The Big Novo Interview: King Khan
By Darren Haynes
Sitting centre stage, beneath a gigantic movie poster of himself and flanked by four movie moguls and filmmakers, sits the reigning King of Bollywood, Shah Rukh Khan.
“He’s incomparable; a phenomena; the biggest ever superstar on this planet” gushes the on-stage presenter about SRK (as he’s affectionately known). That’s a little overstated, in my opinion, but there actually IS a genuine, wonderful buzz of excitement in Bollywood Park’s Rajmahal Theatre, where even the UAE’s Deputy Prime Minister, Sheikh Mansour is in attendance to meet the “Baadshah of Bollywood”.
SRK is in prime condition. He’s handsome, with a full head of hair; he’s wearing a black tee, khaki jacket, jeans and cool grey sneakers. He is 51-years worth of cool. He’s one of those guys that men admire and women adore.
He was recently in Dubai to promote his new film, the much-anticipated ‘Raees’ (opened 25 January). As a point of reference, the film’s teaser trailer has received over 50 MILLION hits on YouTube – it’s THAT scale of anticipation.
This promotional visit to Dubai was more of a homecoming because he actually owns a house on The Palm. “I’m on Frond K,” he revealed during the press conference. “Being an actor, I get the opportunity to travel and see most of the places in the world. They are all wonderful but I think Dubai is one place which has something for everyone. If you have children, they will have things to do; if you’re coming for business, you have conference rooms; if you want to just come and have a laid back holiday; if you want to be by the ocean-side; if you want to be on the beach or go shopping; go to restaurants …” he stops himself mid-sentence. “I’m sorry. I’m sounding like the Face of Dubai”. Funny that, because the King of Bollywood has recently shot several short films for Dubai Tourism.
‘Raees’, his new 150-minute feature, took a long and complicated journey to finally reach the silver screen. In fact, it took five years from conception to release, with the final film prints only just ready for distribution that morning (21 January). Part of this complicated journey includes controversy surrounding his two leading ladies, both of whom have come under some serious media scrutiny.
Co-star, Sunny Leone is an easy target because of her past association with the ‘adult’ film industry. Ever the gentleman, SRK jumped to her defence and refused to be drawn into gossip about her. “It is a bit embarrassing to keep bringing this up” he said. “I truly believe we need to dignify, believe and respect each other – men, women and children alike. I think she’s a wonderful person to work with; an amazingly gifted artist and she’s only heightened our film by her presence. We’ve all come along from different aspects of life and tried to make a good, honourable living by entertaining people. Entertainers have no beginnings, no ends. We should just be loved and respected for who we are.”
His other leading lady, Mahira Khan, was all set to promote her big Bollywood debut too but the recent ban by the Film and Television Producers Guild of India on Pakistani artists prevented the 32-year-old from joining the ‘Raees’ pre-release promotional trail. Bollywood continues to be hard hit by the ban; a result of the tension and political turmoil between the two great nations.
The ensuing promo trail of junkets and meeting journalists would have helped both Khans to cement a professional friendship that didn’t occur on set. “To be honest, we hardly got time to chat. We had a packed schedule and more often than not, we were always pressed for time, so unfortunately we didn’t have very many personal discussions. It was still an exceptional experience to work with her” he said.
During the early stages of filming ‘Raees’, SRK didn’t seem to have much luck making friends with any members of the cast. “It was very strange” he explained. “Because of the kohl in my eyes, everybody thought I looked mean and bad so nobody spoke to me on the set for the first twenty days. I thought maybe this is the atmosphere that Rahul [Dholakia, the director] wants on set because he’s from the art cinema zone, so I would just finish my work, go to my room and sit down. I was told by my camera person who had worked with me before on ‘Don’ (2006) and other films … are you in a bad mood? You are looking very dangerous and everybody is scared to talk to you”. It wasn’t until the cast took a break from filming for an evening party that they realised that he’s “normal behind the kohl.”
With or without kohl on his eyes, SRK enjoys playing the baddie. This was one of the reasons that attracted him to the role of the morally-ambiguous ‘Raees’. “I’ve been told by a friend of mine that I’m good when I’m good but I’m exceptional when I’m really bad. It’s quite interesting to play a bad guy. Sometimes I want people – and girls especially – to know I’m not just Raj and Rahul. Girls like bad boys. I’m a good bad boy.”
Apart from the obvious perks and female adoration that manifests from playing the bad or mean character, it’s also “enriching as an artist” and allows actors to find depth to their own character. “I think there are more layers to people who have a negative or grey shade to them.”
