gifted with a lot of friends who help me do that.
So with OSO it is back to square one -- pure escapism?
I do what makes me happy and I am assuming that what makes me happy will make a lot of people happy. I have never done a film thinking that they are not going to like it. My attitude is: I like it and I’ll do it so well that you will also like it. I remember when the trailer of Chak De! India came out, everyone told me it’s bad -- it’s a crap film, it’s a nonsense film. So much so that I told Adi (Aditya Chopra) that let's not talk about it, let it breathe for a while. I was hurt and disturbed. We had worked for 70-80 days, running around the field, pulled hamstring, there were 16 new beautiful girls, who had pumped in so much, I gave my life to this role. At 40, I was trying to play hockey, giving it the best shot. The entire team of filmmakers, each one was younger than me. I felt the whole responsibility was mine. We need to give breathing space to such strange efforts also, but they were busy pulling it down....
So you do have your expectations from a film, don’t you? Its success, the recognition for you...?
All the happiness comes from the making of the film. I am attached to a film but I am not scared for the success. In the hindsight, everything seems good after a success. Chak De was a film from the heart. I think every film is from the heart. I can’t differentiate between A film and B film.
You are again acting with a new girl in OSO? What made you choose her?
Deepika (Padukone) was Farah’s choice. I never indulge myself in any choice of any actors and technicians unless am asked as a reference. Youngsters today are tremendously gifted and hard-working. Deepika is a great dancer and is beautiful so 50% of your job is done. The diction needed a little training, so we got a tutor. I myself used to spend a lot of time guiding her till I was told that I was boring her.
Do you perceive any change in your fan following over the years?
KBC changed it a lot. I think I have lot more people liking me now.
All those PLUs who are not supposed to like you, right?
Well, people think that if I do something stupid in my films, I am stupid. But it takes the greatest intelligence. Let me tell the PLUs that to be stupid, to do silly things is the most intelligent work. That’s why we love cartoons; they are so silly. It’s not a joke, there’s a whole sensibility here. The most intelligent guys are the stand up comedians. George Carlin--he used to talk seriously about society and he was so funny. Raju Srivastava knows so much about life you’d be shocked. For the level of seriousness, the level of knowledge has to be huge, more than that of the most intelligent guys. You can be very aware, but by seriously talking about serious issues you don’t become intelligent. I did Chak De off the cuff. Let’s have fun, I’d joke with the girls, I’d make them laugh. It was so difficult to do that one scene where I shrug off the girl’s overtures. “Jawab tumne khud de diya”. I could not be angry, there couldn’t be romance either. It would have easily become a parody. The expression had to be so correct. It was so difficult for me as an actor but I did it with a sense of fun. I really believe I am intelligent. Intelligence has to be off the cuff, it has to be easy going.
Unlike Aamir you don’t seem to take yourself seriously, in fact you seem to play down your intelligence.
I cannot take myself seriously. And let me tell you, Aamir, in his personal life, also doesn’t take himself so seriously.
So you guys choose to show us an image you want us to see?
I am not saying that he is lying to you. He is a highly intelligent, gifted man. He does what he has to do; he speaks his mind. But you sit and have a chat with him, his guards are down, and he is a cool man. I choose not to speak my mind on lot of issues.
Does that mean you don’t have an ideology?
It’s not that I don’t have a point of view. I will choose to speak on Islam the way I choose to. I will choose to speak on a lot of issues that I think are right. But I am too distrusting to share it on a platform. I read eight newspapers in the morning, from trash to good ones. I read books, I have seen the world, I teach my kids, I teach them the goodness of life. People like you accepted me after KBC. But I don’t have answers to all the questions I ask there and not knowing them doesn’t make me less intelligent or less ideological.
Do you react to politics at all…
I understand people and I understand politics. I am aware of things but can I change it? I don’t think I am so selfless. I think politicians are very selfless people.
You certainly don’t believe this, do you? Politicians and selfless?
