Chocolate Boy. Good-looking. Romantic. Dreamy. Cute. Sweet. These are the sort of words that an average cinegoer would use to describe Imran Khan. ‘Brave’ isn’t used much for him. Nor is ‘actor’. Yet there’s something odd about Khan’s filmography, as it stands today. His first release this year was Vishal Bhardwaj’s Matru Ki Bijli Ka Mandola. His second will be Milan Luthria’s Once Upon Ay Time in Mumbai Dobaara! Besides a Dharma Productions’ romcom, Khan has a film each lined up with Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra, Tigmanshu Dhulia and Vikramaditya Motwane.
Khan’s upcoming filmography reads like a list of some of the most anticipated films of next year—with some of the country’s finest directors. What have they spotted in Khan that the audience hasn’t? Or is the audience so used to correlating an actor’s looks with the scope of his acting ability that they’ve missed Khan’s risk-taking?
Take a closer look at his filmography; the only pattern that stands out is the distinct lack of one. At first glance, the number of romcoms he’s been in seems high. But Break Ke Baad and Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu, two of his lesser successes, were not your stereotypical Bollywood romcom fare. Putting these aside, along with the somewhat more mainstream Jaane Tu… Ya Jaane Na, I Hate Luv Storys and Mere Brother Ki Dulhan, you are left with Kidnap, Luck and Delhi Belly. These three films are all remarkably different from each other, and while one may call into question Khan’s acumen in picking the first two, one cannot blame him for not trying.
Talking to him, it becomes apparent he is one of the smartest actors of his generation—commendable in an industry where everyone would much rather be a ‘star’. Much like his celebrated uncle Aamir, Khan is a polite, well-spoken and intelligent interviewee. He gives elaborate, articulate and well-reasoned answers. Unlike his uncle, though, Khan never pauses to think before an answer. He has a clarity and honesty rare in Bollywood. He swears casually every now and then, and when he’s talking about something he’s obviously passionate about, he stammers a little. But once he gets into the groove, he speaks with an urbane and informal eloquence.
He’s mastered the art of conversing with journalists. You’d be prudent to think of it as part and parcel of the media game rather than as mere likeability. But even if it is a rehearsed act, it’s refreshing to meet an actor who is evidently aware of the trappings of Bollywood and doesn’t hesitate to say say so—without naming names or insulting an individual or a sensibility.
“I’ve become increasingly aware of this PR bubble that all of us—from the actors and directors to the editors and journalists—inhabit,” says Khan, off the bat. “We’ve all stepped inside this plastic bubble, and all of us are bouncing these crazy balls around, and we’re getting hit by them (chuckles). All of us are starting to behave and react based on what we see other people doing.”
“For example, I read an article in Bombay Times about an actor getting so many crores as a signing amount and I think, ‘Bhenchod! Mujhe kyun nahin mila?’ Or someone gets a big opening and my friend says to me, ‘Bro, tujhe aaj tak nahin mila!’ These articles may have been paid for by that guy to build up his image, but I go and sign a film with a director whose films I may not otherwise like so I can beat that guy. What I’m really doing is responding to a mirage. And I’m now working for a dishonest reason. That’s an easy trap to fall into, and you can’t fall into it.”
Khan employs another analogy to explain the bubble further: “Everyone’s life on Facebook is awesome! There are photos of the best coffee you ever had, of your shiny new sunglasses, the best Saturday morning ever. When you are looking at that, you think, ‘Yaar, kya zindagi hai iski. Why is my life so boring?’ Now all they’ve really done is gone to a Costa Coffee and taken a picture, but they’ve made it an event, and you start reacting to that. But you have to pull out of this bubble and this rarefied air and get some actual air. The PR machinery needs to be fed and you will be amazed how most of it has sweet fuck-all to do with being an actor. So you have to follow your motivations and let go of these distractions.”
Khan’s own motivations are quite elementary: do the work that satisfies you and lets you sleep at night. Perhaps that sounds a bit too simplistic coming from an actor who commands crores for endorsements and stars, along with Akshay Kumar and Sonakshi Sinha, in this year’s potential Independence Day blockbuster, Once Upon Ay Time In Mumbai Dobaara!, aimed steadfastly at those mythic ‘masses’, replete with action, item numbers and dialogues like ‘Agar main hero ban gaya, toh meri pehchaan bura maan jayegi (If I become a hero, my identity will take offence)’.
But then again, it may well be that simple, since Khan insists he stumbled into acting by chance. “It was always a short term plan,” he says. “It kind of snowballed. I’ve always wanted to be a writer-director, but I kept getting interesting offers, and I like this work too. So I’m choosing scripts based on straightforward logic—will I watch it? For me, it’s just about doing work that I like with people I like. There is no grand strategy.”
Around 2005, Khan came to India from Los Angeles, where he studied screenwriting and direction at the New York Film Academy, looking for work as an assistant director or writer. He landed himself a meeting with a TV channel that produced an hour-long thriller once a week and narrated a story to them that they seemed to really like.
“After much back-thumping and hand shaking and finger snapping and ‘Awesome to meet a young guy like you, bro’, they said ‘thanks’ and promised to call back,” Khan recalls. “Two months went by, but they never called back. And then one day a friend of mine who was acting in that same project told me that one of the stories sounded similar to [the one] I had gone to them with. When I saw the script, I was shocked. They had converted my story into a full-fledged script and, forget giving me credit, they hadn’t even called me!”
Khan tried to get in touch with the gentlemen from the production house, but to no avail. Livid and frustrated, he didn’t know how he could possibly work in such a messed up system. When Abbas Tyrewala offered him a lead role in his youthful, indie-ish romantic comedy Jaane Tu… Ya Jaane Na, he agreed so that “my name would have some recognition and nobody could ever steal a script from me again”.
