It’s close to 3 am at Mumbai’s Mehboob Studio. I am on Red Bull. Subi Samuel, the great photographer, is sipping black coffee. There’s no shoot happening on any set. Most of the studio is in darkness. Shah Rukh Khan’s got the place to himself. He’s working on some promos for a forthcoming film. Mehboob is close to his home, Mannat. So, he tends to favour the studio.
We are here to interview him and take pictures. It’s an unearthly hour. Subi and I are yawning, but Shah Rukh is wide awake and enthusiastic. He’s energy plus at whatever hour he works, though he tells me with a lazy slanting grin that he’s had a long and tiring day, and hasn’t slept much. His younger son AbRam, who will be four in May, did him in.
“I slept with AbRam,” Shah Rukh reveals endearingly, “And at 9 am, he propped my eyelids open and said, ‘Papa, good morning!’”
I like this about him, that he’s not shy of showing intimacy with his kids. This is the same Shah Rukh who once told me that when Gauri Khan wasn’t at home and Aryan and Suhana were small, he had watched a horror film on TV and then slept in the children’s bedroom because he was scared!
“A lot of other stuff also happens at Mannat when Gauri isn’t around,” he added naughtily. “Like we run wild in the living room and even let the dog pee!”
But that was a long time ago. Aryan and Suhana have grown up, they have left Mannat and AbRam has taken their place. The older son and daughter are studying abroad and indications are that they will return and join their father in films. He’s uncertain about this but is cool with the idea.
“I don’t talk to them about it,” Shah Rukh admits. “My daughter wants to be an actress, it could be films, though right now she’s into theatre. My son, I don’t know, though I’m told he looks like a star!”
I tell him the kids are already stars. They post pictures on Instagram and have people following them. Shah Rukh shrugs. He’s aware that his shadow is long and it is deep. When he famously came to Bollywood, he was an outsider, he wasn’t anybody’s son and therefore he was minus a lot of baggage.
“I had a lot more freedom because of that,” he says, “the freedom to make creative choices, to be what I want, because I didn’t know better. Sometimes it’s good to not know better because good is, well, good enough! I wanted Aryan and Suhana to be educated in places where they were unburdened of being ‘somebody’s’ kids. But Google killed that for me!”
Again, that lopsided grin. “I would like it if they joined films,” he adds. “It doesn’t matter what they want to be. An actor or a cameraman. My only condition is that they become graduates. And if they do post-graduation, they’ll get better food at home!”
We do the shoot on the move. Shah Rukh is the least fussy actor I know. Also an absolute pro. He understands camera angles, he knows exactly what look Subi wants, he doesn’t require direction or the make-up man touching him up between every shot. Subi goes click-click-click. He suggests a change and shows Shah Rukh a brown knitted pullover he thoughtfully brought along. There is no hesitation. Shah Rukh strips off his black tee and slips on the pullover. The 50-odd people on the floor, young girls among them, miss the action. But I catch it.
He’s looking lean and ripped, the body sinewy and hard with whipcord muscles. I wonder when he works out and rests, to stay in this incredible shape. And what diet he follows. Hadn’t he recently said, “I don’t sleep, I smoke about a 100 cigarettes a day, I forget to eat, I don’t drink water, I have about 30 cups of black coffee, and I have a six-pack. The less care I take of myself, the more I get taken care of”? I think it’s true. I have just seen the six-pack. And standing by is a man holding Shah Rukh’s burning cigarette!
I bring up the subject of films. “I enjoy making films,” he says, “but I’m not attracted to their success or failure. I’m detached even though I might be a co-producer. Once the film is made, I let go. By Friday night, I’m already moving on. I run my own race. I’ve realised that if I run long enough, I can beat the rest, because the race is about length – not time. And I don’t look at dates. The idea is to capture business in the first few days. But I don’t give that any thought. To me, release dates are not important. I don’t rush to social media every time I sneeze. I don’t look at festivals as a release date. The day I release my film, it becomes a festival!”
He adds, “But don’t get me wrong, my films are nothing special. In life, it’s not special to be special. But it’s special to be ordinary. My films are all about that. I show the inside of a good outside hero. I’m ordinary in my beliefs. I’m simple, ugly and boring, but I’m grateful to be me. I’ve arrived because I’m me. I do what I do because I’m me. I don’t know how else to be grateful. And when people say ‘Shah Rukh Khan is the best’ – I’m grateful again, because that also is beautifully, handsomely, and sexily me, and you may mess with me, but you can’t take that away.”
