‘Woh aaye ghar mein hamare, khuda ki kudrat hai/Kabhi hum unko kabhi apne ghar ko dekhte hain….’ If Shahrukh Khan were to ever drop in at someone’s house, this might be the perfect couplet to describe that moment.
But it’s he, the Badshah of Bollywood, who has a backstory for this Ghalib gem. Nothing around him—the feverish promotional melee, hopping from one vanity van to the other to meet co-actors, producers et al, delayed lunches, the disarmingly innocent AbRam who demands his dad’s time over “boring interviews”—is conducive to ruminating about poetry. But SRK shares an anecdote about how this couplet was inspired by a kleptomaniac friend of Ghalib’s and then goes on to the symbolic importance of the ‘saaqi’ figure in shayari. He cherishes his father’s reading of poetry, his words of explanation, and promises that none of the chaos will distract him from the conversation at hand, and it would be an interesting one too. Not vainly spoken, as Prachi Pinglay-Plumber discovers.
You’ve done different things from very early on in your career—playing the bad guy, or the vulnerable romantic, when others were being action heroes; IPL; making the first successful sports film on real events. What prompts you to make these risky decisions?
I think all of us, whatever business we are in, we are all a beat off. Unfortunately, what happens is when you start getting into a system, you start getting on beat and start following the beat…which is also alright because you have enough talent to pull that off too sometimes. But I’ve been fortunate enough—by nature, not by design. I’ve always been far removed from how films work, because I came from outside. I go by a different connotation. No one told me how one is supposed to behave within the film industry. Very often, more decisions of mine still remain off beat than on. Sometimes I adhere to it. I say okay, let’s just do it. But I do it with the same aplomb and happiness. To me it doesn’t seem like a risk.
When I started out, I didn’t know how to be a movie star—there was no uniformity given to me, that you are supposed to behave like this, talk like this, go for those parties, have a manager. Or that we’d like you to go in the action category, so you should dress like this, show your muscles…. I think I was so unwise that I did those films! I wouldn’t have done them if I was wiser or on beat. But those unwise things worked. People tend to think they all worked but that’s not true—Asoka didn’t work, Paheli didn’t work, Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani didn’t work, and it killed me emotionally. Offbeatness does mess up also but when you get it right, you kind of become unique. I still don’t think of it as a risk.
I remember while making Ra.One, my whole team was skeptical. It was the most expensive film at the time. The sampling and research people came and told me the audience for sci-fi movies is 0.1 or 0.001 per cent, where action films have 23 per cent, romantic films have 16 per cent! In 10 categories, it was the tenth, they said…everyone told me this, you know? But I said, if I don’t, who will?
On IPL, for three years everybody kicked me for it, even Outlook. People said I don’t know how to run cricket or business, but I got it right. We won it twice. Recently we were named the most consistent brand. I didn’t tweet it. I don’t want to harp on it or gloat. I don’t adhere to that old maxim: there’s nothing like being ‘ahead of your time’—there’s your time or not your time. Maybe you haven’t got it right. Maybe you need to work harder.
You seem to be returning to darker roles with Fan, Raees? Javed Akhtar once said sketching out villains was particularly fun because they exude a certain freedom. Do you find them more interesting than the good guys?
I come from theatre…Hamlet, Macbeth, Richard, these are the characters you remember. You won’t remember most of the sweet characters: they are nice, that’s about it. You remember Romeo and Juliet because of the dark end—poison le liya, nakli tha, khud ko maar diya, uth gayi, yeh kya ho gaya, oh my God! (speaks feverishly), a comedy of errors but so creepy, scary. You remember those things. The thunderclouds, the rain, the lightning are always more attractive than the daffodils and sunshine. Something as simple as Humpty Dumpty is more fun because they could not put them back together.
Within the parameters of commercial cinema, I don’t think I have done all that yet. It requires a certain amount of obsessive passion to be that person. It requires the same passion to be Raj and Rahul too. To be devta-like or dariNDA-like requires sacrifice…. I can understand the obsession in both places, I get attracted to it. I can play a Devdas, who’s completely obsessive and weird, but I get it. I don’t need to be like them but I get that space.
