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'I want to retain what I've, recapture what I've lost'

For all his superstardom, Shah Rukh Khan is one hell of an easy-going guy who, unlike many other stars, doesn't pretend to be busy when he is not. 

Rather, for this interview fixed on the basis of one single message left on the voicemail box of his cellphone and a return call precisely 15 minutes later, Shah Rukh pretended to be free when actually he had 20 things on hand and 200 others on his mind. 

Mind you, he is a producer now, besides being an actor. With his maiden production venture, Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani nearing release (it will hit the theatres on January 21), the post-production work, the publicity, the distributors, the premieres, everything needed the star's attention. 

Actually, let's call him the superstar. Because that’s what the nameplate on Shah Rukh Khan’s cabin on the fourth floor of the building belonging to his production company, Dreamz Unlimited, at Khar in Bombay, reads – SUPERSTAR. Modesty be damned! 

But if such blatant flaunting of one’s status in the filmworld doesn’t come across as vanity, it is because the actor himself comes across as an honest human being. And quite honestly, isn’t the guy a superstar? If he isn’t, why do the locals in the Carribean Islands line up all through the 35-km stretch from the airport to the only good hotel on the island, and cheer the actor, chanting his name when he goes there for a stage show? Nearer home, the euphoria is no different. 

In the last week of 1999, Komal Nahta met the man who has dominated the acting scene for the last five years of the millennium that’s gone by – and should continue to do so for many more years in the new millennium too. Seating in his office, Shah Rukh spoke about his experiences as a producer, his journey as an actor, and other things. 

Excerpts limited from the conversation unlimited. 

So, how do you look at the new millennium? 

Honestly, I don’t look at it any differently. Four days later, it will be the same thing. It’s just the end of a year and the beginning of another. I see the year 1999 as a year of some great work I’ve done -- not in terms of the number of my releases, but great work as an actor. 

And as a producer too....? 

Yes. But, for me, it has been a year of good work -- more than as a producer and actor, as a worker. It has been a little more hectic than usual. Hopefully, it will be the same next year. Though, as an actor, I’ll have five releases in 2000. So, the whole industry’s future will be hanging by the thread of Shah Rukh’s releases. 

When were the pangs of fear greater -- when your first film as actor was released or now, when your first production venture is releasing? 

Even as an actor, I’ve never been scared of a release. Frankly, the release of a film means that it's on air. After that, a film is beyond anyone's control. I’d like to make a film which, I think, I’ll like making and which, I think, people would like to see. When such a film becomes a hit, it feels good. 

But yes, I’m a little more numb now as a producer than I’ve ever been as an actor. I’ve been taking a keen interest in the film’s post-production work and the publicity. I believe in the American style of lavish publicity. I’m not going to tell the world that it’s the greatest film ever made, but I’m surely going to publicise the film as the greatest film. 

The production has been completely handled by Yashji (Johar), the accounts have been taken care of by Jay Mehta. I’ve contributed to the creative side which is actually Aziz Mirza’s domain, but I too, contribute otherwise -- not to portray myself as an intelligent actor or as a hint of interference, but because of my involvement in the films I work in. 

The film’s dubbing got over today. Juhi is handling paper publicity and the media. Aziz is busy with the background music. I only hope that people enjoy viewing the film I’ve enjoyed making. I don’t know whether the film we’ve made is commercial or not, whether it’s good or not, but I do know that we’ve made it honestly and that we've enjoyed making it. I just hope it has turned out to be the film we had set out to make. I think, it's 85 per cent of what we had planned. 

But I’m sure our next film will be better. My biggest enemy, incidentally, is my ‘next time.’ I’m neither being immodest when I say that my next will be even better nor am I being humble when I say that this is less than what my next film will be. But I must say, we’ve all worked very hard. We’ve never worked so hard in our lives. None of us here has slept properly for the last 40 days! I only hope people like us -- myself, Juhi, Aziz, Farah Khan, Karan (Johar) and Adi (Aditya Chopra), Manish Malhotra, my unit members -- we keep on making these kind of films. 

I also understand that to make these films, the first pre-requisite is that you've got to be in a position of choice. Just for that, I hope this company gets a position of choice. That will happen if Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani succeeds. I would be happy if our production company, Dreamz Unlimited, gets a position of choice like, say, Yash Chopra or the Barjatyas, maybe even 10 notches lower than them. But, I assure you, I’ll make a better film next time, and a still better film after that. 

Despite your busy schedule as an actor, what is it that prompted you to take the plunge into production? 

