Bollywood superstar Aamir Khan talks of his family being against his entering films, how he has no plans to shake ‘King Khan’ from his pedestal, visiting cinema halls to catch audience reaction and more. Below is the transcript of the interview on CNN’s Talk Asia.
Your most recent film Ghajini is now the biggest Bollywood success ever. Did you have any idea that it would be quite as huge as it is?
Aamir Khan (AK): You can hope that, you can hope that for all of your films. But you can never really tell until you see the film with the audience, how it’s going to play with the audience in the theatre. So I think in Ghajini what we set out to make we were in fact able to achieve that. I realised that I’m making a hardcore mainstream film after really long, which is fine. I guess I’m happy to do that.
After this movie made it so big, people said that you were the real “King Khan”. And that you’d kicked off Shah Rukh off his perch because he appeals to the masses but you’ve managed to do this thing that loads of actors would love to do. In that you’ve had both critical and commercial success in spades. How do you do that? How do you stop from being pigeon-holed in one box or another?
AK: Well, you know I just do work which excites me and which I enjoy doing. I just do work which makes me happy. And I have absolutely no intentions of kicking Shah Rukh off his pedestal. Though I have to say I don’t think he ever was on it. But in my opinion the actor who I really look up to is Mr Amitabh Bachchan. He is someone who’s work I really like and he’s a fantastic actor and the kind of stardom that Mr Bachchan has seen none of us can ever hope to see. So for me he’s the guy.
Arguably one of the most talked about aspects of Ghajini was your physique; let’s have a quick look at how you got quite so buff. Good lord, I hope that doesn’t bring back too many painful memories for you, I mean were there not days you just went “oh for a goodness sake no movie is worth this hell?!”
AK: It was tough, it was really tough, and actually there’s a joke in my family and friends, when you want to get Aamir to do something, make a movie around it and he’ll end up doing it. So, I never thought I would ever train, it’s not something I’m into, but when I had to do it for the film I just went all out, did the best I could. It was really painful and it was really tough and when I look at myself… like the other day, I was looking at the photographs, you know, how it began and then I couldn’t believe it, I just couldn’t believe. So when I think about it now, it just seems like a distant dream, because in the last eight months I haven’t trained, because for the new film that I’m doing, my director looked at my physique and said now I want you to lose all of this. So I had to work towards losing it all for the new film that I’m shooting for.
You’re not only a major actor but you also had your directorial debut in Taare Zameen Par. What was it like for you switching to the other side of the camera, at the same time obviously and starring in it?
AK: It was tough, mainly because I wasn’t meant to direct the film to begin with. So I kind of jumped in a week into the shoot. I just went with my gut. Actually, I didn’t even have time to think, quite honestly. And now when I look back I realize that I had reached a point in my career where I had been wanting to direct a film for really long, and the pressure kept keeping me away from it. The fact that it happened this way didn’t give me a chance to think and decide, you know. I just jumped into it because I had to, and I ended up making the film, you know, to the best of my abilities. So I didn’t really, you know maybe if I hadn’t done that I wouldn’t be directing for the next 10 years more, I don’t know. So I guess I’m glad it happened finally because I’m happy with the way the film turned out and I’m happy with the way the kind of impact it had on people.
Lagaan was nominated for an Oscar back in 2001. And that movie was very much credited at the time with putting Bollywood on the map. How important do you think it is though for Indian movies to be recognized by the West?
AK: Lagaan was made for an Indian audience. That it was appreciated and travelled across the world, and people you know, from different places loved the film, it was great and we were all happy about it, we were thrilled. But if we hadn’t done that, it wouldn’t have mattered as much as what the Indian audience thought of it. If you know what I’m trying to say. So up till now, we have all been making films for our own audience, which is really large and healthy. And we haven’t really looked at an international audience. We haven’t thought of entertaining them, or attempting to entertain them. I think the day we do decide to do that I think we’ll do alright.
Slumdog Millionaire was a huge eye opener, I think, but you know for all the accolades that it got around the world, there were plenty here in India who slammed it. What did you think of it?
AK: It didn’t touch me personally. Emotionally, it didn’t do anything for me. And I suspect it is because I am not used to watching Indians speak English. So you know, all these slum kids talking in English, and the cop…I find it very strange…it didn’t work for me because of that problem.
Aamir… we’ll talk about a side that’s not often seen, but it was a side that broiled over during the terror attacks of your beloved Mumbai. You were extremely vocal in your blog about what was happening. Just take us through what was going on with you personally during that time.
AK: Well, it was really devastating. I mean it was like a nightmare, I couldn’t believe it was happening. And it was also very shocking to see, you know, the audacity with which these attacks were carried out. All the lives that were lost and so many thoughts going through my head at that time. And it was really sad that… that I mean we live in a day and age today where there all over the world there are people, certain number of people at least, who feel that this is how they want to make a point, or want to be heard, or want to hit back, by killing innocent people. Doesn’t make sense to me but I guess, I mean that’s how it is, that’s how it is in the world today.
Certainly, you were speaking to the government in part in your blogs as well, by you know, saying not to negotiate with terrorists. But you also seemed quite critical of what the leadership was doing at the time. Is that how you felt?
