Bollywood star Aamir Khan on cinema, stardom and social justice

AAMIR Khan — Bollywood superstar, social activist, father of three and member of Time magazine’s 100 most influential list — slips into the room, past two bodyguards and a small public relations army, with the air of an interloper. “Who me?” his cocked eyebrow seems to ask a roomful of international journalists at the Taj Land’s End Hotel in Bandra, Mumbai. He is 49 but dressed like a teenager: in his board shorts, tight white superhero T-shirt and a blue baseball cap obscuring those famous baby-faced features and topaz eyes, he could be just another anonymous actor in this movie-obsessed town, home to the $2.2 billion Bollywood film industry.

But then he doffs his cap and emerges from camouflage, hiding in plain sight beneath his casual gear. There he is, one of the world’s most famous actors, known to the bulk of India’s 1.2 billion population as the star of countless Bollywood blockbusters during the past 25 years (including the industry’s highest grossing film, international hit Dhoom: 3), host of a nationally acclaimed, if controversial, talk show with an estimated audience reach of 600 million, magazine cover boy, and social justice crusader. He is courted by prime ministers and lauded by the likes of Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire composer AR Rahman, film director Shyam Bengal and actor Tom Hanks.

Namaste, Khan greets us cheerfully, steepling stocky hands and asking for chai.

IN this room this morning, he’s just a genial actor with a film to spruik. Outside, Khan is one of India’s most powerful public figures, a Muslim megastar in a predominantly Hindu nation, Bollywood’s first superstar activist, a man who has private meetings with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and who has lobbied for policy change on generic medicines, manual scavenging and female foeticide in India’s parliament and elsewhere. He has fended off numerous legal threats from angry targets of his TV show Satyamev Jayate (“no death threats yet, no”), and was mobbed by thousands of screaming fans last month as he toured New Delhi with British Prime Minister David Cameron. In a ­nation that worships its actors as deities, the cerebral actor is one of the brightest stars in the firmament.

We’re here this morning to discuss Khan’s latest movie, PK, to be released in Australia on December 19. Directed by Rajkumar Hirani, and produced by Vidhu Vinod Chopra (who early next year is releasing Broken Horses, India’s first Hollywood film by a resident Indian director), it features Khan as a wide-eyed naif of mysterious origin. Press speculation has him playing an amnesiac or alien or God himself, but he ducks and weaves when pressed, saying little except it’s “dramedy” with a social message and that “it’s probably one of the most challenging roles I’ve had in the last 25 years”.

An astute marketer, Khan, more than anyone else in the business, it is said, understands the power of stoking demand through starving the press and public.

His formidable charm acts like a smokescreen: in melodious Hinglish, he soon has a roomful of frustrated journalists cracking up as he unspools, instead, a gossipy stream of comical impersonations (he does a mean Bhojpuri accent) of fellow actors and temperamental directors. He waxes lyrical about everything from his “handloomer” theory of filmmaking, his reading list (John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s The Palace of Illusions, Irvin Yalom’s When Nietzsche Wept: Indians expect a certain intellectual heft from their film stars), to his awkwardness with tweeting and social media (“but no one is allowed to write for me”).

He says he has loosened up and become less judgmental with age, and speaks of the “positive energy” his second wife, director Kiran Rao, has brought into his life. He addresses everything from why India seems to spawn so many film and political dynasties (PM Modi is not from a dynasty, he quickly points out), the perils for Muslim actors speaking out in a Hindu nation, and journalistic ethics (don’t get in bed with your film sources, he earnestly advises), to the challenges facing Bollywood, from piracy to the influx of Hollywood films, and the history of sync sound in Indian filmmaking (there’s a bit of a joyful film nerd there).

In a way, the mysterious PK symbolises Khan himself — elusive and shapeshifting at his core, a maverick who has successfully plotted his own unorthodox path through Indian film. Born in Mumbai on March 14, 1965, to a middle-class Muslim film family (his father was producer Tahir Hussain, his uncle was filmmaker Nasir Hussain, his cousin is filmmaker Mansoor Khan, and his nephew is rising film star Imran Khan), Khan made his debut aged eight in Nasir Hussain’s Yaadon Ki Baaraat in 1973. His breakthrough film came in Mansoor Khan’s cult romantic blockbuster Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak (1988), and throughout the 1990s he dominated Hindi commercial cinema as one of three conquering Khans — the other two are Shah Rukh Khan and Salman Khan. (Interestingly, the three most powerful Bollywood actors are all Muslim.) Critically acclaimed roles in Raakh, Raja Hindustani, Rang De Basanti and Fanaa followed; in 2001, he made his debut as a producer in the Academy Award-nominated Lagaan, where he played the leader of a ragtag bunch of villagers battling the British over an unfair tax. Then came 2008’s thriller Ghajini, and monster international hits 3 Idiots and Dhoom: 3.

