Beijing: Bollywood King Shah Rukh Khan Talks Netflix Partnership, #MeToo in India

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Shah Rukh Khan

Shortly after getting mobbed by fans at the Beijing airport, the Bollywood superstar sat down with THR during his first trip to China to discuss Indian cinema's sudden market sway in the Middle Kingdom and his creative ambitions.

Shah Rukh Khan, one of the biggest movie stars on the planet, made his very first trip to China this week. Upon touching down at Beijing International Airport, the 52-year-old Bollywood icon was instantly mobbed by an unexpected contingent of Chinese fans who had traveled across the country to greet him.

Known at home as "SRK," the "King of Bollywood," or simply "King Khan," he has appeared in more than 80 Bollywood films, and earned numerous accolades at home and overseas, including a French Légion d'honneur and 14 trophies at the Filmfare Awards, one of India's leading film awards shows. Khan is in Beijing this week to attend the China premiere of his latest star vehicle Zero, which will screen as the closing film of the Beijing International Film Festival on Saturday.

Khan's inaugural trip to China comes at an auspicious moment, as Indian filmmaking continues to make major headway at the Middle Kingdom box office. Fellow Bollywood leading man Aamir Khan burst open the gates in 2017 with his family sports drama Dangal, which earned an historic $191 million in China. No Bollywood tentpole has since hit such heights, but Indian filmmaking continues to do considerable business in China, such as Viacom18's offbeat black comedy Andhadhun, currently on release with $35 million in ticket sales to date — considerably more than its Indian total.

The Hollywood Reporter sat down with Khan just hours after his arrival in China to discuss the sudden film industry convergence between the world's two most populous nations, his experience as one of Netflix's most high-profile Bollywood partners, the #MeToo movement's impact in India and his current ambitions as an actor.  

So I understand this is your very first trip to China. What told you the time was right for this visit?

You know, I've been wanting to come here for some time. China is a place one has to come to see sometime. But I missed out on the last few chances; I think I was busy with work or shooting somewhere. So this time I got the opportunity to come for my film and the Beijing Film Festival, so I thought I'd better take it.

Over the past 15 to 20 years, Indian films have gone a little beyond the Indian diaspora of the U.K. and U.S. and reached places like Germany, Hungary, Australia, Singapore and the Middle East, of course. Suddenly, there is a whole wave of interest in the Chinese market with some of our films having done very well here. So it kind of becomes obvious that you should come here and see how business is done.

And I think the model they've put up here is quite amazing. What a learning experience for the rest of the world. In a few years — 10 or 15 years — they've just changed the whole concept of what they do with cinema in terms of bringing it to the audience.

So to experience all that, I think my time here will be too short, but at least it's a beginning.

I heard you received an especially warm welcome at the Beijing airport.

Yes, I did. [Laughs.] I got to know these lovely people from an area called Shenzhen. They have a fan club there, and they came all the way to Beijing to greet me, and they were very loving and sweet.

I'll also tell you, you don't realize how people from a place are until you you start spending time there. Before you experience it, you have an outside point of view. I always thought if you come to China, people will be very quiet and they'll be inward and a little formal, like how you see in the movies sometimes. But they all jumped onto me and started hugging and kissing me. It felt like I haven't left India [laughs]. And that felt nice.

You mentioned how Indian filmmaking has become a force here in China over the past couple of years. As I'm sure you're also aware, there's been a pattern of Chinese audiences' tastes shifting very quickly. Genres explode and become the hot thing for a time, before abruptly fading into the next trend. When Bollywood cinema first came to the fore in China, I heard some analysts suggest that it might just prove to be the latest fad. But so far that hasn't happened — another Indian film, Andhadhun, is performing beyond expectations here right now, having already earned more in China than it did in India. So what's your read on how the market for Indian film has developed so far, and where it's headed?

I think when there's a burgeoning industry that's just coming up — because so many theaters are being built — it's natural that suddenly there would be a taste for X-type of film, because people didn't have access to it before. So this genre could become a fad, getting consumed a lot very fast; and then the audience gets bored with it after some time. I can understand that.

