Q&A: Aamir Khan

The Bollywood actor-producer on branching out, resisting Hollywood and how U.S. studios can succeed in India

For a third straight year, Bollywood actor-producer Aamir Khan has topped the power list published by India's Filmfare magazine. The star has delivered three recent hits, including last year's "3 Idiots," the highest-grossing Indian film of all time (with more than $90 million) that attracted a record 39 million viewers last month when it premiered on local TV. With "Peepli Live," a new non-musical satire that skewers India's rural/urban divide, Khan, as producer, brings humor to director Anusha Rizvi's bittersweet debut. The UTV release opens Friday day-and-date with its Indian bow. Khan caught up with The Hollywood Reporter's Jonathan Landreth.
THR: I saw "Peepli" and thought that because of its satire of the politics and press it might have had a hard time being made, let alone screened, in China. What does that tell you about how lucky you are? Has there been a buzz about "Peepli"?

Khan: There has been quite a buzz about it, but we'll wait and see. Interestingly, the distribution team was planning to open the film on 150 screens, which is a fairly small release, until three weeks back, which is when the promotion and publicity started and the trailer started coming on television. The buzz has been quite amazing so that count has gone up to 550 screens in three weeks. To answer your question, I do feel that I am glad to have the freedom to make movies and tell stories I want to tell. I am glad I am in that situation. Not only politically, but also as a creative person. I happen to be in a position of strength where I can, in fact, chose what I want to do. I have been fortunate.

THR: I understand that the director Anusha Rizvi worked as a journalist herself and is skewering her own industry. 

Khan: That is correct. 

THR: Did you ever work as a journalist or are you a news junkie?

Khan: No, and I am not a news junkie. I think "Peepli Live" is essentially a satire on how civil society is today and how life in rural India is today. It's about these two marginal farmers who are about to lose their land as a result of their inability to repay a loan. When they hear of this government program that compensates any family whose member commits suicide with 200,000 rupees, which is roughly $2,000, the elder brother kind of cons, or sets up, the younger brother to commit suicide, or into agreeing to commit suicide. But the younger brother, who's a bit of a simpleton, finds himself in a position he's quite unhappy about. He doesn't want to kill himself. 

THR: Omkar Das Manikpuri's performance as the younger brother Natha is remarkable. Is he a trained actor?

Khan: He is an actor, but he's never acted in a film before. He is part of a theater group called Naya Theater, started by Habib Tanvir, a very senior theater person in India who passed away (in June 2009). Habib Sahib for the past 40 years, maybe more, spent his life working with villagers and tribals of central India, and that's the theater group that he started, Naya Theater. So he's trained a lot of these villagers and tribals, a lot of these "advisasis" (aboriginals) in theater and they're really amazing actors. And so, I think when Anusha was casting with her husband, Mahmood Farooqui, who is the casting director on this film, they looked towards looking for actors who really looked the part and they were keen not to have known faces because that brings a certain reality to what's happening.

THR: There's a title card toward the end of the film that explains to the audience that what they have just seen is based, at least in part, on true recent history about farmer suicides in India.

Khan: The film has to be viewed against the background that there have been a spate of farmer suicides for the last 20-odd years in India. From '91 to 2001 there were about 180,000 farmers who committed suicide.

THR: Was there, in fact, a government compensation program?

Khan: Well, this is where the story came from. Anusha mentioned to me that she read about this in the news, that there was such a program that was launched, and then it was pulled back quite quickly. That's what prompted her to write the script in the first place. So, farmers' suicide is a reality in India and it is something that the government is trying to deal with. But "Peepli Live" is not really about farmer suicides. It's more a film about the growing divide between urban and rural India. It deals with the fact that all our energies, our resources, our wealth, are focusing on cities and not on villages. As a result, our villages are not life sustaining in a healthy or holistic way. For somebody like me, who has lived in a city all my life, reading the script was a hugely sensitizing experience. That's the bulk of our country: people living in villages. And we're not really aware of them most of the time. So that's what the film is about, really.

THR: Will the card that explains the connection to reality play in the version of the film screened in India or is it only for the exported, English-subtitled version of the film?

Khan: The card says that 8 million farmers have left the farm and have migrated to cities and are looking for jobs and that that's the result of this growing divide. And that's the result of us not concentrating on our villages as a society. I am sure that it must also be a fairly traumatic psychological experience for anybody who is wrenched away from his roots, from where you have your relationships and where you were born, where your emotional ties are. To move to a city and be away from your family and kids, I am sure it is an important aspect of our social life that we need to look at. On another level, the film is also about survival. Whether it's Bhudia, Natha's older brother, or the politicians, or the administration, each one is doing what they feel they need to do in order to survive in their environment or in their reality. I also like the fact that the film is not judgmental. It's not passing judgment on anyone and it's not offering any solutions, either. It's hopefully making you think and reflect.

THR: What expectations do you have for the readiness of American audiences for "Peepli Live"?