Khan also has a huge international following across the vast Indian diaspora, from the US and Britain to Dubai, Singapore and Australia, which is now the fifth biggest overseas market for Indian cinema. Mitu Bhowmick Lange, head of Mind Blowing Films which distributes Indian films here in partnership with Hoyts, says Khan’s films are highly popular in Australia, with Dhoom: 3 taking out the top award for highest grossing foreign film in Australia (it took $1.72 million) at the Australian International Movie Convention on the Gold Coast last year. “Only two Indian films have crossed the $1 million mark in Australia, 3 Idiots and Dhoom: 3, and both star Aamir Khan. He is not just a movie star, he is a cultural icon,” she says.

Asked about his huge following in Australia and elsewhere, Khan says: “I personally believe if a film is well-made and good, it travels. Cinema is not restricted by language or physical boundaries.”

The actor could easily have kept on a lucrative path of romantic and action blockbusters but opted for a different trajectory, making only one or two films a year (unusual in an industry where leading actors can churn out more than eight a year), and building an eclectic repertoire of roles — amnesiac avenger, reclusive artist, nationalist rebel, apathetic college kid, special education teacher — across an unusually varied slate of films, many with a social justice bent, tackling everything from political corruption to caste to Indian’s troubled higher education ­system.

His credits range from Deepa Mehta’s arthouse film Earth to the unexpected hit Taare Zameen Par, where he played an art teacher captivated by a dyslexic student. Of his limited annual output, Khan says he can’t concentrate on more than one film at a time (“it’s like a traditional handloomer; once they put the thread on, they can’t put anything else on until they’ve finished making the sari or whatever”), and says he chooses films on their emotional pull and “not on commerce”. There’s a shrewd pragmatic streak behind the idealism, however; he is a sharp reader of audience moods and tastes, and will often subsidise his more niche films because while “I will make whatever I want, I will make sure no one — exhibitors, producers, distributors — loses money.”

He has had his flops, certainly, but his off-beat choices have often struck gold; influential film critic Anupama Chopra says: “Aamir has the instinct for a great story.” In an industry dominated by box-office figures, Khan prizes the organic, laborious process of filmmaking rather than the end result. He says bluntly that “you can safely assume 90 per cent of the production houses giving out figures are not giving accurate figures … so you should take it with a sackful of salt. Don’t believe that records are being broken every three months.”

Also unorthodox is his laissez-faire approach to fame and his public image. In an industry where flamboyant self-promotion reigns, Khan rarely attends film award ceremonies — he also audaciously declined Madame Tussauds’ offer of a wax statue in London — and keeps a relatively low profile. Unlike fierce rival Shah Rukh Khan, whom ­Forbes India branded “Shah Rukh Inc” courtesy of a vast commercial empire worth more than $US600 million ($700m), Aamir Khan does not heavily invest in brand-building. “I think that should be something that happens organically,” he says.

If Shah Rukh Khan is Mr Corporate, and the musclebound, trouble-prone Salman Khan is the nation’s lovable jock, then Aamir Khan is Bollywood’s thinker and intellectual. A report in India Today, crunching box-office averages for their last seven films, neatly delineates the differences thus: “Salman is the Khan of the Indian Box ­Office, Aamir is the Khan of Quality, and Shah Rukh is the Khan of Wealth”. The report also revealed the net worth of Aamir Khan, incidentally, was $180m, compared with Salman Khan at $200m and SRK at $600m.

Asked about the curious phenomenon of Muslim dominance in Indian film, he says while there has always been a strong Islamic presence in Bollywood, from actors Dilip Kumar and Feroz Khan to directors such as Naseeruddin Shah, it’s mere coincidence. “We are almost the same age, born in 1965 or thereabouts, all three of us became popular in our own ways and remained popular for 25 years, which in itself is unusual. What it does indicate, however, is that it speaks well of the people of India, the fact that the majority is of a particular religion and the three stars that the country loves happens to be of a different religion.”

Khan is arguably singular in Bollywood for his social justice activism, exemplified in his TV show, Satyamev Jayate (“Truth Alone Prevails”). Launched in May 2012, its opening episode tackled the scourge of female foeticide that has left some Indian states with dangerously lopsided sex ratios (“The whole of Mother India has bathed in the blood of her daughters,” Khan emotionally told his viewers). Across the three highly rating seasons to date, it has attracted an audience of almost 600 million in India who tune in for weekly episodes, blending hard-­hitting journalism with tabloid-style storytelling (it has been dubbed “part Oprah, part 60 Minutes”) tackling everything from domestic ­violence, the killing of brides in dowry disputes, alcoholism, mental health, caste inequities, medical malpractice and child sex abuse.

The show has taken the deeply conservative nation by storm: since its debut, more than 13 million people have posted on the show’s website; an episode on alcohol abuse sparked an unprecedented 60,000 phone calls flooding the Alcoholics Anonymous helpline. After Khan broadcast a sting operation filming more than 100 doctors offering to illegally abort female foetuses, authorities in Rajasthan — with one of the nation’s worst gender ratios — ordered an investigation into doctors and clinics believed to be conducting such illegal procedures.