Raees is more real. Journalists have researched how bootlegging is done in Gujarat and elsewhere. It’s not like Happy New Year… upar se aaya, gutter ke raaste nikla, andar chala gaya. Some of these moments, the modality of selling illegal liquor etc., they’re very interesting because it’s actually happened somewhere. For example, they would sell it at vegetable stores, it was injected in tomatoes. Men started telling wives they would buy the vegetables, the women were happy, it was so wonderfully in the public space that nobody knew about it! There are lots of moments like this in the film. Small, reality-based things…where I hide the money, the booze. It’s very intriguing for me, I’m not from that world, neither are most of us. Normally I play urban characters. This was kind of rural, small town. Not completely rustic like Chahat or Paheli. The real space attracted me.
Dear Zindagi, in which you played a psychologist, highlighted the need for emotional support. Do you think it has become more acceptable? How do you cope with your upheavals?
Each one to his own, yaar. I’m inexpressive, closeted, cloistered, very awkward sharing even with the closest of my people. There were times, for not being able to talk to anyone, I’d talk to my pet dog…because I had it somewhere on my mind that she won’t understand, so it’s alright. I talk to my little kids knowing they won’t get most of it. That too, maybe once in four years! I’m not at all someone who can do it. I get awkward even if you ask me to my face if something has made me sad. I don’t want to share it. But I know friends, actors and actresses, who sometimes call me and talk to me. “Shah, I want to talk to you yaar.” I’m happy talking to them. I’m a good person to talk to because I don’t judge you. Maybe that’s why I don’t talk, because I’m worried people will judge me. If you came to me and told me something radically weird, I’m okay with it. Whatever is taboo. I don’t discuss it with anyone. I’m very private about your privacy. Nothing can shock me. If you told me you were an alien, it’s alright. I don’t have to tell four people about it.
In DZ, Gauri Shinde, Alia Bhatt, Kausar Munir…I don’t think they were propagating going to a counsellor or not—just that there is a need in every man and woman’s life to have someone to talk to. I believed in it because you (the audience) believed in it. I don’t need to believe in everything, just to make you believe. I believe you! So this could be true. If you need someone to talk with, Dr Jehangir Khan can be that. Personally it doesn’t work for me, but I know it works for others, a lot of people I know go to counsellors. It’s a good thing if it helps. Whatever helps you get over depression.
How do you deal with it?
I just do it alone. I vent it out in films. I have no idea. I leave a part of me in a film. I could be doing a comedy right now and feeling extremely depressed but I leave a part of me there. I just overwork myself out of depression.
Karan Johar’s autobiography is out. Naseeruddin Shah also wrote his. When do we see yours?
Mine is written—Twenty Years of a Decade. Bhatt saab had convinced me to write it. I finished it, but such beautiful things keep happening so I have to keep writing! It’s a very funny autobiography…I mean I like to think so. I write when I’m sad and I write quite funny. It’s very therapeutic, but I haven’t been sad for years (laughs…) which is a good thing. Let’s see. The deal with my publisher was, you will not tell me when to publish it. I’ll keep writing and add lots of chapters. I edit myself. I want to finish it. It had finished at Aryan’s birth. Then Suhana came, then AbRam…so I have to add a few chapters.
You have been vocal about women’s rights. How do you ensure, as a parent, that prejudices, stereotypes don’t creep into your upbringing of a son and a daughter?
However much I want to avoid the fact that I’m a movie star, part of it does come back. My wife and me come from a simple background. At home, am completely untouched, I don’t bring back any part of this world, which is larger than life. My kids see me on hoardings or read that I got the Chubbs fellowship, but when they’re sitting at home with me, I’m a basic, sensitive guy. I don’t shout, I don’t misbehave. I do nothing that can ever be taken as trappings of a stereotype—like ‘my father does this, so it’s okay for a guy to do this’. No impression is formed in my house. Except they sense that I work hard. I’ve never spoken to my wife in a way that can be questioned…I’ve known her for 33 years. Or the way I speak to the people who work at home, actresses and others who work with me. Even with AbRam...he’s very young, if he says something I just put in a little word, like I did tell him just now to come and be nice to you girls.
