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HT Café Exclusive: Aamir Khan unplugged

Mayank Shekhar sits for almost three hours with actor-producer Aamir Khan, in his first full-length interview since 3 Idiots. Catch the actor in an exclusive tête-à-tête, discussing films, flops, and a funny business called Bollywood.

entertainment Updated: Jun 16, 2010 13:52 IST
Mayank Shekhar

Aamir KhanThere are three paintings signed ‘Salman Khan’ on the walls of Aamir Khan’s study. One of them could pass off for Jesus; the other two are charcoal portraits of Aamir in his buzz cut from Ghajini. Needless to add, Salman is a far superior painter than an actor. The quality of that art, unless outsourced, is nothing short of splendid.

We don’t find a similar Shah Rukh Khan touch at this quiet, quaint Pali Hill apartment, apart from a CD of SRK hit songs on a rack where other unused assortments are randomly stacked up.

Aamir has but a pup named Shah Rukh at his Panchgani farmhouse. We ask him how’s Shah Rukh (the pet) doing. No answer. You can say he’s doing fine, we suggest, in pure jest of course. No answer again. Aamir smiles, looks away. Jokes apart, it’s still quite something that almost in the same year, three actors, of somewhat different backgrounds but the same surname, made it to the big screen as leading men. Two decades later, no one’s quite convincingly displaced them from that big game, and they’re even top individual producers now. Even ribbings over their rivalries have remained roughly the same.

And they’ve all hit their mid-40s. One stays put as perhaps the most popular brandname (SRK); the other (Salman) periodically shocks the country with his following from the front benches of Middle India (Wanted).

Of the three, it’s Aamir alone who’s but consistently walked ahead at once with appreciation as performer, and audience as actor. This, combined with both critical acclaim and commercial success as producer. Or so suggests our survey across some of Mumbai’s tradesmiths, who letch at box office figures for a living. The numbers match their point.

Surely Aamir then knows a thing or two about the movies, and the movie business, that many others don’t. We sit for almost three hours, in his first full-length interview since 3 Idiots, to discuss exactly that: films, flops, and a funny business called Bollywood.

That many hits as actor and producer, certainly, there are things you know, even if intuitively, about what audiences expect from a film, that others don’t quite get.
As a creative person, I can’t think like that, and would like to give my audiences much more credit. I feel, with cinema, if you’re skilled enough, and the material you have is striking enough, you can actually change the minds of viewers, in the way you tell the story alone. So, if a point is put forward in a very bold manner, a person might reject it; but when he sees it on the screen, that moment, and the flow with the film, may spellbind him, and you can manipulate him. I don’t mean manipulate as a bad word. Every film manipulates an audience: if it makes you cry, makes you laugh, it is manipulating you. And if we can do that well enough, I don’t think there’s any restriction on the filmmaker or the audience (on what can work, or not).

Have you still developed certain thumb rules; for instance, Shekhar Kapur suggests, a pure farce doesn’t work among Indian audiences?


In fact, I have picked up a host of taboo topics and they’ve all worked.

Mughal-e-Azam

was a big success, but for 30 years after that, people had been saying, period films don’t work. And sports films definitely don’t work. My film (

Lagaan

) was both a period film and a sports film, and it was a film with a dialect spoken in it – Avadhi. We were not wearing DKNY, and stuff like that. Around my second film as producer,

Taare Zameen Par

(TZP), the market and the industry in general said that films made on childcare and education don’t work. The third was of course more mainstream:

Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na

was a love story.



Any particular scene you’ve knocked out at the edit table, second-guessing the audience?


If a scene doesn’t work, it would be for creative reasons, not for reasons of taboo. Otherwise, I would’ve reacted to it at a script level. Often we’ve left out scenes, because the flow has dropped, the point has already been conveyed or because we don’t want to repeat ourselves….



You’ve practically grown up in Bollywood, and among producers.


Yes, my uncle (Nasir Hussain), and my father (Tahir Hussain) were both filmmakers.



What is it that you’ve learnt from experiences that you perhaps apply to yourself as producer: especially in terms of money that makes showbiz tick?


