What excited you about the idea of Mangal Pandey?
Primarily the script. The concept of a company ruling a country was very fascinating for me. The events might have happened in 1857, but the issues are very relevant, even today. The film is essentially about the concept of freedom and it questions the right of any superpower or society to move into another society and take it over. This is precisely what’s happening today with countries like America moving into Iraq and Afghanistan, or earlier, into Vietnam.
There is very little historical material on Mangal. How have you imagined him?
There’s very little recorded about Mangal, but there’s a lot recorded about that period. I went into only a fraction, but it gave me a sense of the time. Mangal — the maximum recorded about him is a two-pager: the events of March 29, the court martial, and then, of course, the hanging on April 8. It’s important to keep in mind that it was the British who were recording all this. Along with that, there’s a lot about Mangal through songs and oral traditions. There was also writing on him a good 60-70 years after he died. It’s anybody’s guess how accurate that is. What does come through very strongly is that he became a symbol of freedom for Indians.
Mangal predates any idea of India as a nation. The trial papers say he admitted to acting under the influence of bhang. Is it fair to turn him into a grand rebel icon?
That trial was recorded by the British. They also called it a Sepoy Mutiny. Clearly, it wasn’t. There were scores of people who got involved, who were certainly not sepoys. To call it a Sepoy Mutiny is being completely inaccurate. I’m going by that fact. The court-martial tries to project a guy on bhang who suddenly went berserk. I don’t think that happened. The film uses Mangal as a symbol of freedom who represents that section of Indian society that had begun to question and rise. Was Mangal exactly like we have portrayed him? I don’t know. But he’s been fleshed out keeping in mind what people saw him as, or what thereafter people saw him as. The film begins with the line — “When history meets proud folklore, legends are born.” Quite clearly we are accepting at the very onset that a lot of dramatisation has gone into telling the story. What cannot be denied is that even for the British at that time he stood for what they did not like. Every rebel or revolutionary was called a Pandey. You were either a Pandey or not a Pandey.
It’s taken so long, the making of this film has become almost mythic. Can you share what happened?
(Laughs) It was a very tough film to be a part of. A very demanding film, but at the end of the day, a very satisfying experience, I think…
Come on, Aamir, share some of the rawness…
It is not often easy to share rawness… What I can say is that it was certainly a very tough project, but I stayed committed to it for the past three years. At the end, I think we’ve managed to bring on celluloid what we set out to do — give or take a bit. That’s a big achievement. The film has shaped well to whatever extent it has because of the teamwork that went into the making of the film.
You told someone you’ve finally learnt to give a great shot in this film. What did you mean? Is this one of your best performances?
Hmmm… (Laughs) You are a tricky one. I was actually referring to my next film, Rang De Basanti, not this film. What happened with Mangal Pandey was that it went through many crises, so I wasn’t able to work as freely as an actor as I would’ve liked to. I fully enjoyed the next film, where I was only an actor. I felt I was hitting the right notes; a lot of the time, I was hitting the right notes.
Your attention to scripts is well known, but you’ve often worked with first-time directors or those coming in with flops. What do you look for in a director?
I look for somebody who has a story to tell. Very important. That’s the first step. Of course he should be capable; he should know his craft. But I also like directors who are hungry. When you haven’t made it yet, there is an immense hunger in you. I enjoy that. I enjoy working with that. The other quality I look for is leadership. A director cannot be someone who is only creatively good. Filmmaking is like war and you have to lead from the front. The director has to be a general — solve crises, deal with people. He has to make you blossom. He has to do it for himself, and he has to do it for others as well.
To complete my answer, in the past, I’ve coincidentally liked scripts with first time directors. That has not deterred me from doing the film, but it’s made me more alert. John Mathew Mathan’s Sarfarosh: I love his script, but he’s never made a film before. So I spent a lot of time with him, I think a year-and-a-half, before I said yes. I told him I loved the script. My words to John were, Yaar, I love your script, can I buy it? He said, no. I said okay, you’re sure you’re not parting with it? He said, no. Once that route was explored, I knew if I have to do this film, I have to do it with him. So I told him, I know you can write a script, but I don’t know if you can direct a film. I need time to decide that. If you want a reply today, it’s a no. But if you want to wait, I’d be happy to explore the possibility of working with you. This has happened with Ashutosh Gowariker, John, Farhan.
