Hrithik Roshan is impossible to ignore if you’re in Mumbai. He stares down from every second giant billboard, his piercing green eyes convincing you to subscribe to Airtel or wear Provogue. He is by no means Bollywood’s biggest star but he is one of the most visible, and that vision of him is one that his fans awe at. When he walks into the India Couture Week lounge, he isn’t surrounded by bodyguards but spotlights, cameramen calling out his name and nickname in hope for that one exclusive shot that will make it to the front page the next day. He stops and talks to everyone, unperturbed by neither the crowd nor the hysteria. It’s obvious that while many other superstars prefer to walk in with a human shield of bodyguards protecting them, Hrithik is comfortable in his skin and unafraid to expose it to the harsh spotlights.
From the very public introductions made at India Couture Week to the much more intimate setting of his home, I end up in the Il Pallazzo Building where he lives, to interview him. That appearances do not matter is as much the nature of Mumbai as it is of Karachi, and the façade of Hrithik’s residence belies the palatial interior of the four floors he and his family occupy. But despite the unassuming exterior, his address is no secret as a small band of street dwellers are constantly camped outside, playing the hit tune of ‘Kaho Naa Pyar Hai’ on shehnai whenever they see his car arrive.
Amused by the serenading fans as I wait by the window in his drawing room, I observe his home that is embellished with books, art, statues and portraits that raise his father – Rakesh Roshan – to deity-like proportions. It is apparent that he is the most important person in Hrithik’s life. The impersonal space of his drawing room is speckled with evidence of life with family pictures. The mammoth dining table – perfect for the kind of soirees that celebrities are used to hosting – slowly gets trussed up with Diwali baskets to be sent out. It is a festive week in Mumbai and every home is decorated with marigold garlands, well oiled and brightly lit diyas, rangolis and flowers and Hrithik’s is no exception. Drawing a parallel, it is very much like any Pakistani home during Eid. I am allowed a moment to absorb it all before I am brought back with a sudden “Hi”.
Hrithik Roshan. If you’re thinking of Hrithik Roshan as Emperor Akbar from Jodhaa Akbar or the enigmatic Mr A from Dhoom 2, then you are headed for disappointment. He’s nothing like the sweet, muscular young boy that grappled Pakistan as well as India in total fascination when his debut film Kaho Naa Pyar Hai released.
“I knew I would be liked a lot,” he says later, when he’s talking about becoming an overnight sensation. “I always know the background hum, which is either ecstasy or fear, and when I watched Kaho Naa Pyar Hai the background hum was ecstatic. I didn’t know it would make this big a mark though, the success of my first film was an anomaly. What happened with my first film, it hadn’t happened before.”
He may sound arrogant and all high and mighty but in person Hrithik is anything but. He just comes across as an incredibly confident and fearless actor, someone deriving strength from the knowledge that he will put his one hundred percent into everything he does and in return will be as successful as he deserves to be.
“I live to learn how I can make my life a better story,” he introspects and one has to make a repetitive effort to pull him out of philosophizing. “I see my life as a film of which I am writing my own screenplay and I have a climax I have to reach. I want to see how many roles I have to play to get there. I am not afraid of life. I am fearless and that is the lesson I would want to propagate but that’s not the kind of lesson you can teach.”
Philosophy aside, Hrithik is down to earth, continuously playing down his super stardom as merely a role assigned to him. Dressed in jeans, a well worn t-shirt and slippers a size too big for his feet, he’s not at all intimidating, though he is as intense and attentive: a man who makes you comfortable when he smiles at you, not insecure. Hrithik is also a lot less athletic and slimmer than the muscular action hero we tend to associate with Krrish. But that, he explains, is because he hasn’t been to the gym for five months. He is living in the character he plays in his upcoming film Guzaarish; that of a paralyzed man for which he had to put up a weak and unhealthy appearance.
The shehnai lingers on from the pavement below.
“That must be so flattering,” I turn around to say to him. “Does this happen all the time?”
“All the time,” he smiles, adding that he does sometimes go out on the balcony to wave at them.
“Quite like the pope,” I think aloud.
“It’s no fun thinking you’re god,” he replies. “You can fool yourself into thinking you’re invincible but that’s just a bubble. People tell me that I have great responsibility as a role model but I don’t think like that. That would be feeding my ego and ego is a bottomless pit. Who I am does not change the way I wake up every morning. I don’t pretend to be a star. It’s hopeless and meaningless to think that way.”
With that he lights up his second cigarette, much to my surprise, reiterating that Hrithik Roshan is not out to play stereotypes to a role model.
“I am usually a health freak but I’m living on the other extreme of the spectrum these days,” he explains. “I’m smoking in my current film (Guzaarish) and I haven’t worked out for five months because I have to show a fat belly. I’m playing a person who’s paralyzed so since I can’t work out I said to myself ‘why not experience as much as you can’. I like to live the roles I play and borrow experiences from my life. Three years ago I was told by doctors that I would lose the use of my knee. I was on crutches for three months. Doctors had given up and I was given a year to walk. I took that emotion and exaggerated it to experience what it might feel to be paralyzed.”