But the thing that hopefully may help Indian cinema stay around for a while is our cultural similarity. Not just that we are national neighbors; not just the fact that we are the most populated. It's that we have many shared cultural values. I grew up watching all of the great kung fu films that have been seen around the world, and there is a lot I recognize in them. The teacher is always someone who is very revered; the family is very important. We are both very steeped in our cultures. And, strangely, although the Western world may not think women are held in equality in the East, they are very empowered in our cultures in many ways — in the workplace, at school or even in a fight scene in a movie. You know, women fight shoulder to shoulder, head to head, in many classic kung fu movies.

So, I see it very positively. I think this commonality — these three or four shared things — will allow us to emotionally connect for a longer period of time. I'm hoping for that.

Back in 2016, your company, Red Chilis, did an early deal with Netflix to produce some content together.

Yeah, we've already produced one. I think it should be on [Netflix] in three or four months. The first cut is going back and forth. It's called The Bard of Blood.

As the reigning "King of Bollywood," the world is really your oyster in terms of content creation opportunities in India. What appealed to you about partnering with a company like Netflix? 

Well, first of all, when [Netflix CEO] Reed [Hasting] and [chief content officer] Ted [Sarandos] first came over, we spent an evening together — with the families and the office people having a meal at my home. Talking to them, I suddenly realized that they are basically just film lovers. Somewhere down the line, I was like that. I just loved films and somehow I become an actor. That's how it works. You just like films and then it turns into a business, and then it becomes a business like Netflix — like none other. So when we were talking, we said let's make something together.

Also, what happens in India — especially for somebody like me — it becomes difficult to try something a little offbeat, because I'm stuck in the parameters of commercial cinema. When I make a film with me in it, I have to look at a few knowns — things that have to happen — because we are spending so much.

But there is always this desire to do something a little off the beaten track, and the ideas for these projects have been there in our company. They're interesting ideas, but we have been, perhaps, a little too back-footed to put them out in theatrical cinemas.

So, my conversations with Netflix gave me the idea that here is an opportunity to tell some of these stories. And it will give the young boys and girls, our young storytellers, new opportunities to speak for that young generation, and also to learn. Netflix's feedback during the process is quite educating. I really enjoy it, when they're talking about the work together. There is a lot of logic behind Netflix. If we can learn from it, it will be good for us as an industry. That's really a turn on for me.

India's streaming video sector has become the envy of the world, in terms of growth potential. The international giants like Netflix, Amazon and Disney-owned HotStar are battling it out for market share; the Hollywood-India joint ventures are growing their services, and the local players are scaling up and get more aggressive about VOD as the future. A creator, an observer and an industry player — how do you see that landscape evolving and where do you think it's headed?

I think sometime our fertility and population had to pay off. We have the audience, right? [Laughs.] But we've not, as yet, created as many theaters as China, America or Europe has. But suddenly, while we were thinking about creating theaters — brick and mortar, which is very expensive — you have another platform come along, which is right in your hands.

And then we have the youngest audience in the world. Over 65 percent of Indians are under the age of 35. Everybody's young! Age 35 is older in India now. It's not like we have a younger generation — everybody's young now.

Young people live in digital media more — they are there to consume this platform. These platforms also give you a little more freedom — where the expression is more modernistic. Some of the things we can't show in our movies — because we make it for community viewing — are allowed for streaming, which is more individual. Whether it's violence-wise, or sex-wise or even language-wise, with content, the younger people move differently now.

So, for these platform companies from overseas and at home, I think it's just there waiting to be taken. Here's a country which is the most English-speaking nation in the world, with the youngest audience in the world, which has less movie theaters per capita compared to other large countries — and an audience that loves to consume stories. India's going to play a huge hand in the development of these digital platforms for sure. It's only natural.

The global reach of such platforms must be an exciting proposition for some Indian creators, too? 