I’m not a very busy actor. I do only four films a year. And it has been so right from the day I started my career. I’ve had only 27 releases in my nine-year career so far. 

This company and this film happened quite simply. I owe a lot to Aziz. I’ve stayed in his house for a whole year after my marriage. I’ve also been great friends with Juhi Chawla, with Salman, Chunky...and they have all been nice to me when I was a nobody. They weren’t expecting anything in return from me as I was a nobody then. 

I still remember how Juhi’s mother used to bake a cake for my birthday. Then, a little later in my life, came Yash Chopra, Rajiv Mehra, Rakesh Roshan and Ratan Jain. 

Coming back to how I became a producer, it happened very casually. It all started when I was one day sitting with Ratan Jain. There was a friend of Ratan who was not connected with the film industry at all. During the course of the conversation, he just mentioned that he wouldn’t mind investing his personal money in producing a film like Yes Boss, starring Juhi and myself and directed by Aziz Mirza, because he liked those kind of films. 

That's when I thought we should start believing in ourselves. I thought, if an outsider can have so much faith in us, why not we in ourselves? That is the time Aziz decided to start a production company and since he treats me and Juhi as his children and also because, as he said, he was going to earn money on our names, he asked us why we were not becoming his partners. 

And there we were, together on a mission to make a good, honest film. The name of the company also simply happened. We were sitting with friends one day. Aziz said, the name had to be something to do with dreams because that’s what we were going to sell. We decided on Dreams itself. Aziz asked, 'Dreams Ltd?' I casually remarked, 'Make that Dreamz Unlimited.' 

Sanjay Chhel, Raj Dahima, Manoj have all been friends. They got down to writing a script. That’s how work started. We did reject the first story that emerged because we decided to make a little bigger film than originally planned. But all the same, the process had started. 

Aziz, Juhi and myself decided to pool in Rs 500,000 each and open a bank account with that money. That was our idea of a company. Yashji and Jay then told us that if we were really serious, we should do proper documentation. The two of them formally set up the company for us. 

Friends like Karan, Manish and Aditya heard the story and gave their inputs. For instance, the title song is the work of Adi and Jatin-Lalit, costumes have been taken care of by Karan and Manish. Sony was wonderful enough to buy the music rights. Then Kishore Lulla was more than wonderful to buy the overseas rights. Wonderful, not because they paid us a good price but because they gave us the confidence. 

Frankly, I had never thought that I would ever be a producer. Some day I may have turned director all right, but producer? I hadn’t ever imagined that! Nonetheless, now that we have become producers, I’m glad about that. Maybe, we form a team of the best-looking producers, or, the only pin-up producers in the country! 

Jokes apart, there’s a lot of goodness in ourselves. The entire unit is quite like a family.This company has so far been like my career. It has had the early success which I enjoyed. I sincerely hope, it also gets the fillip my career got. I’ve worked the hardest in my stint as a producer. We all have worked very hard. But Juhi and I had to also take care of our appearances because after the hard work, we had to face the camera for some other films. I did postpone Adi’s and David’s (Dhawan) film for some months because of Phir Bhi... But the hard work notwithstanding, I’m ready for the next one. 

You’ve dabbled in distribution in the past, but you never got involved in the day-to-day business of distribution. What made you get into the thick of production activity? 

I turned distributor with Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa because nobody was buying the film. I had Rs 400,000 and the film’s price for Bombay was Rs 1.2 million. So Ratan Jain, Vijay Galani and myself brought in Rs 400,000 each and formed a distribution company in the name of my wife, Gauri. We made money in that film, so we bought other films like Chaahat and Oh Darling Yeh Hai India. But, just like in distribution, I didn’t dabble in day-to-day production either. I don’t understand accounts, how will I get into day-to-day production activity? 

Whose decision was it to voluntarily reduce the price of your film for the C I territory? Yours or Yashji’s? 

Very clearly, I’m not making this film for making money. If money-making was my aim, I could have done two ad films or shows and earned the same amount of money -- probably more -- in just two or four days. Nor am I the highest paid actor, as is generally believed. 

My whole notion of films is very different. Money has never been so important for me. For me, if my film is beautiful, my price is worth Rs 100 million. Making money is incidental for me, believe me. Even as an actor, I’ve never been too money-minded. I only want to act in good flms. I rarely discuss my price. I tell my producers to pay me a respectable amount commensurate with my standing and their recoveries. No producer can blame me for troubling him for money or even otherwise. 

