Shah Rukh Khan, a humble Bollywood legend

Shah Rukh Khan in "Chak De! India".

Shah Rukh Khan in "Chak De! India".

The Indian superstar shares insight into his craft, his stardom and the industry he has dedicated his life to.

It was wholly unexpected that the man who styles himself as King Khan and the Baadshah (Emperor) of Bollywood would turn out to be one of the most self-effacing and down-to-earth celebrities I’ve ever met; yet there he was, Datuk Shah Rukh Khan in the flesh, apologising for taking a phone call during our interview and promising to stay back longer to make up for it.

With various reports calling him everything from “over-confident” to “caustic”, I have to admit I approached the interview with a certain amount of trepidation – I was worried about the Bollywood superstar being a difficult interviewee, yes, but more truthfully, the die-hard fan in me was hesitant to have her illusions of the star shattered beyond repair.

Fortunately, I not only came away from the interview with my obsession intact, but also with a newfound respect for the man and his ability to make those he meets feel welcome – from remembering their names to giving them his full attention during conversations.

Shah Rukh Khan (right) and Kajol in Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham.

Face of Bollywood

“Personally, I feel the kind of role I should play for Bollywood is to create an international appreciation of it; not just as a fad, not just as kitsch, but as a (legitimate industry). After all, India has a 100-year-old cinema industry, one of the oldest in the world,” says Shah Rukh, who was in Kuala Lumpur recently for his Temptation Reloaded concert.

There are arguably few others with his kind of clout. Often dubbed one of the biggest movie stars in the world, 48-year-old Shah Rukh’s global fanbase numbers reach well into the hundreds of millions. Besides acting, he also produces, hosts television programmes and co-owns an Indian cricket team.

His work in Indian cinema has garnered him numerous accolades, including 14 Filmfare Awards, a Padma Shri from the Indian government (the country’s fourth highest civilian award), and the Order Of Arts And Letters from the French government.

Perhaps more significantly, he is the leading man in some of Hindi cinema’s biggest hits, including Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, Devdas and Kal Ho Naa Ho – 13 of his movies have grossed over RM53.8mil worldwide, making him one of the most successful Indian film stars of all time.

Best known for reinventing the role of the romantic hero in Bollywood, the dimpled actor is also the enduring hearthrob of a whole generation of moviegoers, creating iconic lover-boy roles that any Bollywood fan would recognise (one need only mention the names “Raj” or “Rahul” to bring to mind his most memorable characters).

Yet, Shah Rukh has a diverse portfolio of roles, having dabbled in genres as varied as comedy, thrillers and period pieces, and has to his name a selection of critically-acclaimed films that have gathered much praise for his acting, such as Dil Se, Swades, Chak De! India, and My Name Is Khan (MNIK).

Asked if there was a specific kind of character he’d like to play, Shah Rukh says he prefers to let the process happen on its own.

“I used to think I had to plan it, and that if I got a certain kind of role then I should essay it in a certain way, but there’s a huge change from the script to what happens on celluloid. So I’ve realised, after working for 25 years, that it’s nicer to let it remain organic.”

People, he adds, always come first for him.

“When deciding on my next role, I always look at working with people I enjoy first, rather than the script. So sometimes I end up doing a film where the script may not be the main appeal, but the people are, and I enjoy that.

“I have many dreams as an actor, but I think just following them will be a little selfish. I have a company, people that work with me and people that want to make a film. Apart from that, there is a whole section of the audience that want to be entertained more than to think seriously, while there is the other segment that likes to think seriously, so I have to keep that balance. It is difficult at times, so I let things be organic, and hope that will work out for everyone,” he explains.

With three confirmed projects in the pipeline over the next two years, Shah Rukh certainly has plenty to keep him busy. Following the masala comedy Chennai Express last year, 2014 will see the release of Happy New Year (HNY), a multi-star production directed by his longtime friend Farah Khan (who also helmed his Main Hoon Na and Om Shanti Om).

Following that is Fan, with up-and-coming director Maneesh Sharma, which supposedly casts Shah Rukh in the role of a die-hard fan.

“I believe everything I am is because of my fans, and this film is the point of view of a fan: how it could be, should be, may be. It’s intriguing, like a thriller, and I’ve not done something like that in a while,” says Shah Rukh.

“And then, after Chennai Express and HNY, I feel that as an actor, I need to do something more internalised, so there’s this film called Raees (a crime drama slated to be released in 2015). That’s how I decide and work. I choose the few projects I like, and tell the people working with me, these are the things I want to do, and you guys decide which we start first.”

Shah Rukh Khan (left) and Juhi Chawla in "Darr".

Serious business

Surprisingly, Shah Rukh shares that he finds it more challenging to take on the broad, larger-than-life characters as compared to the more complex, introspective ones. Roles like those in Chak De! India (where he plays a disgraced former sportsman) and MNIK (a character with Asperger’s Syndrome), he points out, are closer to reality and therefore can be put together by observing and being inspired by people in real life.

“Those in-your-face, populist roles, however, like in Chennai Express, are very difficult to do, because there’s no base for it, you’re creating it from zero. It’s a free-flowing thing you do, and you don’t know what shape it will take; it may turn out awful or fantastic, but you can’t revisit it once it’s done.”

As to whether his stardom affects the kinds of roles he takes, Shah Rukh is remarkably nonchalant.

“I think these discussions are from the periphery. Let me be honest, if you’re a true actor, which I’d like to believe I am, I don’t talk much about acting.

“What I do in the form of art, there’s no point in discussing it, saying the actor in me wants this or that. To me nothing comes in the way of my art, whether it is stardom or failure.

“People assume I don’t take acting seriously because I don’t talk too seriously about it, but I’m from theatre, I’m a very serious actor. I just don’t want you to know my seriousness, I want you to simply enjoy.

“It’s like your mother’s cooking, you never know what she puts into it, you just eat it and say ‘Wow!’. I take acting with a great amount of piety, I’m religious about it. To me, acting is what I was made for.”