Yes, it's also giving encouragement to the audience and content creators of India. We watch the Narcos and Breaking Bads. We watch Game of Thrones, for sure. But we've had some really nice Indian content going out, too. I notice it in my kids. My son is studying at USC; he's 21. But he does say, dad, this Indian show is very cool. He's showing it to his American friends. My daughter's in England, and she tells me this new Indian one on Amazon, Made in Heaven, is really good, too. So they feel proud of the creativity and creations from their own country. And language is no longer a barrier. You know, in this industry, we have had patterns of how much exposure content can get going from Mexico to America, or India to the West. I think the digital world is exposing that the patterns can work in many other ways — saying look, there can be all these new connections, too.

Sometime last fall, the MeToo# movement arrived in force in India, with a number of women speaking out about crimes of harassment or abuse committed by male industry leaders — and their voices were heard and acknowledged. Some of these men were held accountable. How has the Indian film industry changed since then, and what else would you like to see happen?

Well, I don't want to say that it's a welcome thing to have happened, because one wishes it had never been necessary. But now that it has, I would like to say that it took great courage for these ladies to come forward — some of them shortly after their experiences, some of them years later. We should all respect the bravery that this required.

I also think we need to respect this enough to make sure it doesn't just become a media sensation, or a bunch of memes and scandals on social media — it shouldn't be treated that way. Because then it could just become a fad, if I may use that word. This is something we need to take note of seriously and make sure it doesn't happen.

I'm very proud to say that the response in India on the whole has been very clear cut: Listen, this kind of behavior at any kind of workplace is unacceptable.

Unfortunately, sometimes in the past, even if people were aware, they thought it wasn't their problem. I think that attitude is gone. I'm very proud that lots of people in the film industry, and other workplaces, have become aware and are taking note of it. We are now understanding that this is everyone's responsibility. I think it's a good thing. It feels wrong to say "good thing," because I wish none of it ever happened.

Better representation in studio tentpoles — whether it is female superheroes in Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel, the all-black lead cast of Black Panther or the all-Asian cast of Crazy Rich Asians — has been one of the most heartening trends in Hollywood over the past few years. I realize it's silly to ask you to speak for the U.S. industry, but is better representation of Indian and Indian-American stars in Hollywood films something you would like to see, given the global influence of such filmmaking?

There are many wonderful actors from all over the world who I would love to see more of. For example, there are actors in Narcos who I would love to see in Hollywood films, because they are such great actors.

So, on a very generic level, yes. I would love to see more actors from all different groups and backgrounds in Hollywood films, because Hollywood covers so much of the world's commercial cinema. It would be nice if the agencies pulled from a universal talent pool.

But am I the one who is going to push for it? Well, whenever I am asked, "Would you be happy to do a Hollywood film?" I say, "Yes, if I get an opportunity to play exactly the same kind of role that I would get in India." If I got a big role like that in an international film, I would love to do it. But I'm not going to do it just for the fact of being present there, to make a point that Indian actors have sort of arrived in a Western film.

There's little you haven't achieved in Indian entertainment. At this stage in your career, are there any creative challenges you're still itching to pursue, for whatever reason?

Well, I've had a yearning since the age of 17 to do a kick-ass action film, but they never gave it to me. They always give me all the namby-pamby, sweet, lover-boy roles. I wanted to be an action hero! I didn't want to be a lover boy. So hopefully one day.

But otherwise, in a more larger mind space, I want to go back to the childlike innocence and excitement I had 30 years ago when I started acting. I just find I've learned too much of the craft, and I've let go of the art. Not that I was a great artist when I was starting out, but there was a childlike artistic purity. Somehow I let go of that.

I don't know how to explain it. There's a whole long lecture I could give you as a creative person. But I just want to go back and find that purity of how children act — whether good, bad or ugly. Critically acclaimed, or not critically acclaimed. Children just throw it up into the universe — I just find that expression very beautiful. I want to be a commercial actor, but see if I can get that back. I've managed in a few films. Some films I fail. So if I can find that excitement again in my next film, and do it with a six-pack while kicking some ass, then I'm all set! [Laughs.] Next is the Oscars.