It’s a peculiarity of this job that I’ll occasionally interview someone who means zip to me and everything to a crowd of other people. In Aamir Khan’s case, we’re talking several hundred million people. He’s the star of Bollywood’s latest blockbuster – heck, he’s the star of the two top grossing Bollywood films of all time – but the truth is that he only popped up on my personal radar a month ago, around the time I dropped into an Indian theatre when I was last in the UAE and sat down to watch 3 Idiots.
I’m not all that unusual in my ignorance. Bollywood – Hindi cinema, to give it its more acceptable moniker – has, so far, failed to cross over to a Western audience in any meaningful manner. It’s fascinating that at
one point during our conversation, Khan – an ‘A’ lister with a face recognisable to more than a billion people – cheerfully gives me a potted rundown of his CV: ‘I’ve directed one film, I’ve produced three films and, as an actor, I’ve done roughly 40 films’. It’s hard to imagine Brad Pitt claiming a similar thing.
That may have something to do with the fact that Aamir Khan is unfailingly polite, of course, but the fact remains that the nearest thing to Bollywood most Western audiences have experienced is Slumdog Millionaire.
His views on that film’s success make for an easy opening gambit. I wonder how a filmmaker and actor synonymous with Hindi cinema felt watching Danny Boyle’s tribute to it. Again, he’s unfailingly polite, though forthright in his opinion. ‘It didn’t quite work for me as an audience,’ he tells me. ‘I suppose I’m too well aware of how things are here in Bombay, so characters speaking English who otherwise would never have… and the lead kid who is supposed to be from the slums talking in a British accent, in English… It kind of throws me off.’ He chuckles to himself, perhaps aware that he sounds a little finicky. ‘I’m a big fan of Danny Boyle’s and I could really see that the film was made with a lot of love and passion. But I don’t view Slumdog Millionaire as an Indian film. For me it’s a film that was made by Danny, who has an international perspective. For me it’s a British film.’
The ‘international perspective’ is key to the crossover, of course. As the world’s population becomes increasingly homogenous in its tastes, it’s peculiar that Hindi films have had such trouble finding a significant audience in the West. Khan’s latest film, 3 Idiots, has gone some way towards correcting this, with a continuous presence in the UK top 10 this winter – at one point sitting above James Cameron’s Avatar. Khan has no groundbreaking theories on why this might be (‘I suppose people like the film… It is a very universal theme’), but I get the sense that success abroad matters very little beyond the transient thrill of this acceptance. He’s certainly not hurrying to ride 3 Idiots to Hollywood. ‘I have had a few offers, but none that have excited me enough to say yes to.’ Stars of crossover films in the past have diluted their reputation by grabbing at anything American that comes their way, but Aamir Khan takes his craft drop-dead seriously – he’s certainly not about to do a Zhang Ziyi. ‘For me the criteria of a film, whether it’s an Indian film or made outside, would be the same. I mean, the script has to excite me; the director has to be someone who I have trust and faith in. Nothing really exciting has come my way so far.’
Khan’s story is the stuff of legend in India, so it says something of his down-to-earth nature that he is willing to delve into his past for my benefit. ‘I’m not a trained actor,’ he starts. ‘I’ve never been to acting school, so I have no knowledge of the theory of acting.’ It’s often suggested that he’s Bollywood’s most successful method actor. Does he think that’s accurate? ‘I don’t know what a method actor is,’ he insists. ‘I don’t know what kind of actor I am.’ He also riles at the popular notion that he began as a child actor. ‘It wasn’t that I was a child actor in the acting profession,’ he explains. ‘It was essentially because my uncle [Nasir Hussain] was a film maker. He was making a film [Yaadon Ki Baaraat] and he said, “Why don’t you do this part that I have for a kid.” So it was more that I was a kid in the family that was put into the film. That was a one-off for me. I had nothing to do with films thereafter.’
It’s at this point that things start to mirror the 3 Idiots plot, a character-led caper which implores viewers to pursue what they’re good at, not what others believe to be good for them. At the age of 16, Khan was asked to work on a homemade film by a high school classmate (‘I was the actor, the spot boy, the assistant director, the production assistant – everything rolled into one’). The experience grabbed him, and in a moment of clarity he realised that he’d found his calling. ‘All hell broke loose,’ he laughs. ‘My family were dead against it. They wanted me to be in a steady profession like a doctor or an engineer or something. They were protective, but I was very clear about what I wanted to do and I stuck to my guns.’ Leaving his college education behind, he found a job in the local film industry. ‘Everyone I knew said, “Well, if you want to be in films you can, but at least finish your studies, finish your education. Don’t quit midway.” I kept telling them, “I’m not stopping my education, I’m starting it.”
I pretty much followed my own heart and made decisions that I believed in all along.’
His rise to the top was swift. Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak (1988) made him a household name and his ‘chocolate boy good looks’ (Bolly-wood’s phrase, not ours) prompted young Indian women to write love letters to the actor in their own blood. These days, he’s one of the most powerful men in Indian cinema, unable to step out the door without prompting pandemonium. During his promotion for 3 Idiots, he came up with a ruse that saw him don disguises and disappear into the country, leaving clues for fans and the media to track him down. He admits now, with a wistful air, that the opportunity to interact with people ‘without them knowing who I am’ was an amazing experience. ‘[It was something] I haven’t experienced in India for 20 years.’
With 3 Idiots now behind him, he’s working on a project with a personal twist. His forthcoming film, Dhobi Ghaat, finds him acting under the direction of his wife, Kiran Rao. ‘She’s a part of all the films that we
produce together – that our company produces together,’ he explains. ‘But, with me as an actor and she as a director, it’s the first time we’ve been put together.’
Our allotted time is quickly running out, so I ask him, simply, how the experience has been. He laughs in the boyish tone I recognise from his role in 3 Idiots. ‘Shooting is complete now,’ he smiles, ‘but we’re still married, so I think it’s okay.’ With two of the world’s biggest films under his belt, it’s hard to see how he could put a foot wrong.