Shah Rukh Khan is the “Baadshah” or “king” of Bollywood. The 44-year-old star has ruled India’s film industry for nearly two decades, and Khan’s image is everywhere in India. He is on billboards and on television, advertising products from Pepsi Cola to skin-whitening cream.
He also owns an Indian Premier League cricket team, the Kolkata Knight Riders. Shrines are dedicated to him. Fans send him letters written in blood. His ancestral home in Peshawar, now in Pakistan, is a tourist attraction. And after Khan was questioned by US immigration last August because of his Muslim name, some fans burned the American flag.
I wait to meet Khan in the coffee shop at the Courthouse Hotel, off Regent Street in central London. A former magistrates’ court, its grey façade and quiet lobby feel too restrained for a Bollywood superstar.
I had been warned earlier in the day that the star was feeling unwell and that lunch would be delayed. Eventually, after a three-hour wait, I am ushered up to the star’s suite on an upper floor, where Khan, looking tired, greets me warmly.
He is wearing a slim-fitting black suit, a sky-blue shirt with open-necked white collar and shiny black shoes. He plays with his glasses as we talk.
We go into the sitting room of Khan’s suite, a wood-floored, wood-panelled room with armchairs grouped around a coffee table and windows overlooking the street below. The hotel has set up a small buffet table, and a waiter puts rice and chicken curry on a plate for Khan, who normally spurns carbs to maintain his six-pack. He has made an exception for this lunch.
I ask the waiter for chicken and rice with extra lentils and salad on the side. We eat with our plates in our laps, until Khan breaks off to light a cigarette.
The star is in London to promote his new film My Name is Khan (which has gone on to break US and UK box-office records for a Bollywood film, taking nearly £1m in the UK in its first weekend on release).
In the film, Khan plays an autistic Muslim man living in the US during the volatile period after 9/11. I remark on the fact that it might seem odd for him to have started naming his films after himself. He leans forward, flicking ash into an ashtray, and fixes me with his trademark charismatic smile. “As it is, people think I’m very arrogant, which I’m not. I was telling Karan [Johar – the film’s director and a great friend of Khan] when we were naming it that people will say now we’re suddenly naming films after me.”
I assume they chose the name Khan because it is recognisably Muslim. But he sidesteps further probing, saying only that the name worked for the character. “He [the film’s protagonist] has an issue that most people, even his wife, can’t pronounce his name because Khan should be said from the epiglottis,” he says, demonstrating the sound from the back of his throat.
While the movie, an emotionally charged love story, is classic Khan, the subject matter is unusually sensitive. Khan, a Muslim married to a Hindu in predominantly Hindu India, has rarely touched on issues of religious and ethnic tensions in his films. Is this film a sign of a trend in Bollywood towards tackling weightier themes?
“I’ve never thought about film being society changing ... I’m not being flippant but I do believe the prime objective of any cinema that I do and what I perform is to entertain as many people as possible,” he pauses, leaning over to stub out his cigarette. “But maybe when you reach a level of stardom or universal appeal that perhaps I have ... you get a little more ambitious and say maybe I can just throw in a bit more of a point of view and garb it in entertainment.”
Over the years Khan has portrayed a wide range of characters, from a slick mafia boss to a drunk lover and a reincarnated actor. He took over from fellow Bollywood legend Amitabh Bachchan as host of India’s version of the hugely successful quiz show Who Wants to be a Millionaire? But he remains best known for his roles in “masala” films – cheerful song-and-dance confections, filled with romance. “See, I like masala. I enjoy masala. I think it’s very important if you want to reach out to everybody. The country has a lot of real problems and you need someone to take you away for a few hours.”
I remark on how Khan’s own life has been anything but a “masala”. Born in 1965, Khan and his older sister grew up in a middle-class family in New Delhi, where he attended St Columba’s, a school run by the Christian Brothers. His father, Meer Taj Mohammad, a former freedom fighter against British rule, was born in 1928 in Peshawar, then in British-ruled India, and ran a struggling transport business. In 1980, when Khan was just 14, Meer died from cancer. Khan’s mother brought the children up on her income as a magistrate and from running a restaurant and trading business. She died in 1991.
