At 51, Shahrukh Khan is the biggest movie star in the world. He is the King Khan. According to Forbes, his earnings (an estimated $33m/£26.5m in 2016), 70-film back catalogue and international popular appeal put him well ahead of Hollywood’s mega-celebrities. The actor says he never wanted to be an actor. When in college, all he had done is one line in a play – “A letter for you, ma’am”. His mother told neighbours that her son is an actor. Later in his life, he auditioned for the TV show ‘Fauji’ and he was cast in the lead role. “And then I became famous,” says Khan. Till date, he is popular among the TV actors as one can become a Shahrukh Khan even if one is on TV.
Then how did exactly happen that he pursued acting when he was not aspiring for it at the first place. “I didn’t really want to do it, but my mum died and I came to Bombay. I told Gauri (now his wife) and my sister that I was depressed and wanted a change of scene, so I [left Delhi] for one year and it has now been more than 25 years. I still don’t know if I’m cut out for acting.”
Success has made Khan humble over the years and above all there is a sense of gratitude, specifically when you look at his stardom and the empire he has built over the years.The hotel suites he stays in, the expensive suit and beautiful shoes, the bodyguards, and a efficient army of assistants – including one whose job it is to carry a hand-held mirror so Khan can check on his hair, make up and look before photographs are taken – says it all.
You mention his success and King Khan gets quite philosophical about his place in the world. He is one of those people who is extremely honest and frank about how hard the people of his stature work to maintain that level of fame – and how much they need it. “I make people happy. Whether I’m a good actor or not, whether I’m in a hit film or a flop, the one ability I haven’t lost is that I can go into the streets and out of 10, maybe six people will smile. That’s still a good average.” And he is absolutely right. He is simply loved and adored by his extremely loyal fans in India and abroad. In abroad no Indian actor is admired the way Khan is.
“I get very disappointed if I see people who aren’t enjoying what I’m doing and it’s not even value for money, it’s value for liking me. I need people to be happy after they’ve met me, if nothing else. You’re sitting with me now: you can see I’m a very boring person – but if you have an image of me being cool or funny or romantic from the films, I’ll do my best to live up to that expectation. If you tell me I’m not smiling enough, I will smile more.” This approach can be too demanding. But Khan says he thrives on it, as the rest of the time can feel lonely on set or lonely at home.
It is in fact a requirement for him too. “I’m very shy and reclusive. I have to do the public things I do, and I do them with a lot of happiness. But I can’t take them home with me.” It’s the cliche of mega fame: the bigger your success, the smaller your world becomes. The more people love you, the fewer you truly trust and turn to. “I’m very sensitive, it’s why I’m very friendly and charming and everything people expect me to be, but I don’t have any friends.”
He insists that he is emotional to the extent of out of ordinary. “I get hurt very easily,” he quips. “I’m not very social. I don’t like keeping relationships.”
“There is hardly anyone I share my feelings with,” he says. “I believe your feelings are your own and no one understands them as well as you. Somebody can give it a good hearing, but nobody can solve the issue of your feelings, so I keep them to myself.”
He tells the story of a friend without naming him, who wrote a biography and “completely destroyed” him. She said that Khan was over the hill, that his (now successful) production company would fail, that younger, better-looking actors would soon knock him off the top of the tree.
“When the interview was over,” says Khan, “we were going out with my son, and I joked to him: ‘Aryan, tell Aunty who is the biggest star’, and he said ‘Shah Rukh Khan.’ She wrote: ‘He will need more than his son to believe that.’ That was hurtful.” It is clear on his face that the memory is unpleasant for him.
“Don’t suffer, live with it or learn to live with it. I’m at unrest. I’m at discomfort, not only with feelings, but a lot of things. I believe if you’re creative, then this will happen. So when people ask me: ‘Are you happy?’, I say: “No, I’m not so stupid to be happy all the time.”