There are basic rules that I follow. I have no idea if they are any different from others. Rule number one is that I must be honest to what I’m setting out to do. Rule number two is that I have a responsibility towards my audiences. So when the audience pays Rs 50 or Rs 100 to watch my film, I want it to be

paisa vasool

. I want them to get their money’s worth. I take that on as a personal responsibility. And the third responsibility I have, which answers your question more directly, is no matter who I deal with, that person should make money off me. So if I’m an actor, and you’re a producer, I want to make sure that you earn money. If I’m producing a film, and I pass it on to you as distributor, I want to make sure you earn, and likewise. Nobody who comes in contact with me in the market should ever lose money. That’s my motto.



What do you mean by

paisa vasool

? For the audience?

Well it’s very difficult to explain that.



Most people in the movie biz will suggest

paisa vasool

to mean the potpourri picture: action, songs, drama… All-in-one

masala

, as it were.


No, no, no, not that.

Dus gaane hon

(there should be 10 songs), 3 action scenes,” that’s not what I mean by

paisa vasool

at all. I just feel that since the audience trusts me by buying a ticket to watch my film; I shouldn’t let them down.



You mean they shouldn’t get bored.


The film should be engaging, entertaining, and it should offer them something beyond (just entertainment). The entertainment itself should be of a high quality, in terms of its writing, sensibility, execution…. I don’t leave any stone unturned to achieve that, because I see that as a personal responsibility. And from the market point of view, as I said, it doesn’t matter which period of cinema you look at: the ’50s, ’60s, ’90s, or you put me in the new millennium, I want to make sure whoever I work with, whoever I have business dealings with, earns off me. Just to give you an example, both

TZP

and

Jaane Tu…,

were very risky films on the face of it. One was a film on childcare and education; the other had an entirely new star-cast. I could have sold these films to somebody. But I released them myself (with PVR as partner and distributor), because I believed in them, and I knew if we took the risks ourselves, we wouldn’t pass on losses to anyone.



In the movie business, one keeps hearing about 90 per cent of films flopping in a year. How does an industry exist, let alone survive, at such preposterously claimed loss ratios?


A film is a flop because of its budget. A film does a business of Rs 40 crore but flops, because it took Rs 50 crore to make it. If the Rs 40 crore film had cost Rs 20 crore to make, it would be a hit. So, when I plan a project like

TZP

— I’m a fairly successful star, and I’m part of

TZP

— I can sell the film at Rs 50 crore. But that’s not a wise thing to do. I mustn’t forget what I’ve made my movie on. I must also look at the film’s budget.

TZP

cost me in the region of Rs 12 crore to make, and I’m quoting (the figure) from my memory. You could give or take a few. It could be 10; it could be 15.



How much did it make?


The gross business was almost Rs 100 crore; the net was about Rs 75 or 76 crore, and it did very well not only in India theatrically, but overseas as well. I didn’t sell the satellite (television rights) of the film until after it released. So, it wasn’t the sort of satellite sale that goes around in today’s environment: a lot of bidding happens, and prices go up. The film did its business at the box office, and then I negotiated with the channel, so they knew what they were buying, and they were happy to pay a certain price. So I’m saying,

TZP

was budgeted accordingly, and in that respect, it was a super duper hit. Because it made much more money than it cost us. And as a result, each one, down the chain, earned off it.



It’s eventually the theatre owner who takes the first hit from a flop film, isn’t it?


Well, I believe, even the corporates do now.



Because they buy films at such crazy prices?


Yes. Let’s say I sell a Rs 15 crore

TZP

at Rs 45 crore, because I can. Now I have taken Rs 30 crore home, but have left you (the buyer) with a risky film, all alone under the sun, to look after yourself. That’s not how business is done, or at least that’s how I feel. If my last film has done a business of Rs 100 crore doesn’t mean that every film of mine will do Rs 100 crore (worth business). The minimum that an Aamir film should do then is Rs 30 crore, let’s say, and that’s the way to look at it.



