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With a fan following that extends beyond India and the diaspora to non-traditional markets like Germany, Shah Rukh Khan is perhaps the most recognized Indian film personality worldwide. His two-decade-plus career has delivered some of Indian cinema’s most memorable and commercial hits.
Born in Delhi, the 47-year-old started out as a television actor in the late 1980s and soon moved to Mumbai. By the 1990s, he was ruling the box office after making a big splash as a villain in the 1993 thriller Darr (Fear). Khan’s portrayal of a star-crossed lover in one the biggest Bollywood hits of all time, 1994’s Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (The Brave Hearted Will Take The Bride), cemented his status as the new king of romance. The directorial debut of Aditya Chopra, son of the late veteran Bollywood filmmaker icon Yash Chopra, the film has had an uninterrupted run since its original release date at Mumbai’s Maratha Mandir cinema, setting a record as the longest running Indian film of all time.
While rewriting the rules of commercial cinema, Khan has also attempted to stretch his abilities with offbeat films such as 2010’s My Name Is Khan or, more recently, 2011’s ambitious superhero caper Ra.One. In between, he has also returned to television hosting Indian versions of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire and Are You Smarter Than A 5th Grader?
Khan’s latest co-production is director Rohit Shetty‘s Chennai Express (opening Aug. 9th), with Disney-UTV, in which he stars with actress Deepika Padukone. “King Khan” sat down with The Hollywood Reporter to explain why he thinks the time is ripe for an Indian film to go global and how he would like to see the industry he all but rules evolve in the future.
The Hollywood Reporter: Chennai Express is the first film you are coproducing with UTV after it was acquired by Walt Disney. What is your take on the way Hollywood studios are increasing their presence in India?
Shah Rukh Khan: While this is our first coproduction (by Khan’s banner Red Chillies) since Disney took over UTV, I earlier co-produced (2003 release) Chalte Chalte with UTV. So I have had a long relationship with them and (UTV co-founder) Ronnie Screwvala. I think it’s fantastic that the Hollywood studios are here. At first, the studios wanted to popularize Hollywood films here but our cinema is deeply rooted in Indian culture. So now its good to see them producing Indian films. We also learn a lot from the experience of working with an international studio. We did My Name is Khan (coproduced by Red Chillies) with Fox Star Studios which was a fantastic experience as we got to release the film worldwide (including non-traditional markets) which we may not have been able to do on our own. Its a sign of changing times and will benefit Indian films to go international faster.
THR: What is Chennai Express about?
Khan: It’s the story of a North Indian man who ends up facing a language barrier in South India. In India we have so many languages and it’s not just Hindi that is spoken. So even shooting the film we faced language issues working with a South Indian crew. But this film turns the language barrier into a comedic situation and the prime mover of the film is the idea that love will conquer all kinds of situations, differences and obstacles. The film is directed by Rohit Shetty who is known for his unique brand of films which makes Chennai Express very, very funny — really big looking, packing a lot of action and dance, thus making it an all-out entertainer. It’s what is known as a “masala” film (melding various genres like the Indian spice) with a sweet love story running through it. It’s coming out at the time of year when we release entertainers, so it’s not to be taken too seriously. For me, I hadn’t done a comedy film for quite a while so it was fun to return to the genre.
THR: There is a growing trend now of offbeat and independent Indian films also doing well. Early in your career, you ventured into the offbeat with 1993’s Maya Memsaab (based on Gustave Flaubert’s novel Madame Bovary). Do you see yourself attempting something out of the box again?
Khan: Every five years or so, I am asked this question about parallel cinema. But this kind of cinema has been in India since Satyajit Ray and directors like Shyam Benegal, Govind Nihalani, Adoor Gopalkrishnan and Mani Ratnam, among others. That is the beauty of Indian cinema: that at any point in time, you will find both kinds of sensibilities — mainstream and parallel. So whenever there is a spurt of independent films doing well, there is renewed interest in the new wave. But for me, whenever I get a chance to do something offbeat, I do take it, whether it was Maya Memsaab or (historical epic) Asoka or (sports drama) Chak De India or (ghost movie) Paheli. More importantly, I also have to be in that state of mind to do such a film — I won’t just do it because it’s fashionable to do such a film. I don’t jump on a bandwagon. I am an actor who works 16 hours a day so I have to be happy doing such a project. But I do keep getting offers for such projects. There is a little bit of an unfortunate part attached to this in that if I get involved in a so-called offbeat film then it doesn’t remain offbeat — it becomes mainstream. Having said that, whenever I get the chance I also produce such projects, as I did with Asoka and Paheli. My Name is Khan was, in a sense offbeat, but it became commercially successful as well. As for the future, there are two possible offbeat projects that have been offered to me and maybe I might end up doing one of them.
