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Bollywood’s trailblazer

Aamir Khan is using his clout as a superstar to expose gut-wrenching issues in India through his hard-hitting TV show

By Chung Joo-won

Published : Dec. 16, 2014 - 20:36

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Bollywood likes what are known in the industry as “in character” appearances.

When Indian superstar Aamir Khan walks into the conference room at the plush Taj Lands End hotel in Mumbai to promote his upcoming film “PK,” his clothes give some indication of his character.

He arrives in a frayed superhero T-shirt, shorts and slippers. It is hard not to break it to him that this is the first time a Bollywood superstar is looking less dressed than the least-dressed journalist.

The 49-year-old punctuates his entrance with a laugh and then, in a completely relaxed, free- wheeling interview that stretches over two hours, proves why he is called India’s undisputed king of Marketing.
Aamir Khan appears in a scene from the film “PK” (UTV Motion Pictures) Aamir Khan appears in a scene from the film “PK” (UTV Motion Pictures)

He knows exactly what questions to field and which ones to avoid without actually sounding like he is avoiding them. Despite being pressed several times by the six international journalists in the room, he gives away absolutely nothing of either his character or the storyline of his upcoming film.

In “PK,” a comedy-drama film in Hindi directed by Rajkumar Hirani, he stars as a man who asks the most innocent yet confounding questions.

His co-stars include actors Sanjay Dutt, Anushka Sharma and Sushant Singh Rajput. Produced by India’s UTV, it releases worldwide and opens in Singapore cinemas on Dec. 19.

Taking off his slippers and crossing his legs while asking for a cup of chai (tea), Khan says casually: “I do not like to reveal key things of my film. What my character is in “PK” is one of the key things of the film. Some people feel I have lost my memory. Some people feel I am an alien. There are various theories. We do not want to deny or accept any theory.

“We prefer that you see the film, then you enjoy it more. I could tell you about the storyline, I could tell you about the character. But that is like giving you a spoiler alert. The movie would be no fun after that.”

Talking to him feels like one is catching up with a long-lost friend. The tone is conversational ― he is self-deprecating at times and critical at others.

When Life! asks him about the controversial “PK” poster that shows him in the buff, he gladly addresses it: “This is one of the key moments of the film. Why am I not wearing clothes? For that you will have to see the film. Every still you see in the promotional materials is taken from the set. It is not something shot separately for the poster.

“The reason that it was chosen as the first look is because it is the key art. It is that one image that tells you the story. Not right now but it will.”

He creates enough anticipation for the film while addressing the issue of marketing, at which he clearly excels. “Marketing is not about doing 2,000 interviews. It is, in fact, creating a desire to consume,” he says.

The trailblazing actor, producer and director knows full well how to create desire. He will be 50 next year, but looks a lot younger than his age.

He shot to fame in 1988 with the romantic drama “Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak (From Doom To Doom).”

After his initial years starring in lavish Bollywood romance and action films, he re-invented himself, picking edgier and grittier subjects. He also learnt how to slow down, picking one film at a time instead of doing several projects in one go.

Apart from starring in several critically and commercially acclaimed films such as the epic sports drama “Lagaan (Land Tax)” (2001), and “3 Idiots” (2009), he produced “Peepli Live” (2010), a tragi-comedy about the hardships suffered by farmers in contemporary rural India. His 2007 film, “Taare Zameen Par (Like Stars On Earth),” which addressed the sensitive issue of dyslexia, was produced by him and marked his directorial debut.

Speaking about what draws him to such films, he says: “I never sign on to a film with the intention of making something socially relevant. I believe films ought to happen organically. At some point, the story driving each of these films touched me, which is why I signed on.”

Unlike other stars, Bollywood’s “Mr Perfectionist” does only one movie a year, sometimes one in two years, and he says he always gives it his all.

He admits this was quite a rarity when he joined the film industry in the 1980s.

He says: “When I started, people were signing on 30 to 40 films at a time. I did not like it at all. I want to be engrossed in just one character at a time. That is very important for me. When you are doing a film, you are actually giving two years of your life.”

His approach has clearly paid off. With an average of just one highly anticipated film a year, he sure knows how to keep his fans waiting.

But he says he does not pay heed to box-office figures. In his straight-talking style, he says: “You must realize that close to 80 to 90 percent of the producers in our industry are lying. Our figures are fudged. There are only a handful of people who believe in giving out real figures.

“Yes, numbers are indicative but they are not everything. What I am interested in seeing, as an actor and as a filmmaker, is how a film has turned out and how the audience is responding.”

He has taken that responsibility a lot further than just the big screen. “I wanted to use the strength I have as a mainstream Bollywood actor to be a platform for projects which have unusual and different things to say, “he says of his decision to launch the influential television show “Satyamev Jayate (Truth Alone Prevails).”

Millions have watched the television series, which premiered in 2012. It is hosted by Khan himself and exposes hard-hitting and often gut-wrenching issues in India. These include female feticide, dowry violence ― perpetrated by the husband or his family against the bride to extract a higher dowry ― child abuse and malpractices in the medical profession.

One distinctive trait about the show is that the topics of each episode are never revealed in advance.

He says: “If I tell you what the topic is, you are not going to watch it. What we are doing with “Satyamev Jayate” is combining hard journalism with storytelling. I do not want to just give you information.”

The show has been lauded for its mix of gritty facts and emotional appeal, and is often called a perfect mix of America’s “60 Minutes” and “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”

But Khan is not into comparisons. What he feels the show has achieved is that it has brought him closer to ordinary Indians. “As a human being, I feel I am closer to people. I am closer to the realities of the country and our people,” he adds.

Beyond the goggle box, he rules out a future in politics. He says: “The reason that I do not want to go into politics is because it does not excite me. I am very happy in the career I am in. A person enters politics ― assuming he is entering for the right reasons ― to help society. I feel I can do it very well from where I am.”

He admits that while this sort of change takes a lot longer, it is a path he much prefers instead of the more straightforward route of politics.

“As a politician, I can make laws and change them. What we can do as artists is go from down to up, which is the route I prefer.”

While he feels strongly about many subjects, he brings a balanced perspective even when addressing the touchy issue of India’s three biggest superstars ― himself, Shah Rukh Khan and Salman Khan ― being Muslims.

He says matter-of-factly: “I think it is a coincidence that all three of us are Muslims. We are all born in 1965. All three of us started around the same time and have remained popular. I think it speaks for the people of India that a majority of our stars are from a particular religion. That we are loved equally says a lot about the people of India.”

While Salman and Aamir grew up in Mumbai, Shah Rukh Khan moved to the city from the capital, New Delhi.

On a personal level, Aamir Khan feels he has come a long way since starting out. He admits to being uptight and “very judgmental” in his early years.

The big shift, he feels, happened when he married his second wife, filmmaker Kiran Rao in 2005. The couple have a 3-year-old son, Azad, and Khan has two grown-up children, Junaid and Ira, from his first marriage with Reena Dutta.

“I have definitely loosened up,” he says with a laugh.

“It has got to do with the experiences I have been through in life, many humbling experiences. At one point, I was very judgmental. I had very high standards of how a person should be. The other big change has been Kiran coming into my life. She has made me relax ― a lot.”

That laidback approach clearly shows when he takes the final question on what he is doing now.

He says: “I am reading scripts. I do not know what I will be doing next year. I feel very happy when I am not doing anything.”

By Deepika Shetty

(The Straits Times)