The first in the Khan trinity to turn 50 this year, Aamir Khan celebrates his birthday on March 14. In an interview as expansive as his Carter Road apartment, the birthday boy talks of the number 50, about personal and professional landmarks and the continuing stardom of the three Khans. Excerpts from an interview.
What comes to mind when you think of the number 50?
Virat Kohli scoring a half century.
What is the age you feel?
I feel like 18 or 21 in my head. For me internally nothing has changed. Obviously externally the body ages. But, quite frankly I have even forgotten what I look like physically. I have no idea because for the last 15 years for each of the films I have looked like the character. Whatever role I have been shooting for I have been physically looking like that. Right now I am trying to look old and fat for my next film Dangal.
Is 50 a landmark look back, and also ahead?
It's not the age, it's the work that you are doing that becomes the landmark. What you leave behind as your legacy that is your landmark and that can happen at age 18 also, at 24, at 30. I can be working for 60 years and be doing the same drab work. What's the big deal then? Kaam to main wahi bakwaas kar raha hoon. Usmein landmark kya hua? The only importance of numbers is if you have career that spans 30-40 years. Then that 40 years becomes a landmark. Like Lataji is someone who has managed to creatively survive for 50 years. It is a very unique accomplishment.
Personally speaking the significant events in your life become the landmarks. The birth of my children, my relationship with Reena or with Kiran are the landmark moments. My divorce with my first wife was a significant moment. Age can never be a landmark
How has the longevity of the Khan stardom come to play? What's the secret?
It's different for each of us. In fact I find it slightly odd when I am compared to Shahrukh or Salman. Apart from our age, surnames and the kind of success we have shared there's nothing else in common. There's nothing to be compared between the three of us really. The work that I do is very different from both Salman and Shahrukh. In my choices, in my instinct, in my taste, what attracts me is quite different from what attracts both of them.
It's an unusual length of time for which we have been around. There is a drive that SRK has in him, Salman has in him, I have in me. That fire in our belly makes us do what we do. We are not getting tired. People get tired after 5-10 years. Humein 25 saal ho gaye. I don't think either of us has slackened our pace. At all.
How do you view their success?
Both Salman and Shahrukh have an amazing charisma. They are both very charming. The love they command is a rare quality. In comparison I don't feel like a star. I am more like an artisan, like a cobbler going away at the shoes. When I enter a room no one looks at me and when they enter a room even I look at them. I am shy of attention, I slink into room corners.
What about your own success specifically then?
There is no logical reason for me to have had the kind of success I had. It makes absolutely no practical sense. I have done the most absurd things. I have taken the most drastic decisions. So the fact that it has worked is a surprise to me as well. Somebody up there loves me, is looking out for me.
In retrospect, when I look back at my career and try and analyze why I have survived so long, stuck on so long I realize that's because I have constantly reinvented myself. I have constantly taken risks. I have constantly picked up films which from no angle are regular, mainstream films. I have challenged myself. As a result I have challenged my audience.
I have been able to produce a Peepli Live, Delhi Belly, do a Dhobi Ghat. I have been able to do what my heart says. Let me put it this way. I have been honest to my creativity and I think that is my strength. I have listened to my heart. No matter how idiotic the choice I am making may seem to others. Each time I have picked up a film people close to me have told me that I have gone mad. How much I got lectured from everybody for Lagaan. Javed saab told me kya kar rahe ho, paagal ho gaye ho. Everyone told me I was mad for doing Taare Zameen Par, Dil Chahta Hai, Rang De Basanti—Bhagat Singh and Azaad have been made 4 times, again you are making it. When I picked up 3 Idiots even I thought I was mad to play 18 at 44.
Regrets I have none, including films of mine that haven't worked. My failures have been an extremely important part of my life. They have taught me the maximum. I hold them very close. Whatever I am today is as much a result of my failures as my successes.
The other kind of regret you can have is when the film you didn't do becomes a huge success. I don't have that either. I think I was probably never meant to be in a film. If I was in it I would have done it differently, brought a different energy to it and it wouldn't have then worked the way it did. I was offered a film called Saajan, for instance, which Sanjay Dutt and Salman did. It's been very long. I don't even remember which role I was offered. But I didn't like the script and didn't do it. It turned out to be this huge success but I didn't have the belief in it.
If there is one single thing you can take credit for changing the Bollywood game what would that be?
Main kya credit loon yaar? All creative people who work in our space, our energy does rub off on people but I don't think I can take credit for anything. I have just worked the way I wanted to work and I am grateful that I got to work the way I wanted to work. I am grateful that I was able to stick to what I believed in.
Any one event, turning point in your career?