What’s the deal with every second film nowadays flashing on their posters, “Hit. Super Hit. Karara Hit…. Made Rs 100 crore, Rs 200 crore….”

Such things never happened before. Surely there’s a lot more to those numbers than meets the eye.As I understand it, and this is my limited understanding, mind you: A lot of corporates that have come in to the business are public limited companies, with lots of(publicly traded) shares, and shareholders. I must warn you again that I don’t know a lot about shares. But if I lose Rs 5, Rs 10 or even Rs 20 crore on a film, and my share prices, instead of going down, go up, then in the overall picture, I end up earning more, even if it is only in my head (the earning is notional). My share prices go up, because the film was a hit. For my share value to remain high, all my movies have to be hits.



So, I have lost Rs 20 crore on a film, but I’ll give the audience an impression that it was a hit; create that perception, and the share values of my company don’t fall. I may have effectively lost Rs 20 crore, but if my share prices go up, I may earn Rs 200 crore. What is Rs 20 crore, so long as I can keep that perception? And I earn much more. This is how I believe it works.



Things are now quite the reverse of how they used to be with hit producers before, who’d show losses to duck the taxman instead.

Well, the other thing is that when a corporate buys a film, they kind of, if it’s the right word, amortize it (write off their cost gradually) over, say, 20 years. Now this is something I don’t completely understand. For me, you spend Rs 10, and you make Rs 12 back, and you’ve made a profit of Rs 2. And if you haven’t made the Rs 2 back, you’ve lost money, and the film’s not successful. That’s how simple it is. I can’t quite (get myself to) believe in the virtual world.



For that, the budget of the film, and the minimum price it must attract are most important. Right now, I feel, we are not even being wise about our business decisions, by and large. If we were just being wise, and I know a particular film will do at least a business of Rs 10, I’d sell it for Rs 9, or Rs 10. The prevalent logic right now is centred on what’s the maximum that the film can make:

Kam se kam mat bolo, zyada se zyada kitna karegi?

(Quote the maximum possible returns, not the guaranteed minimum). Rs 100? Ok then, let’s sell the film for Rs 105!” You don’t know how the person buying (that film), will ever make money of it.



Is this understanding of yours, instinctive, or borne out of individual experiences

?


It’s just common sense. I feel the corporates that have come in (to the business), have brought in a lot of great practices. But some of their negative practices relate to outbidding the other. They often put value to films beyond their actual worth. I don’t know whose films go at what prices, but I do know that this is what generally happens. That films are sold (keeping in mind the) highest amount they can (potentially) make. It sounds bizarre to me. If I were a buyer, I would never pick up (pictures) at such prices. How are we to share the winnings, in such an unsafe business?



Could this also be because it’s the shareholders’ money now, unlike the producers’ own, in the past?


That’s a very important point. You are absolutely right. Earlier, there was the individual producer who would borrow money from the market, or take advances from the distributor. That was his money to make the film. The more he spent, the more he had to return. And for sure, he had to return. If I’m a reliable or sincere producer, I may have lost on one film, but the market would still trust me, assuming I’ll make it up on the second film, and pay back what’s owed.



I’ve seen my father work since I was a kid. He used to be stressed, “

Yaar, maine paise liye hain

(I’ve borrowed money), I need to make a good movie,

chalni chahiye

(it should have a good run in the theatres), budgeted such, that I can return everyone’s money.A person who is running a corporate firm (could well go), “

Abhi humko kisi ke paise waapas nahin karne

(We don’t have to return anybody any money), you know.” I’m not making sweeping statements. I’m saying the possibility (of such an approach) is high. There are some very good and sensible people in the film business, who are part of the corporate set-up, and who are trying their best to do good work. But at the end of the day, (it’s different when) you are not the owner of the company, and you are handling someone else’s money.



At worst, you’ll get sacked from your current job.


Yeah, at worst.



You remember stories growing up, of producers, who lost everything on a movie? It seemed a common occurrence back then.


Yeah, my dad! My dad was, a number of times, in very poor financial situations. He was making a film called

Locket

that took eight years to complete. A lot of his money was locked up, and he couldn’t return it.



