The sun is setting over FilmCity. A perfect globe of saturated orange. It could have been made to order. High up on a hill, at its very peak, a caterpillar of men pulls at massive ropes. Others stand around in formal black coats. Some wield guns. Behind them looms a horizon of blackened, burnt buildings. There is a hushed bustle in the air. Suddenly, a figure in carnation red whooshes up into the sky, arms flung out in high drama, cape flying out in perfect billow. In his arms, there’s a Barbie-woman, in equal red. Strapless gown, black cascading hair, slim leg tantalizing in its slit. They whoosh up, then the crane sets them down with a jaunty bounce. A male voice cries out, “Oohri baba! Mohabbat Man to your rescue. Baby, shall we dance?” And a troupe of fairy dancers engulf them.
The sets of Farah Khan’s new film, Om Shanti Om. One could not ask for a more perfect first introduction to the Bollywood superstar, Shah Rukh Khan. It is how you imagine him. Wildly theatrical. Kitsch. Unabashed. In the 20 years that he has been riding the crests of Hindi cinema, he has sent out a curious musk. You think Shah Rukh, you think charm, wit, materialism, scale. You think charisma. You think success. You think trappings of stardom.
You don’t necessarily think integrity, art, perfection. Vision.
So what is Shah Rukh Khan really about? Is the musk accurate? One might wonder why one should be interested at all. As Shah Rukh himself has often said, he’s just an entertainer. Why should it matter what he is in the flesh. But it matters. The stars might scorn the idea of their influence. But cinema — and Bollywood in particular — has a grip on the Indian psyche that is unmatched by anything in the country, perhaps even religion. And Shah Rukh has been at its zenith for 20 years. He is, in a sense, the most public image of our collective selves. We want to know what that image stands for. What courses beneath the carnation red cape and red boot with spurs. Put a story out on Shah Rukh, and you can be sure, the most disdainful of us would devour it.
Curiousity is a powerful precursor to influence.
Shah Rukh comes off the sets of Om Shanti Om and is enveloped by a boisterous gang of kids. His son leads the pack. Their affection is palpable. You get into his car. It feels like a spaceship. Later, his house rises like Kubla Khan’s Xanadu at the edge of the sea. But the Shah Rukh Khan you meet then is much more than the musk. Thirty thousand words in four hours. A scathing sarcasm for socialism “soaked in the smell of whisky and smoke” — Black Label and 555 at that. A spirited defence of individualistic capitalism.
Yes, Shah Rukh has worldview. You may or may not agree with it, but it cannot fail to challenge you.
Shah Rukh, a couple of weeks after KBC began, there was a report in the HT that the show had plummeted. How do you respond to such things?
Obviously, I was upset and angry. A few years ago, I would have been even angrier. I’ve a lot of friends within circles which matter for film and media. But I never use this because one day they in turn will start calling up on you. It’s like the mafia. Media, politics — it gets very closely linked.
There’s been a lot of talk about your proximity with the Gandhis and Mukesh Ambani, and what that means.
Which is stupid because I’ve known them for years — the Gandhis before I was a moviestar, the Ambanis since I was in Bombay. I am not at all interested in politics. My children study in Nita’s school, she’s also a friend. I know Tina equally well. But now that they’ve split up suddenly, people think I’m aligned to one camp. People are so used to their own cliques, they don’t expect someone in my position not to have one as well. I have cliques — but they are just close friend cliques, or my kids’ gang, and that’s what I’m happy with. I am not at all interested in joining politics.
You’ve been in a pre-eminent space for years. Has a certain emptiness crept in? Are you looking for new horizons? What are your triggers?
I’ve been working long in this business. There are no triggers to tell you honestly. One thing is — if it can be called a trigger — I think like a kid. I mean, you saw it just now, I’d wear a red Superman costume and do something so silly at the age of 41. I find silliness to be the most intelligent thing in the world. I was reading somewhere that if you like Shah Rukh you are considered a jhalla. I’m not justifying how I am, but I think the true measure of intelligence is when you start enjoying the silly things, when you don’t look down upon silly things. I really enjoy the small things of life. That keeps me going. The second thing is, I never get attached. I put a lot of effort into a film, but I don’t get attached. I just need to be very clear in my head that if it succeeded, it was because of only one thing — hard work. And if it failed, it was in spite of the hard work. I couldn’t live with the thought that something succeeded but I didn’t work for it, or it failed, shit, I should have worked harder. For me just hard work matters. I think the simplicity of my reason for working keeps me working. There is no complexity to it at all.