What process convinces you?
I spend a lot of time with them, I watch their other work, I discuss films, life, completely unrelated stuff. I need to know I’m on the same wavelength. I need a comfort level. So there’s no tangible thing I can explain — what happens when I finally feel Farhan can direct a film. I don’t know, but finally, internally, I feel, ya, I can work with this guy. He has a story to tell and he’s going to tell it well. His integrity is in the right place, his attempt at the very least is to make a great film, and he’s not going to compromise on that.
After your first film, you signed a spate of run-off-the-mill capers, typical Bollywood fare. Recently, you have changed all the rules and started displaying an overwhelming absorption with the filmmaking process. You are doing one film a year, or less. This is very uncommon in Bollywood. Was there a turning point, a trigger for this change?
My style of working has always been the same. But when my first film, qsqt, was released and became a huge success, there was a lot of pressure on me. The norm was to sign 20-30 films at one time. I ended up signing nine. The directors I liked didn’t offer me any films, so I just picked some and took the plunge. When the shooting began, I realised, one, shooting nine films at the same time is bad news, two, the director is the most important aspect of filmmaking.
To give a crude example, when I read a script, I may be imagining Kashmir for a particular location, the director might imagine Mahabaleshwar, and the producer will think Film City. This difference in sensibility very quickly became apparent to me. It was not a happy feeling. I stopped signing. I had to get rid of these films. I worked two shifts, sometimes three. I was unhappy, but there was nothing I could do short of not landing up for shoots. But that is not my style. So I just trudged through. This became a turning point for me. I told myself henceforth I will not sign a film unless the director’s sensibility is similar to mine. I’ll give you an idea of how strong my resolve was. Around this time, a film was offered to me by Bhatt saab (Mahesh Bhatt). He had just made Saransh and Naam. Now in all this junk I had taken on, I really needed a director of quality to help me sail through. Bhatt saab was that person at that time. But I didn’t like the script. By that time, I had made the decision that unless (laughs) I was totally happy getting into a film, I wouldn’t do it. It was a tempting offer. It would give me a new lease of life as an actor because in films, it’s not just what you are doing, but what’s ahead of you that matters. I thought for one night then I went back and said, sorry sir, I can’t do it.
Mira Nair once said midway through Kamasutra things were going so badly she felt paralysed. Apart from this rash of films, have you ever been midstream in a project, feeling you can’t go on and yet can’t back out?
Almost always! (Laughs) But that’s part of the process. If you don’t have the strength to stay, the strength to absorb that, then you can’t see it through. Many a good idea can die because you don’t have the strength to see it through.
Lagaan, for instance, was very difficult to make. Joh Jeeta Wohi Sikandar — it was one of the films that saw me through those bad years, it gave me oxygen, but it was a terrible experience to work on. My god! We reshot 60 -70 per cent of the film. Mansur, my cousin, wrote and directed the film. We were to begin with a 50-60 day outdoor. Three days before we left, one of the lead actresses backed out. We panicked. We could either cancel or recast. We went back to the screen tests and quickly chose another girl. We did the whole shoot, then I went off for some other shoot.
A month or two later, Mansur emerged from the editing room and called me in Ooty. He said, Aamir, the film is not working, it’s gone wrong. The girl is not working. I cannot go ahead, I’m recasting.
I was like, no, no (groaning in mock anguish)… I said, that bad? He said, ya. I said, ok, do what you have to. When we began reshooting, the other actress in the film had some absurd third problem of her own and announced that unless we finished shooting in one month she was out. This was practically impossible, so she left. My role involved both the girls. It was terrible. As an actor, it was the most earth-shattering thing for me because I had given my best and most magical moments the first time. It’s still a good film, but we went through hell. Films have a life of their own. It’s like a wild horse. If you’re not able to control it, it takes you for a ride.