Khan, capitalising on his enormous audience reach to push for policy change, has addressed the Indian parliament on the need for price control and cheaper drugs, and attracted the wrath of Indian doctor groups and the pesticide lobby following episodes on medical malpractice and toxic farming. “There is a large majority of ­people who see the show and love it, these are people who want change and who are not happy with the way things are. And there is a very, very minuscule percentage of people who are actually happy with the status quo and don’t want change. They’re the ones who get upset.”

His work has caught the eye of the international press, with an Asian edition of Time in 2012 featuring him on the cover as “India’s first superstar-activist … can one actor change a nation?”, followed by his inclusion last year in Time’s 100 Most Influential list (he was one of only seven featured on separate covers, joining the likes of schoolgirl advocate Malala Yousafzai). In a glowing profile, AR Rahman said his show bravely “confronts India’s deepest social ills, from sexual abuse to caste discrimination. He uses his gifts as a charmer to give his audience the most bitter medicine”. Actor Hanks has said: “Few celebrities take the initiative of coming forward to change the society and he has done a remarkable job.”

It’s not all praise, of course: critics have accused him of everything from being overly emotional and cashing in on social misery to offering simplistic solutions to complex problems, and doing it for cynical self-promotional reasons. Asked about the criticism, Khan is steely: unconstructive criticism “is like water off a duck’s back”. He also dismisses speculation that he is using the show as a platform for a leap into politics: he believes artists have a wider responsibility “to try to strengthen the social fabric of society” through art and believes he can be more effective as an actor working “from the bottom up rather than top down sitting in ­parliament”.

More than most, he understands the power of TV and film in a nation with high pockets of illiteracy. As to why so few of his Bollywood peers have done the same, he is defensive, citing the work of film legend Amitabh Bachchan as the face of a polio campaign. He reveals that he was advised by many not to take on the show in case it damaged his popularity: “Whether it has affected my career I don’t know, but as a human being, I feel certainly closer to the realities of my country and what people go through.”

MUSLIM actors in India have been targets of Hindu nationalist groups. Shah Rukh Khan most recently found himself in the hot seat after sparking a fiery diplomatic war of words between Pakistan and India following some withering political criticism he made in an article. Khan, says, however, that as a Muslim public figure, “I don’t feel I have to watch my words because I say what I feel. For me to stop and think about everything I’m going to say …” He makes a face.

Talk turns to the challenges facing Bollywood, which celebrated its 100th anniversary last year and is regarded as the biggest movie ticket market in the world with an output annually of 1200 films. It has undergone vast changes, transformed by India’s own seismic cultural shifts as well as the influx of foreign investment via giants such as 20th Century Fox and Walt Disney, which has seen the rise of sophisticated international distribution networks and multiplexes catering to the burgeoning middle class. Khan welcomes the broadening of the cheesy song-and-dance template that once dominated the industry (he is scathing about the “disco era” of the 1970s and 80s filmmaking scene) and the industry’s embrace of contemporary themes that explore everything from artificial insemination to urban gang warfare and premarital sex.

But he’s aware of key challenges, including that of piracy (a leading director, Anurag Basu, has said it costs the industry about $US3.34 billion and 60,000 jobs every year). Khan thinks “it can be tackled, if not fully eradicated, if — and it’s a big if — the industry works together”. He suggests a solution that he sees as a “game changer”: building more theatres across the ­nation and offering tickets at far cheaper prices — 25 rupees as compared to 300 rupees — for the poorer masses who don’t go to the cinema.

The biggest problem he sees is the failure of the industry to capitalise on India’s size: “Our population is 1.2 billion but the theatre-going audience for our biggest hits is around three to four crore (30 to 40 million). That’s not even 5 per cent.”

India is one of the few markets where its own product dominates the box office, but there are questions raised by the growing impact of Hollywood films, although it represents only 9 per cent of box office. Khan is unperturbed. He believes Indian audiences will always remain loyal to their indigenous filmmaking because of a certain “emotional key” and connection to their local fare: they will always be fundamentally more attached to “a Shah Rukh, or an Aamir, or Salman, much more than, say, Hugh Jackman”. Khan’s PR flak is making frantic wind-up motions after a marathon session, and the actor, finally, rises to his feet.

“All good?” he asks, then smiles to a chorus of cheers. He praises the “good energy” of the session, poses obligingly for photos in front of a giant promotional poster, and with that he’s gone, baseball cap crammed low, in hiding once again from the ever-present waiting throngs outside.

PK opens in selected cinemas on December 19.

Sharon Verghis travelled to India courtesy of Mind Blowing Films.


1. Dhoom: 3(2013): $US88 million; director Vijay Krishna Acharya

2. Chennai Express (2013): $US68m; director Rohit Shetty

3. 3 Idiots (2009) — $US64m; director Rajkumar Hirani

4.Happy New Year (2014); $US62m;

director Farah Khan

5. Kick (2014): $US61m; director Sajid Nadiadwala

6.Krrish (2013): $US61m; director Rakesh Roshan

7. Bang Bang! (2014): $US55m; director Siddharth Anand

8. Ek Tha Tiger (2012): $US52m; director Kabir Khan

9.Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani (2013): $US50m; director

Ayan Mukerji

10. Dabangg (2012): $US43m; director Arbaaz Khan

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