Aamir, you did saturation press for Mangal Pandey. But for Rang De Basanti you’ve kept totally away from the media. Why is that?
Well, there are a number of reasons, and I’ll go into it at various levels. First reason, I was extremely surprised by the vengeance with which a fair section of the media went for Mangal Pandey. It seemed to me as if they had pre-decided to kill the film. A lot of articles came out on the day of the release regarding how badly the film was doing at the box-office. On the day of release it is impossible to tell. The fact of the matter is that the collections in the first week were record-breaking by leaps and bounds, not just by small margins. So if at all the stories in that first week had been “honest news”, they should have said the collections are breaking records. Instead, there were articles about how badly it’s doing. I must emphasise I’m not talking about reviews here because that’s personal opinion — people and critics’ personal opinion — which is fair enough. I’m talking about the reporting on how the film was doing. That really took me aback. I didn’t know how to react. I felt like correcting what the reports were saying and putting on record what the actual collections were. But somehow it didn’t feel right to do that because I’m an interested party and for me to say the film is doing very well is absurd. I felt the collections should speak for themselves; instead they were being altered. So I was taken aback by the vengeance. I was also disappointed in a majority of the media, be it television or print; reason being that while a section was attacking the film, the other section should have stood up and said, let’s talk hardcore numbers and be factual instead of imagining things and making up. That didn’t happen. So I just fell silent for a bit. I just didn’t know how to react. Why was all this happening? I was confused, quite frankly. So at the time I maintained silence.
Is your media embargo a product of this?
No, as I said, there are various reasons. Along with this, in the last one year or so, I’ve been amazed at the kind of reporting that’s happening in national news — whether it’s television or print. It’s extremely disturbing, I find. Strange and unimportant stories are constantly making headlines. Only things which are sensational or cater to very base emotions of people are headline news. I realise TV channels are sprouting every day and there’s a lot of competition to grab viewership. Similarly with newspapers. As a result they are stooping to the lowest levels to try and get readership or viewership which actually translates into money. So at the end of the day because they want more ads they are destroying what is a very important part of society and that is news reporting. The nation and society at large have a right to know what is happening in the country and in the right manner and right perspective. The kind of news making headlines today — earlier they used to be tidbits or one page which was meant to be entertaining, or half a page — not even one page. But now that’s the main news and stories of farmers dying or something equally important that affects our lives or affects the lives of a lot of people are being pushed to small, unimportant sections of the paper. I find this very damaging and alarming.
Some ig somewhere has become Radha and that is national news, some actress has lost her dog, somebody’s affair has broken up, somebody’s in hospital — all personal stuff — and that’s national news. Certainly people would be interested in the film industry or entertainment world but that should not get the kind of prominence it is getting, I feel. It’s wasting important national space that should be used in a more productive manner.
Why did you decide —
Sorry, to complete what I was saying, this was immediately followed by a very personal event in my life which was my marriage and in which I again felt the press had gone completely nuts (laughing) — in the way they were trying to exploit that occasion for their financial benefit. Trying to get pictures, going to lengths where they were making up what we were supposed to be wearing or what my children were supposed to have reacted to or said… All kinds of things. Absolute imagination.
The thing is, I feel before being a star I am a human being and I have the right to conduct my life the way I want to, especially my personal life. If I’m getting married and I want to share it with a few close people, I feel I should be left alone to do that. Yes, report that I’m getting married, but that just makes one news item. I don’t think it deserves the kind of space it got in national news. I felt very violated by the attitude of the media at that time. Supposedly dignified newspapers and dignified news channels were indulging in the same things. Bit shocking for me. And at the end of the day I realise they were doing this to make money. They wanted viewership and they were selling time on their channels to get ads. So it’s very sad what news reporting has become in India today. That was another reason for me becoming silent and quiet. I had no idea how I was supposed to deal with this. I really don’t know how I’m supposed to deal with this. (laughing with exasperation) Do I take legal recourse? Do I file a pil? It was all so extremely intrusive. Even when we were away on a three-day stint to Panchgani with my family, they were all over there. When they couldn’t get close to me because fortunately I’m in a position where I could use security guards — other people may not have even that and it’s unfair that anyone can walk into your house and shoot what’s happening in your house — if someone tries to do that, I want to stop them; so I did my best to stop it and to a large degree I succeeded which obviously annoyed them even more. They started writing rubbish — stuff like my agency had used violence.
