As 3 Idiots strikes gold across the globe, the babyface of Bollywood Aamir Khan talks Jon Wilks through Indian cinema
Time Out Bahrain staff
It’s a peculiarity of this job that I’ll occasionally interview someone who means zip to me, yet 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 he only popped up on my personal radar a month ago, around the time I dropped into an Indian cinema, handed over my BD2.500, and sat down to watch 3 Idiots.
I’m not 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 doing 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 Indian cinema felt watching Danny Boyle’s tribute to the genre. Again, he’s unfailingly polite, though forthright in his opinion. ‘I suppose I’m too well aware of how things are here in Bombay; the lead kid who is supposed to be from the slums talking in a British accent, in English, kind of throws me off. 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.’
‘International perspective’ is key to the crossover. As the world’s population becomes increasingly homogenous in its tastes, it’s peculiar that Hindi film has trouble finding a significant audience outside of its home country. Khan’s latest film, 3 Idiots, has gone some way towards correcting this, with a continuous presence in the UK top 10 this winter, but he’s certainly not hurrying to ride 3 Idiots to Hollywood. ‘For me the criteria of a film, whether it’s Indian or made outside, is the same. I mean, the script has to excite me; the director has to be someone who I trust and have faith in. Nothing really exciting has come my way so far.’
Khan’s rise to fame is the stuff of legend. ‘I’m not a trained actor. I’ve never been to acting school, so I have no knowledge of the theory of acting.’ 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?” 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 3 Idiots, a character-led caper that 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 home-made 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 remembers, laughing. ‘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, and I stuck fast to my guns.’
Leaving his college education behind, he found a job in the local film industry and from there his rise to the top was swift. Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak (1988) made him a household name and his ‘chocolate-boy good looks’ (Bollywood’s phrase, not ours) prompted Indian women to write love letters to him in blood. These days, he’s one of the most powerful men in Indian cinema. 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 to track him down. He admits that the opportunity to interact with people ‘without them knowing who I am… was something I haven’t experienced in my own country in 20 years.’
With 3 Idiots now behind him, he’s working on a project with a personal twist, under the direction of his wife, Kiran Rao, in Dhobi Ghaat. ‘She’s a part of all the films that our company produces,’ he explains, ‘but with me as an actor and her 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. ‘Shooting is complete now,’ he laughs, ‘and 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. 3 Idiots is on general release across Bahrain. Dhobi Ghaat is scheduled for release later this year.