During the shoot of a Pepsi commercial, I was interviewing Shahrukh Khan in his vanity van when Priyanka Chopra walked in. “Shahrukh,” she said, “I wanted to ask you about this whole pesticide thing.” Khan, who had the reputation of being one of the two superstars who was informed, who could read, even newspapers, assured her that Pepsi was fit to drink.
Then the conversation changed course to extramarital affairs because Khan’s next film was about them. He told Chopra how married people conducted affairs, and he conveyed the information as though he had researched the subject from the lives of others. He said, as a married couple lay in their marital bed, the man may roll over and secretly send text messages to his love. Chopra put her slender fingers over her mouth and appeared to be astonished that people would indulge in such betrayals.
I didn’t know what was going on. I still do not know what that conversation was about.
The newsworthiness of Salman Khan gives me the opportunity to tell you of the time when I used to pass through the film industry. The history of a recent age, which is at once familiar and strange, with its morals, charades and obsolete technology, might be dreary unless it is told through beautiful people.
Those were the last days of a time when giants were made — by us, to be employed by us. That is what celebrities are, our employees who are meant to entertain us with their real lives, and when they fall to make us feel we are better than them.
About 12 years ago, when I was assigned by Outlook magazine to find out why the biggest stars of the Hindi film industry were men who were around 40 years of age, I would not have imagined that three of them would survive in that form over a decade later even though they would have gone past the life expectancy of Sub-Saharan countries.
I interviewed most of them for the story, and as a 28-year-old what confused me about the age group was that they spoke so fondly about their work and their children but never mentioned their wives.
My interview with Shahrukh Khan was in his BMW. He is a man who does not require another person to have a conversation. On ageing he told me, “Will I insist on acting with young girls to hide my age? Will I ever address myself in third person like these film people end up doing: ‘Shah Rukh is impressed with you. Shah Rukh is angry’?”
Less than three years later when I met him during the shoot of the Pepsi commercial, he had become that person who addresses himself in the third person.
Sunny Deol, who had, a few weeks before I met him, rejected the pitch of a filmmaker saying, “I cannot die in the end. The Deols don’t die,” granted me time only to pass a rebuke to the magazine for running a bad review of his previous film. And he very cordially asked me to get lost.
Suneil Shetty told me what age had done to him: “I cannot jump off the 20th floor anymore. I cannot embarrass my daughter.” When he began his career he used to shoot for over 40 films in a year, many of which would not be released. There would be days when he would be on the sets of more than three films. That was a time when the underworld dons were venture capitalists of cinema. They poured their illicit money into films and in a way sustained the industry. Films did not have to always make a profit to be made. One man who understood this well was Sanjay Dutt.
I met him on the sets of ‘Munnabhai MBBS’. He was in a parrot-green shirt and appeared to be unhappy with his life, which he said was hectic. Even though I was in front of him, he spoke mostly to a shrub nearby, and once muttered to the plant, “Some people make me work too hard, they are pushing me, brother.” (He and Salman Khan use ‘brother’ to address all unrelated men except judges.)
“Been worried, brother,” Dutt said. Two more suspects had been arrested in the 1993 Bombay serial blasts case, in which he was an accused. “I want my freedom. Fast.” He would not be granted that.
When the blasts case trial was underway, the police intercepted a phone conversation between him and the underworld figure Chhota Shakeel. A number of people in the industry defended Dutt, saying that film stars spoke to the dons because it was foolish to hang up on them.
Nadeem Saifi, who had sought asylum in Britain after the Mumbai police accused him of sponsoring the murder of Gulshan Kumar, told me on the phone, “Listen to how Sanjay Dutt speaks to Shakeel. He is afraid. He is trying to be nice… It’s just a bunch of stupid conversations that the cops are waving at the industry.”
The underworld characters were often cordial, even gushing. Subhash Ghai gave me an idea of the nature of such conversations when he recounted a call he received from the gangster Abu Salem, who wanted the overseas rights of Pardes. Salem was respectful, even sheepish. “Sir, I want the rights for Pardes. Don’t mistake me. I have been your fan ever since I saw Karz.”
It was a time when crime reporting was often the same as film reporting. Once, when I entered the Narcotics Control Bureau, I found actor Fardeen Khan, who was in temporary custody for buying cocaine from a dealer, standing with a freshly delivered pizza.
Manu Joseph is a journalist and the author of the novel, The Illicit Happiness of Other People
Twitter: @manujosephsanThe views expressed by the author are personal