The Essential Shahrukh


Shahrukh KhanWhen you talk to Shahrukh Khan, there's a sense that he's operating at several levels: the polite and charming matinee idol, the clever businessman, the vulnerable boy who lost his parents before he made it in the movies... will the real Shahrukh Khan ever take a bow?

Shahrukh Khan's house. A stone's throw from the Taj Land's End, in Bombay's Bandra Bandstand area, the old heritage...
...property has been extensively renovated – but not remodelled, that would be against the law – so that it combines the grace of old Bombay bungalows, from the pre-skyscraper era, with a cool modern elegance.

The living room could be late period Philippe Starck, with the quirky little touches like the glass legs on the tables and sudden curve where you expect a sharp angle. Except of course that the Khans decided not to use a decorator. The vision is pretty much Gauri Khan's own – she has an arts background – and even Shahrukh, who has a keen aesthetic sense, has done his bit.

The house is famous, of course. It lay unoccupied for years. Legends built up around it. And then, when Shahrukh bought it, there were all kinds of legal hassles. Eventually, he had to agree to buy the land behind the bungalow as well, otherwise the entire property would have been attached. The total cost of the property – given that he bought it twice over, making payments to different owners and many authorities – is estimated like Rs 30 crore (and that's before you count the interiors).

"It put me in debt for two years," Shahrukh smiles. "But you know, I've never had a house of my own. So, I suppose, it was worth it."

The interview itself is conducted in the den upstairs. Actually, it is not quite a den. The idea was to create a cinema-like ambience so that Shahrukh could watch movies on the big plasma screen. There's a Pepsi machine of the sort that one sees in the foyer of movie halls.
There's even a juke box. But there's not that much evidence of movies, only many many tapes of Friends. "They're Gauri's," Shahrukh explains, "I've never really had the time to sit and watch movies here."

But now perhaps all that will change. Shahrukh is wrapping up a film with Yash Chopra. And when that's done, he's going to take five months off at a stretch.

"I just need to have some time with my family. And with myself," he says.

He can afford the break. This has been a very good time for Shahrukh Khan. He starred in Kal Ho Naa Ho, produced and written by his friend Karan Johar and directed by Nikhil Advani and ended up with second biggest hit of last year (after Koi Mil Gaya). Then, a few months ago, came Main Hoon Na, his own production, directed by another close friend, Farah Khan. As of this moment, Main Hoon Na is still running to packed houses so it is difficult to estimate what the final gross will be but the indications are that it will be one of Shahrukh's biggest ever movies, behind only such all-time blockbusters as Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge and Kuch Kuch Hota Hai.

There's no doubt that he's Bombay's number one star, ahead of the other Khans by miles and guaranteed to deliver a hit, no matter how different the genre: the urban, `A' class centre ambience of Kal Ho Naa Ho, the Gujarati-Bengali opulence of Devdas or the old-fashioned formula film as updated by Farah in Main Hoon Na.

More to the point, there are no challengers on the horizon. The sceptics had said that once the cute, college boy-like charm wore off, the roles would dry up. He was, they said, a teen hero who had managed the difficult feat of extending his youth. This was no mean achievement, they conceded, but it was also time-bound. At some stage, the wrinkles would show through, the cutesy mannerisms would begin to get irritating and newer, younger stars would turn up.

But it sure as hell hasn't worked out that way. Even before the youthful charm faded, Shahrukh had climbed the next steps of the ladder. In Aditya Chopra's Mohabbatein, he mentored a new generation of kids and restricted his love interest to flashback and ghosts. In Karan Johar's Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (K3G), he was married with children, playing big brother to Hrithik Roshan. In Devdas, he dared take on a role that everybody associated with Dilip Kumar.

Teen hero?

Yeah may be, once upon a time. But not now. Not for a while.

A psychiatrist asked to analyse Shahrukh Khan would probably tear up the couch, burn his medical certificates and look for another profession.

The problem – to put it bluntly – is that Shahrukh is too goddamn smart for anybody to get a fix on what he's thinking. Of all the stars I've interviewed over the last 25 years, he is possibly the brightest and certainly the most complex.

If you use the traditional definition of intelligence as the ability to hold two completely contradictory thoughts in your head at the same time and still function normally, then he is in the genius league.

When you talk to him, there's a sense in which he's operating at several – why stop at two? – levels simultaneously. There's the Obvious Shahrukh. That's the polite and charming fellow who talks nicely to you.

The Obvious Shahrukh is the man we all see. He strikes us as bright, articulate, intelligent and persuasive. In some ways, he is like Tony Blair of whom it has famously been said that he's never met anybody he couldn't charm at a one-to-one level.

The problem with the Obvious Shahrukh is that it takes him exactly five minutes to suss you out. He knows where you are coming from, he knows what you like hearing and sure enough, he gives it to you.

