You think it's easy to get hold of Shah Rukh Khan? Either he's on an outdoor shoot at some verdant hill station or he's shooting at some far corner of the city. So naturally I curse under my breath when his secretary- cum-confidante, Anwar, grunts that he's shooting at far-out Madh Island for Yash Chopra's Dil To Paagal Hai. Nonetheless, I decide to boldly go where most journos hesitate to go. Well, the fact that he makes an engrossing and witty interviewee also puts a spring in my step. Indeed, when he talks - and he does a lot of that -the words are fired with quick precision, as if he wants to minimize the aerodynamic drag on his ideas. And if the topic veers to his films, there's simply no stopping his excited banter.
You have to understand something about Shah Rukh. He loves his craft and loves life. He loves the jokes, the sets, and his fellow actors -the men who are gods to the audience. All he ever wanted to do was to be an actor. He likes to play, he likes to pretend, there's a certain Peter Pan element in his life. He loves taking control and letting people experience that world as he experiences it. He's like an athlete in the way he attacks work. It's always no-holds-barred. And he has boundless energy to go on for hours. He's attacked his roles with such incredible confidence that everyone's heads turned around. It's hardly surprising then that once he hit films starting with Deewaana, the list of adjectives grew: confident, cocky, quick, streetsmart, savvy, charismatic, outrageous, raw. Thus, he holds an enviable sort of popular sway simply on the basis of his potential, staying power and saleability.
The number of hits to his credit prove that the charming Shah Rukh belongs in the rarefied ranks of movieland's most bankable stars, a group so elite that its members can get a movie made simply by agreeing to appear in it. Agreed, that not all of his films are memorable. Oh Darling Yeh Hai India along with Anjaam, Guddu and Zamaana Deewaana are outings the man himself would rather forget. And Trimurti will be remembered as a turkey of epic dimensions.
But his good films have been very profitable. A famously dedicated actor, he's chosen a wide range of successful roles in Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman, Darr, Baazigar, Kabhi Haan Kabhi Na, Maya Memsaab, Chamatkaar, Karan Arjun, Ram Jaane, Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, Koyla. With a list like that, you can almost overlook an occasional Guddu, Zamaana Deewaana or Oh Darling... For anyother actor, a threefold failure like aforementioned, topped with a disastrous Trimurti might have appeared to be particularly ominous. But Bollywood values his moneymaking clout. Shah Rukh in the movie can't absolutely guarantee a hit, but it does mean there will be a packed house on opening weekend -and that is crucial. The press is so fascinated by him that when he has an important film, the entertainment publicity machine takes off. That helps to make a big film bigger. The picture becomes an event, and events make money. And money-making events are bankable-star-making events.
"I don't like going to bad movies. And I sure as hell don't like making them," he says, laughing. "Therefore, I work my butt off and do whatever it takes to make the best movies I can". He's not willing to put hiiself in things that are not worthy of the emotional investment and the time commitment. Pretty serious stuff. But unlike other young actors who spout such platitudes as if they were invented yesterday, Shah Rukh has the goods and conviction to back it up. He's a visceral actor, he's like raw nerves. No matter the role, Shah Rukh's acting style has always been beautifully fluid; on camera, he has presence. Among his fellow actors there is no shortage of praise for him.
At the moment he's on top of the world. He took a calculative risk playing dumb and ungainly in Koyla. It is so like him to proceed on his instincts and then be blessed with roles that invariably reveal yet another aspect of his talent. Indeed, some of his most devoted, young fans may have avoided Koyla. "His hair isn't so cute, and it doesn't look like him," says twenty year old, Meghna Mehra. "Who wants to see him looking ugly?" But looks aren't everything. As in Koyla he discovered a vehicle for his cool intensity-something that had gone untapped in his earlier work. He dominated almost every scene in this exciting thriller. It was an uncompromising performance made all the more explosive by his emotional restraint.
But despite yet another winner in his pocket, he keeps his natural ebullience in check. And rightly so, because when things seem to be going perfectly, something always appears in the tabloids that casts a shadow on his life. The worst, he says, being the anonymous old lady claiming to be his mother. Adding to the ignominy of an income tax raid. That too months after having being lauded for being the most sincere tax payer by the taxmen. But all this has not dampened his spirits as is evident from the way he talks as he offers me a lift home in his sleek and swanky Mercedez Benz.
Reflecting back to 1995, it was indubitably the best year of his blossoming career. He began the year with Karan Arjun, one of his biggest hits and ended the year with Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, the biggest blockbuster of his career. So naturally enough, one expected the success streak to spill over to '96. But nothing of that sort happened. Instead, the year turned out to be a damp squib. A solo release, Chaahat, which plummeted at the box-office, and a special appearance in Army was all he had to offer. But surprisingly enough, it did not affect his popularity at all. The lull hardly affected his ratings which was quite an astonishing feat in itself. He doesn't seem to find it surprising at all. "I guess when you've been in the industry for over five years, you cannot be eradicated from memory so easily. However, I had decided to remain low profile last year since I didn't have any releases slated for the year. But a few unexpected controversies kept me in the news. Maybe that's the reason why I wasn't found missing."
Indeed 1996 could go down as the year when the strangest of incidents occurred in Shah Rukh Khan's life. Firstly, there was the income tax raid which was totally uncalled for, as months before the taxmen had publiciy felicitated him for being one of the few honest tax payers in the film industry. Obviously, the raid was an act in futility as the taxmen returned empty- handed. Hardly had things quietened down when, out of the blue, an elderly lady went around proclaiming that Shah Rukh was her long-lost son and even filed a case against him. He clucks his tongue and quips, "I really feel sad for her. The woman is from Latur and it's possible that the earthquake must have affected her. She may be going through a lot of stress and it's obvious that she's being misled by some miscreant to believe that I'm her son, in order to extract some money from me. I only hope she becomes alright and comes to her senses."