What happened then?


Then he got lucky (smiles). I remember

Locket

wasn’t getting released, people who had lent him money were asking for it, and the interests were rising. He had a lot of debt on him. So to move his cart forward, so to speak, he started a small film called

Dulha Bikta Hai

, with Raj Babbar and Anita Raj, and that became a big hit, which kind of pulled him out of the problem, but not entirely. And then

Locket

got released, and it did very well. So it was just luck that ultimately helped him out of the situation. But there are umpteen such examples of producers who have gone bankrupt as a result of flop films. And they couldn’t pay their money back.





We’re meeting for the first time since

3 Idiots

, which, as a film, was a strong statement on education, let alone the system. No one quite touched upon the fact then that you yourself are a college dropout. You are still among the better read people around. What’s your personal take on education itself?

I feel education relates to what you wish to learn. And you can learn that in an organised manner, through formal education. So if I want to learn about, say, the Mughal period, I can go to a college and study it. But I can also read books on the subject, and learn on my own. Or I can ask a teacher to come over twice a week, and teach me. For me, the end-result is not a certificate that says, ‘This guy knows history’. For me, it’s the fact that I already know it.

Have you actually done that? Called tutors over?
Yes, I’m learning Marathi right now. There’s a tutor who comes home twice a week, to teach me, my wife Kiran, son Junaid and my daughter. We’re all learning Marathi. I read a lot generally, and history does interest me. At some point, I would like to find a (history) teacher as well.

What made you drop out of college?
Well, I dropped out, but I didn’t stop my education. I actually started my education when I dropped out of college (laughs). I dropped out because it was clear in my mind that I wanted to be in the filmmaking business. I wanted to learn filmmaking. I felt that I was wasting my time at a college, where I was learning commerce.

You could have gone to a film school.
I could have, that was one of my options, or I could have worked with someone. Which is what I did. I worked with my uncle (Nasir Hussain), spent four years, did two films — Manzil Manzil and Zabardast — and learnt a lot during that period. I was the AD (assistant director), so I was involved with everything, right from scheduling, on-set work, to editing and entire postproduction…

Back then, I also watched way more films than I do now. But I’ve always been much more of a reader than a filmgoer. So, to answer your question, I feel education is something that you can get from anywhere. And in fact, today, with the Internet, it’s even easier. How you wish to go about it, is completely up to you. And of course, you can go through the formal system of education, which I have no problems with either.

Most would go to schools, because it helps them find better jobs.
Not necessarily. Even today, if I don’t want a job, but I still want to learn history, I could join a course. One of the things I really want to learn is cooking. So either I could go to a cooking school, learn it, and get a certificate that states, I know cooking, or I could go to my mom, and learn from her. Which is what the film (3 Idiots) says. It says the learning side is more important than the formal side of marks, grades, certificates…

Do you also find the education system way too attuned towards how much money you can make from a certificate? So, an MBA from an IIM, a means, becomes an end in itself.
Yes, but I’m saying, even when you learn to make money, it’s really about what interests you. If I’m not mistaken, Dhirubhai (Ambani) was not very well educated, and no one knew how to make money better than him. If you are interested in business, you can learn that in ‘n’ number of ways; a business school is just one of them.

You don’t particularly seem materialistic as a person though. This was the apartment (first floor, quiet corner of Pali Hill, Bandra) I came to in 2001. It doesn’t seem too different now, and surely you’ve made loads of money as producer and actor since. It’s a very non-starry existence in that sense, isn’t it?
(Laughs) I guess all of us have our priorities. And in the 20 years that I’ve been in the business, I think I could have made more money. But I wouldn’t have been able to make the films I have made. Or put differently, I wouldn’t have been able to work the way I enjoy working, which is not putting a restriction on my time. I’d never say, “Okay, I’ve got three months, here’s my money, here are your dates, and in three months, I’m out of here. I can’t work like that.”

But you’ve still made a lot…
I’ve made enough.

You could own a bungalow by the sea.
(Smiles) I couldn’t afford it.

