“I want to be Batman,” says Shah Rukh Khan. We’re in his version of the Batmobile. His swish black and chrome trailer, parked outside a warehouse-like studio in the sprawling compound of Hyderabad’s Ramoji Film City, is kitted with much luxury. He sits on a reclining leather chair as a team of two men paints his armour on his face. For tonight, Ramoji is Gotham City.
“If I wanted to wake up as myself every morning, I wouldn’t be an actor. I want to be Batman in the morning. I want to be Superman. I want to be Raj, Rahul, the guy in the blood-spattered white vest with a gun in his hand and a girl by his side,” says Khan. His dream role, he tells me in the month that the 24th Bond film hits theatres, is to play James Bond. (Favourite Bond movie? Moonraker.) It’s a myth that actors are narcissistic, he declares. His only envy in the world are people who are comfortable with themselves. “For 25 years I’ve wanted to be 70 different people in the morning. I don’t want to be me. So if I loved myself so much, why would I be an actor?”
Khan turns 50 on November 2. He’s been in the movies for precisely half of his life, working around the clock, famously subsisting on a diet rich in nicotine, good spirits and astonishingly little sleep.
He is in Ramoji to finish the last leg of shooting for Dilwale, a movie directed by Rohit Shetty and produced by Khan’s company, Red Chillies Entertainment. Scheduled for a December release, it marks his big romantic comeback with Kajol—the title is a throwback to their winning pairing in Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (DDLJ) in 1995, the movie that for all purposes turned Shah Rukh Khan, the actor, into Shah Rukh, India’s biggest movie star. It is to accommodate his relentless schedule that the Vogueteam—and a Victoria’s Secret supermodel, Shanina Shaik—have flown down to make pictures between 9pm and 3am.
Khan the Actor might not love himself enough, but Khan the Star is a picture of grand self-love. He says things like: “I’m an international &^**%$ movie star.” Both men are in the trailer right now. It’s no wonder that Mahesh Bhatt, a prescient man, had said back in the ’90s that Khan is schizophrenic—“a man with two people lurking inside.”
It was the actor who had responded with a self-effacing “Why me?” when the British-Indian filmmaker and journalist Nasreen Munni Kabir had pitched the idea of a documentary on his life for Channel 4. But Khan, the movie star, isn’t averse to beating up people who spawn gossip about imagined infidelities or breach the common code of decency. “The excuse that I’m a public figure and you can say anything about me is bullshit. I’m very respectful of people. Tehzeeb cheez hoti hai. If I met your mother, I’d be respectful to her even if I hated you,” he says.
There is, in fact, a lot of talk of “tehzeeb,” the Urdu word that roughly approximates to “refined manners” or “etiquette.” It is a word that doesn’t translate well. Neither does Khan. Karan Johar, his longtime friend and collaborator, phrases it best: “You can’t explain Shah Rukh Khan. You can only experience him.”
Many of us in this cinema-crazed nation of billions must have had a Shah Rukh Khan experience to make him the star that he is. Perhaps it was watching him use his physicality—the dimpled smile, the limpid eyes—to his best advantage onscreen. In DDLJ, in the song ‘Ruk Jaa O Dil Deewane’, Khan’s character, Raj, has a few false starts on the piano before he sings out in perfect melody. And the contemptuous lady in question is swept off her feet. That’s Shah Rukh Khan all right. Making us lose our footing when we least expect it. My sweep was when I heard him read from his work-in-progress book at the ThiNK Fest in Goa in November 2012. When he read an extract about his adolescent pain of watching his father fail, and die without pride or purse, I found myself weeping.
Adoration finds him everywhere. Women show up to tie ‘I love you’ bracelets, sometimes rakhis, on his wrists. They hand him letters and notes. Internationally, the hordes of fans have multiplied over the years. Nations have followed suit: the French have awarded him their highest civilian honour, the Légion d’honneur. “Publicly, I’m fantastically confident but sometimes I get weirded out by all the attention,” he says. “I can’t disrespect the fact that there are these people out there… not just the screaming, selfie-loving fans, but people who seem to truly love me. I can see it when the aunties come and the mothers come and the children come. They hug me, and sometimes they start crying. I don’t know which is which… so I make it a point to meet everybody with a lot of love.”