There were reports of that?
Yes, when they weren’t allowed in, reporters tried to push their way. Obviously they were stopped, so they started shouting, how dare you use violence? (laughing with exasperation) There was no violence. They were just being stopped from entering a space that was private. All kinds of stunts were tried. It left me amazed and upset and surprised at the way things are. Soon after that Rang De Basanti was releasing. I realised I wasn’t mentally or emotionally in a state to deal with these kind of people, this monster that the media had become. Who am I supposed to speak to and what am I supposed to say? It’s much better that I just keep silent. If the film has to suffer as a result of that, it will, but I feel the film has a strength of its own and we can use paid alternatives for publicising — take out ads that are paid for. And that’s what the producers did. They were of course alarmed that I was not going to give any interviews, but I was not in a state, quite frankly, to give any.
We’ll come back to some of this later, but why did you decide to speak out now?
I thought more about it and I do feel as a public person I should voice my opinion for whatever it is worth. News reporting is a matter of national concern. I can see why all this is happening but I still don’t condone that kind of behaviour. I really feel that the Press Council or some authorities in a position to do something about this must look at it very seriously. In fact I’d even go so far as to say I think there is a need for some kind of law or legislation regarding various aspects of the press.
Newspapers like The Times of India were printing false news about me during the marriage. This is supposed to be one of the most prestigious newspapers in the country. None of the others are far behind. All the leading newspapers today are only interested in printing photographs of naked women in at least five pages of the publication — that’s what it’s come down to as far as I can see — on a daily basis (laughing) — not a one-off, on a daily basis.
But to get back, I am of course against censorship or the press being curtailed in any way but at the same time I feel every individual in India has a right to privacy and that certainly should be protected. Unless I’m doing something illegal, in which case, please, make sure you intrude my space, but otherwise you can’t just walk into my house for titillation and to sell your magazines and channels.
What about sting investigations?
Obviously they have to be governed by public interest. But stories like the India TV sting about starlets and the casting couch — first of all, that’s not of national interest. Secondly, if at all such a story is to be done the woman must look like she doesn’t want to sleep with the man and is being coerced in some way. In this, as far as one could make out the journalist was almost seducing him.
The media’s defence is that it is catering to readership taste. Do you think that’s true or is there a disjunct?
You know the press has often asked me — and it often asks other filmmakers — why do you make junk? These absurd over-the-top films where you exploit action or sex? Why do filmmakers indulge in trashy films, so what if they cater to the base needs of certain sections of the audience but there should be some restraint shown. See filmmakers are still entertaining (laughs), the press has got a much more responsible job. Some restraint you have to show, boss. Yes, human beings have all kinds of needs. I can name another ten you can cater to — you want to do that? Are you a newspaper? Or stop calling yourself a newspaper. Stop calling yourself a news channel. Call yourself something else. There are all kinds of entertainment going around. You can certainly indulge in whatever kind of software you want to make. But if you are catering to the news needs of people then you call yourself a newspaper or news channel. If you are catering to other needs then don’t call yourself that. See, I feel media barons and top executives are just looking at short term benefits, and in the process they are destroying society. Our loved ones live in this society — parents, children — everyone will be affected by this selling-out.
To move away –
You know about 10 to 15 years ago — maybe longer — when I was an actor who had just started out, this is what the film press had become. In the first two or three years I realised that the film press is completely absurd and they just report what they want to. They make up things, use their imagination, and they’re interested only in junk. As a result, I stopped speaking completely to the film press. At that time I was told it’s a very dangerous step you are taking because you are cutting yourself off from your fans. The mainline newspapers then never reported films, there were no hundred channels, only Doordarshan, so effectively you were cutting yourself off from fans if you didn’t speak to film magazines. I understood that but I chose to do what is right and I haven’t spoken to them for 15 years now and I’m quite happy having taken that step. Today, I feel that same emotional state towards the mainline press.