Delhi and Bombay represent a spectrum change in your life. Are you radically different today?
No, I think I’m the same. Age has changed me a bit perhaps. I’ve lost some innocence; I think I’ve lost a lot of impatience. People who knew me 18 years ago say I’ve lost some of my edge. I’ve become diplomatic. I’ve often been told that honesty from someone in my position hurts. I’ve been made to understand that appreciation from a movie star like Shah Rukh Khan can matter more than to hear the truth from him. So I gauge that now. But it’s not something I am unaware of. I know I do that at times. So yes, maybe I’ve lost a bit of edge. I used to fight a lot more, I used to beat up journalists a lot more…
I’ve heard about that…
Ya, I go to a lot of places still, seminars, politicians’ dinners, etc. where there will be one or two people who’ll be nice to me on the face of it, but will bitch behind my back, or in the press. And I want to say, samne bol na, main tere ko batata hoon (why don’t you speak up in front of me, and I’ll show you). Because deep down inside I’m a Dilli ka goonda. Nobody realises that in Bombay because I don’t even use the language of Delhi any more. I’m very courteous and nice and normally sweet. But I’m a Dilli ka goonda. I could not say a sentence like I just told you, without using a gaali. I’ve got into my share of fights, broken teeth, done my hockey fights, broken heads with bricks, been in jail. My mother’s got me out of fights many times. But at the end of it all, you come to Bombay, and there’s a side of you that nobody’s seen. People now say, he’s stylish, intelligent, etc. Nobody sees that basically I’m quite a cheapster from Delhi. The change is that now I just get angry for about 20 seconds, then I think, it’s alright, it’s alright. I have so much. Friends like Juhi send me messages saying, you tell us all to be patient. Stick to your things, don’t get angry with people. They don’t matter. You matter so much. I guess those thoughts come to your mind now and you ease yourself. But deep down, there’s no radical change.
Tell me about your parents. Your father was a freedom fighter, and a less worldly man than you seem to be. Your mother was more pragmatic. Were they different poles in your life? Did you chafe at your father’s idealism? Have you consciously taken a different route?
Now that I’ve grown older, I feel I have the idealism of my father in thought and belief. I have an elder sister, she also points this out. I think that’s what keeps me from doing the things we first began talking about. My father was a freedom fighter but he didn’t use any connections to become successful. He was a lawyer, but didn’t practice because he thought it was dishonest. He was an ma, llb, but all he did was run a little shop. At the nsd it was the canteen, but before that he ran a small shop behind WillingdonHospital. We were even thrown out of our flat once for not paying rent. I have written of it as a funny memory in my book because that’s how I saw it as a child. But it was a sad occurence. Freedom fighter, highly educated, the topmost people from Mohammad Yunus to Indira Gandhi knew him, liked him. And he never utilised any of that, he ran a tea stall. I call him the most successful failure in the world in my book. Very intelligent, very educated, very quiet — not quiet actually, he talked a lot to us. What my father was to me is how I am with my kids. A friend, a teacher, but always fun. Very attractive personality, very good looking man, 6’1, very soft-spoken, with a great sense of humour, which I think I have. He was a little acidic and sarcastic — mine’s a little over the top. But we are similar. Whereas my mother — because my father died early of cancer, and because he could not earn as his other friends did — my mother realised that to bring up her children and give them an education worthy, perhaps, of her husband, she needed to become more material. Make more money. After his death, she made sure she got an oil agency. She died trying to bring us up. She died in very difficult circumstances. She wouldn’t have died if she hadn’t worked so hard, I’m very clear on that. She was just 48 or 47. So I’ve seen both those sides.