Yes there is. It was in the year 1990. 1988 my first film released, became a huge success. I was offered a lot of films. I signed on about 8-9 of them but didn't feel like working in any one of them. I realized I needed to work with people who were at the same wavelength, shared the same sensibility. And I had not chosen wisely. I was not experienced. It caused me to pick films which I perhaps shouldn't have. I reached a point where I was really unhappy with the work I was doing. Of the 8-9 I had signed I knew most would bomb. I knew they were disasters so how could I expect my audience to like them. I still had to finish them. They were to release one by one and destroy me. Awwal Number had released, Love love love had not done well. I was being called the one-film wonder by the media. At that time when I used to come back home from work I used to weep. I was so unhappy in the space that I was in. This is not what I wanted to do. I swore to myself that no matter what, I would never do a film unless I was totally happy. With the script, director, production house. The experience of doing the film will be prime for me. I stopped signing films. Since my career was dipping the big filmmakers were not interested in me. At that time I got a call from Bhatt saab who was one of the leading directors of the time. He had made Saaransh, Arth, Naam. All one ahead of the other. He narrated a script to me and I didn't like it. That was a very key moment for me. I told him give me a day to think. My career was in the doldrums, I was in the quicksand, I felt I was sinking. Bhatt saab's announcement would have pulled me out of it, seen me through the bad patch. My career that was getting over would have got a second innings, a second chance. But I had sworn to myself that I won't do anything unless I am happy. I was in a dilemma. Should I be tactical, logical and clever or should I follow my heart? That for me was a turning point. I went the next day and I don't know from where I got my courage but I told Bhaat saab I can't do this film. I am not happy with the script. I know it's a big loss for me. He was very sweet to me. At that time had I compromised with my heart then the entire career I'd have spent compromising. When you are successful it's very easy to take tough decisions. But when your back is against the wall and you are down to your lowest then to take a call is very important. I am grateful that I was able to stick to my conviction and follow my heart at the lowest in my life. That decided the course my career was going to take. Since then I haven't compromised. I may still have done films that were not successful. But I have done them because I wanted to do them.
What happened to the film?
The Bhatt saab film never got made. Then some time later Bhatt saab offered me Dil Hai Ki Maanta Nahin. It kind of grew out of this conversation. He asked me the kind of film I wanted to do. I said I wanted to do something like Roman Holiday. He got up and took out a book from his shelf and told me to read the screenplay of It Happened One Night. I read and loved it. It was a 1934 film.
What were the tough films? What were a breeze?
Breeze to koi bhi nahin hai yaar. I find every role tough. I am always worried if I have got the sur right. I am never sure, keep wondering how it's going.
Any scenes that took a lot out of you?
There are many. Almost every film has got many that take the mickey out of me.
Do you think you have a connect with some actor or star of the past. Are you carrying the legacy forward?
I don't think I connect in that sense. Who am I to carry a legacy forward? It's not a hereditary thing that I am some raja or prince. Of course there are people in the past whose work I have really liked but I don't think I can say in any honesty that I am taking their work forward. I have not thought of that, not tried doing that. I have done the work I believed in. I had no idea I would last 25 years. It feels like yesterday that I started in the industry. The 25 years have passed and its all like a snap. Before my first film released I was just happy that it was releasing. If that day you'd have told me that 25 years later you'd still be working, you'd still be relevant to things around you I wouldn't have believed it. Average period that an actor remains successful is 7 or 8 years. Indian film industry is 100 years now and I have been part of the last quarter. It's a real privilege to be on the same platform as so many other creative people.
Any of the present lot of stars you really like?
Ranbir. Sushant Singh Rajput. In fact I liked all the three actors of Kai Po Che: Amit Sadh, Rajkumar Rao. Then the guy in Vicky Donor, Ayushmann. I like Varun, I like Imran. I like Abhay Deol.
Has stardom changed? Have stars become more accessible now and hence elicit less passion?
Aisa kuchh nahin hai. There have always been stars and there always will be. The amount of hysteria and passion surrounding a star by and large will remain the same. Top stars of any era will have same kind of aura. And not everyone is accessible anyhow. Ranbir kahan hai? Na to wo tweet karta hai, na uska FB account hai.
What are the plans for the big day?
I have told Kiran I want to be with the family. Latest fight is that I want to go to Panchgani. I want to work on Dangal, get into the Haryanvi dialect. I need to dive in, sink my teeth into it. She wants me to be in Bombay.
No cake cutting?
One big change that has happened to me as I near 50 is that I have become vegetarian. In fact I have become vegan, no dairy, eggs also. But vegan cake bhi milta hai, it's very good. Achchaa hota hai.
This is the full interview, an excerpt of which appears in the print magazine.