Over the years, you have become estranged from several people close to you, professionally and personally. What explains this trail of broken relationships? What are your holy cows as far as relationships go?
Hmmm… I don’t think there’s any such thing. I’m 40 now — and yes, certainly in these 40 years, I’ve been close to people and then in time I have grown away from them. Each time it’s been a different reason. There’s no one sacred thing…
As for these people you are talking about — people I’ve been close to — what I feel for them, what I share with them, is very valuable to me. I’m certainly not comfortable discussing it publicly. Some things I don’t want to share with the rest of the world, some things I may be willing to share with the rest of the world, but I don’t think it’s right for me to do so.
What are the things that you cannot abide in a relationship?
Fraud… If someone lets down my trust — I think that’s very difficult to come to terms with.
Who have been the influences in your life? Your father has obviously not been…
He has actually. My father has been a big influence on me. He has always been very strong-willed and has had a very high level of integrity. That’s been quite inspirational for me. I’ve seen him as a fighter, as someone who doesn’t give up no matter what the odds are. My sensibility might be different, but I have inherited some of his genes.
Didn’t you have a public estrangement from your father, where you put out a notice disassociating yourself from any financial liability related to him? Were you disturbed by his relationships with other actresses?
I’m not estranged from my father. Our views differ on what films we do, but other than that I am extremely close to him. As regards his personal life, it is certainly something I won’t comment on.
So who has shaped your sensibility?
My mother to a large extent. She is one of the most wonderful persons on this earth. I’m sure a lot of people feel like that about their mothers, but this is slightly different. She’s been a big influence on me. I don’t think she intended it that way. But I spend a lot of my time with her. She’s very gentle and warm. But also really intelligent and sharp. Very warm, very giving, soft — she’s very sensitive — that’s the word I’m looking for. I’ll give you a small example. I used to play a lot of competitive tennis at one time. I’d come home having won a match and she’d say, so what happened, did you win, and I’d say, ya. Obviously she’d be happy, but invariably after that moment of happiness, she’d say, hmmm, but that boy who lost must be very sad, his mother must be very sad. And I’d be like, hmmm, accha? (Laughs) The chap I beat today is sad. She needn’t have felt that, and having felt that, she needn’t have said it. But she did it naturally, and I, in my own way, grabbed it. So my perception of my rivals changed after that. I still wanted to beat them, but they suddenly became human beings for me. (Laughs) She’s a very solid person, a huge influence .
Is she widely read, film-literate?
No, but she has very strong opinions on cinema and storytelling. She was a constant bouncing-board for my father, a big support in many films he made. When I was staying with my parents, we’d often get into arguments and discussions and fights on cinema. One interesting thing is, I used to love to listen to stories and since my father was a producer, a lot of writers used to come home to narrate stories and pitch ideas. Whenever I was home, I’d slip into the sofa or sit in a chair at the back and listen. This became a pattern for me. It became so much of a pattern that ultimately the people telling the stories, and my dad and mom, actually started looking for me. I became part of the sessions and slowly my opinion was sought and I’d give my two-paise bit. I must have heard a trillion stories in this way. That was an influence, I think. Of course, there was also my reading. I’ve read a lot from the age of seven…
You once said the new generation of filmmakers are a kind of revolt against an older style of filmmaking. You are from a filmmaking family. Are your films a kind of rebellion against them?
My uncle, Nasser Hussain, and my dad, Tahir, made some great films. Teesri Manzil, Yaadon ki Barat, Anamika. I learnt a lot from them. No, I wasn’t referring to my parents.
But because I’m from a film family, I felt very protective towards the film industry when I was growing up. When my friends would make fun, I’d feel the need to refute what they were saying. But I couldn’t deny that there was some really garish, horrible cinema being made then (Laughs). When I got into the process of making films, I knew what I would make had to be different. Not necessarily contrary, but sure, the way I, or Mansur, think is very different from the way our parents looked at filmmaking. Remember you had someone who was 18 — the age when I began work — interacting with Nasser saab who was 60. If I’d interacted with Nasser saab when he was 18, it would’ve been quite a different situation. Are you understanding what I’m saying? See, all of us go through a certain cycle of birth, youth, and old age. That happens even creatively. We are born, we go through a youth, and then we start making films that don’t make sense to people. Very few people continue to be healthy and creative beyond a certain age…
Would you say that Amitabh Bachchan has?