The world is not enoughA VFX supervisor comes to the trailer to take notes on the work required for a song sequence in Dilwale. Shot partially in Iceland, it opens with a bird’s eye view of Kajol running on a black sand beach in a yellow sari, under a night sky emblazoned with the Northern Lights. Khan wants the sky brightened. This might just be the most spectacular Indian movie song picturisation till date. “I want every film I produce to be bigger than my last,” says Khan. “It’s something I promised myself.” He has just finished filming Maneesh Sharma’s Fan, a movie in which he plays a superstar and his biggest fan. There’s Raees, where he plays a cruel bootlegger, scheduled for a July 2016 Eid release—the trailer for this, showing Khan sporting surma and a stubble, has garnered quite a frenzy. But what is most exciting is a forthcoming project to be directed by Gauri Shinde that casts him in an unusual equation with Alia Bhatt.
When talk of “crossover films” comes up, he doesn’t have much patience. He had famously turned down the quizmaster’s role in Slumdog Millionaire (2008). “It wasn’t right,” he tells me. But what if the role was right? What does he think of Irrfan Khan in Jurassic World and Priyanka Chopra in Quantico? “I hope everyone who ‘goes across’ does very well. We’re the biggest filmmaking country in the world and it’s time we were outbound. Yes, if there’s a film with the right role for me, I’ll do it. But I’ll be honest; I’ve never been offered such a film.”
Perhaps they’re afraid, I suggest. “They should be. They have to offer me something that doesn’t disrespect my audience of 1.2 billion. I’d never disrespect that,” he says. He’s certain he’ll never play a caricatured Indian character. “What are you saying, sir? A thousand apologies, sir!… I’m not going to do that shit,” he flares. Unlike his fanbase, though, he exhibits considerable generosity towards the international business magazine that recently called him ‘India’s Leonardo DiCaprio’, following which memes of Khan’s net worth of US$600 million versus DiCaprio’s 245 flooded the internet. “It was just their way to explain it to the West. I was the Tom Cruise of India some years ago.”
“Having said that,” he goes on, “I’m turning 50. I don’t have a USP. I’m not a Kung Fu fighter. I’m not a great dancer. I’m not the best-looking guy around. At 50, Hollywood has much better actors than me. So unless somebody writes a film with a 50-year-old Indian in the lead… something like The Pianist… or a brown Bond… Until then the chances of Shah Rukh Khan going to Hollywood are slim.”
Instead, Khan’s ambitions are focussed on making the first Indian film that becomes truly international. “For me, that would be the biggest achievement. But we’ll need to dress the part first. You can’t go to a blacktie affair in your pyjamas. We’ll need shorter durations, and tighter, more scientific screenplays.”
Something Lady Gaga—“a very cool young girl with her head firmly on her shoulders”—told him has stayed with him. When he met her at the bidding of his children, Aryan (18) and Suhana (15), a few years ago, he’d asked about her cultivated public image. “She said her grandmother told her that the art is important, the artist is not. Once your art is over, you should be able to walk on the streets of New York or New Delhi just like anybody else. That’s why she is the way she is. People misread the whole concept.”
This is not to say that when the lights are out and the make-up comes off, what remains of Khan is a deflated, humble soul. But unlike the ballerinas in Black Swan(2010), he appears at ease with the twin cast residing in him. “I keep telling people that I’m just an employee of the star that Shah Rukh Khan is. I don’t want any of this,” he says, gesturing towards the piles of jackets and shoes being carried into the trailer. “I just want to get up in the morning and go to the set and act.”
Anaita Shroff Adajania, Vogue’s fashion director, who played a character infatuated with Khan in DDLJ, was the first woman to tag him sexy. “I believed her, and then I started believing it myself,” he beams. Now, when she gets him to try a Louis Vuitton leather jacket, talking it up saying, “It’s not out in stores yet” he asks his best boy to pull out a snakeskin Louis Vuitton jacket from his wardrobe that will “never be out.” When it is brought to him, Adajania asks if he plans to wear it. “Nah, I only wanted to show off,” he says, breaking into a smile that dissolves any constructed ideas of arrogance. All of us laugh. He laughs the loudest.
Khan is so brazen about his starhood, so earnestly entrenched in the belief that he is Lord Commander, that it doesn’t reek of conceit. It’s hard to get rubbed the wrong way when he admits that he’s been spoilt by the industry, by directors like Yash Chopra who called him ‘badmaash’ and Subhash Ghai who still calls him ‘ladla’. Talking incessantly between each shot and cigarette puffs—“The interview isn’t over till the drinks are over”—he’s a remarkably articulate man whose references jump from the Mahabharata to Picasso and Majid Majidi to Muhammad Ali (Ali is his only real hero, he says. And Caitlyn Jenner). There are comic soliloquies. There are extravagant admissions. He declares Monica Bellucci is the love of his life; the only T-shirt he owns with anything printed on it is a Dolce & Gabbana number with her face on it.