I think my sister became idealistic like my dad, and she wasn’t well after their deaths. But I realised the worthiness of being like my father, and the practicability of being like my mother. Things taught by my mother would include: first be in a position of choice, then make the right choices. My dad would be — just do only the right thing. So it’s a combination. I’d say, I’ve got the honesty of my dad, and the more practical side of my mother. So I’m honestly practical, or a practically honest kind of a guy.
Your sister has been unwell since their death?
Yes, my sister suffered a lot from their death. I suffered because of their death. Everybody’s parents die, everybody suffers, so it’s not special to me. But I was 15 when my dad died, and 25 when my mother did. And I had a sister who was not well at all. Lala. She’s much better now, but she’ll never be fully well. Beautiful girl — physically and mentally, again an ma, llb. But no good. After my father died, she got very shocked. Psychiatry wasn’t so big then, it took us about four or five years to find help. Then it took five – six years for her to get very close to her mom, and then her mom died, so she was really shattered. Medically termed, she had a potassium imbalance. Physically, she started going very wrong. By the time she came here to Bombay, she was really unwell. It took time for me to earn enough — during Dil Wale Dulhaniya I took her to a doctor in London. Now, she’s all right. Matlab, she’ll never be fully all right, but she’s better than what she was. She lives with me. And my sister reminds me everyday that I cannot have a life like my father’s. But I cannot do what my father didn’t teach me to do either. So I think I am an honest wheeler-dealer. I believe in opportunity. I was taught by my dad that waqt ki choti age hoti hai. Time is a lady, and if you have to catch her hair, you have to face her and catch it.
You are a superstar, Shah Rukh. You can walk through any door, be anyone. Yet you allow yourself to be seen in such shallow spaces. Subhash K. Jha interviews, marriage performances, you call yourself a performing monkey, a capitalist pig…
I don’t see Subhash K. Jha. I don’t talk to him. I hate him. I’ve never liked him. I haven’t spoken to him in two and a half years. I don’t give interviews to even Khalid Mohammed, though he’s a friend. See, I’ll tell you what, Shoma, when somebody asks me something which I can’t explain because I believe their intelligence level does not match mine, what can I do? You have to understand what I mean when I say I am a performer. I do not dance at weddings. If you are intelligent enough to understand, I will explain, but if a Subhash K. Jha says, (mimicking in falsetto) “Eh Shahrukh, you were dancing at a wedding,” I’ll say, **** off, yes, I was. So to answer your question, I do perform at weddings. But it is very difficult to afford what I demand. You have to do it like a show, it has to be in an area where nobody drinks and eats, it will start at 9 pm and end at 11.30 pm, the stage will be 30 by 40 feet, we will make our entries, we will not chat with anyone, we will not eat your food, we will not take pictures with your daughter or daughter-in-law, unless we personally want to. We will come, perform, and we will go away.
It’s a scale thing.
Yes. A scale thing. And very few people can afford it. A Mittal can. I don’t dance at like shaadi ka sangeets. Unless they are close friends. Like an Adi Chopra. What was the second thing you said?
About setting yourself up as an unabashed capitalist. You are, in a way, the face of a new materialist mood in the country. But do you have doubts about the directions in which the country is headed? What do you want your life to speak for?
See, I know a lot of places where I think we are not headed the right way. There are two ways to respond. One, I jump into the thick of things like maybe Tehelka has. Have that kind of guts and balls. But all of us are not like that. The second way is to say, I can’t take the world on, but can I change myself? Can I make sure I’m above board? So that if a good minded, good thinking person from my country meets me, he can say, here’s a good guy, educated, intelligent, leading life above board. Yes, I do believe you should earn money, should live well. I have a bmw, a huge house, but it doesn’t have to be a bmw. When I tell youngsters to be like me, I truly believe that — and I’m not saying this because it’s an interview, and I wouldn’t say it to a Subhash K. Jha or a Khalid because they wouldn’t understand — I truly believe I am doing things I think an Indian should do. You should try and earn, you should work hard, and in your own way let the world know what India’s about through your persona. I think if each of us did just that, we’d be okay. But I don’t have a cause. I’ve been invited to speak at Davos, but I’ll never go. I don’t have a cause. I don’t have time for a cause.