My only aim, now that I have a house and all other comfortable things of life, is to earn enough money to be able to buy new equipment -- besides the ones we bought for Phir Bhi... -- new technology and some day make a film of international standard in India. I dream of the day when Shekhar Kapur does not have to go to Hollywood to make his films, he can jolly well make them here. 

I don’t want to be blamed that I didn’t do enough for the industry which has made me whatever I am today. I’ve told my director-friends that they can use my equipment which are all very good. I had decided, the price of Phir Bhi... would be less than the price of any other Shah Rukh Khan starrer. I am not greedy. Yes, I wanted to ensure that we didn’t make a loss in the film. We definitely haven’t made a profit of several crores as is the talk in the industry. 

After Phir Bhi..., we will have a production office to call our own. Now I just want to release my film. By reducing the price, I wanted to tell my distributors that if they make money from our film, they should share the same with us. If Yashji has reduced the price, it must be because the C I territory is being perceived as not very good for the fun film which Phir Bhi... is. 

In fact, the Bihar distributor whom we were negotiating with often complained that his territory was not good for my kind of films. I told Yashji not to negotiate the film with him if he wasn’t interested in releasing it without any grudge. A person must buy my film only if he feels good about it, not otherwise. I understand that our company has got a great deal of advantage because of my star-status. But I keep telling my partners, if you’ve benefited due to my star image, you are also going to get a lot of brickbats because of the same. Here, let me tell you, Phir Bhi... is not an out-and-out Shah Rukh Khan film. 

As an actor, how good has your gut feeling been about the box-office fate of your films? 

I don’t normally comment about my own films. But my judgment of films is excellent, it is better than yours. 

A while ago, you said, you want to act in good films. How do you assess which is a good film? 

I’ll only be honest if I said, I have no sense of story, no sense of character. In my nine years here, I’ve realised that I have no sense of screenplay. So I work with good people. I have my set of people whom I am comfortable working with, who are honest about their work. One such honest person is David Dhawan. He doesn’t believe me when I say I like his honesty as a film-maker. After all, what is a film? It is selling of a dream. We have to tell lies to people, we have to sell them dreams. 

Does that mean that besides the people you’ve worked with, there’s an entry barrier for the rest who may want to work with you? 

Nothing of the sort. I’m working with Shashilal Nair, Mansoor Khan, Adeyaman, David Dhawan and now, with Sanjay Leela Bhansali. I’ve never worked with any of them earlier. But I can’t do more than four films at a time. 

There must have been occasions when you were excited at the time of signing a film, but then it seemed not as exciting as the film progressed. How do you cope with such cases? 

Films have never been 'not as exciting' for me. I bring excitement on the sets. I’m an exciting actor, overrated, exaggerated. But I’m not an unexciting actor. I excite people. I never lose hope. If I feel that a film is going wrong somewhere, I do even better. In at least 10 of the 27 releases I’ve had so far, I knew that they were going wrong. But I’ve given my best to them. I don’t want to feel guilty that I didn’t give it my best shot and may be, therefore, the film failed. I invariably hope that the star charisma may be able to pull a film through despite the wrong things. 

But I also know that this is a wrong thing for an actor to believe -- that he can pull a bad film through. But I do it all the time. If my films have done well, it is not because of me. Dilip Kumar or Amitabh Bachchan could take such credit, not me. My films do well only because they are good, not because of me. Every actor should understand that he can never be greater than his film. 

Considering what you’ve just said, isn’t it a paradox that stars are still paid many, many times more than the creators of the film -- the writers and directors? 

This is the dichotomy of the film industry. You don’t have an art form in the industry which ensures that a thing of art is appreciated even if it does not sell. At the end of the day, a good film is one which is a hit. Finally, the commercial aspect is so strong that one has got to market his film, to package his film. As soon as you are going to market a film, you have got to package it. And the packaging has got to be beautiful. 

Like beauty, stardom too is skin-deep. An Arnold Schwarzenegger will always be better paid than a James Cameron. There are, of course, some directors who also get paid handsomely, but then they are stars in their own right. A film is like any other commercial product, say, a soap. The quality of most of the bars of soap is more or less similar, all of them smell nice, yet people pay more for the one which is beautifully packaged. People get taken in by the marketing. Films are an art form which are sold after packaging in this commercial world. Otherwise, a film could as well have been sold as starring Salim-Javed or Sanjay Chhel. 

Are you insecure about your no 1 position? 