Nothing wrong with that. Except that no matter how nice the Obvious Shahrukh is, you sense that you've only just scratched the surface.

But who knows, how many other Shahrukhs lurk beneath that surface?
His mind, as he himself says, is always racing. He rushes from thought to thought, from concept to concept, and no matter how hard you try and keep up, he's always four steps ahead of you.

There's a Clever Shahrukh somewhere in there; the fellow who knows how the game is played and will play it better than anybody else.
There's also, I think, A Genuinely Nice Shahrukh, the man who will promote his friends, will go out of his way to help strangers, and will give lakhs and lakhs to charity, only on the condition that it is never publicised. There's a Financially Savvy Shahrukh, who will make crores doing endorsements, live shows and even dancing at weddings, knowing that he now has the freedom to turn down any film role that doesn't excite him on the grounds that he could make the same amount of money (or more) from a single ad.

And then, of course, hidden deep within all the other Shahrukhs, is the guy he never really lets you see. The Vulnerable Shahrukh. Or, the Essentially Insecure Shahrukh. The boy who lost his parents before he made it in the movies, who has used Gauri, Juhi Chawla, Farah, Karan, Aditya, Aziz Mirza and a few others to create an alternative family environment where he is loved and secure. Who is so terrified by failure that his solution has been to act as though the possibility does not exist; to convince himself that he's the best at anything he wants to do and that there will never ever be bad days in his life.

You glimpse this Shahrukh, every now and then, when he talks. But he's just a flash in the crowd. Just one more Shahrukh hidden deep within the cluster of other Shahrukhs.

And yet, you always feel that if there wasn't this Shahrukh, then none of the others would have to exist.

Shahrukh Khan is smart. So yes, he's heard it all before. The amateur psycho-analysis, the rush to jump to the obvious conclusion:
that the deaths of his parents were the defining moments in his life.

And he's willing to concede that there's probably something – only something though, not a lot – to this assessment. But he wants you to know that many of the things people ascribe to insecurity were always there: that strange, child-like pride for instance.

Like the time his mother took him to meet the Principal of St Stephen's for admission into a degree course. Shahrukh was always a bright student but when his board results were in, he was horrified to discover that he had done badly in English, traditionally his strongest subject. (Board exams and their eccentric marking! Should he have been surprised?) English brought down his overall percentage and he was a few points below the cut-off mark for Stephen's.

His mother used contacts to secure an appointment with the Principal. After meeting Shahrukh, the Principal conceded that the percentage did not accurately reflect Shahrukh's intelligence and agreed to make an exception.

"Sir," said an overjoyed Shahrukh, "let me show you my school certificates…."

"No, no, no," said the Principal abruptly. "All that doesn't matter here." And he brushed the certificates aside so they fell on the floor.

An angry Shahrukh got up. "Fine, sir," he said. "If that is your attitude then I don't want admission in your college." And that's how he ended up at Hansraj where he says, the pride still in his voice, he did better in the University than anyone from Stephen's in his batch.

Or the time, when he was studying Mass Media at Jamia and was insulted by a teacher who felt that his chosen subjects for his projects (including "Who Was Jack the Ripper?") were not suitably high-minded or elevated.

"I was so upset," he remembers, "that I swore that the only way I would ever enter Jamia again was if I came to teach. And one day I will go back. And I will teach there."

He concedes also that he would probably not have thrown himself into the movie world had his mother not died suddenly. He'd studied mass media at Jamia thinking perhaps that he'd join the ad world. He was already doing theatre (in English) with Barry John in Delhi and this led to parts in TV serials.

But Hindi movies, even in the 1980s, were a world apart. These days, largely because of Shahrukh and the directors he has encouraged, ironically enough, young English-speaking college kids see no contradiction between wearing Western fashions and seeing Hindi movies. In those days, however, Hindi cinema was still perceived – especially in Delhi – as being downmarket, disorganised, unprofessional and, well, alien. TV – with many of the serials made in Delhi in those days – was okay, an acceptable, if poorly paid, option for stage actors.

Then, Shahrukh's mother died. His relationship with Gauri had, it seemed, reached a dead end. Her Hindu parents were never going to let her marry a Muslim boy with no parents of his own and no visible means of income.

"Give me a year," he told her. "I'll make it in Bombay and then, we can get married."

He signed ten films. In nearly every case, he was the second, third or fourth choice for the role. Because he had no preconceived notions, he signed all kinds of movies from Ketan Mehta's arty Maya Memsaab to Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman to negative roles in Darr and Baazigar.

Against the odds, his career took off. He'd broken all the rules.
Though the film industry was a family business (everybody is somebody's son or somebody's daughter) he'd made it as an outsider from out of town. He'd combined art and commercial cinema. He'd played the villain and the hero. He'd overcome his inhibitions and learned to dance.