At this point one of the many houseboys dressed in white brings in a strawberry milk shake that turns out to be a protein shake: Hrithik’s lunch. He says he has no time to have a proper lunch, despite these being the Diwali holidays in Mumbai.
“I haven’t been this stressed for two years,” he says, “because a lot of things are happening at the same time. There’s the whole marketing of Kites. It’s been two years since my last release.”
Hrithik isn’t nervous but anxiety is prevalent because Kites will be his first film since Jodhaa Akbar two years ago. I tell him that in Pakistan we thought Jodhaa Akbar was historically flawed and he shrugs it off.
“I involve myself in the film until the first print is released. Then it’s on to the next.”
I also try getting him to admit that Bollywood actors have problems with the Urdu diction. They cannot pronounce their ‘gh’ and ‘kh’ properly.
“Did you see Akbar?” he questions with the raise of an eyebrow. “Gh…kh…” he delivers to perfection, then adds, “I can do anything. I’m a magician. I do my job as close to perfection as I can.”
And it’s this perfection that Kites and Guzaarish is banking on. I ask him whether the release of Indian films in Pakistan (thus building a huge market) has made an impact on the kind of themes picked up in Bollywood. They are getting more sub-continent friendly and focus less on the Pakistan versus India animosity.
“I don’t like to see the world in a divisive way,” Hrithik over-simplifies the discussion.
“I don’t like the word patriotism because it’s a way of conditioning peoples’ mindsets about a sense of belonging to one place and pointing a finger across the border as a threat. For example, if you go to the neighbour’s house and tell the mother that I want your son to go kill the other neighbour she’ll slap you and tell you to go get lost. But if you take the national flag and go tell her that her son needs to kill thousands of faceless sons in the honour of her country, she won’t blink an eye and in fact will be proud. That’s what patriotism does. It’s divisive and it’s destructive. I don’t believe in it.
“So I don’t look at movies in the same way, movies are made for our entire species. There is oneness in my head about who we are. I don’t see people from other countries as separate. I see myself as a part of every person I meet.”
“So you’d come to Pakistan?” I persist with the knowledge that many stars have refused at the risk of appearing unpatriotic.
“Of course. Why is that even a question?” he frowns. “It’s not a thought.”
Would he think of stepping into co-productions with Pakistan, despite the fact that many Indo-Pak releases have not done well at the box office?
“Nothing is impossible,” he replies with conviction. “It doesn’t mean that if a couple of films haven’t done well then they never will. Everything is divisive right now and for our ultimate survival this divisiveness needs to be eradicated. How? I’ll have to become president!”
Hear, hear, I think, while undiplomatically steering the conversation to another unpleasant topic: how the media covers entertainment in India. How a kiss becomes bigger than the movie (Dhoom 2) and how on-screen chemistry between two leading actors becomes the strongest sales point for a film (rumours regarding him and Barbara Mori). By now I am prepared that he will either disagree with what I say or any question I ask Hrithik will set him off on a long drawn philosophical answer. I prove to be right when he replies…
“I have a lot of complaints about the media – and I say this without singling out the Indian press – and the way things are reported. The way we report is more business. I wouldn’t be happy with my sons watching the news channels because they only talk about distress and the reporting is incorrect. It is dangerous. We are not making the world a better place. The world can be a better place if we only look at it the right way. Reporting is always about dramatization, pointing a finger. That applies to entertainment news as well. But we are evolving as human beings and this will change.”
Bollywood is evolving too, I ask, but can it ever evolve into being heroine centric rather than male dominated?
“What you’re saying doesn’t mean anything,” he reflects. “There are no heroine centric films because not many people are making good heroine centric films. That doesn’t mean it cannot change. People felt the same way about super heroes in Bollywood and when we were making Krrish they laughed at us. But it was a hit. Its all about good films and bad films, not types of films”
Seeing that it’s getting late I ask him to return my dictaphone which he’s thoughtfully been holding close to his mouth during the interview. Hrithik Roshan is very thoughtful; I draw a mental conclusion, when he asks whether I was served anything when I arrived. Out of sheer mischief I ask him how much pressure he got to take time out for this interview.
“Not much,” he smiles. “If I had it my way I would still be at my office working on the marketing of Kites and I would have had a full lunch instead of a protein shake. But you make sacrifices for the people you love. I love Farah (Khan Ali, his wife Suzanne’s sister) and when she wanted me to do this I didn’t even ask her why.”
Instep would like to thank Farah Khan Ali for organizing this interview at Hrithik Roshan’s house in Mumbai in October 2009. It was published in The News a week later.