The recourse left to me as I can see right now is to limit my interaction with the media — print or television — to those few reporters left who I can actually have a conversation with and trust that they would report it accurately, and interact and deal with those kinds of publications or, at the very least, those journalists whose work I respect and who I’d like to talk to. I’ve stopped reading and watching most papers and channels. I want to emphasise here that it’s not personally what they wrote about me, but in general I find that what news reporting has become in our country today is absurd — I mean that’s the only word I can use.
What do you think are the core principles of journalism?
First of all, it’s meant to be a watchdog of society not a lap dog! Very broadly speaking, I feel the media has a grave responsibility as far as news reporting is concerned. They should be accurate in their reporting and they should weigh which news is more important in terms of how it affects society and people and, at a national level, what is important, as opposed to some titillating news about some celebrity. Take the Salman Khan tapes published by the Hindustan Times when it launched in Mumbai. I mean a newspaper like ht — I’m really sorry to say this — is printing personal conversations of a human being. I don’t care if it’s Salman or whether society views him in a good way or bad way — that’s completely irrelevant to what I’m saying. I’m saying one human being is having a personal conversation with his girlfriend or ex or whoever. It’s a personal conversation. If the police need to record it for their purpose, then maybe legally they have the right to, if they take the right route, etc, etc, and if they are doing it for the benefit of society at large and are doing it to keep a check on criminals or whatever. I can understand that. But certainly that should not be made public. And if that reaches a newspaper that paper should take a decision not to print and in fact report — it should be a police complaint that these tapes are hanging around here and there. They should not be made public. According to me, the person should sue the paper concerned for invasion of privacy.
So which papers and channels do you follow?
Tehelka, The Hindu, and The Indian Express. I’ve stopped all the others. There might be other publications that I’m not aware of — regional papers that I’ve not read — that are doing good work. But what I feel is, as a citizen of the country, in the one hour, or half hour of news that I watch in the evening, I would like to watch things that are socially and nationally important. And that it is given the right kind of time and reporting. As a good reporter you have to give it your energies to report that matter properly, to investigate it properly and bring it forward properly to the people. That time has to be spent in investigative journalism and in debating important issues. If I want to watch news about entertainment there should be a separate section or show for that. All people who want to watch whose dog is lost and whose cat is getting married (laughs) — here’s your — on your own newstime you can watch whatever you want to watch.
So which channel do you watch?
Ha. You are being facetious —
No, I’m serious. If I want to be entertained I watch the other channels. You have background music now in news channels, they have scores to illustrate or emphasise or create the mood or emotion behind a flood or earthquake. They have background music for Chrissakes! It’s shocking. Next you’ll have dialogue writers and special effects! What is left ya. (laughs) At least Doordarshan is calming. In an unemotional way, they tell you the news. People are not shouting da da da — “Breaking News! Guess what’s happening!” No dramatics, no theatrics, no deep sighs, no wiping of tears and no background music!
Do you find any difference between the Hindi and English news channels?
I would say no. Because the moment something sensational happens — or what one channel thinks is sensational — everyone makes sure they have it on air as well so as to not be left out. Then the competition of “breaking news” begins. I think that some news channel has to get up and say I’m not indulging in this. I might lose viewership for the first month or so, but at the end of the one month I will establish that I am not indulging in all of this and I am sure people will come around. The news channel will actually establish a separate identity. When people want to watch news they will watch that one. Just now there’s no distinction between Hindi and English news reporting.
NDTV and CNN-IBN both set themselves up to be different. You don’t think they’ve accomplished that?
When NDTV started out, it was certainly a channel I respected, and it was trying to do different work. I have high regard for Prannoy and his team. However, over the years and recent months, I find it is slipping very badly and I’m sorry to say that, but the fact of the matter is that it is slipping. CNN-IBN is a new channel which has already started on that footing. So yes, at a certain level they are doing some good journalism, but they are also indulging in stuff that they should not be indulging in. They don’t have the guts to stay away from it altogether. That is disappointing. And I think they should because they will have a lot of viewership. They will not lose it.