Coming to his only proper release last year, Chaahat, one felt he went overboard in his eagerness to give his best and ended up delivering a jarring performance. Even director Mahesh Bhatt seemed to have done a hackneyed job and the outcome was a rather forgettable film. "Look, Chaahat was an intense film with a balanced diet of good and bad elements. Now to counter the evil forces, one had to expend a lot of energy. And with so many freaked out characters in one film, the intensity rose to such a high degree that it burnt all of us.
"As far as my performance goes, I do my job to the best of my abilities. It comes straight from the heart and hence it's no-holds-barred. I leave the rest to the director who has to mould the performance according to the needs of the film. More often than not, things have worked for me. Different things work for different actors and they stick by them. Aamir Khan can control his performance and that works for him. And then there are those who haven't the slightest inkling about acting and yet things work out for them. So how can you expect me to change my style just because a stray film didn't click?"
Speaking of his films, his first release of '97, Koyla, had bumper opening but later the reports were not all that encouraging. His unpleasant appearance in the film could have been one of the reasons for the negative response. "C'mon yaar, it gets a bit pretty boring to see yourself look the same all the time. I can't keep on playing the sweet little boy of Dilwale.... But it's not as if I intentionally tried to look ugly in Koyla. My character was such that it required a particular look to go with the backdrop and feel of the film. Anyway, I've portrayed seemingly evil and ugly characters in the past and they've worked, haven't they?"
What also aroused niggling doubts was the fact that he was dumb for most part of the film. Especially when his dialogue delivery had always been one of his strong points. Also just a few months ago, a similar gamble by Nana Patekar in Khamoshi had failed miserably. He counters, "You can't blame the failure of Khamoshi on Nana's dumb act. Even if there had been any other actor in his place, the film would have still not worked. Usually, it's the film on the whole that clicks and not just a character. Maybe Khamoshi had some shortcoming or it was ahead of its time. Anyway, my dialogue delivery is not as popular as Nana's. And I guess I got sick of speaking so much in my films. (Laughs). However, it was a great challenge to play someone who spoke through his expressions. And let me tell you that most people who saw the trials of Koyla felt that they did not miss my dialogues at all. That speaks volumes for the directorial capabilities of Mr. Raakesh Roshan."
Incidentally, Shah Rukh was not the original choice for the lead in Koyla. Raakesh Roshan had conceived the script keeping Sunny Deol in mind. But date problems cropped up and the project finally fell into Shah Rukh's lap. In that case, were there major changes in the characterisation since Sunny and he had vastly different personalities He admits, "Initially, Raakeshji had his reservations about me looking the part of the bodyguard. So I pumped iron for a month and added some muscles to convince him. Well, the only change he brought about was that he made my character more agile and lithe to make up for my lack of bulging biceps. Only the body language was altered. Otherwise, everything else remained the same."
Koyla may not have clicked at the turnstiles in a big way, but Shah Rukh did end up garnering rave reviews for his stupendous effort. Which does augur well for his next major release, Subhash Ghai's Pardes. He exults, "Pardes is a very different film for Subhashji. He hasn't made an out- and-out love story before. Only his Karz comes anywhere close to the kind of romance projected in this film. And Subhashji has excelled himself in it. The newcomers, Mahima and Apoorva, have done a good job, there's amazing music and cameraman, Kabir Lal, has done a great job too. Mind you, it's going to be a special film."
If one is not mistaken, rumours were thick in the air that Subhash Ghai did not have a complete script on his hands and had shot scenes at random. How did Shah Rukh, who's so particular about his scripts, agree to work in such a project? "Hey! That's not true!" he counters. 'Subhashji gave me a complete script before we started shooting for Pardes. He simply made changes in my character before we began shooting. That's all. Just because he makes some last minute changes people feel that he's working without a script. But that's the way he functions."
Besides Pardes, he's got three other major releases slated for this year starting with Aziz Mirza's Yes Boss, "which has a Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman feel to it. A fine blend of slapstick comedy and studied acting. I've worked really hard on it and I feel I've turned in a good performance." Then there's Yash Chopra's Dil To Paagal Hai, "where I've given a rather low-key performance." Followed by Yash Johar's Duplicate, "my first double role in which the two characters are diametrically different."
A couple of other exciting projects on the anvil include one with Aamir Khan and Raj Kumar Santoshi expected to go on the floors by the end of the year. "Raj was planning a film with me and heard that Aamir and I were keen to work together so we worked things out. Later Bharat Shah stepped in to produce the film. Now Aamir and I are trying to match our dates and work on the film for four months at a stretch. Another exciting project under consideration is a film with Amitabh Bachchan. We've had quite a few meetings and directors, Abbas-Mastaan are already working on a script."
Strangely enough, for a guy who's always been an English movie buff, he recently let a fabulous opportunity slip out of his hands. A well-known company called ICM offered to be his agent in London and even got him a couple of assignments in English films, one of which being a pivotal role alongside Anthony Hopkins in the new James Bond thriller. "But I haven't got back to them," he states. "They said I'd have to send my photographs, give a screen test and then the makers would compare me with other contenders to decide whether to consider me or not. Also they would probably need bulk dates, which is not presently possible. Anyway, I may not be ready for a drastic change of scene as yet. I prefer working here in familiar surroundings. I'd rather rule in hell than serve in heaven."Trust Shah Rukh to have the last word.
And he may just be right in saying so. After all, he has been dealt a lucky hand of looks, talent, charisma and smarts -a man who therefore has not just good fortune or mere fame but that most precious and elusive of Bollywood commodities: bankability. So why give it all up for a shot in the dark, eh?
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