There are bad, corrupt people everywhere. A politician, by definition, should be someone who puts nation, people before self. He or she should look after the well-being of the people and make the country work. I am a true capitalist, given to the pleasures. I am too self-centred, self-indulgent to be a politician. But I have close personal relationships with politicians. I am very close to Mr Vajpayee, Mr Advani. They both love films. Mr Vajpayee has this incredible gift of oratory.
But Mr Advani’s Rath Yatra was a prime motivator in the polarisation of our country…
It was the agenda, it’s silly to think they actually believe in what they do. I may believe in good cinema but I don’t do good cinema.
What do you think of Narendra Modi?
I don’t know him personally, I have no opinion. To add to what we were saying, political statements are not to be taken personally. Personally they have never been unkind to me. Mulayam Singh Yadav once told me that film stars hug each other when they meet publicly but don’t like each other in personal lives. On the other hand, politicians abuse each other publicly but are friends privately.
Any politician you dislike? Amar Singh?
Amar Singh has his own sense of humour and I have mine. As long as it doesn’t get stress into the family, it’s fine.
So are you happy with Mayawati coming to power in UP?
Politics is cyclical, parties keep coming and going. I am not closely associated with UP politics, I don’t know the state well. But I like women so I welcome Mayawati.
Is stardom a trap? Are you too trapped in your image of the superstar to get roles in the alternate cinema?
I have started my career with Ketan Mehta. If you want intellectual dadhiwalas I have worked with Saeed Mirza, with Kundan Shah who gave me the most beautiful film of my life, Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa. I have worked with Aziz Mirza and Mani Kaul. Shimit (Chak De director) has a beard too. I had the greatest time with Mani Kaul, I think he loved me as an actor. When I am in a film, I will do anything. Give me a character and I will do whatever is required.
But would you work with them again? Would they cast you in a film?
See, things have changed now. You can’t afford me in these films. Someone told me after watching Chak De that this film would have worked if it had Irrfan Khan in it, it wouldn’t work because it has SRK. What do I do if my image is such? My only issue is to be simple and basic. Tell me to make you cry, I will do it. Tell me to make you laugh, I will do it. But if you tell me, "SRK do it like the waves of sea are hitting the shore," well, forget it. I have my sub-text; I understand sub-text. I know where I am heading, I do observe, I absorb; I do take it out when called upon to do so. I have my own thought processes. I am not going to give you a shallow performance. But if you are telling me, "act as if you have seen your mom’s armpits for the first time," well, just give me a better example. Tell me you want shock, disgust. Give me words. If you want to explain scenes to me only in sub-text I am not going to do it.
So you like people who are instinctive rather than intellectuals?
I don’t like scripts immersed in red wine. I don’t like post red wine discussions of films, or words like restraint. "Touch your hair like it wasn’t hair, but a possibility". I don’t like that. Give me basics—soft, loud, quiet, with little expression. Go back to the basics. I would love to do it if you talk to me in that language. Lots of intelligent people give me scripts to read. But I may tell them, "I don’t feel so dark right now." Or, "Sorry too many sex scenes, I can’t do it.I want to do something fun right now." I've got simple reasons not to do them. They are my friends, lot of them relate the stories to me just to get a feedback. Nagesh is a close friend. Anurag Kashyap wanted to do No Smoking with me. I told him it’s a dark but fantastic film, go ahead and do it but I don’t feel like doing something morbid right now. Right now I want to make films only for my kids. I want to be a superhero in tights. On the other hand I signed Chak De in 30 seconds just because I love hockey. Anyway, I think more than half of the intellectuals think I am not a good enough actor.
But would you mind working with them?
Not at all. We sit hours and discuss films. I am never patronising. I also have to trust the person; they shouldn’t be misusing my stardom.
Trust seems to be a big thing for you…
There’s no other reason why I do a film with a certain person. I have to vibe with him. After Chak De they said I was not happy with Shimit. Now he is a darling, a sweetheart. He has worked in my office during Asoka. He edited it and I have been dying to work with him. He is good boy, humble, sweet and he has an American sensibility of cinema. He is a cool guy. Why are they saying that I don’t like him?
Which role do you prefer? Kabir Khan in Chak De or Mohan Bhargava in Swades?