The shy entertainer
He’s 51 today, and he’s done 25 years in cinema. I ask Shah Rukh, “Is there any genre you’ve left untouched or not done justice to?” He replies, “Cinema is so wide that one can go on making films and narrating stories; that’s one of the major beauties of it. There are so many things I haven’t yet done. As an actor, my world is endless; there are several characters I have not lived yet. Secondly, there will never be a moment where I feel satisfied with the job that I did. Thoughts and ways of doing it better always come up.”
I think of all the stories floating around of him supposedly playing the poet Sahir Ludhianvi in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s biopic, Gustakhiyan, and remind Shah Rukh, “You’ve never done a biopic. If you did, who would you like most to play?” I think I have him here, but Shah Rukh wistfully replies, “I’d love to essay Guru Dutt saab’s life.”
I’ve noticed that he’s more comfortable discussing his roles than his films. It perhaps gives him a kind of rush that despite playing a dark, edgy and unpredictable character like the international criminal Don, nobody accuses Shah Rukh of being a bad influence. He’s able to convince people that it’s okay to like him because he can make them laugh and cry, and if he has to do bad things on screen then he’ll do it in style.
I think it will be that way also with the role of the illicit liquor mafia boss which Shah Rukh plays with a style bordering on ruthlessness and daredevilry in a coming film.
He replies defensively, “People say I play Shah Rukh Khan on screen. That my roles are a means to an end. Not true. My work defines me. But I have no identity of my own. It’s difficult being Shah Rukh Khan. I have been trying to be him for so many years. I’m an actor, yaar, an entertainer. Acting can’t be written about or discussed, nor can it be analysed, it’s got to be felt. That’s what I do. Audiences understand what I tell them. People like a good story. I make films for the stories behind them. But I’m shy of seeing myself on screen. I’m not fond of my face or physique. Maybe I’m an actor, so I can play someone else.”
Of simple wishes
“Did you make a New Year wish or resolution?” I ask. And Shah Rukh replies, “I wish health and happiness for my kids. I once met Richard Gere in New York and asked him, ‘How are the kids?’ Gere replied, ‘Healthy!’ I realised if ever I wanted a wish of mine to come true, it would be that my kids be healthy always. My son is 19, but each time he crosses the road, I tell him to be careful. When he’s playing soccer, I say, ‘Take care, don’t break a bone!’ When my daughter’s doing ballet, I tell her, ‘Be careful you don’t hurt a toe!’”
The children have grown, but Shah Rukh’s intention behind his prayers for them has remained constant. I remember him coming to see me off at Mannat’s gates years ago when I had gone to interview him. He surprised me then by saying, “I go to the rooftop and pray to the stars. Two of the stars are my parents. I pray for simple things. That Aryan does well in his tae kwon do championship. That Suhana is happy with her painting. I tell my mom, ‘Where you’ve gone, you can put yourself to some good use.’ There has to be some kind of trade-off for the loss of my parents.”
Now, with crinkling eyes and a wicked smile he adds, “I don’t make resolutions. But in 2017, I’ll be myself, that will be nice for a change. It’s difficult being Shah Rukh Khan. So my advice to myself this year is, ‘Be who you are!’”
Advice SRK would like to give you
“I don’t know how good I am at giving life lessons. In Dear Zindagi, my character Dr Jehangir Khan, the psychologist, seems like the one who is good at it, given his profession. Although, as I always mention, whatever I have learned myself of life has been at the movies!
Actually, the first few films that I did in my career and their titles have nearly formulated all that I believed one should pass on as lessons learned out of life in some way or the other. In fact, I would like to share what I keep telling my kids often. Live as hard as you can in this very moment. Live now. Live today. You may not see it with your youthful eyes, but now is as much time as you will ever get.”
And words from his mother he will always remember
“The best piece of advice I got, which shaped my life and work, was from my beloved and late mother. She told me once, ‘When doing your work, running a business or simply living your life, never think of reducing your expenses. Instead, think of ways to increase your income. The time and energy you spend on trying to plug holes, if they are spent on thinking of constructive ways to increase your income, will bear better results. It’s also a positive way of working’.”
From HT Brunch, January 22, 2016
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