You only live twiceThe man is a bonafide multiple narrative. There is the narrative of the lower-middle-class boy from Delhi whose parents died in debt. The boy who came to Mumbai and stood on Marine Drive and said, “I want to own the city,” and then went about systematically doing whatever it took to achieve that: dancing at weddings, doing action comedies, buying an IPL team. There’s the other narrative of the reluctant star. The one who started off as a diligent actor on stage and television, branching off to work with directors as diverse as Mani Ratnam and Mani Kaul. The one who was chosen by audiences to be their poster boy. He played along at first because he liked it, and then he began to really believe it.
I like the second narrative better. Because there is an element of the unknown to his success; a je ne sais quoi to his appeal. There are things that we don’t understand. Khan doesn’t either. Perhaps that is why he’s superstitious about things like the number 555.
By his own admission, he’s been miscast in most roles. He got a headstart in the game by breaking the rules early. Back in the ’80s, doing theatre with Barry John in Delhi, he played gay characters. By the time his seventh film released, he’d already played a scheming murderer (Baazigar), a psychopath (Darr), and a younger lover with a nude scene in a Madame Bovary-inspired saga (Maya Memsaab). Everybody told him he was making a mistake when he played the bad guy in his twenties. But it worked. When he moved on to play romantic leads in his thirties, he was told he wouldn’t be taken seriously. “When I showed early rushes of DDLJ to my producer friend Ratan [Jain], you know the scene on the bridge when I’m willing Kajol to turn back… he thought I was going to throw her off the bridge. He said I didn’t look trustworthy enough to be a romantic hero. But I turned out to be a pretty convincing lover, didn’t I?”
Despite his charm and largesse, Khan is patronising towards the younger lot. “They’re all fantastic. They’re all better than me,” he says. “But a lot of things have to fall in place at the beginning for everything to go right. You can get it by playing your cards right but to become who I did, you need to get a good hand. I got three aces. How often do you get three aces?”
Does the movie Fan hit close to home? Is he his own biggest fan? I can’t help but ask. Khan nods vigorously, but it does seem that Khan the Actor is a fan of Khan the Star. He is, however, generous about sharing the credit for his success (“Ninety per cent of my hits were because of the women I was paired with. They’re extremely talented and they make me look good,” he says). The best directors he’s had, he says, conveyed what they wanted without saying much. “Yashji [Yash Chopra] used to call any physical contact ‘lovemaking’. He would say, ‘Make her fall in love with you… Tu lovemaking kar le,’” he remembers. “I could sense what he wanted. When you get too specific, you become a manager. Creativity spouts from a free flow. Amongst the younger lot of directors, I see some of this in Maneesh Sharma.”
But for all his talk of art, Khan has batted on the big-ticket team for a while now. Ketan Mehta, whose Maya Memsaab (1993) was the first film Khan had signed, makes allowances for his protégé. “There are phases in life. This is his phase of stardom. He’s smart enough to know that he has cast himself in a comfort zone now… One hopes that in time he will dig deeper for the talent within,” says Mehta.
Khan concedes that somewhere down the line, his palatial Mumbai home, Mannat, and his company took precedence over creative output. But he isn’t apologetic about his naked pursuit of wealth. Being rich for him isn’t about owning this trailer or a private jet (coming soon, he assures me). “It’s about going to a shop and being able to buy both shirts. The one you like and the one you’re unsure of. I’ve been poor, very poor. I equated failure with poverty. When you see so many quick changes in your life—debt, death, success—you can’t help but become a bit spiritual about it. I just want to be able to buy both shirts.” Khan married his wife, Gauri, very young and calls their brood of three children the focal point of his life. While both Aryan and Suhana have been packed off to London to study—the youngest, AbRam, is two and a half—he’s keen for them to be in the movies, especially his daughter, Suhana. “I’d be thrilled if she was on the cover of Vogue. I want her to be an actor, to act as raw as possible. I want her to do everything I didn’t do.”
