Rahul Khanna: The Internet’s Gentleman Boyfriend
The crossover star of the 90s, Rahul Khanna plays a Pakistani intelligence officer in an Emmy-nominated drama and becomes the internet’s latest boyfriend
Tucked away in a lane a few hundred meters from Mumbai’s iconic Haji Ali Dargah, you are likely to miss The Royal Willingdon Sports Club, if you aren’t aware of it. Founded in 1918 by Lord Willingdon, the then Governor of the city that was once called Bombay, the club is cited as Mumbai’s “most exclusive”, with its membership closed to outsiders since 1985. It most famously denied membership to Padmashri Dr. DY Patil, in 2010, while he was the governor of Tripura, and is especially known for its snobbery towards all things ‘Bollywood’.
So the elite club is the last place you expect to meet an actor for an interview, least of all an actor who purportedly counts his allegiance to the Indian film industry. But then again, Rahul Khanna is no ‘Boutique Bollywood actor’, even though his Twitter bio irreverently claims otherwise.
Khanna, the son of the legendary ‘70s superstar, Vinod Khanna, India’s first de-facto sex symbol, and former model Gitanjali Taleyarkhan, could well be the living and breathing personification of cinema’s popular ‘fish out of water’ trope. Stylish to a fault and impeccably well-mannered, the actor has the grace and poise of a gentleman more suited to the era in which the Willingdon Club flourished, than the hasty, unruly world of today.
His filmography has been measured and unhurried, his anchoring appearances have been select, his press interactions have been few and far between, and there’s painfully little known about his personal life. And then there’s that paradox: for someone who’s self-confessedly reserved, he is a rage on social media, not so much because he tries to be, but particularly because he doesn’t. His social media profiles are a picture of effortless wit and old world charm, and have led to a collective following of over half a million followers.
It is of little wonder then that the 44-year-old Khanna – who looks at least a decade younger – has been rediscovered by an entirely new section of the audiences, mostly excitable, frenzied millennial girls who have filled the internet with posts declaring that they can’t have enough of his naughty, suggestive Snapchats (he once posted a picture titled ‘morning wood’ that had him standing in front of wooden logs one early morning) or his tantalizing Instagram posts, filled with ‘ovary-busting pictures’, as one listicle site put it.
Is he the internet’s new boyfriend? Ask him and he bursts out laughing, “It’s all a bit of fun, really. You know, I don’t have a publicist or a PRO, and I’m a classic introvert, so when the social media phenomenon came out, I thought this would be a nice way to connect with people who are interested in me. The idea is for it to be a part of your personality and to use it to express yourself. I don’t want to share my opinions or be political, I’m only there for a positive experience. But I never thought anyone’s even paying attention to this!”
And when he did realise that there was rapt attention from female fans, it gave him the license to be a bit sassy, leading to everyone from Buzzfeed to MissMalini declaring him ‘sex on legs’. “I would be lying to you if I said I don’t love the attention,” he chuckles, “especially since it’s not lascivious, it’s fun and flirty. But now that I know people are watching, there is this temptation to be a bit creative and be a little cheeky.”
Not only does Khanna have fun with his accounts publically, he also stays playful with his rather sweet habit of personally replying to anyone who tags him in a post through a personal, intimate direct message. Once, the actor responded to tweet from a female fan who had asked him to marry him, by messaging her, “Certainly. Is Saturday good for you?” The internet discovered her screenshot recently, driving hordes of female fans ecstatic that the eternal bachelor is now a DM away from marrying them, and he soon started trending for the same. Everyone wanted a DM from Rahul Khanna, and Khanna was only happy to oblige most.
“It was quite bizarre when that happened,” Khanna chuckles. “I didn’t understand that. I feel if someone has taken the trouble to tag me or say something nice, it’s only polite for me to reply. I want my profiles to be happy so I just started using them in the way I would chat with a friend on SMS or Whatsapp. I just want to be authentic.”
The word ‘happiness’, along with ‘joy’ comes up a lot during the course of our conversation. And every which way you look at Rahul Khanna’s story so far, whether you casually google him or speak at length with him, you’d see why authenticity is just as important a trait for him.
As a bespectacled ‘nerdy’ kid with an affinity for pinstriped shirts and khaki pants (“I had a connection with pinstripes that made me feel good about myself”), Khanna grew up with his kid brother, actor Akshaye Khanna, in South Bombay, distinctly away from the heart of Bollywood that resided in and around Juhu and Andheri. His parents split up early in his childhood, and with it, so did most of his connections with the film world.
“It’s strange that we, as kids, were perceived as belonging to that world,” he reflects. “I sort of equate myself as being an outsider with inside access. All we knew is that our Dad was an actor and people knew who he was. So as a kid, there was a time I wanted to be a vet because I love dogs, and another time I wanted to be an artist because I loved cartooning. I knew it would be something creative but didn’t know it would be film. I ended up here… but I still kind of feel I don’t know which world I belong to.”
It was the opportunity to go to New York along with his interest in the creative arts that inspired him to enroll in film school at The School of Visual Arts, New York. Along the way, he also did an acting course at the Lee Strasberg Theater Institute.
“The end game wasn’t to get into Bollywood, it was only to explore the craft,” he says. “I was very influenced by the new sort of burgeoning Indian independent cinema coming out of the west. There was this little theater in New York called The Angelina that would play only independent, foreign films. I saw a film called Masala by a filmmaker called Sreenivas Krishna from Canada, and it was spectacular to see English language films about India.”
Although his brother, Akshaye, made his Bollywood debut around the same time as he was studying filmmaking, with Himalay Putra, a film produced by their father, Vinod Khanna, Khanna just couldn’t relate to what Bollywood was in those days. “There were no scripts!” he chuckles. “When people would offer me stuff and I’d ask for a script, it would be inconceivable to them that I didn’t understand the Bollywood way of working, and it was inconceivable to me that they wouldn’t have a script.”