What about some of the top journalists themselves? Rajdeep Sardesai, Barkha Dutt, Vir Sanghvi, Shekhar Gupta…
I’m not capable of judging them individually because I haven’t seen enough of their work. These are certainly capable journalists, they have sharp minds and are intelligent people. I’m just not sure that today the environment they are working in — I’m not sure they are strong enough to resist getting corrupted. I’m not saying it personally about any of them, but I’m saying that would be my concern for any journalist and that would be my hope for every journalist. But to analyse their work — if I could have done it I would have, I don’t think I’m capable of it unless I see much more concentrated work of each of them.
Balancing commercial viability with purity is always a tough thing. At Tehelka we struggle with that all the time. I’m sure others do too. How have you worked it out in your own life? What are the markers you follow in the decisions you make? I mean, there is a kind of arthouse film that you won’t make —
Why do you feel that I won’t do an arthouse film? (laughs) Just, I’m asking.
Uuhh… Good question.
I mean Earth, 1947 was one such film, an arthouse film that didn’t even get a mainstream release. So one, it’s not true that I will not do an arthouse film. Also, I don’t like to use the word arthouse because for me all cinema is art —
It’s shorthand for a kind of film —
Well, ok, let’s define it as a film that on the face of it doesn’t have a potential to be a mass hit, and I would like to point out to you that I have done several. That they have gone on to become big mass films is a separate issue. Lagaan is a film that on the face of it nobody wanted to make. It didn’t have the potential on the face to be a big financial success. Rang De Basanti on the face of it was far from a sure financial success. Sarfarosh would be one such film again. But again, I can still pick subjects that are even less likely to appeal to a larger audience so that is not an issue with me. I’ll tell you how I work. For me at this point in time, what is important is that what I’m doing should be creatively exciting for me. Once something appeals to me and I want to be part of it, that’s when I look at the commercial viability and I try and make sure that the film should be made in a budget that makes it commercially viable. If it’s something extremely off beat, I’d try my best to make sure the director makes it in a budget which would allow it to at least recover the money that’s been put in. That’s the way I’ve found my balance. So I don’t pick a film that I think is going to do great business and then try and make it creative. I pick something that I feel is creatively exciting for me. And in that I don’t compromise with what my instincts feel or what my emotions feel. And then once I’ve picked something, then I like to make it work.
In media what would be an example of a healthy balance?
See, I have to say when you are dealing with something — there are some areas where I feel while commercial viability is important, it has to definitely take a backseat. And one of them is news reporting — whether on television or print. But to answer your question, I would imagine someone like the BBC — I have no idea what they earn, but they haven’t stopped their news channel. One might disagree with some of their stories but by and large they do good work.
Briefly, to go back to news stories and their trivialisation. Can you recount others –
There are so many. The Hindustan Times twice printed the completely false news that that I was married to Preity Zinta! There were three or four interviews that I had not given that came out in Asian Age! Channel 7 once telecast an interview with me that was not with me at all. This was around the time that the Salman Khan tapes had been made public. Some channel asked me to react. I gave a live byte on air. Suddenly my sister called from Bangalore saying, are you talking to Channel 7 because they have a picture of you doing a telephonic interview but it’s not your voice. I’m your sister, I know. I had done no telephonic interview so there was an interview going on with someone who claimed he was Aamir Khan!
During the Bombay floods, the first time it was pretty bad. But a few days later there was rain again. Now, I live in Bombay, the second time it rained there wasn’t that kind of floods. I drove my car along the highway and I went to various places and in fact Bombay was not locked on that day. But the national news was propagating that it was. And they were showing footage of the earlier flood and not even calling it file footage.
Again, I met this guy at a Rang De party. I had no idea who he was. He said he was from Mumbai Mirror and asked for an interview. I said, I don’t give interviews. To which he said, why? I may have said one or two lines about why I don’t talk to the press. Next you know that had become an exclusive interview in Mumbai Mirror, and I think Delhi Times reproduced it! Another glaring example of the media crossing limits was when Mr Bachchan fell ill. I think it could even have been dangerous as far as his health was concerned. Abhishek was mentioning to me how he had trouble even getting him into the hospital!
We’ve been talking about the trivialisation and debasement of news. Can you talk of some good stories you’ve noticed, or again, stories that should be done and are not being done?