Is being Islamic an important part of your identity? Have recent events forced you to think more about it?
I’m not an atheist, I am a believer in God, and I don’t think it is great fashion to be an atheist. I am Islamic by birth, so I know that a bit better, though I’ve been brought up by Hindus most of my life, and I was fascinated by Ram Lila and things. All that hasn’t changed, but as I’ve grown older, and I see what’s happening to Islam around the world, I think it’s important that even without full knowledge of Islam, I need to be very clearly standing for the goodness of Islam. AR Rahman sent me a message once saying you are an ambassador for Islam. I think I truly am. I follow the tenets of Islam — peace, goodness, kindness to mankind. And I’m a normal guy. I think that is what Islam tells you to be.
Are there things about it that worry you?
Of course, there are actions by people who think they are Islamic, or are Islamic, that are very disturbing. But I think we are too quick to classify. She’s a Bengali? That is why she is like this. We like classification because it makes us more secure, the fear goes out. I stand for what a modern Muslim should be. I am married to a Hindu, my children are being brought up with both religions, I read namaz when I feel like. But I would not like to believe in four marriages even if my religion allows it. Lots of other things too have lost relevance, but that doesn’t mean I’m questioning the Quran. I’d like people to know that Islam is not only about being a fanatic, or radically different, angered person, or one who only does jehad. I’d like people to know that the actual meaning of jehad is to overcome one’s own violence and weakness. If need be, overcome it violently.
When I pray, the closest I come to a face are the faces of my mother and father. And my dogs also. I love my dog — Chewbacca. Is that blasphemous? I don’t know. But when I close my eyes, go to the terrace sometimes, or anywhere — I don’t need a position or a place to pray — I feel a sensation in my heart, or the area near my heart, and I think God resides there. It’s as silly or simple or profound as that.
When you lost your parents, who became the signposts of your life?
Nobody. There were friends, an aunt, my sister. But nobody was anchor or mentor. That’s why I came to Bombay. In fact, that’s why I got married. I thought if I get married, there will at least be somebody with me. This is why I think I’m a little yuppie. I have no culture. I lost my parents too soon to develop a culture.
So what did you reach into for strength?
Work. That’s it. I work as a matter of living. I am diseased as far as work is concerned, it’s not just workaholism, it’s beyond that. It’s not nice. I overwork, I take up 95 percent of opportunities that come my way. I don’t let anything go. I’m always full of energy. I work around the clock. I don’t need to. I am genuinely very well-to-do now. Even before KBC, I’ve had a successful career. I have beautiful children, I have a good wife who I’m faithful to, I have a good house, a secure family. I have a good business, in that I can make films. So I have a hunar. And I can act a bit. I am very clear that I am okay. But I always feel, shit, I’ll do this also. It’s not just about money. People think I only do things for money, but no, it’s just that I can’t let an opportunity go. I have to work. Obviously I enjoy everything I have and don’t want to lose it, but if I lost everything I have today, I’d be okay. I am not really attached to any of it. If I didn’t have this car, I’d just take a three-wheeler and be fine. But I’d need work. Even if it was just to build a mousetrap.
Of course, money is important. I hate taking money from others. I hate public money, investors. This might sound greedy, but it has to be my own money. I have a 70-strong office to maintain. I’ve built a cancer ward in my mother’s name. Now I want to build a free hospital, but I want to do it all with my own money. So I’ll dance at a wedding. Or take on KBC. Or do a world tour. Also I’m a little insecure because I lost my parents so suddenly. So it’s a whole mix. And the best part about this whole way of life, this very vigorous, honestly hardworking, trying-to-take hold-of-every-opportunity-that-comes-my-way kind of life, is that it doesn’t give me any moment to feel sad. I like that. If I am alone, I’m sad. It’s been many years now. I lost my parents a long time ago, so logically I should not miss them. Physically, I’ve even forgotten what they look like. So, is it them? I don’t know. But I get sad. I have everything in life. And it’s as normal as a life can be. Yet, when I am alone, I feel sad. So I work. Round the clock.
Apart from your own work, what films have you liked recently?