THR: In recent years, we have seen Indian film talent going global. How do you see yourself working in international cinema?
Khan: Given the state of affairs that I am in and the kind of films that I do, I hope that one day I can participate in a Hindi film that is internationally acclaimed and accepted. That day is not far off — it may happen with me or with some other actor. As for Indian actors making a mark internationally, of course there is an acceptance of Indian talent on the global stage and that’s also because of the huge diaspora. Every time I travel to the West, I do meet people who discuss potential international projects with me. Danny Boyle is a good friend and I supported Slumdog Millionaire in any way I could. As for me considering something international, if there is an opportunity or role where I feel I can be as good as the film, I would love to be a part of it. But I wouldn’t just get into an international film because it’s international. I am extremely happy making a Hindi film which Insha’Allah (“God willing”) will be accepted by the whole world.
THR: You produced and starred in the 2011 superhero movie Ra.One, which was also an attempt to set new standards for Indian visual effects. What lessons did you learn from the experience?
Khan: It was the most expensive, ambitious and challenging film that I have ever done. I was very proud of the fact that the VFX were done locally in India (by Khan’s Red Chillies VFX studio). We are now working on the VFX for Krrish 3 (the upcoming superhero caper directed by Rakesh Roshan, starring his son Hrithik) and they are also world class. What I learnt from Ra.One is that we need to do more of these films to strengthen VFX studios in India. I have been able to hold onto my studio for over 12 years and Insha’Allah, if it continues, we can create more world class work. I would love to do such a project again, but it is a lot of hard work. It takes over a year to do it. One of the lessons I learned is that I would not do any other film at the same time if I am making a film like Ra.One, since it really needs concentrated attention. I am one for believing that the more dangerous and scary the path you travel, the better it is for Indian cinema. So yes, I would love to do it all over again.
THR: You started out in TV (with 1989’s breakthrough series Fauji) and you also hosted one season of the Indian version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. Indian television has been seeing various international formats successfully adapted locally, some featuring mainstream film talent. How does television interest you now?
Khan: I would love to do television. There are certain stories that lend themselves to a long running television series and not to a two and half-hour film format. Of course, it is first about managing time and economics and if that can be worked out, I would look at television seriously. India has seen various hit adaptations of international non-fiction shows (such as American Idol or So You Think You Can Dance). Some fiction shows have also been adapted here (such as Ugly Betty). I think it is a tried and tested approach and there is a method to television storytelling. I also believe that currently, some of the best writing for television is seen on American shows. While we have had great success with TV soaps in India, I also think that now fiction should go beyond soaps. Perhaps it should move into territory like Prison Break, though something like Breaking Bad may be a bit too advanced for India. I am glad that 24 is being adapted for India (by actor Anil Kapoor, who is also starring in the Jack Bauer lead role). I wish the team and Anil Kapoor all the best for the show (it will premiere later this year on Viacom18 Networks’ Hindi flagship channel Colors).
THR: How would you like to see Indian cinema evolve in the years to come?
Khan: I like to think of myself as a pioneer in terms of production which I did by creating my banner and VFX company Red Chillies. I took a page out of the international playbook to make a film like Ra.One. So for the Indian industry, I think the challenge is to really use technology in a better way. And for that, we need more visualizers and script writers. We have to understand and not overestimate our story-telling capabilities. Worldwide in any film industry, VFX will continue to play a big role, so we need to understand how to use that even more creatively. Parallel cinema or edgy cinema has also grown thanks to digital cameras and post production — you can now do great work at very low costs. But mainstream cinema brings in the money which also sometimes ends up supporting parallel cinema. So one of the main things I am passionate about is that Indian cinema needs to look at technology closely and find ways to use it more effectively.
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