Meeting Aamir Khan is like meeting someone I’ve known for years. It’s the first time I’ve ever had a conversation with him, but I grew up with the actor. He was my first crush. His Hum Hain Rahi Pyar Ke was the first Bollywood film I was ever allowed to watch on the big screen. When I was in my teens I had a massive poster of him plastered on my bedroom wall. I have no doubt, after Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak (QSQT), many bedroom walls suffered a similar fate.
Now at 52, the actor is no longer cute; no longer Bollywood’s chocolate boy. But his talent still makes me weak in the knees. After all, Aamir can play a 19-year-old college boy and a 55-year-old father of four with equal conviction. He’s been a lover boy (QSQT), a grey character (Raakh). He followed Earth with Mann (and, um, Mela). And he gave India one of its most driven content-based films with Lagaan, turning what might have been ‘art’ cinema into a box office hit.
You may believe that with Aamir Khan, the only formula that works is no formula. That’s certainly the story that’s been peddled by the press for many, many years. But the press is wrong and so are you.
Aamir Khan does have a formula when he works. But it’s based on instinct. He chooses stories that appeal to him and plays characters he’s deeply interested in. It’s just that simple, but its effect knocks us off our feet.
“I love to try new things,” says the actor, settling back on the sofa in his office. For instance, Rang De Basanti was the fifth film on Chandrashekhar
Azad and Bhagat Singh, and the earlier ones had all been box office disasters. But I still took it up because I found it interesting.”
The character is all that matters. “For instance, many people, including me, thought it was too early for me to play a father to two grown-up daughters, but I found the script of Dangal irresistible. I had to do it!” says Aamir. Dangal became a ₹700 crore global hit, lauded just as much for its story as for his acting.
Age and personal experience have no part to play in Aamir’s choice of roles: he does what he likes. “If the role is challenging enough, I don’t see why I shouldn’t play an older man or a father figure,” he shrugs. “It is not about playing what you are in real life. We are called actors for a reason!”
Almost all actors throw themselves into their characters these days, but most also draw the line somewhere. Aamir, however, sets out to challenge himself. Could he do a voice-over for a dog? Well, he wouldn’t know till he tried, would he? The result was Dil Dhadakne Do, where he lent his voice to Pluto, the affable family dog. Could he speak Bhojpuri? Why ever not? Oh, hello, PK! Could he acquire a six-pack? Well, he had to for Ghajini. Could he gain 22 kilos and then lose it to play Mahavir Phogat in Dangal? He did not know till he tried.
“For Dangal, losing all that weight was really difficult,” says Aamir. “Initially, even if you exercise the whole day, you don’t see any change in your body. There were many days when I was dejected, thinking I’d never be able to get back in shape. But I kept pushing. For me, acting is not a job. It is something I love. I don’t do these things for awards or rewards. I do them because I love challenges. If I am doing a role, I want to be that person.”
How to learn from your wife
That means more than physical transformations. To get into character, Aamir reads to help himself visualise who he’s going to be. He watches people to pick up body language quirks and traits that he could perhaps incorporate into his role. And he makes the most of his own memories.“When I had to do the role of a 19-year-old college student in 3 Idiots, I was 44,” he explains. “It was challenging to look the part, but what was more difficult was to behave like a college kid. The two people I built Rancho’s character on were my nephew Pablo, who never ever sits still, and director AR Murugadoss, who has zero filter on his emotions and reactions. I incorporated Pablo’s restlessness and Murugadoss’s straightforwardness in Rancho’s character.”
Observing people for a living may sound marvellous, but there are times when it gets Aamir into trouble. Such as, for instance, when he was with his former wife Reena in the delivery room and she was in labour.
“Now, don’t judge me, but I was sitting next to Reena holding her hand, helping her with the breathing etc, and I was observing her,” says Aamir. “During each contraction, whenever her pain reached its peak, her face wasn’t contorted. Instead, she looked surprised. I was holding her hand, she was in labour, and in the middle of all that, I had this epiphany that when a person is going through intense pain, his face doesn’t show that! I wanted to share this discovery with Reena, but when I told her, she totally failed to appreciate my observation, and instead almost hit me!”
(Note for fans: Aamir hasn’t so far played anyone in such intense physical pain, but when he does, you’ll know how he pulled off his expression.)
One man show
It’s all very well for Aamir to say that his characters are built on quirks and traits he’s observed in others, but it doesn’t explain how he lets go of his own mannerisms and imbues each character with its own unique traits.
Perhaps that’s because he doesn’t know he does that, and when he thinks about it, he looks stumped. What seems like hours pass as he scratches the beard he’s grown to play his role in Thugs of Hindostan, but not a word emerges.
This is bad, because it’s nearly 6pm and Aamir must leave soon to babysit his young son Azaad: his wife, Kiran, will be not be home in the evening.
Fortunately, just in the nick of time, he speaks. “You know, you are right,” he says. “Now that you mention this, I realise that whenever people mimic me, they mimic me as a person. My characters don’t have those same mannerisms. But I don’t do it consciously. I don’t know how it happens.”
Then there’s silence again. But Aamir doesn’t give up. He hates questions he can’t answer. So once again, he springs to life. “When I prepare for a role, I try to get inside the character’s head and understand him,” he says. “While fleshing out a character, I also imbue it with certain physicalities…”
And he springs up from the couch mid-sentence, and suddenly begins to act, as he explains, finally, what makes his characters what they are.
“See, Bhuvan of Lagaan is a man of determination and strength. That is what drives him. Now, such a man, when he’s standing, will not put his balance on one leg or slouch like this. He will stand upright, straight, so that his centre of gravity is in the middle. And if you call him, he will move his entire head and look you in the eye.”
I might not be the person Aamir Khan calls at 3am, but I got him to do a private performance for me. Believe me, I can live with that!
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From HT Brunch, March 12, 2017
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