(Laughs) I think he is immensely talented as an actor. He’s worked for so many years, but he’s certainly not lost the zest, energy or passion for giving a great shot.
What is your own idea of filmmaking? When do you feel a script will work?
I always look for a foundational premise. I think that’s crucial for a film’s success. You must be able to sit back and reduce the idea of the film to one basic line. What is this film trying to say? And are people interested in hearing about that?
Aamir, you have a reputation for perfection that borders on paranoia. Can you talk about your work ethos? What happens when you get involved?
Hmmm… I don’t know. Not perfection. That’s not it. But I want to achieve what we’ve set out to achieve. At the end of the day, whatever you are attempting, it’s just an attempt — a potential. How much you make of it is up to you. When the audience sees a film, that’s it. I’m not depending on a q&a after that. (Laughs) You’re not going to get a chance to explain things after that. But uptil the film reaches the theatre, you can still do something about it. I don’t tire easily. I don’t tire, in fact. So for me, it’s not something which is strange. I feel if it deserves to be done, you have to do it.
It might occur to other people, ki, yaar, who’s bothered? When the producer, Bobby Bedi, tells me the music for The Rising is releasing at a theatre, I can say, ya, I’ll be there. When is it? The 14th? Okay. But my mind doesn’t stop over there. My mind goes on to think — should we have elephants? It would help to recreate the period, create a mood. It may not be achieved finally — police permission, etc — but it doesn’t stop me from thinking about these things, or trying to achieve them. If it’s not possible, that’s fine, but I’m certainly going to try. (Laughs)
Do you feel manoeuvred into being defensive about your working style sometimes?
At times. But I feel people ask me about this in a negative way only in interviews. In my workplace, I never feel that. No director ever questions that about me. I’m willing to bet that if I don’t apply myself as much, they’ll feel something is wrong, they’ll miss it. I’m very clear that in my workplace my directors, technicians, co-stars are not uncomfortable with this at all. I don’t think they feel anything but a positive energy flowing from me. My way of working is not some hard, harsh way. In fact, I feel the process of working is as important as the end result. We must enjoy the process. Or it’s not worth it. This is how I know to work. I don’t know any other way to work.
Now that you’ve become more selective about your roles, what governs your choices?
First, of course, the script. But my choice is also influenced by things happening around me. Social issues. Mangal Pandey, as I said, is very relevant today. Rang De Basanti is about the youth of today and their lack of involvement with social and political issues.
Some people say you are overly cautious and don’t experiment with roles or negative characters…
That’s a silly observation. I play a murderer in Deepa Mehta’s Earth. In fact if there’s any actor who has taken the most number of risks, it’s I. I have consistently done films which are completely against the tide. Most stars like to follow one image they know will work with the audience. I’m one of the few who has tried to and actually managed to break that. I’ve done films in which people see me as a character, not as Aamir. They think of me as Bhuvan (Lagaan), different from Aakash (Dil Chahta Hai) or Inspector Rathod from Sarfarosh.
Is there a burden in being a star —in being cut off from a kind of life on the ground?
No, I don’t see that as a burden. What can be exhausting is that when you are a star, you are like a flame attracting thousands of moths. Every moth attracted to the flame wants something from it. Everyone wants you to do something for them. Sometimes it’s in support of very good causes, but it can still be tiring. It takes great patience to handle this without becoming high-handed. Often, it’s not arrogance that makes a star act dismissively, it’s exhaustion.
Have you ever found yourself in a frightening situation, swamped by a fan mob?
