So, how was Shah Rukh Khan, really?
It’s a question people have been asking me ever since I interviewed him in Dubai, where he was on a promotional tour of his upcoming film, Fan. How was he? Was he charming? Down to earth? Did he smell good? Was he witty, funny and as intelligent as he’s made out to be? Was he arrogant?
There are so many answers to each question and there isn’t a question that hasn’t been asked and answered about Shah Rukh Khan or to Shah Rukh Khan ever before. But here’s what happened in the four hours that I spent on set with the world’s biggest cinema star, observing him as closely as I could before finally sitting down for an exclusive conversation.
It was 4:49, exactly two hours and forty-nine minutes after the interviews were supposed to begin. The entire 37th floor of the Marriot Marquis Hotel had been cordoned off for the press meet, access denied at lobby level unless you were on the list. Shah Rukh Khan, in Dubai for the Times of India Film Awards (where he had performed the night earlier) as well as a promotional media session for Fan, was scheduled to meet up with almost 18 different channels from as close to Pakistan and as far as Germany, Egypt and Lebanon. It was a marathon conducted by Yash Raj Films, that was supposed to begin at 2pm but his team kept calling in and delaying. SRK had a flight to catch back to India at 9pm, which meant he had to leave for the airport at 8pm and every delayed minute was individual time lost.
At exactly 4:50, when we were discussing how Amitabh Bachchan is famous for being prompt, we turned around to see Shah Rukh Khan standing in the doorway, accompanied by his posse of intimidating sidekicks. Dressed immaculately in a black suit with a crisp white shirt, he could have been anyone, which was odd considering you assume a star of his magnitude to walk in with a proverbial drum roll beating in the back ground. There was none of that but when he passed by us he whispered under his breath, “I’m sorry, party thori ziyada ho gayee raat ko.” (I’m sorry, there was a bit too much partying last night). He had an audience. That was the beginning of our Shah Rukh Khan experience.
What followed was a juggernaut of one camera crew after another and he drifted through it as smoothly as a glider moves through the sky. It was effortless and natural, as if he had done it a thousand times. Which he obviously has. And it came to him just as instinctively. There wasn’t a moment’s pause or hesitation as he answered one question after the other, from Fan to his personal fandom; he recalled how he himself was a fan of Imran Khan and years ago when he had lined up for an autograph after a match in India, Khan – then captain of Pakistan’s cricket team – had hushed him away irritably. He spoke about films to the future of cinema, from India to what interested us most, his connection with Pakistan. He maintained a very low tone, as if preserving his voice, and continued almost in automation. It wasn’t insincere or distant, there was actual interest and attention in his responses but it was so subliminal that it could have been rehearsed.
Wasn’t this a downside to stardom, I asked him when (three and a half hours later) I finally sat down for twenty minutes of personal time. Being probed and prodded by one interviewer after the other for almost four hours straight; did he ever say to himself, or others, that he’d had enough?
“To be honest it’s become a part of my job and I have to do it,” he answered in the same low tone that was now almost as soft as a whisper. “There are so many upsides of being who I’ve become that I find nothing obtrusive or troublesome. Two days ago I was rehearsing for my (TOIFA) performance…I came (to Dubai), did three appearances and finished off with them; I had dinner with Sanjay Leela (Bhansali) and I went to rehearse. I rehearsed till six in the morning, came back to the hotel, slept and got up at one o clock. A lot of people ask me, ‘why do you have to do this?’ I don’t have to do anything if I don’t want to but I like doing it. I want to.”
I brought up the fact that he had been incessantly smoking and drinking one cup of black coffee after the other for over four hours straight. Was it a survival skill?
“I can go to sleep after having a cup of black coffee and I can stay awake without having black coffee, so I don’t think it works for me that way,” he dismissed the idea of being dependent on anything. “A lot of people say, ‘Oh, let me have a cup of black coffee to stay awake’; I’ve never had that problem. I’ve been doing it (drinking black coffee non-stop) for so many years that I don’t really think about it anymore.”
It came as naturally to him as did the love for his work. Shah Rukh Khan, now 50-plus is no longer the romantic hero he once was but he’s obviously a visionary who’s adamant to take Indian cinema to another level. Fan, he shared, was to be the first of its kind of Bollywood film. The film’s trailer indicates a dark, sinister side to the story and it hints at Shah Rukh Khan coming full circle to his inaugural anti-hero roots. Over and above the film and its plot was Shah Rukh Khan’s double role, an almost impossible transition from Aryan Khanna the megastar to the faintly looking-alike, twenty-something fan, Gaurav.
“I think Fan is one of the biggest breakthroughs in technology in India in terms of what we’ve done with Gaurav’s face. I really like it,” he shared, adding that it would take five hours (daily) of work on his face to transform it to Gaurav. The same make-up artist who had created Benjamim Button with Brad Pitt created the magic and it required copious amounts of patience to sit through as well as tolerate the make-up during shoots when the heat rose and his skin would sweat and itch under the prosthesis. “It was very challenging,” he admitted.
“You know, if you’re an artist then sometimes you have to explain your painting; sometimes you need to express yourself because film is a popular format and people want to know,” he continued. “Like this gentleman was asking me how I prepared for my role (as Gaurav in Fan) and it’s not usually something I talk about. Like you never talk about how colours are mixed (if you’re a painter) but amongst the hundred people that are listening two or three may find it interesting. So you, not educate, but at least make people aware of what goes into making a film.”
Observing Shah Rukh Khan that day, it was hard to believe that this man could find anything challenging. He wasn’t arrogant but there was an air of self-assurance that comes with being a megastar, when you’ve done it all and nothing is impossible anymore. He could turn the charm higher or lower as easily as you manage a lantern flame and that dimpled smile was as mesmerizing as it gets coming from a Raj or Rahul on the big screen. Shah Rukh Khan, in person, was physically an image of the man next door but the halo of super stardom that embraced him, the aura or charisma that transformed him the minute you saw him on camera, is stuff legends are made of.