Politics and religion are not the comfortable topics for him. Whenever the actor has spoken on it, it has drawn only controversy. He is a kind of tired about it. But he is too polite not to answer any question bluntly. So with discomfort he attempts to venture into it. “I tell my kids, there are people who are completely mental who misuse and misunderstand the religion. Of course, you can always find an excuse that they were taught this wrongly when they were impressionable, but they are still wrong. No religion in any way condones violence, yet religious wars have been going on since time immemorial. There has to be a huge discussion in how we clear the name of any religion … but you can’t at this point.” He continues, “Look, there are people who believe our religion teaches violence, and it doesn’t. I know it, you know it. I have been brought up by Hindus all my life, I am Muslim by birth and I studied in an Irish Christian school. I know all religions to a certain extent and they are fundamentally the same – the majority of people understand that.”
In 2015 , the famous Khan faced the most indignified backlash of his career in his home country India, with calls for him to be deported to Pakistan for having the temerity to call out the “extreme religious intolerance” that he saw growing in the country. Then things escalated to a level after a terrorist attack on soldiers in Uri in 2016 which led to the Indian Motion Picture Producers’ Association banning all Pakistani actors, singers and crew from working in the industry “for ever”. The local leader Raj Thakrey’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena called for all entertainment industry workers of Pakistani origin to leave India within 48 hours. Khan’s best friend and notable filmmaker Karan Johar got stuck in the middle of controversy, as his movie “Ae Dil Hai Mushkil” featuring Pakistani actor Fawad Khan, was scheduled to release then. He had to release a video statement in support of the ban, begging audiences to watch his new film. The film was released after Johar vowed not to work with Pakistani artists ever again in future.
So does this bother Khan or not. “I can’t get into that,” he says quickly. “Look at my life now: I have 200 to 300 people who are attached to the business of Shah Rukh Khan. To affect the lives of some 250 people for a comment that I make, which is misread or misquoted or misunderstood by the people reading it? To me, to be able to carry on working as an actor and a star, it is a big responsibility to do it this way. I can’t let them down.” He tries to explain. “You have to understand, anything I say or discuss, there are people extremely happy to underline one thing and blow it out of proportion. It’s unfortunate for someone like me who did speak his mind. I only speak my mind to my kids now.”
The superstar has three children (Aryan, 19, Suhana, 16 and three-year-old AbRam) with his wife Gauri, a film producer. The couple married in 1991 at a very young age when Gauri was 21 and he was 25. “It is difficult to be married to a movie star,” He says on his secret to a successful married life. “We work because there is a lot of space. I like being on my own and that is provided without it being a thing. Nobody questions it, nobody talks about it: it takes a huge amount of sacrifice on the part of the spouse of a movie star. They need to have a certain level of confidence, belief, being OK with the hours of the star being away and still being able to maintain a certain amount of proximity for the family as a whole. But space is the key thing.”
Does he worry about his children being spoilt by his wealth and fame?
“All the time. After their health, I worry that the shadow of my fame does not destroy their identity, that’s why I’ve sent them abroad to study, to figure out what they want to do. My kids are very balanced, mashallah, but to be children of a famous father … I want them out of this shadow. I wouldn’t even mind the shadow decreasing if it helps them.”
He cannot freely roam around any more. He gets mobbed quickly. So does he ever consider go out in disguise? “I worked very hard to be recognised. Why would I want to be in disguise?” He quickly throws a witty response which is the strongest trait of all his interviews.
Over the years Khan has attributed his success to the women around him generously. “I lost my father, then my mother, early on,” he says. “But the women in my life – the actresses – have helped me immensely. Everything I am is because of them. They are doing all that work and, mostly, I take away the credit for the film. I’m Shah Rukh Khan. None of them has become Shah Rukh Khan and I hope they do. I’m not trying to be pompous about myself. Madhuri Dixit has held my hand in those dancing scenes and I’m not leading her, she’s leading me. Juhi Chawla taught me how to do comic timing, Kajol taught me how to cry. They worked their asses off and then, at the end of the film, it’s ‘Shah Rukh Khan: the superstar’. And I know it. I can’t deny it. And I can never ever forget I am [there] because of women. All my chivalry, goodness, gentlemanliness only stems from the fact that it’s my way of saying thank you. They are fabulous in the films. In every film.” signs off the actor.
Stay tuned for more from the world of entertainment, only on Bollywood Red.