He only realised how far he'd got, he says, when Salman Khan saw him on the road one day and said, "So, you are a star."

Yes, he was. And now he could get married.

After that, his career graph remained steady. The offers kept coming in and the hits kept rolling out. Unlike other stars though, he has no bitter memories of the early days. No stories of struggle and rejection. G P Sippy did say of him that he wouldn't make it: "His hair is like a bear." But Shahrukh doesn't mind. He thinks maybe that he'll use that as the title for a memoir he's writing.

He has no sob stories also about the phase when he suddenly realised that he was – to use that terrible word – an orphan in his early 20s. There were financial problems, he concedes. He hadn't realised how much the debts were, or what the disputes over property and the business (a gas distribution agency) were.

When he realised that he was, effectively, without any resources, he decided to leave the disputed assets to relatives and took off for Bombay.

I ask him the obvious question: was he trying to create a brand new life for himself, to start all over again, with Gauri as his sole emotional crutch?

He's heard the question before. But he still doesn't have any answers. "I don't know. I remember being sad when my mother died.
And I was worried about my sister who wasn't well. But I never thought `I am alone.' I just threw myself into my work."

Didn't the sorrow that he'd bottled up ever come out? Is it still somewhere inside him?

He shrugs.

But then Shahrukh doesn't like talking about the dark patches. He never talks, for instance, about the period when he became the principal target for the underworld.

It began with threatening calls and extortion demands. At first, he wasn't inclined to take them seriously but when the threats grew more explicit, he went to the police. He says that Rakesh Maria and several other senior Bombay police officers were more than helpful.
And though the threats didn't stop, he had the courage to tell the goondas to get lost.

The men who backed the notorious Chori Chori Chupke Chupke came to him first. When he turned down the role, they threatened to shoot him. Something snapped inside him when he heard the threat, he says. "I'll shoot you in the head if you try anything," he told the surprised gangster.

The next day the police were in touch. They had intercepted a phone call, they said, ordering a hit on Shahrukh Khan. The underworld planned to bomb his car.

He had police security, he says, so he was reassured to some extent.
But the fear never really went away entirely. If he changed mobiles, the dons would have the new number. No matter where he went, they would seem to know.

He was standing, one day, he says, in Mehboob Studio when his mobile rang. "Tu Mehboob mein khada hain," a voice. "Main tum ko udhar hi uda doonga."

He had a bodyguard but the voice on the phone was suitably scathing about his protection. "Woh tujhe kaise bachaayega?"

He says now that he was scared. "It was like they were always there.
That they knew exactly where you were and what you were doing."

That's one bad phase that Shahrukh Khan doesn't like talking about.

He's never been eager to talk about the phase that followed – which was probably even worse.

By 2000, Shahrukh had been on top for so long and seemed so secure that you could be forgiven for thinking that he was about to be crowned king of the world. The only cloud on the horizon – the underworld threat – was under wraps and nobody knew about the pressure Shahrukh was under.

Reactions to success follow a predictable path. If you are a failure nobody likes you. If you are a success, everybody likes you. But if you remain a success for too long, then everybody really hates you.

And Shahrukh seemed to be having it too easy. There were no claimants to his crown. And even Amitabh Bachchan, the acknowledged once and future king of Hindi cinema, was in temporary (as it turned
out) decline.

Then suddenly Hrithik Roshan happened. There's no doubt that Hrithik has an astonishing screen presence and that Kaho Na... Pyaar Hai was the most impressive debut film in decades. Nor is there any dispute that Hrithik is here to stay.

But could the hero of a debut film, a man who was just one film old, take over from Bollywood's top star?

The press seemed to think so. With the ferocity of a pack of hunting dogs, the media turned on Shahrukh. It was all over for him, they said. Hrithik was the new number one.

It did not help that Shahrukh's last release, the self-produced Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani had flopped. Now, said the press, every other Shahrukh movie would be a dud. Shahrukh-mania was over.

The first victim of this mob fury was Josh, a West Side Story style movie set in Goa. Though the film did well enough, making profits for all concerned, the media were determined to declare that it was a flop.

When Shahrukh protested otherwise, the press wrote that it was pathetic how this flop actor was trying to keep up with Hrithik by pretending that a dud like Josh was a hit.

Then, Amitabh Bachchan made a comeback with Kaun Banega Crorepati.
Suddenly, the original Shahenshah was back.

This gave the press all the ammunition it needed. Amitabh was king.
Hrithik was Crown Prince. And Shahrukh Khan was past his sell by date.

Next, the police launched a crackdown on the underworld. Logically, this should have worked in Shahrukh's favour – after all, he had been the prime target of the gangsters.