AK: No, I wasn’t actually. I wasn’t critical of the leadership at that time. Because I think at that time they were doing the best that they could. But I am critical about how a number of the leaders have been using religion and caste in our politics for decades now. And that only, you know, polarizes people. It spreads a lot of poison and negativity in society.
Your response to the Mumbai terror strikes sort of threw back memories of your 2006 movie Rang de Basanti which was, you know, very political, widely hailed as really getting the youth of this country involved in politics, is it important to you as well to make movies that aren’t just about candy floss?
AK: Yes, of course. I think that the kind of person I am, I get attracted to certain kind of stories. So I can’t help it, I mean, you know. A film like a story like Rang de Basanti comes to me and it actually inspires me first. You know I feel, Wow, this is something I wanna be part of. And you know so first it affects me.
There’s a certain formula that works very well in Bollywood. But back in 2001, Lagaan completely went against any of that formula, you know. It was a film that nobody wanted to take on, a script that nearly died. It was more than three and a half hours long, full of you know, a cast of relative unknowns, compared to you. And yet…
Now you obviously took on that project because you believed that it would work. But did other people think that you were just bonkers?
AK: Yeah. Well, they think that all the time actually. Every time I start a film they’re like hmmm this time he’s going to really mess it up. So it’s really… Everyone who knew me was like, he’s nuts, he’s really done it this time. And then when I did Dil Chahta Hai also, or you know, even Rang de Basanti, Taare Zameen Par they were like hmm childcare and education, ok. But it’s also exciting, you know, when you pick things which are unusual and difficult and are breaking the rules of mainstream cinema.
Nobody would produce Lagaan. So in the end after a bit of convincing, you had to step in and do it. But it sounds like there were major issues with it. I mean, there was one scene where you had to find 10,000 villagers from somewhere and the town wasn’t even built yet. As a producer, you would’ve had to handle that, I guess. So just talk me through some of the hurdles that you had to get over to do this movie.
AK: Well, Lagaan was a especially difficult film to do. I mean, period and very large cast, so many actors you know. And just getting everyone ready for the first shot at eight o’clock was, you have to reach there at four and start getting ready it was quite insane.
In the morning?
AK: In the morning, yes. And the cricket was really tough. Because you know the ball and the bat doesn’t do what you want it to do. And the 10,000 day was a big one because we had to put a lot of teams, went into villages, and said listen we’re shooting a film, and a lot of these villagers haven’t seen a film in their lives. Let alone act in it.
The house that we saw in that clip, you spent a lot of time there as a kid, apparently.
AK: Well, not that house in particular but in Pachghani, in that hill station.
What kind of a childhood did you have?
AK: Well, fairly standard actually. I think my parents looked after us very well. We had a fairly sheltered life. I mean my parents were really against me getting into films. I come from a film family. My father and uncle were both filmmakers. And I faced hell at home. It was like there’s no way you’re getting into films. But I don’t usually listen to people. I just do what I feel like. And then when they realized… actually it was more because they were concerned for me, you know. Every parent is concerned for their children. And they had been through this line and this profession is so uncertain. You know one day you’re up there, the next day you’re nobody and…it’s a really harsh profession.
When you look at those clips from the 80s and 90s do you go you know what I’m really proud of that or do you go oh god I just want to die?
AK: No, I just want to die. I get totally embarrassed. Usually you know when I finish a film within six months I feel eh, this is not good enough. This is where we’ve messed up, and we could’ve done this, and I’ve grown so much as an actor and I can do this much better now. I don’t like my work usually after some time, I don’t like it anymore.
That’s gonna be tough because you’re gonna keep seeing it?
AK: Sooner I just don’t see it. I stop seeing my work. I see it a lot when I’m on the film and you know, I see it with the audience, while it releases, that’s one thing I do for all my films. I watch them with the audience. And the audience doesn’t know I’m in the theatre.
How do they not know?
AK: They don’t know because they’re already in there. And then I walk in, I stand at the back, I go into the projection room, those windows there, peep out and I can see everyone, I can hear them. So you can see them shifting in their seats if they don’t like the scene. You can actually see that happen. So when the film is not working, you’ll suddenly hear a lot of chairs you know, chair sounds…shifting, coughing, so you know you’re losing the audience there.
Did you go in to the projection room and watch movies that didn’t do so well like Mela and Mann?
AK: Yes I did. Yes I did. It’s heartbreaking. It’s really heartbreaking. But I think that’s what I’m making these films for, you know. I want, I’m making for the audience and I wanna be there to see how they like it. And if they don’t, I wanna be there to see that.
If you had to name a characteristic of yours that’s gotten you through, that’s helped you to make it to be as big a star as you are now, what would it be?
AK: I think for me it’s been, I’ve always done what makes me happy. I realized very early in my career that you know, whenever I’m taking a decision which I think is the correct decision, or I ought to be doing this. Whenever I’ve done that, I’ve failed miserably. Whenever I thought I was being smart, I’ve ended up making an ass out of myself. But whenever I did what I felt like doing, it worked for me. No matter how ridiculous it may have seemed to others, and no matter how impractical it may have seemed… but whenever I followed my heart and done what makes me happy, it’s worked for me.