People want to stand outside homes of film stars, wave at them. It’s hard enough to find your main gate.
Yeah, I’m a bit shy that way.

It’s interesting you mentioned that you heard Lagaan’s script (first film as producer), loved it, heard it again, loved it, heard it for the fourth time again… Much later, you went on to produce it. You’re not known to be easy to please with an idea. And you do think too much, don’t you?
I want to correct you here. Lagaan is probably the only time that I took four narrations before I decided to produce it. Usually, when I hear a script, at the end of the narration, I give a definite yes or no. If I like it, I’m on, on the basis of that narration alone. If I don’t like something, I’ll tell you immediately that I don’t.

Have you missed out on some scripts you may have heard, that later got turned into good films?
No, not so far.

Is there any movie you recall that was not as bad as narrated to you?
You know, I don’t watch too many films. So I don’t know if I can answer that accurately. But of the films that have been offered to me, I can’t think of a single script that I didn’t like, or turned down, and later felt, ‘Ah, I should’ve done that film’.

What are the major films that have been offered to you that turned out to be blockbusters, or even popular films?
One I can think of is Saajan (1991), starring Sanjay Dutt and Salman. That was offered to me. It went on to become a huge success. I don’t think it was my kind of film. If I’d done the film, I would have spoilt it. So I’m glad it was made with Sanju and Salman, and it was a big success.

Anything more recent?
No, I can’t remember.

Had, say, Omkara been offered to you?
I don’t remember it being offered to me.

Saif’s role in Omkara?
No, I don’t remember.

What would you call the lowest phase in your career?
That came soon after Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak. April, 1988, is when QSQT released, and from then on to June, ’90, when Dil released, will remain my lowest phase as a professional actor.

This is the point when you eventually went and met Mahesh Bhatt.
It was in the same period, yes. I was going through my lowest period, and he was at his peak. He had just done Naam (1986); before that, Arth (1982) and Saraansh (1984)…. And when he offered me a film, I was most relieved and thrilled. And then, I didn’t like the script.

I was in a huge dilemma, because he was someone who could have really helped me, just in terms of announcement, never mind when the film came out. Just that announcement (would’ve helped). But I didn’t want to compromise with what my heart said. It was a very tough call, and I had decided by then that unless I was totally happy with a film, I wouldn’t do it.

So for me, those two years were the biggest learning experiences. In a way, I’m glad I went through them, because I learnt my lessons the hard way, and I was really taught well. So, I said no to that film, and everyone around said I was making a huge mistake.

As a film buff, I think your lowest point may well be Akele Hum Akele Tum (1995). You were peaking as a popular actor. You had a director, your own cousin, in fine form, Mansoor Khan (QSQT, Jo Jeeta Wahi Sikander). And then you went ahead with a blatant, scene-by-scene rip-off (Kramer Vs Kramer). Even the main song was lifted from the Godfather background score. What made you do that?
I don’t think that was a low, professionally. I could have been wrong on a couple of levels as far as that film is concerned, but that’s a longer discussion. Firstly, I don’t feel remaking something that someone has done is, in any way, belittling the (original) work. If we’re doing Shakespeare today, just because I haven’t written that play, doesn’t mean I can’t perform it.

And creatively, neither Mansoor nor I — we both loved Kramer Vs Kramer — really sat down, and said okay, “How did they do that movie? Let’s do it the same way.” It was a subject we loved, so we wanted to experience it, and make it here. Some people may have problems with remakes, I don’t. (Pause). We did Ghajini again.

Was plagiarism much of an issue back then?
Whether then or now, I have one opinion on the subject — I think you should buy the rights. In the case of Akele Hum…, certainly we didn’t. Because at that time, no one had a clue about how to go about buying rights. Who should we check with? Are we supposed to call Dustin Hoffman? So, at that time, it was normal to just pick up a film and remake it. I would have great discomfort doing that now. Today, you can go on the Internet, find out whose film it is, and buy the rights. Apart from that, I have no problems in remaking films.