My children have grown to be extra sensitive, sometimes they’ve even questioned my actions—an outburst or a little anger with a journalist or someone. They say, “you only tell us this, na…leave it, na”. So there’s a certain maturity. Maybe they realise I exist in a fragile world so they need to be stronger and keep everything together and it’s happened very naturally. I haven’t seen my son or daughter saying anything wrong and I’m very proud of them for that.
A lot is said about strong women characters in your films, the message that gives. You really seem to like that….
Except for four or five films maybe, I’ve not done films where the girl is not playing the prime role. I remember this very famous filmmaker said to me, why would you do this film (referring to DDLJ), the film belongs to Kajol. Or even Paheli, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. In Chennai Express, the woman is so strong and the guy is such a lallu. I get attracted to films like that. I really believe it makes the story more interesting. It makes life more interesting if you have stronger roles for women in real life too. It just does. There is more girth, more rotundity. Even when a lady politician talks, it’s somehow better. My life’s highest fantasy is that I’m sitting in an open car, pardon me but with a cigarette, laid-back, and a lady is driving…not from a service point of view, don’t get me wrong. But a lady is in the driver’s seat. When I was in LA for the Oscars for Paheli, a limousine pulled up and I think Matt Damon came out and the chauffeur was this lady. Amazing high. My next film with Imtiaz, it has a wonderful role for Anushka. And I’m not being patronising. Even Don for that matter; Roma is a stunning character—we couldn’t even kill her in the end, ‘nahin maarte yaar, isko rehne dete hain yaar, wapas layenge’—all the girls are so strong in Don, even the molls, Lara…even in Raees, the mother, the wife played by Mahira.
Hark back to Aziz Mirza’s Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani…rather prophetic in retrospect. How do you perceive the media today? Has it gone out of control?
A little out of control, yes. There’s nascent stardom. The media has its competitors in people now. Suddenly so many people have points of views online. Earlier you were the only guys who brought news, now everyone has an opinion. So stardom has become very important in media. Instead of sticking to your ground of being well-informed and analytical, there’s a rush…of half-hearted, hashtagged information. The other day, a lady was saying on a channel, ‘this is my hashtag’. I felt like, you made the hashtag lady, so what? They might feel, you can’t beat them so join them—but no, you don’t need to join them. I can form my opinion without yours bearing in on me. I fully respect the issues you have, I simply do not speak about it or not speak in a tone I don’t believe in, just because you need more voices.
From time immemorial, when stories were written, editors said, ‘listen, let’s humanise it, let’s put a face there’, like the National Geographic girl with light eyes. Anything that’s humanised is attractive, identifiable. Now presenters feel they are (those) human beings. But you just have to present, you can’t force your opinion down my throat. Sensationalism is wrong, this is not even that. And the trolls are so hyper. Such wonderful journalists I know, one can respect them despite contrary views. If Salma Sultan would meet me for tea and gave me news, I’ll still take it! But it will become okay. It will curve eventually.
I also hear, ‘why can’t the star say so, why can’t you’…. But you have to create an atmosphere for me to speak and I have to create an atmosphere too. We all are media, we need to do it together. We can’t be on different pitches and have the same song. It won’t be the same song.
Without going into the details, do you think controversies—like on Ae Dil Hai Muskhil, My Name is Khan et al—change the larger narrative in society, making people more cautious?
I don’t think it will change the society. As an entertainer, I know my responsibility. You could be a serious-minded person and think a guy who does Chammak Challo can’t ever be taken seriously, but having been 25 years at this job I owe three things to people. One, to make a good film. The second part is through you—this interview is not just to market myself or my film—through you I want tell people that this is one commodity where money won’t be returned if you don’t like it—the only good/service in the world that has no moneyback guarantee. Everything else, clothes, food, you can send it back. I need to inform them, so I’m guilt-free. Third, I owe it to my audience that they go and like a film, just the way I’d like to go and watch a film with ease, pleasure, comfort, relaxation. You don’t go for entertainment with stress.