You know that can be a very interesting phenomenon. What happens is that if there’s one celebrity and a whole lot of people around him, they all want to be close to him, reach him, shake his hands, hug him, kiss him, whatever. But the number of people who can actually get to him is 10. The 10 who are in the immediate circle around him are fine, but outside of that ring, there is this huge crowd trying to get to you in the middle. The energies are going like this (makes a restive, swaying movement with his hand). What happens is that when you are the centre of that attraction and the focus of everyone’s attention, they take their cue from you. So if you panic, they panic. If you are in a hurry to leave, they are in a hurry to grab you. On the other hand, if you don’t show any anxiety or panic they calm down. They are still excitable, but there’s no panic. The guy 40 feet away cannot reach you, but if you spend time reaching out and making eye contact with people far from you, they feel you are acknowledging them — so then the mad thing does not happen.
Bombay must be the city you most identify with. What words do you most associate it with?
Resilience. Warmth. It has a very harsh exterior, very soft interior.
What did you think of Suketu Mehta’s book on Bombay?
It was very interesting till I came to the chapter on Bollywood. I found it so dishonest, I was very disappointed. I realised this guy doesn’t understand anything about Bollywood. It made me suspect everything I had read earlier. The way he wrote of Vidhu Vinod Chopra was very distressing. Here was a world an aspiring writer would not normally have access to. You can disagree with something, but you must try to enter its skin and argue against it with dignity, not with the shallow, brittle sarcasm with which Suketu does it. That chapter made me switch off so much, I could not finish the book.
To switch tracks completely, are you ever conscious about being a Muslim? Are there things about being Muslim that bother you?
Until sometime ago — the late 80s, early 90s — it was something I was not conscious of. But then the Right wing in India really started whipping up negative feelings between communities and poisoning minds. People became very aware of their religion. It was in these circumstances that I became conscious. At times it made me feel very lost, alienated. Often one heard supposedly very sensible people talking utter nonsense. It made me wonder what people actually do feel in their hearts about this issue. It kept getting worse as time went by. The first change I have felt for the better, was when the BJP lost the elections. Suddenly it felt that the whole nation — or at least a large majority — was not interested in them any more. It really made me proud to be a part of a society where the common man has the ability to decipher for himself what he sees as not good.
Can you quantify what being Muslim means to you?
No, I’ve not thought about it, so I can’t answer that with any clarity. It’s not been such an issue for me. It’s not part of my mindset. Even in terms of my interaction with people, my ex-wife is a Hindu, so my children, what are they? Half-Hindu and half-Muslim? Still, there were times when events made me conscious of myself, times when I felt the need to prove that I am as Indian as anybody else. There should be no need for me to feel that way. In my own way, I’ve tried to address this issue in the films I’ve done. Sarfarosh appealed to me because it was a mainstream film attempting to tackle being Hindu and Muslim and living together. In my way, I try to counter the negativity that some people are spreading. Instead of fighting negativity, I just try to spread positivity.
Have you never felt the need to use your stardom, your position as a public figure, to intervene, say something?
Often when something very traumatic happens — for example Gujarat — I’m in a dilemma as a public personality. If my view is sought, I’m not quite sure how I should comment. I might feel a certain way but I don’t want people to see what I’m saying with a religious connotation. So in such a situation, I’m forced to remain silent. If I was a Hindu by religion, I would not have kept silent at that time. But because I am a Muslim, I wasn’t sure how my thoughts would be represented, and how they would be received. At the same time, in which country or society will you have a situation where the Right wing is on the rise, but the 15-10 odd years that it is at its peak and is succeeding to quite a degree in poisoning people’s minds — in these 10 years, the top three stars of the film world are all Muslims? (Laughs) In which other society would you get to see that? So you have to see that side of it also.
Given international events, and the growing wariness about Muslims, aren’t you tempted to speak out?
Not that I don’t want to. But no one’s asked me to. Even after Gujarat, no one, not a single journalist came up to me and said, what do you feel, what do you have to say? Had they asked me, I would’ve gone through this process earlier. How do I express myself?
But even now, no one has actually approached me for my opinion on what is happening, for example, in London. I completely condemn the bomb blasts and acts of terror on innocent people. I unconditionally condemn all the people who are indulging in acts of terror, and appeal to them to stop, including Mr George Bush who is probably killing many more people and destroying many more innocent lives.