After university – a degree in economics at Hans Raj College and an unfinished Masters in mass communications – Khan began winning parts in television serials in the late 1980s. I ask him whether he considers himself a serious actor. “I’m a fantastic actor, Joe,” he responds jokingly, putting down his cleared plate on a table before addressing the question more seriously.
“There’s no point in me trying to explain the seriousness behind my acting,” he says. “I think artists should not say: ‘I’m very serious about my work’. My job should be that when you see my work, you should feel that this could be you. That is why you become a star – because 95 per cent of the boys and girls who see me think: ‘I can do this, he’s not extraordinarily good-looking.’ Michael Caine said, very beautifully, that: ‘When I perform in a film, I’m not trying to show you how well I act or what I do. I’m trying to show you a mirror, that this is what you guys do.’”
Indian film may be popular among the diaspora, but what does Bollywood need to do to appeal to other western audiences? It might help, I suggest, if Bollywood looked beyond the musical in a bid to make it in the western mainsteam cinema.
In fact, Khan has coined a term for this removal of song and dance – “uncabaret-ifying” Indian film. It’s a process that is underway, but Khan stresses that music will remain essential in mainstream Bollywood. “If I’m going to see a Jackie Chan film, I have to see kung fu ... Hindi cinema’s like that – if it doesn’t have music it’s a little bit disappointing.”
He lights another cigarette and one of the public relations people who pop in and out of the room pours him a coffee as I ask him how a superstar manages his home life. He and Gauri have been married since 1991 and have two children, 13-year-old son Aryan and 10-year-old daughter Suhana. He says he has invented an elaborate mental construct to manage stardom. He believes his appeal as a superstar stems from his persona as an “ordinary guy”. But if fame begins to swell the ego of the regular guy, the appeal will vanish. So he decided to think of himself, Shah Rukh Khan, the husband and father, as the employee of Shah Rukh Khan, the multi-million dollar superstar brand.
“I think my connectivity to my audience is my being a middle-class guy. My being very simple and straightforward, not being enigmatic, not getting sold on the idea of stardom, is very important to this. But the temptation is there, how do I avoid it? So I thought: ‘You know what? I should think of myself as a servant to this master. I should be an employee and an employee who is doing a bloody good job.’” And what would a good job be? “Keep myself simple and straightforward and work like I did when I started 20 years ago, acting in every film as if it’s my first and maybe my last one.”
He continues: “When I’m on stage, I feel like I’m so powerful, nothing can go wrong, I can do anything. One lakh [100,000] people, one lakh cameras follow me everywhere I go. It can make me feel infallible. But that’s not true. I just busted my shoulder, I’ve broken my knee [performing stunts for films], I’ve just failed to explain to my son the last mathematics problem that he had. How am I infallible? So, I’m really a nobody but yes, I’m working for a very important man.”
The family live in a large bungalow called Mannat (meaning “wish”) in the wealthy Bandra neighbourhood, near Mumbai’s northern waterfront. Khan tells me that at the weekend he refuses to answer the phone. His secretary, who hovers around the house, tries to interrupt him for business-related decisions when he’s watching television with the children. “I have made some of the biggest business decisions, good or bad, while watching Hannah Montana,” he says.
At this point, My Name is Khan’s director, Karan Johar, bursts into the hotel room. Khan introduces us before they begin debating the wisdom of an imminent plan by Khan to launch an underwear range. Johar thinks it unwise at the moment, as Khan had recently caused controversy in Mumbai by suggesting that more Pakistani cricketers should have been included in this year’s season of the glitzy, multi-billion dollar Indian Premier League.
His off-the-cuff remarks ignited violent passions among Hindu nationalists, who threatened to destroy cinemas if Khan screened his new film (the film premiere in Mumbai did go ahead, albeit with a heavy police guard). It was a row that united all three of India’s national obsessions – cricket, Bollywood and politics.
Johar urges Khan to scrap the press conference to launch the underwear line – or at the very least not to allow any questions mentioning the Pakistan issue. But Khan, sweeping his hand through his dense hair, looks completely unfazed. He says the launch will go ahead and he will address the cricket row there too, if necessary. “What do you think journalists are going to ask me about? My underwear?” he remarks wryly.