The media coverage of the Gujarat riots or Jessica Lall would definitely be positive examples. These are certainly the issues they should be dealing with. If there’s something like a scam or where thousands of people have been killed, where there is genocide, at that time the state may, or people in power may want to censor or curb what the press is showing and at that time it is again the responsibility of the press to show what is the truth and expose the people in power. Now that is something you should be intrusive in, please be intrusive in that. You are dealing with human lives and important issues that are about survival or that strongly deal with the quality of life we are leading.
But very often the media fails to be intrusive or take the lead in the stories where it should do so. Take the Varanasi blasts for instance. Here, I want to speak at two levels. Being a Muslim, it is very sad that people — I’m not quite sure, has it been established who’s done it?
What I’d like to say as a Muslim here is that any person claiming to be a Muslim who indulges in killing innocent people, in my opinion, is not a Muslim — is not a person of faith at all. This is true of a person of a different religion, be it Hindu or Christian or Sikh or Jew. If you kill innocent people, you are not a person of faith, not a person of god, certainly not a religious person. I do not think the mainstream and all of us should recognise that person as a Muslim, Hindu or Christian. We should recognise him simply as a criminal and his religion thereafter should be completely unimportant one way or the other. He should be treated as a criminal not only by the authorities but even by the public. Things like this only serve to propagate a lack of trust and ill feelings towards another community whichever that community maybe. An act by one Hindu or Muslim or Christian should not be read as what the community feels.
Having said that, I would also like to say that we really should find out who is behind it. And I find it a little surprising that irrespective of which blast it is or of what magnitude, I realise that somehow authorities very conveniently find one or two people within two hours or within one or two days of the incident and kill that person in a shootout or something like that. What I want to know is why can’t they do that before. Is it so easy to find a criminal? If it is so easy, why can’t we nab them before the act? And in this, I want to comment on the role of the media, where they conveniently take it on face value and say that phalana dhimka from phalana dhimka group has in fact done this. We know that somebody has been killed. We can see a dead body there, but we don’t know who that person is. Nobody knows who actually planted a bomb in the temple. Today it’s a temple, tomorrow it could be a mosque, day after a church or market place. The job of the authorities is to find out who’s behind it and the job of the press I feel is to investigate whether the authorities are telling the truth.
In fact, even the story we are discussing just now should be what all channels and papers are also discussing. What is happening to the media? It’s a matter of national concern.
This thing about making money out of celebrities. For people who occupy a large space in mass psychology, isn’t there inevitably a money spinoff when the media comes in contact with them? Is there a kind of symbiotic relationship there?
I know what you are saying. But first of all I would like to do a lot of things that is not for money, where I’m not charging money to give interviews or to interact with people. Secondly, I certainly don’t want to make my personal affair, like a marriage, into a money-making moment. So while, yes, a celebrity and media can create situations which are beneficial to both, it should be a situation where they both agree it is beneficial to both, but every situation cannot be made that. Number two, it should not certainly interfere with the right of a journalist or newspaper to report honestly. Your relationship with a celebrity cannot be such that you cannot report honestly — if he’s doing something absurd or wrong that you should report, but you are making money out of him so you don’t report it. You can’t get into that. So there has to be a certain distance maintained. I think everything should be taken on a one-on-one. If there is a particular event or interview you are doing which both parties feel is mutually beneficial, they can do it, but it cannot be the rule and it cannot be what happens every time.
To go back to where we began, you said the press went at Mangal Pandey with a vengeance. But surely it has been much kinder to Rang De?
You know after my experience with Mangal Pandey, I mentioned my concerns to the director and producer of Rang De, Rakeysh Mehra, saying if I’m not mistaken this is probably something that will repeat itself. There were signs of it before the film released but I believe Rakeysh and the producer Ronnie went out of their way to allay that. But the much more important point I want to make is again the kind of disproportionate interest and intense speculation that surrounded the film’s progress through the Censor Board. This is not headline news! The media went completely berserk though the Censor Board was merely following guidelines. This is the first time I’m speaking about it and I want to put it on record that our experience of the Defence Minister, Chiefs of Staff and other officials was very positive. They were extremely mature in not intruding or curbing our creative freedom in any way. So all the media speculation about them was just absurd, completely unwarranted.