You’ve said before that as an actor, you go through a screening process of at least a year with a director, before you start on a film. What do you do in that year?
I do that only if it’s a new director, because the person hasn’t made a film before. And I have those three golden rules: There should be no creative compromise on a film; the audience shouldn’t be disappointed, because they are paying for the ticket; and no one should lose money. It takes me longer to keep the faith then. Because I’m not sure that this guy will pull it off. So I take my time to figure it out. What do I do? I spend time. I talk about life, intuitive things, just so I know this is the right guy.

Given this level of involvement, when do you eventually divorce yourself from the movie?
Divorce?

At what stage do you back off… At what stage is the film over (for you)?
Maybe a year after it releases (laughs). No, my emotional involvement doesn’t end with the film. It never ends. But my practical involvement really depends upon the director. And I do only one film at a time. So if the director Raju (Hirani) says, “Yaar, I’m going to check out a few locations; you want to come?” I’d be happy to.

I’m happy to be within the system: a soundboard, part of the director’s support (team). And that changes from director to director. Each has his own style of working. It depends on how the director wants to work. And I have said yes to him, which means I trust him; whatever way he chooses to work is entirely up to him.

Has there been a time when you have felt a director has seriously let you down?
(Laughs) I need to weigh this question from every angle. (Never-ending pause). Yes, that has happened.

Were images of those directors flashing in your mind right now?
(Laughs) Having said that,

I’d like to add that filmmaking is an extremely difficult process. Which is why, when I do a film that doesn’t turn out the way I hoped it would, what matters to me is the director’s intention. So, if you are working with me as director, and you have, in fact, tried your best, and you have still not succeeded, that’s fine. It happens to the best of us, and I’m okay with that.

How do things change when you’re just the producer, and not on the sets?
As producer, there are some key spots where I get very involved. For example, in fine-tuning the script, and by that, I mean, a story that I have already liked, which is why I’m doing it (the film) in the first place.

The second stage is finalising the casting, location, and the key crew. I think if you have the right location, and if you have cast the film well, then you are on a good wicket — on a very good wicket. The film looks real.

Then I come in just before the shoot begins, because I believe in having workshops with actors and rehearsing.

I watch the cast perform the film before my eyes (like a staged play). I’m not there at the shoot. And if I’m happy with the first cut (edited film), I don’t need to sit on the final cut either. But if I’m not happy with the first cut, or if I have something to contribute, then, as producer, I step in again, finalising the final cut; and eventually the final copy, if there are issues with colour correction, gradation….

So there are five or six points in a film where I’m strongly present as producer, which is my job. And of course, finally, giving it a good release: promoting it, etc.

As a full-time back-room person now, do you feel actors (especially super-stars) walk away with all the adulation and attention, when a film involves so many people’s risks, talent and hard work?
And what about when the film flops? That’s the lay of the land. The face on the front gets all the flak as well. But as an actor, I have tried to explain that (unlike what) you all imagine; I don’t direct every film I act in. You’re the ones who insist on taking credit away from the director, for some reason.

That could be because some of those filmmakers turned in turkeys after working with you.
(No answer)

You seem to be the last Bollywood man standing, who is not on Twitter yet.
I’m very happy with my blog, and my Facebook (Khan goes by an assumed name on the social networking site).

But Twitter’s turning out to be quite a serious celeb marketing tool.
It’s a double-edged tool. With these kinds of platforms dishing out (information) at lightning speed, the chances of a film succeeding, if it’s not good, is almost zero. If it’s not good, then (these platforms immediately go), “Thapaak!” Nothing is left (unsaid). It is ‘mouth publicity’ at its best. So you can use it, but if you haven’t made a good film, there is no way (it can help you). If I haven’t made a film that people like, the news is out there in a second. Earlier, it took time for people to know that a film was not good. With communication through the Internet and so many news channels now, that’s instantaneous.

But you are not curious enough to explore this channel?
I’m already doing that with Facebook and my blog.

And that gets you into enough trouble anyway.
(Laughs)

How’s Shahrukh (your pet dog in Panchgani) doing?
(Laughs) Looks away.

You can say he’s doing well.
(Laughs) Points to the dictaphone. No answer.