I would have been if I lived in a shell or in an ivory tower. But I don’t go into a shell, I don’t live in an ivory tower. I’m surrounded by my work. In that respect, I’m quite like Devsaab (Anand). Besides, I know that whenever my slide downwards begins, it will take some time, I won’t just fall down from the top position in one day. I don’t spend sleepless nights, I don’t get tense. I sincerely believe that if you are working, it will work for you. Otherwise, you could be shattered. I feel scared when I imagine that people will not recognise me, there’ll be no smiles on the faces of people on the roads when they see me. But I know that won’t happen because I’m working. There will be smiles always. I am not insecure enough to count the bouquets I receive on my birthday, I don’t assess my popularity by the number of magazine covers I am on, I don’t get worried if my song is on the seventh position on countdown charts. 

What does the public expect from a Shah Rukh Khan film? 

I think, they expect openness, upfrontedness, honesty from my films. Honesty in my performance is also what they expect -- honesty in that I don’t hold things back. Mahesh Bhatt once told me a lovely thing -- which I think Michael Caines also said -- 'As soon as someone has bought a ticket to see your film, he has already treated you as a God, he has put you on a very, very high pedestal. So you don’t have to remind him again that you are God. If you do so, he is never going to like you for it.’ 

I take care not to remind my audience that I am Shah Rukh Khan. The better thing to do is to hold a mirror for them and to tell them, ‘This is you.’ If people have liked me in my films, it’s because I could kill like an ordinary man, I could slip on a banana peel, I could hide behind a girl to save my skin from a villain, I could do all that a common man could and would do. Honestly, I don’t mind doing anything on the screen. 

I believe that you can never be too good for the things you are best at. People tell me I’m popular because I am sexy, because of the dimples on my cheeks, etc etc, but I think these are just labels given by people and the media. I am popular for all that I’ve done on the screen. That is why I’m never ashamed of what I’ve done in front of the camera, nor am I extra-proud of what I’ve done. The other day, a friend of mine was telling me I should no longer do something I had done in my previous films. I fail to understand why I shouldn’t do it. People liked me for doing it and it is because of the things I’ve done that I am what I am today, then how can I stop doing exactly that? It would be cheating the public. 

What lessons have production taught you which acting did not? 

I’ve always been a producer’s actor. I’ve never overridden a producer. I’m a large-hearted man, I know, but I also realise how difficult it is to put that extra buck anywhere. I don’t, therefore, make fun of my producers. For this film of ours, I’ve spent crazily. I need a team like Juhi and Aziz to control me, which they have done. But yes, as a producer, I’ve realised that films should be made faster. It’s better that way. I promise, my next film will be made with even more large-heartedness. 

Are the dreams of Dreamz Unlimited limited to making films or do they transcend other territory too? 

No. Aziz, Juhi and I want to make only films. If our first film goes right, we’ll make a still bigger film next time. If, God forbid, the first one goes wrong, we will make a small film. I also want to do something for theatre, maybe build a theatre. 

Any millennium resolution for yourself? 

Yes, to start working out. I need to lose some weight. Really, I’ve got to start looking like a hero. Currently, I’m looking like a producer. I also need to spend a little more time with my family. I’ve learnt all my acting from children, I want to learn a lot more from my son Aryan. Children are the only people who don’t know what’s right and what’s wrong. And yet, if a child actor can make you laugh or cry in a film, he must be the best actor. There’s no method to their acting, no calculation whatsoever. 

Children are so likeable. May be, children are my greatest fans because I learn my acting from kids. I recently asked Aryan to repeat the words, ‘Papa, I love you’ after me. He told me, 'Papa, I love you,' but in the same breath, he continued, 'See, butterfly, Papa," pointing out to a butterfly. 

Isn’t that amazing? And we heroes and heroines take pauses before saying the words, 'I love you,' and after saying them. The way my son hugs me, there’s so much purity in that. I wish I could hug my heroines the same way, with the same spontaneity, the exact purity. Kids are the most pure of the human species, they are the closest to God. 

I hope, in the new millennium, I get the rawness I had in Deewana. I know, I danced awkwardly in that film, my costumes were awful, my hairstyle wasn’t good, but still there was a likeable purity and rawness which made me acceptable to the world. I want to recapture all that. If newcomers are not achieving the status of stars today, it is because they are so methodical. Their dress sense is impeccable, they learn dancing and become experts before their first films, they learn acting, action, their gait is well-rehearsed. All that is perfectly fine, but the audience also knows that these things can all be learnt. If they are to like you, they want to see something that’s typical to you. You must show that little difference, that little something that’s you and only you, it cannot be emulated. 

In the new millennium, I want to retain what I have, and to recapture and rebuild what I’ve lost. I want to return to my childhood. Yes, that’s my millennium resolution...

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