Khan: The plan for release is to reach out to audiences of traditional Indian cinema and along with that to reach out towards audiences of world cinema and people who like to watch foreign-language films. That's the plan. I believe that this film has the potential to engage a world audience and I am hoping that people like this film.

THR: You're probably best known in Hollywood for "Lagaan" because of its foreign-language film Oscar nomination in 2002. Did Hollywood agents reach out to you to try to make you a star in the U.S.?

Khan: When I came here post-nominations and pre-Oscars, a number of agencies did contact me and wanted to represent me -- Endeavor was one of them. Quite honestly, I didn't see how I would be of any use to them because I don't intend to shift (to Hollywood); I'm really happy where I am. I have an emotional connection with my audience that is nearly two decades long. If some script excites me and the director is someone I trust completely, it would be at the most a one-off.

THR: Nothing has tempted you to work in Hollywood?

Khan: No. Over these past 10 years, there have been a number of scripts that have been sent to me. Nothing really excited me, so I turned them all down.

THR: Hollywood studios are increasingly attempting to make "local language" films. Have you seen any of these efforts, and what's your opinion of them?

Khan: In Hindi there have been a few, but I haven't seen any of them. There was "My Name Is Khan," and there was a film that Warner Bros. did called "Chandni Chowk to China." I believe they have not been well-received based on boxoffice collections.

THR: So is there a place for the Hollywood approach to filmmaking in your industry?

Khan: I don't see why not. Hollywood makes great films -- I watched "Inception" yesterday, which I thought was great. I think that their first steps in India may not have been as positive as they would have liked, but that does not mean that they don't know how to entertain or that they don't know how to entertain people in India. There's a learning process for them.

THR: As a producer you have gambled with offbeat projects, from the big-budget "Lagaan" to the upcoming "Delhi Belly." What can audiences expect from "Delhi Belly"? And does your track record as a producer prove perhaps that you are better off beating the path less traveled in an industry known for formulaic fare?

Khan: Well, I have my own choice and taste that I have been following for 20 years now and often it is not what the market regards as mainstream or popular cinema. But I have been fortunate that most of my films have done fairly well, whether as an actor or a producer, and "Peepli Live" is one of them. After "Peepli Live," I have a film that is called "Dhobi Ghat," which is in its final stages of postproduction, again a very unusual film, and then "Delhi Belly" is the third of the three, which will come out after "Dhobi Ghat." ["Delhi Belly"] is a bit of an experimentation because it's an English language film, which is not very usual in India, and is not considered mainstream, just by virtue of its being in English. So, I am experimenting with stuff that I like and that engages me or entertains me. So far I have been fortunate that my films have worked. I don't have any long-term agenda that I want to change the face of Indian film. I'm just doing stuff that excites me and I happen to be changing stuff and I happen to be bringing in different voices that have stories to tell in a different way, perhaps.

THR: You've cited Sundance and the Oscars as platforms to expose the world to Indian films. That, combined with doing an English-language film, suggests you've thought about working outside of India.

Khan: For me, the material is the most important, and that dictates a lot to me. I want to be pure with the material. "Peepli Live," "Dhobi Ghat" or "Delhi Belly" -- all three films have, on the face of it, a limited audience back home in India, and I am aware of that when I am entering production. What I also believe, however, is that these three films have the potential to engage a world audience. So, in the case of "Peepli Live," this is the first time that I am trying to reach out beyond India to an audience for world cinema and foreign-language films. I haven't done that with my earlier films. With these films, starting with "Peepli," I plan to reach out to a non-traditional audience for Indian films. That effort will be repeated in "Dhobi Ghat" and in "Delhi Belly," which is an English-language film.

THR: Tell us about "Delhi Belly."

Khan: It's a comedy, a caper, about three kids who live in a rented apartment in Delhi. It's a mad comedy about how they get into trouble with the mafia, the underworld. It's an action comedy, less action, more comedy. A bit like "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels." 

THR: And "Dhobi Ghat"?

Khan: "Dhobi Ghat" is a film that has been written and directed by Kiran, my wife. This is a film about these four characters and the city of Mumbai. It's kind of a slice of life film about these four characters and how their lives touch each other. It's not really plot heavy. Again, there's some English in it, because some of the characters naturally would speak in English, while others would speak in Hindi, so we're being honest to that. More than half of it is English, I think.

THR: India is one of the few major foreign markets where its own product dominates the boxoffice. What portion of the films screening in India are imported?

Khan: Very few, but more from Hollywood than from the rest of the world. Films coming out of Hollywood, especially the big action films, or "Harry Potter," or the big animal or creature films, like "Anaconda" -- the branded films -- these are the films that work better in India.

THR: Is that because they're not being done at home?

Khan: I think so. Audiences get to see in films like "Jurassic Park," stuff that they otherwise don't get to see in Indian films, so that's why they find it exciting. And more and more now, I think Hollywood is dubbing films into local languages, into Indian languages, so the business of Hollywood films in India is gradually increasing. But it's fairly small compared with Indian films.

-- Nyay Bhushan in New Delhi contributed to this report.