I don’t watch films. I get corrupted. When I see a good film and it doesn’t do well, or I see a bad film, and it does well, it confuses me. I saw Rang De Basanti. It was very well done. I was supposed to do a part in it. It was lying with me for about a year. I was shocked by the fact that I couldn’t read into the script. I just didn’t see any of it. It made me realise I don’t read well. I saw Krissh. I liked the novelty. I didn’t like Dhoom 2.
It lacked sensibility. Adi is a very close friend. But I told him he’d lost grip. I’ve made really tacky films, and I’ve made some really nice films, and some completely in-your-face commercial films. But there is a certain amount of sensibility that follows. Even conservative things, like you don’t vibe a girl romantically if you’ve shown her dad is in the house. Small example, very old fashioned, but I wouldn’t do it. The audience and I can’t be knowing that the dad is at home while this guy is vibing her in the house.
I thought you were a modern, metropolitan man!
Yes, but I am very conservative. I have this theory that my films do well across the world because though there’s enough titillation there for men, particularly Islamic men, around the world, the values are still old fashioned enough for them to take their wives to watch.
To switch track, Shah Rukh, you seem to talk more about your son, less about your daughter.
Like I said, I’m conservative, so I don’t talk about my daughter. It’s not that I’m not proud of her. In fact, I’m more proud of her in a certain way than even my son perhaps. But I’m shy of women. It’s very shocking, but even with her friends, I can’t play for too long. I think girls should be left on their own. And I’ve got this thing — I’ve never seen the inside of my wife’s cupboard, or her handbag, or her drawers, or whatever. I’ve been married since ’91, and I can’t do it. I think a woman should have a lot of privacy. I’m like that even with my daughter.
That’s strange, given your closest friends are women, and working ones at that.
Yes. Farah, Juhi, even Kajol. I don’t have too many male friends, and my male friends are also not very macho. Like Karan and everyone. But they are more Gauri’s friends actually. Karan is more Gauri’s friend than mine. It’s very strange. I’m more comfortable in the company of girls. But I like them to have their privacy.
Is that why, despite your charisma, there’s an asexuality about you?
It’s not asexuality. I’m just shy of women. I wouldn’t know how to pick up a lover. If that’s the right word to use.
It shows your innate bias — “pick up” a lover (laughs).
No, no, I’m just saying I wouldn’t know how to develop a lover. I mean, I think my lover would be, in my heart and mind, another wife, and then I’d be really Islamic (laughs). But really, I don’t know how to go about proposing or, how do you say it, propositioning… Sometimes girls say they like me. I don’t know what to say, so before she thinks I’m foolish or asexual, I just say something funny. The best way to kill romance is to joke. And, again it’s that conservative thing — I can’t make the first move. I don’t think the girl should make the first move. It’s not that girls who do are unattractive, it’s just that I wish I had said this to her rather than the other way around. So I’m like sort of left alone, sort of left without lovers.
Gauri couldn’t have done better (laughs).
Yes, I’m very conservative. Actually, to the extent of being — sorry to say, it’s a wrong thing to say — Islamically conservative maybe (laughs).
I’m a Pathan.
I think so. I mean, I’ve mellowed now. But I’m very possessive about my own people. Or used to be. And I don’t like people who do drugs. I’ve never told my son anything rude, but I’ve told him if you do drugs, or your friends do drugs, I’ll behead you. I’m not very cool really. Like I find it strange if somebody tells me this guy is having an affair. I’m like, aren’t you married? My first reaction is that.
You have a frenetic fan following across the globe. Have you understood your chemistry with them?
Ya. I think a lot of older women, mother types, love me. I think now slowly the girl types don’t find me hip enough, but they understand my language. I don’t think too many macho men like me. I think I’m too much of a dandy, and I think half of them think I’m gay. Intelligent people like Aamir Khan, so I know most of my fans don’t fall from that category (laughs). But to speak seriously, people think I’m an easy-going, nice person. They just love me. They think I am a part of their lives. The best part of my stardom is that it doesn’t come in the way of people liking me. I am their friend. I’ve been told I don’t invoke enough awe, I’ve been told I am not enigmatic enough. But I don’t think all that is required to be a star. Germany, France, Afghanistan, Turkey, Poland, Japan, Morocco, now China — there are strange places in the world where they love me. In Germany, they tell me we have a button for everything. For going up, coming down, driving a car. But we don’t have a button for crying. We’ve become cold people. You are our button for crying. We put your movies on, and we cry. And I think I just love crowds, I just want to walk into the middle and hold all of them. I’m not comfortable in a social setting of 10 people, but with 10,000 I am fine. I can be very comfortable when I’m being somebody else. I’m very uncomfortable when it’s me.