Diamonds are foreverBack at the set, Lana Del Rey’s impassioned voice wafts from portable speakers. The lyrics, ‘Will you still love me when I’m no longer young and beautiful’, hang in the studio air thick with smoke as Khan poses with a model less than half his age—a model who famously dated teen heart-throb Justin Bieber. What about ageing? If Khan is worried, he isn’t telling. The actress he made his movie debut with is dead. Alia Bhatt, the next actress he will shoot with, is 22. He admits he’s seen her grow up. His lasting appeal is evinced by the generations of women he’s worked with. Three generations, he counts, not doing any favours for the gender stereotypes in the film industry. Kajol remains special (“I think I’m one of the few people she listens to in the film world”). “I would have liked to do a more mature love story with Kajol, you know, where I’m 45 and she’s 40. Dilwale is a flashback and flash-now. It would be silly of us to play college students like we did in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998). But if we’re playing young people in a flashback, it’s easier for audiences to grasp… yeh toh pehle ka tha, abhi woh aise hi hai,” he laughs. The younger actresses he’s launched, such as Anushka Sharma and Deepika Padukone, remain extremely reverential. “They’ll come anywhere if I call,” he boasts. So he’s not worried about giving casting directors sleepless nights? “Darling, every young girl would come with me,” he says.
The 50th birthday has sprung questions of posterity and legacy—a topic that bores him.
He recalls an interview with Joseph Heller where the interviewer kept needling him about why he hadn’t written another Catch-22. Heller had replied, “Neither has anyone else.”
He doesn’t have his Catch-22 yet. “When I came to Mumbai, I wanted to make five movies my children would remember me for. I still haven’t made them. Till I do, I’ll have to keep working like this.” He’s raring to play the quintessential tough guy; the kind that shoots somebody’s head off if they speak out of turn. “Something like Léon: The Professional,” he says.
The plan for now is to make three movies a year for the next five years. Then enroll in a short-term programme in an American filmmaking school to brush up his skills. “I’m very nervous about making a film… I’m not a stories guy but I know I want to make an action comedy,” he says. This is a resolution he renewed six months ago. One doesn’t know if it will stick though. Khan confesses he has a tough time keeping resolutions, including the one to not smoke as much. The other big ambition is to build a world-class movie-making studio in Mumbai. “The older guys did it. It’s too expensive now but every two years or so I get this fever. A couple of times I came close to it but there’s just too much bureaucracy. I told [the ministers], I know how to make films, my life is about films. Let me do it. I don’t want to name it after me or my father. I just want to do this for the movies.”
His boundless energy has caused family and friends to panic—his latest fascination is zipping around on a hoverboard. “My family tells me I shouldn’t do my stunts any more… I got injured recently while shooting for Raees and my daughter forbade me from going back on set for three weeks. I felt I was punished. I don’t know how to explain it… I like working. I’m happiest when I’m on set.” He believes genius is prolific. “It’s the ability to go at it again and again. If Ra.One didn’t quite work, there’ll be a Ra.Two. I’ll keep going at it till I get it right.” Shah Rukh Khan will never take a break. He recalls an anecdote from early on in his career, when he’d flopped down on set and declared he couldn’t do it anymore. The choreographer Saroj Khan had slapped him, saying she’s seen times when there was no work in the industry. “I’ve never said anything to that effect since,” he says.
When we wind up the shoot, he invites the entire crew to his trailer. Drinks are poured. Kebabs arrive on platters. It’s 4.30am and some of us are fading. Khan, scheduled to be back on the sets of Dilwale at 9am, is in no hurry to leave. He is contemplating a stopover at the gym. So, while the rest of us peel away to go to our beds, Shah Rukh Khan will go about Ramoji—itself an embodiment of what movie magic can build. Sleep, he says, is a waste of time. He has promises to keep. And miles to go.
Mera naam joker…. is a nice film. Main shayar to nahin… is a nice song. In between all that there is Sapnon se bhare naina… again a very nice song. Then there is Main aisa kyon hoon… which I don’t like much, but what I really like is ‘wada pav’. Bombay is my first love. Followed by Mani Sir’s other classics. I dig SRK. He rules. On Thursday afternoons I suffer from chronic stupidity or humility between 22.50 hrs & 23.30 hrs on full moon nights, especially in May, if it’s a leap year. It adds that weird edginess to my personality. I am a writer, by choice. I write for a living. Don’t you just envy that? While the whole world carries tools of various shapes & sizes, to their place of work, I just carry myself. Howzzat? So yes, that’s pretty much about me. My taste in music isn’t worth talking about. What you are trying to decipher by reading this frivolous piece of self-indulgent writing is about ME. Right? Sorry, it ain’t easy at all. I am yet to figure out if it’s even possible in the first place. People, including my immediate orbit of friends & foes haven’t been able to do that for years now. But tell me, who in his right frame of mind would try to understand Magik?