I am strangely detached. There’s always the next role.
In Chak De you played an educated, liberal, cosmopolitan Muslim for the first time, which is what you are in reality…
It’s good casting, isn’t it?
But doesn’t the irony hit you that the biggest superstar of a secular film industry plays himself, ie a Muslim, so late in his career, after being Raj and Rahul for so long? Doesn’t the lack of Muslim characters in your CV hit you?
I have done only four films as Raj/Rahul, people think that’s me. In Veer Zaara I am a Sardar, I could have been the Muslim. My next with Karan Johar is My Name Is Khan.
And, well, I have actually never thought about it. When you think about it you become un-secular. If you don’t think about it you are being secular. Whether a Hindu boy gets a Muslim girl or a Chinese man gets a French girl, what difference does it make? In my films I have been going to temples and singing bhajans; no one has questioned that
We do take character types. It becomes easier to explain. Kabir Khan could be a type. In fact, in one scene I wanted to have just a half open door and I wanted to be shown saying namaz once. We couldn’t take that shot. Then we put that bit where I say the prayer: Nasrun minal lahe wah fatahun kareeb (God give me strength to win) which is my own prayer too. I don’t think we should intellectualise entertainment. See the fun of it.
Chak De’s writer Jaideep was telling me that Kabir’s character is a reflection of what he has experienced with his own Muslim friends, how we have become defensive about our religions, we think twice about cracking jokes or using expletives, thinking it might hurt another’s sentiments or faith. The spontaneity is going away from relationships…
Well, Jaideep is an intellectual. My job is to deintellectualise entertainment. I will make it understandable.
But Chak De is a “mother of all social causes” film…
But it’s ultimately about hockey and the 16 silly girls.
But hockey too is an underdog sport and women are not necessarily truly empowered...
Absolutely. But there’s no intellectualism involved in stating that. Sports can empower anybody, from poor to disabled; every problem area can be solved. It can bind; get a team together because the goal becomes common which is: victory. I am a team player; I love teams. Team is India; team is women in India. At the end, they all have the same problems. I loved the way the sardarji coach of the men’s team comes and says “well played” to the girls. The scene was written more dramatic; we did it casually. Even when I talk about the scene now I get gooseflesh.
You have a thing against intellect and subtext…
I think intellect and logic should be left at the doorstep of filmmaking. You can say anything about me. I will prove myself through the work I do. They said SRK does the same shit; I did Chak De. I am not saying this with any meanness or self-importance. I am an actor, it’s my job and I am doing it. I am way too much on top to be pulled down. I have been given so much I can’t crib. I can’t be cynical; at most I can be Kabir Khan. For a lot of people my work is the ISI mark of entertainment. There’s something here.
Still you have been doing a lot of films of late with a pronounced sense of conscience…
But I have a conscience. I am a hugely responsible person. I don’t curse in films; I don’t smoke in films. My standard of consciousness is very different. I also have a sense of humour, which says take it easy and have some fun. My next film with Raj Kumar Hirani will be a comment on our education system. It’s tentatively called Idiots. But it will be great fun. I strongly believe films are for entertainment; messages are for the post office.
After Aamir you too are presenting a certain kind of new age nationalism in Swades, Chak De…
I like this kind of nationalism. I think even Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani had that kind of nationalism. It was on commercialisation of media. It said journalists will be stars. It was a black comedy. It said that we will succumb to the media circus and then we will have to wake up one day and put an end to it. I think that’s nationalism. Not blaming outsiders for our problems. Sports has its own feelings of patriotism attached--be it a Chinese, Korean or Australian team. We didn’t have Pakistan in Chak De. It would have become too cheap. We beat the strongest team, so we had Australia. We had an English man hoisting the tricolour, but it wasn’t like “you’ve ruled us for 200 years and now it’s our turn”.