But no, because Bharat Shah, the producer of Devdas which starred Shahrukh was also said to have underworld links, the media decided that Shahrukh may also have connections with the dons.

Overnight, he went from being a hero to becoming a villain.

"It was," says Shahrukh Khan, "the worst two-year phase of my life.
I was told I was a flop. I was even told that I had links with the underworld. The cops were generally friendly. But one day, they called me to Crime Branch headquarters and they played Bad Cop-Good Cop. Even though I knew what they were doing, it was hard not to be shaken. Afterwards they said `Arre, Shahrukh don't mind, yeh to hamara system hai.' They wanted to be able to say that they had interrogated me."

He says he was completely shaken. "I hadn't done anything wrong. I had suffered. And now I was being accused of having links with the guys who had wanted me killed."

The press, sensing blood, went in for the kill. When Rakesh Roshan was attacked, it was suggested that the dons were out to damage Hrithik and protect Shahrukh. The Hindu-Muslim angle surfaced in RSS publications but made no sense – Shahrukh is married to a Hindu and Hrithik to a Muslim.

As if to drive home the competition, Shahrukh was then working on Karan Johar's K3G with Hrithik and Amitabh. While Shahrukh had held his own against Amitabh in their previous pairing Mohabbatein, the critics said that this was because Shahrukh had the script-backed role. Now, he would be shown up for the no-talent as he really was.

"For two years," he says, "I just kept my head down and worked. I only spoke to Gauri and a few friends. Things had got so bad that I remember Gauri and my mother-in-law waking me one morning, thrilled because a newspaper had said that the police had found that I was a victim of the underworld, not a patron."

Shahrukh Khan shakes his head. "Those were really bad days," he says.

Of course, our story has a happy ending. Nobody said that Shahrukh was overshadowed in K3G and the underworld rumours now seem like a distant memory.

But how does he cope with adversity?

In different ways, I think. The Obvious Shahrukh seems unruffled. He smiles from the audience at film functions when the cameras focus on him as Hrithik accepts an award. He laughs and bonds with co-stars.

But as for the Essentially Insecure Shahrukh?

Well, that's a different matter. He's now got quite set in his ways.
He has his friends whom he loves like a family. In an unguarded moment he will admit to moments of insecurity when he thinks that they will leave him and move on. But basically, he knows they love him. And he loves them.

He's got Gauri and the kids and one of the closest family units in Bombay. Because he lost both parents early and his sister hasn't been well, he's never going to let anyone take his wife and family away from him.

And then there's his career. "I'll be honest," he says. "I know I'm the best. I'll always be a superstar. There's no doubt in my mind."

Hubris? Perhaps. But more likely, it is the only way he can function. It is, he says, the way he's been able to cope with loss, with insecurity. "I keep telling myself I'm the best at everything I do. If I'm shaving, I say that I'm the best shaver in the world. I know it sounds stupid. But that's the way I am."

"If I allow myself to feel that I'm not the best at

something, if I feel nervous or not confident, then I just can't do it. That's my motivation. It is my way of doing things."

He has to feel he's the best.

Or he's nothing.

So, what next for Shahrukh Khan? Will he really become the film- maker he set out to be?

He doesn't know. He's happy with the role he's played as a producer.
Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani flopped. The critics said it was too cerebral – a charge he still doesn't accept. Asoka was probably over- ambitious but because he sold it cheap to distributors, it still made money. The problem was with the huge sums he invested in the film's foreign release, reckoning that it could be a cross-over success. Just before it was due to be released, 9/11 happened and the film got lost in the chaos that followed.

But he's had success with Chalte Chalte. Main Hoon Na, has made many crores and distributors are lining up to buy any other film he wants to produce.

He will produce more movies he says. But he's not sure what or when. At present, he's having fun with his acting. Though he doesn't drink very much in real life, he shot most of the drunken scenes in Devdas when he was really drunk. "It was an ego thing," he concedes. "I wanted to prove that I could do it. That I could reach my mark even when I was sozzled." Except for one day when he overdid it and ended up retching, it went well.

And he's being subtler with his performances than many people realise. Take Mohabbatein. At one level, it's a film about the Obvious Shahrukh teaching young kids how to love. In his mind though, it's a film about a Darker Shahrukh who comes back to take revenge and uses the kids (turning their lives upside down) as the instruments of his vengeance. It doesn't matter, he says, how audiences relate to the film. If they like the Obvious Shahrukh and his violin, that's fine with him. But if they want to look for the darker subtext, that's there too.

So, is he having fun?

Yes, he is. He's very happy.

And will things ever go wrong? Will any clouds cross the horizon?

No. Never. Nothing can go wrong. He won't let it. He will stop himself from even thinking about it.

Too much went wrong too early for the Essentially Insecure Shahrukh.
And now it's time for things to go right – and stay that way.