Bollywood did happen a few years later, but it was in the early 90s, when Khanna first burst on to the scene as the Indian face of MTV Asia, even before MTV India was launched. After enjoying immense adulation and being hailed as a metrosexual Indian icon, at a time leading Bollywood actors were more famous for their chest hair than their acting skills, Khanna became one of the first young leading men to star in crossover Indian cinema with Deepa Mehta’s 1947 Earth and Bollywood/Hollywood.
It was this experience he had on the film set, along with a 8-shows-a-day, 11 week stint on the off-Broadway stage, with “theater royalty” Scott Elliott-directed play, East is East, that made him believe acting was his calling.
“Earth and East is East were incredible first acting jobs for me. I picked up so much about teamwork and they set the bar really high in terms of the kind of people and crew you could work with. I find acting to be a very intimate process, so it helped me, as an introvert, to connect. And those environments made me realise that if I could continue to do this, it would be a really good thing.”
So post his early days as a crossover star, the reason Khanna only did a handful of films over the next decade was not due to lack of offers, but because for him, relating to the team behind the film was just as important as the scripts he was getting.
“I want to be working with people I respect and who respect me back, because that’s the only way you can enjoy work and get a good result out of it” he emphasizes. “What’s the point of taking on something, when it would seem that you’d be miserable during the process? So when I look back at films of mine that haven’t been received well, if I had a good time on them, and if I’ve made friends, I feel they were worth it.”
He points out that there were times he wasn’t sure of a project but went ahead and did it anyway because he liked the people. “It was also important for me to prove wrong people who believed that I had some sort of prejudice against Bollywood,” he says. “Whenever I’d meet people, it was always implied that I perhaps felt that I was better than Bollywood, and hence hadn’t done so much of it. To them I would say, how could I have anything against Bollywood if I worked with Raj Kanwar!”
That would explain some of the misfires in the early part of his Bollywood filmography, but when he started taking up character-driven roles in films like Ayan Mukerji’s Wake Up Sid and Imtiaz Ali’s Love Aaj Kal, he saw another exasperating side of the same industry.
“After these films, I’d only get offered ‘the other guy’ roles!” he laughs. “People started telling me how brave I was for doing such a role in these films but I never knew these rules. No one told them to me when I was taking up the films! (pause) It did get a bit frustrating that I wasn’t getting to do more of what I love, but it’s not a vanity thing for me to see myself on screen ‘x’ number of times. Besides, isn’t the whole point of it to have fun?”
Having fun has been the driving force behind taking up the cameo in season one of Anil Kapoor’s 24, and also a scene-stealing role in the international drama series, The Americans, that has been nominated for an Emmy Award for Best Drama this year. What started off as a one episode cameo, was turned into a full-fledged arc in the following season, even if that meant coming to terms with the graphic sex scenes he had to indulge in as a Pakistani spy with a keen eye for American women.
“My friends haven’t stopped tormenting me about that,” he chuckles. “From screenshots to Whatsapp group profile pictures, I’ve seen it all. The good thing, acting wise, is that after you spend 16 hours naked in a room full of strangers, there’s nothing you can’t do. It’s no longer an unknown beast.”
The Emmy nomination would certainly give the show a big boost and Khanna will perhaps come to benefit it too along the way. At the moment, even as he hopes to be called back for another arc on the show, he’s looking at scripts in both countries to figure his next steps. He’s got a travel show coming up on NDTV Good Times that will see him on the whiskey trail in Scotland, and while there’s been serious talks and negotiations for a men’s clothing line, given his tremendous style credentials, it’s yet to be worked out.
All of these things are an important part of what he calls, ‘the pursuit of joy’. “I feel that life is really short and if you are not doing stuff that brings you joy, then you are wasting your time,” he smiles. What gives him joy on a daily basis, you ask him? Reading, food, gymming and meeting friends are high on his list. He also has a certain fondness for antique furniture and collects boarding passes, although he’ snot sure why. But it’s not about individual things, he says, but the way you live your life.
“I feel we, as a people, have become a little bit less considered. So everything I do or own or like has been considered. So, if you say, I have nice manner, it’s because it’s a nice thing to have, it’s nice when someone smiles because of you.”
“It’s a horrible example, I know, “he continues with a laugh, “but I see people who may have an amazing car but they’d treat it really badly. My car may be 300 times more modest but I appreciate it and keep it well. I’m not saying my way is right, but I see people who have a lot more than I do, but nothing brings them happiness.”
It’s almost strange to see the Zen-like attitude, especially coming from someone who is a part of an industry fundamentally built on desire, and with a first name that has come to be synonymous with a period of Bollywood that reflected upward mobility and aspiration. But where everyone likes to fit inside little brackets of stereotype and cliché, Khanna’s refreshingly alright about standing out. “I have always been a round peg in a square hole,” he explains through an idiom that’s almost as peculiar as he asserts he is.
“I was uncomfortable about it when I was younger, because there was an emphasis to fit in and be a certain way, but now, I feel it is one of my biggest strengths, that I don’t fit in anywhere. So I’m also really attracted to people who are odd, who don’t play by the rules, and whom other people call weird. I really like those kind of people, and I feel it is a wonderful quality to have: in a world so standardized, to have people who are themselves. I love that!”
That’s perhaps, then, the best way of defining Rahul Khanna, connoisseur of the good life, pursuer of joy, and the internet’s current boyfriend: A gentleman of his own, in a world that is standardized.
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Note: This interview first appeared in Open Magazine on August 5, 2016
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