“I do get my friends saying, listen, you should just play the good guy, you look really sweet with your dimples when you play the good guy. But as actors we need to wake up every morning and feel excited about what I’m doing. I believe I’m in a creative field so just to keep my creative juices flowing and refreshed, I need to keep on doing extremes of characters. It can range from a nice socially relevant good person like the one in ‘Swades’ (2004) or it can go to the badness of ‘Raees’.”
Another key factor to taking on the role of ‘Raees’ was simply, as they say in Hindi, “dhann ke liye karo ek mann ke liye karo!” (do one for the money and do one for the heart). “It’s a Hindi thing … this one [‘Raees’] is really from the heart. ‘Fan’ (2016) was also from the heart. Sometimes you want to do stuff that’s a little different and takes you away.”
“Honesty and integrity of character is what I like about ‘Raees’,” he explains. “To take responsibility for your actions, whatever the retribution or whatever the punishment or whatever the future is going to be. I would like to be like that; I would like every man woman to be like that.”
Film and cinema is, of course, entertainment but it can also “be of substance” according to SRK. He’s hoping that ‘Raees’ will be seen as more than just a popular film. “The Holy Grail – especially in Indian film – is to find that mix. ‘Raees’ has a deep substance, not too deep that it becomes niche and not too flippant that you don’t take back home anything apart from an empty bag of popcorn.”
He admits, however, that there is always a question when playing a morally wrong character. “We have to take it as a film and I think films, writing poetry or journalism is a reflection of society. It’s our duty as entertainers or as writers to bring that to the fore”.
There’s a line in the trailer and the film itself that is already appealing to the fans and may end up being one of those classic lines that everyone wants to imitate. “… Aa Raha Hu! …” [said with a husky voice in low register and meaning “I’m coming”]. SRK thinks that the hallmark of good writing is in the simplest of lines. He goes on to explain that ’Sholay’ (1975) is one of the greatest, unequalled films of all time but just a single line or question like ‘kitne aadmi the?’ (“how many people were there?”) can be one of the most fondly remembered parts of the script. “I think it’s the context which makes it really wonderful and ‘Aa Raha Hu!’ in the context of this film was always there, was always relevant.”
But what about the future of the Indian film industry? His answer is intelligent and insightful. “Times are changing. The digital world is here and Indian films will have to change their focus (and subject matter). We still have a very niche way of making films. We have three acts; we have musicals … mostly. I think that part needs to change and we just need to start to focus on the language of screenplay and scriptwriting and make it appealing to the world. The storytelling capability, the acting capability, the producing capability, I think all of that is there in India”.
In spite of his huge fanbase in Kerala, it seems we’re unlikely to see him in Malayalam films any time soon. “I’d be honoured if I could get to be part of Malayalam cinema but I’m very bad with languages. If they can give me a role where I don’t have to speak too much …
just speak with my eyes … I would love to work with the teams there”.
This afternoon saw SRK at his most sociable and flirtatious, offering one female journalist the chance to visit him in his home to chat further. “Just drop by The Palm and call out … Shah Rukh Khan” he teased. The females giggled and clutched their décolletage; the men nodded.
“It’s a dream come true to see you here live” said another. “Am I better looking in real life?” he joked. More giggles.
Following a stunning performance by the resident dancers of ‘Jaan-e-Jigar’ and upon finding a hair grip on the stage, he suggested that whoever had dropped it, should collect it from him later backstage. Yet more giggles.
The thing is, Shah Rukh Khan is charm personified. He comes across as a true gentleman. He seems genuinely humble. And, a rare find in such big stars, he’s likeable. SRK describes himself as “a very lovable, sweet, outgoing kind of person” and to being “raised by dil se (the heart), rather than dimaag se (the head)”. He attributes his 25 years of success in the industry, not to his own talent but to luck, timing, the filmmakers, co-actors and co-actresses, the behind-the-scene technicians and of course, the audience. “There is nobody bigger than the film itself. I’m very happy to be a big star and my family is extremely thankful, but I do get a lot of credit for the work of lots of people.”
And after he’s finished talking about ‘Raees’, all he wants to do is go back to his Dubai home. “This evening if we get time – or tomorrow evening – I’ll take everybody to my house and we’ll just sit down on the beach and I’ll make some ande ki bhurji (scrambled eggs) and just relax.”
That sounds like the ultimate chill-out party. I presume my invitation is on its way …