I used to get very disturbed with all these small issues. (‘Why is this happening, yaar!’) Very few of us would make a film to incite violence or hurt your sensibilities. Just now the censor board said, ‘cut this line’. I hadn’t realised it could hurt someone. And it’s alright, I can change it. It’s no big deal, I’m okay. It’s a commercial film, how seriously can you take it? The word is not cautious, it’s ‘a little more careful’. What I’m selling as entertainment may not be so entertaining to someone.
It happened to me a few years ago, when I met a set of hair stylists who felt ‘barber’ was a derogatory word. I was really vehement. I said I won’t change it; ‘barber’ is a degree in Australia…. Then they sat next to me and watched the film. It was derogatory to their mind. I met 45 of them from all over India. “Shahrukh bhaiya aisa bolte hai, chidaate hai” (they tease us). So I removed the word. It would still be the same movie about a hairstylist. I’m sorry, I can’t explain to them that barber wasn’t meant in a derogatory way. I don’t know their backstory. I’m a little more careful now.
See, my job doesn’t end at making the film. It ends with getting the mother, daughter, father, brother, girlfriend, boyfriend coming and seeing it. I read these things and I tell my team, ‘can we just control it because it goes out of hand’…. I’m not taking a stand because I can’t. I don’t like to clarify or write blogs on the subject. If it’s hurting people, let’s bypass it. Let’s do it easily. I’m not bowing down to anyone. That’s what people may feel but I’m not giving in to fear. This is just part of my job now, the world has changed. There’s a whole populist belief about what can work and cannot work and you have to adhere to it to get your job done, and my job is to touch your life for 2.5 hours. For that I need to do a few things and I will do them. I don’t think there’s any lack of dignity of labour in it or any lack of dignity.
Maybe 7-8 years ago I could come on a high horse and say ‘but I’m just a filmmaker’—but no, I’m a filmmaker of responsibility. Parents meet me and say I want my son to be like you. I get such unconditional love and I got to look after that. Yes I’m a little more careful, little more aware, little more patient. And a little more easy, rather than getting all worked up.
What did you make of the powerful speech by Meryl Streep or even Leonardo DiCaprio about climate change, that platform, the impact it had….
I think it’s an amazing platform, but platforms are made by people—in this case, the foreign press. You need to present my view as it is, not as part of the agenda of your write-up. You can ask me, ‘Shahrukh, I believe in this, do you?’ I say no. You can even present your point of view, which disagrees with mine. But let’s be fair, honest, let’s be brave enough. It’s alright if you say I don’t want your interview because you’re not going with the agenda of my story, which is okay. But you can’t take what I say and make it part of your agenda. That’s what’s not fair at all. Keep it in the context. Journalists cannot have an agenda unless it’s an editorial. I have an agenda to sell my film and blatantly so—so I come and dance on the Kapil Sharma show. It’s not downgrading or upgrading in any way. It’s my job.
When I have a platform like that…. With all due respect to what’s happening there, or not happening, whatever we think of it…there’s an advancement in media there, which we haven’t got. Like they are much more advanced in films—technologically. And no, we are wrong in saying our films are better. If we were, we’d be making world-class cinema. We do need to learn from better things. Because of having passed these stages of stardom and having that platform, Meryl Streep can say what she has to or wants to. She or anyone else knows they can. Even Trump can. If you don’t have the platform, you can’t ask why that speech doesn’t happen here.
Here, things are at a very nascent stage. Even I used to be jumpy. I’ve said things like ‘awards which don’t give me awards don’t deserve me’. Now I think there are many years to come, I still have my talent, craft. Let me assume you’re right and I’m not good enough. But I can be. I will be. It’s about how dignified you are. Long back I remember visiting Mr Amitabh Bachchan at his ABCL office. People were screaming ‘Shahrukh, Shahrukh!’ and I felt…yes, I’ve arrived! Banging on my car and shouting. But when he started driving his car, they just parted way for him. It struck me then. They give you that space when you’re a true star. Not asking people ‘do you love me’ and getting them to shout ‘yes’. People will say that on their own. I used to do that, now I don’t. Dignity is far more important than provocative hashtags, alliterations. I’ve been a star long enough, I don’t want to be louder, we can agree to disagree.
- Prachi Pinglay-Plumber