Johar leaves the room and we return to the subject of Mumbai. The city is a cosmopolitan mix of all Indian ethnic groups, but local politicians have become increasingly hostile to outsiders – including those, like Khan, from other parts of India. Khan refuses to let these prejudices pigeonhole him. “I’m an actor, I’m an Indian. My father fought for the freedom of the country. And I truly believe when I say something about a nation or people that you cannot categorise people.”
Warming to the theme, he mentions recent attacks on Indian students in my home city, Melbourne. “Someone has told me very vehemently that there’ve been racial attacks against Indians in Australia. So should I say you’re racist? The world is full of good and bad people, not good Australians or bad Australians, or good Christians and bad Muslims.”
We wrap up the lunch. The PR has been hoping to wind up the interview for some time, but Khan has refused, telling the PR that I can have as much time as I want because I have been chasing this interview for a year, and have flown in from Mumbai.
The underwear endorsement has reminded me to ask a final question. With his ubiquitous advertising presence in India – it is hard to imagine a Hollywood actor achieving anything like this – does he fear over-exposure? Apparently not.
“I have a very clear-cut idea,” Khan says. “My films are not for sale. Films will only be done if I want to do them. For everything else, there’s a price to it.” Because Bollywood stars do not make nearly as much money from films as Hollywood actors do, it is the advertising and endorsements that allow Khan to choose which films he makes.
I stand up to say goodbye, and I wonder which man I have had lunch with today – the servant of the superstar or his master? As I leave the warm Bollywood bubble, and the cold of the London winter hits me outside, I think I may have met them both.
Joe Leahy is the FT’s Mumbai bureau chief
The Courthouse Hotel
1921 Great Marlborough Street, London W1
Room service buffet
Pepsi x 2
Coffee x 1
Bollywood looks west
Travel anywhere in the Middle East and Asia, from Bali to Iran, and you’ll find it hard to miss Shah Rukh Khan, writes Joe Leahy. His films are shown on televisions on buses, in cafés and in hotel bedrooms. He’s proof that in many parts of the world Bollywood is very big business – although it’s a minnow compared with Hollywood: Indian films generated revenues of Rs91.3bn ($2bn) in 2008 against Hollywood’s $28bn.
According to estimates by PricewaterhouseCoopers in Mumbai, Indian movies sold about 3.2bn tickets globally in 2008, against Hollywood’s 7.1bn admissions for the same year.
However, admissions to Hollywood films are flat or declining, both domestically and overseas, while Bollywood is expanding. Currently only about 10 per cent of the Indian film industry’s revenue comes from abroad (compared with more than half for Hollywood) so there’s plenty of scope for expansion.
In the west, Bollywood is popular among the 20m-strong Indian diaspora, but the Indian film industry wants to widen its reach. The success last year of Oscar-laden Slumdog Millionaire – a British film made with Indian actors in Mumbai, which made $377.4m globally – has encouraged Bollywood to try for a larger audience. It has new distribution deals with Hollywood studios: My Name is Khan is distributed by Rupert Murdoch’s Fox Searchlight, which also handled Slumdog Millionaire.
In some markets, such as Germany, Bollywood is already catching on with a wider audience. At the Berlin International Film Festival this month, tickets for My Name is Khan sold out in five seconds. Some tickets were reportedly auctioned on Ebay for €1,000.
Shah Rukh Khan attributes his popularity in Germany to the sentimentality of Bollywood films – a quality that has been lost from much cinema fare in the west. “I ask Germans why they like Bollywood,” Khan told me during our lunch. “They say, ‘We like it because you have provided an automatic button for crying for us. We have a button for everything else, for coffee, for escalators, in our cars but our life has become so mechanised that we don’t have a button for crying anymore.’”
There’s still a long way to go before Bollywood rivals the US. India’s film industry produces nearly twice as many films as Hollywood but they make a pittance at the box office compared with US blockbusters. A huge 2008 hit, Ghajini, featuring another superstar, Aamir Khan, has made $38.3m worldwide compared $2.4bn for Hollywood’s Avatar, according to www.boxofficemojo.com.