Swades talked about gaining knowledge from all around the world but come back and help your country. It’s not questioning the knowledge you gain from around the world. It’s not like American sanskriti: "chhote kapde etc is bad". That is their culture. We can’t demean the advancement Western world has made. We can go there, imbibe the language of technology and bring it back. I think that’s modern nationalism. It’s not about West sucks and look at our culture. It’s smarter also. I am proud of my country and it reflects in all the films I do.
Every age demands its own kind of patriotism. I think post Independence we needed that kind of cinema. It was about sacrifices. The young of today may have forgotten it but a film like Lage Raho Munnabhai has brought it alive again. It’s fun, kids like it and they understand it. Instead of talking to them about Freedom at Midnight or My Experiments with Truth it shows Gandhi can be so much fun.
You have a sharp sense of humour. Does it reflect in OSO?
My kind of sense of humour doesn’t work. I realised it very early in my career. My kind were Duplicate and Badshah. Farah has brought her own humour in OSO. It’s more understandable. Mine is more whacked out; people don’t understand it at times.
But Badshah was so sublimely silly. Did it actually flop?
It didn’t flop but didn’t do as well I thought it would. Everyone is so demented there. I want to make a part 2. The whole idea was Austin Powers but we couldn’t give it the mad ‘70s feel.
You are supposed to be the face of liberalised, globalised India yet you have not courted Hollywood like some of our stars have…
I have been offered tie-ups with international entities, with lots of money. My point is I do not want your money. I want your knowledge and technology. I am glad Sony, Columbia and Warner are all here. I like the tie up Yashraj has done with Walt Disney for animation. You tell me how to do it and I will tell my own story. I would like to collaborate with scriptwriters from there. They speak the international language better than we do. I would like to learn that. But the story would be mine and I would shoot it the way I want to.
Would you do a film for say a Scorcese, while being fully aware of the fact that you could get marginalised in Hollywood because of your ethnicity?
If one of the great directors, Scorcese, Spielberg, Soderbergh, Woody Allen is making a film on this 40 year old and says there’s this guy SRK who could fit the role, well, I will go meet him. But I cannot let down the love the audience has given me from my country. I cannot in any which way do a film which makes me embarrassed. I will give it a miss. I will do a film which, more than me, makes my country proud.
The fear of ghettoisation is there, right?
Why should it be any other way? They have great looking 40 year old actors…
And we do the same unto them. We had Samantha Fox dancing to a song. We had Tata Young. Ali Larter is a wonderful actress but we haven’t cast her in any film after Marigold. I wish we can. Emma Thomson is a friend, I would love to do work with her but I don’t know how to cast her. Nelly Furtado. How will I fit in if I can’t fit them in? I would like to do a film in which an Indian character appears but no one is waiting in LA airport for me when I land there. They Google me but they don’t have a role for me. I would love to do Pink Panther, not The Party. I can speak English, but my way. If you accept me for who I am, the way I am, that’s fine with me.
It is often said that you have a bigger fan following than Tom Cruise…
I have more eyeballs but that’s a greater part of our population. There are more Indian Asian people but that doesn’t make it better commerce. We are releasing OSO with 2000 prints which is the most till date. Shekhar Kapoor is releasing his new film with 2200 prints in America alone and 10,000 prints world over. The level of operations are widely different, its 2000 vs 14000 prints.
It’s remarkable that in your films you don’t necessarily overshadow the women, they do have a presence.
A woman has to be stronger character in my films. Women make a man. When I came in the industry I realised women work harder than me, look better than me, dance better than me. I have learnt so much from them, they have made me look good. Yet they have never been given their due. In that sense, the real hero of Chak De are the 16 girls.
In reality too I truly, genuinely love women. I feel comfortable with them. I am friends with them. I am a recluse otherwise, but I enjoy their company, however pansy it may sound. I still open the door for them. I respect them, hug them. Someone told me you know why your films work, it’s because people can trust their daughters with you. I respect a woman; I have never looked at her in a way that is demeaning.
Kids love you too…
I am a kid myself. I am not macho. I love kids, I am gentle with them. For holidays I love being with kids, I have their energy. They love being with me. Also I don’t get angry easily. The only thing that gets my goat is misbehaviour.
Excerpts from this interviews appear in the print magazine