It was always going to be difficult to pull out once he got into acting. Especially for a cinephile like Khan, who got into the field just for the love of movies. “I remember sitting in this very room with my best friend and being blown away on so many different levels by Guy Ritchie’s Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels,” Khan reminisces, referring to the study-cum-lounge of his ancestral home, Nasir Hussain bungalow, named after his grandfather, the late legendary filmmaker.
“So when the script for Delhi Belly came into my hands, my heart started going, ‘dhak, dhak, dhak’… I couldn’t believe it was happening,” he laughs. “I was getting to be part of a movie that was emotionally and spiritually like Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels. But I swear to God, when we were making it, not for a moment did I believe it was going to see the light of day. I believed in the movie, and I hoped it would find an audience, but I really didn’t think it would release. And then it did, and it worked. So when these things happen, you continue your journey and keep experimenting.”
Of course, all of this is easier said than done, and Khan has tasted as much failure as success. After the successful Jaane Tu.. Ya Jaane Na, Luck and Kidnap flopped miserably. Other risks he took down the road, like the quirky romcom Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu, in which—spoiler alert!—the girl and guy don’t end up together, or the political satire Matru Ki Bijli Ka Mandola, in which he plays a Haryanvi activist, didn’t quite pay off. Critics’ reactions to his acting have, more often than not, been unflattering, to the extent of being hostile.
But Khan has learnt to be undeterred by box office results and critical flak, as long as he’s constantly working on improving himself. “Imagine if a film of mine fails, and I go on the sets of the next one I’m filming and ask the director to make it a comedy instead. Or if I read a puff piece in Cosmo in which a girl says my eyes are dreamy and I tell the director, ‘Bhenchod, eyes ka close-up le, I’m telling you, chicks dig my eyes!’ Here, of course, it’s very important for the director to be strong and tell the actor to hold course,” he laughs.
“NK Sharma, who trained me for Matru…, turned life coach to me in the middle. He told me that for one critic who writes bad [things] about me or my films, there are a hundred people who watch and like me and my films. So if I’m giving weightage to the critic, I should give the exact same weightage to a member of the audience.”
“At the same time, without being overly critical of myself, I keep asking, ‘What could I have done better?’ I mean, forget as just a creative person, but in any field, the day you pat your own back and go, ‘Bro, well done,’ you are screwed. That is the day you stop any kind of growth. For example, I love cooking and I cook a lot. After I’m done, I’m always asking everyone, ‘What do you think? Enough salt? Too spicy?’ That’s part of the entire process, man. You’ve got to keep doing that. You can’t sit back and be satisfied.”
Khan admits that, apart from training specifically for a movie, he’s learning to act by trial and error. He watches playback of his takes to see if he did alright, he watches other actors he’s working with and even actors on screen to understand the nuances they bring to their roles. He learns gestures from directors or picks them up from actors onscreen and pieces together his performances by working hard. “It’s like walking down a maze,” he says. “Something doesn’t work out, and you hit a bump, so you go another way. As long as you keep learning.”
For this reason, despite being acutely aware of his limitations, Khan says he never lets his fears or doubts interfere with taking on a challenge or treading outside ‘the box’. “I feel, very often people limit themselves by imposing restrictions that no one else has imposed on them. ‘I’ll only do this type of film.’ But for God’s sake, why? You’re bloody building a wall. As a creative person, it is your job to stretch your boundaries, and hence stretch the boundaries of other people. If you voluntarily restrict yourself, how will you show the audience something they may not have seen before? If you don’t take risks, how will the taste of the audience evolve?”
It seems important to him to be able to contribute to the evolving tastes of the audience—even as his own sensibilities evolve. He compares the exposure of audiences to new kinds of cinema to eating sushi for the first time. “At first, you go ‘Yuck! It’s raw, and old and clammy.’ And then you reach the point where you love it. But for that, you’ve gotta try it first. So for those of us who’ve seen different kinds of cinema and have had more exposure, it’s important that we create an appetite in the audience for such movies. That’s the way I look at it. You bet on first time directors, small-budget but content-driven films and try to get audiences interested, movie by movie. But you don’t back away from what motivates you and what you like just because the box office isn’t a hundred crore.”
If there’s one thing Khan doesn’t like, it’s “pandering to the audience”. This is why he doesn’t watch television; he believes it assumes the worst in the audience. “It assumes that you are dumb, that you are shallow. And then it reaches out and it finds that, somewhere inside you, there is dumbness [and] shallowness, and it finds that point [in you] and massages it. When you’re actively believing the worst in people, and then encouraging the worst in people, I think you are directly contributing to the decline of society. This phenomenon has seeped into the movies as well, and I can never stand for it.”
That sounds like a paradox, in light of his forthcoming masala flick, but Khan laughs and tries to convince me it isn’t. “It’s a very classic movie. I mean, I watch movies to be entertained. I don’t view cinema as a high art form. I view it as something that is meant to make people laugh, to thrill them, or move them emotionally in some way. My romcoms have generally dealt with first world problems like, ‘She doesn’t understand me, bro,’ and the directors I’ve worked with like Shakun [Batra] or Danish [Aslam], who are my friends, shy away from making a scene too emotional because they think it’s melodrama… When I read the script of Once Upon Ay Time…Dobaara!, it had heightened drama; it made me cry and it made me laugh. These were life and death situations. I found it very satisfying. It came with jeera powder and masala on top. It was just very tasty… Obviously, I was full of doubt when I took it up, but then, it was another way of pushing my boundaries. And I love doing that. I can’t hope for anything better.”