You’ve often been self-deprecatory about your acting. What’s the deal on that? And can you name a film you would really have liked to make?
Life is Beautiful. Sad, yet hilariously funny, and vivid. That’s the film I’d love to make. You know, I’ve always had this desire to be able to do different films. When I first came to Bombay, I had come from a background of theatre. I thought I was going to work in very serious, art house cinema. But those directors — don’t name them in your interview — really spooked me. They’d say, (mimicking sarcastically) Shah Rukh, I want you to touch your hair as if it’s not hair, but a possibility. Or, I want you to express shock as if you’ve seen your mother naked for the first time. Or again, have you seen a wave? I want you to emote like a wave breaking on a shore. But not the first wave, not the second wave, the seventh wave. A wave that has exhausted its potency. I was like, **** off. This was just such dishonest stuff. Not entertaining is considered acting at times. Serious minded people think it’s tomfoolery to do a song and dance and romance a girl. But you forget that each color forms entertainment. Sometimes it needs to be white and quiet, and sometimes it needs to be orange and loud. But each color is meant for entertainment and you need to take each one seriously. Cynicism is not artistic. Sadness is not artistic. You can be flamboyant, happy-go-lucky, look nice, be upfront and still be creative. Creativity doesn’t have to mean brooding, black, sad, cynicism, dark, quiet, few words, kurta pajama, khadi.
So then I started working with new directors I trusted — Karan, Adi, Farah. I thought we’d do different, intelligent cinema, not this boring, dishonest stuff. But it’s never worked that way. They all started making my brand of cinema. Because of my energy, I think! To be honest, I think my stardom gets in the way.
So which of your films have been milestones in your own head?
Baazigar was very interesting, I love being the bad guy. Don also. I liked Kabhie Haan, Kabhie Naa — Kundan Shah. Darr. Dilwale Dulhaniya was of course a turn-around film. Kuch Kuch Hota Hai was special for a personal reason. Because I was able to make Karan a director, because his father didn’t want to make a film with him. Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani was very special for me. Very, very special. It was the first film from our company, and when it flopped, we were very disturbed. Me, Juhi, and Aziz cried for 10 days straight. And we never recovered from it. So much so, our company never took off after that. We made others. Chalte Chalte. Asoka. They all flopped. Personally, we’re still great friends. We meet twice or thrice a week, but I think somewhere we just lost faith in each other. Something has gone. We’d rather not go there. It has bad memories…
So now, I work with Karan and Farah and Adi. I trust them. We’re on the same page. We’re very clear about our reasons for doing things. We are not lying to each other. We know it’s a 30 crore film. We need to make that money back. So yes, the clothes are going to be Louis Vuitton, whether you like it or not. And yes, there will be a little sensibility of an extra-marital affair but we cannot get into the depths of what happens in the hearts and minds of a couple. We can’t deal with it so seriously. We are not unintelligent about this. We do it with a very calculating eye. We understand each other’s corruptions.
Does your stardom matter to you? When Hrithik first came on the scene, a lot was made of it. Did this shake you?
Yes, that was depressing. That was depressing. It was not depressing because Hrithik was doing well, I mean he’s a very close friend now, and he always was. His father was the first person I worked with when I came to Bombay. What disturbed me was the way everyone wrote me off. That was the time I was undergoing my operations. I was unwell. I felt really vulnerable. Also, because until about five years ago I didn’t accept that I am a superstar. Every review, every remark in the press used to anger and bruise me. I was frenzied about wanting more fans, a piece of the north, a piece of the south. It’s only recently that I’ve started to feel secure.