Are there other events in India that have disturbed you?
Tehelka would definitely be one of them. The BJP was completely exposed and it was shocking to see how Tehelka had to take the rap for it. It’s heartening to know that the people involved with Tehelka have managed to survive and get back on their feet. I was very keen to support it whichever way I could.
You left school after Class XII. You married out of your religion. Did these become issues in your family?
(Laughs) I was always very headstrong. When I am clear about something, I just move towards it. I’m open to being persuaded otherwise but I need to hear reason for that. From very early on, I’ve stuck to my guns about everything. My parents wanted me to do commerce, wanted me to study. I said I could learn as much as I wanted to without going to school. I was very sure film was the career I wanted. Success and failure in films is just a flip of a coin. You have to be able to absorb failure on a very public platform. My parents didn’t want to put me through that. They wanted something more reliable, so yes, there were some heated arguments about it, but by and large, we had a very sheltered and happy childhood.
What have been the really low points of your life?
Hmmm… Probably the most traumatic period has been my divorce — not just for me but for everybody involved, I imagine. I can’t think of any other significant low.
Your brother Faisal — he has not been a success in films. Is that a point of heartbreak?
Yes, it’s heartbreaking for all of us. But it’s not the end of the world. He’s moved on to other things.
Who are the people you are really close to?
Mansur Khan, other cousins, Satyajit Bhatkal, Amin Haji, the guy who plays the mute character in Lagaan. Lots of people.
Sexuality is almost inextricably linked with showbiz. Would you agree? And how central is sexuality to your life and creativity? Do you have any morality about it?
I don’t have any rigid morality. I’m sure sexuality plays an important role in my life, I’m trying to think. I’m sure at a subconscious level, it plays a part that even I’m not aware of. But I don’t think it has any relation to my work. My work stems from an exciting idea I listen to or read about. I don’t think there’s any connection between creativity and sexuality. Being creative gives you no special sexual license. But no matter who you are, you have the right to decide what it means to you and how you want to lead your life, including your sexual life. That right belongs to everyone, but I don’t think it’s anybody else’s business.
You’ve been linked with many women – Jessica Hines, Preity Zinta, Rani Mukherji…
I’m not comfortable discussing any of that. I don’t feel I have to explain myself.
Film stars in India are almost considered a kind of public possession, so adulated people feel they have a right to know everything they want to. Have you always been this careful about separating your public and personal life?
The distinction was always there, but of late, it’s become more clear. I feel I don’t really need to explain myself to anybody. Earlier, I was more open about talking about my personal life, and while the Press may want to know about it and ask me, I’ve realised I’m not bound to answer every question. I’ve decided not to respond except at a basic level. The Hindustan Times wrote I was married to Preity Zinta. It was so absurd, I had to set the record straight. Other things close to me, I don’t want to discuss on a public platform. I like to give it that value.
Sure. Who are the directors you’ve not worked with whom you like? Who have been your influences?
K. Asif, Guru Dutt, Bimal Roy. Mehboob Khan, V. Shantaram. Vijay Anand, Steven Spielberg.
Of your many unusual stands, you are famous for not attending awards. What lies behind that?
I used to, but soon I realised they were about something else. You have to take them with more than a pinch of salt. It’s impossible to decide whether one performance is better than the other in a totally different context. I would treat it as an annual event where the industry gets together and lauds each other’s work. But then strange things began to happen. So I thought, (Laughs) this is not for me and started staying away from it. After that, it all went ballistic. Some 50,000 awards cropped up, everyone got one, and every year five new categories were added. It went live on tv. Now, it’s not an award night, it’s a programme designed to collect stars to generate advertisement time. (Laughs) I’m not interested in taking part in something like this. It’s too childish for me. In the name of giving me an award, people are using me for trp and to sell air-time. That’s my view of awards. I want to reach out to my audience. I know they expect me to go for these shows and be accessible, but I just can’t do things that don’t sit easy on me.