If you count the number of fans who follow him, Bollywood actor Shah Rukh Khan is possibly the most popular star in the world. With a career in filmmaking that spans more than 25 years and with 80 films under his belt, he is a certified phenomenon.
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I’ve interviewed Khan several times over the years, and it’s always been clear that he cares deeply about the fate of India’s film industry. He is a staunch defender of Bollywood, but believes there’s plenty of room for improvement.
The Indian film industry is still reeling from its #MeToo moment last year, when allegations were made against more than 60 men, including prominent directors, actors and producers. During a special event in Mumbai – the home of Bollywood – Khan tells me he believes that MeToo in India has brought real change. “In the cinematic world and media world it has made us a little more aware now,”he says. “I think the main thing is that people are aware that this is not going to go untouched if somebody behaves in an improper manner.”
Bollywood is routinely criticised for churning out predictable song-and-dance extravaganzas, but Khan doesn’t see that going away anytime soon. “Musicals are here for a long, long time,” he says. “Song and dance is an inherent part of storytelling for Bollywood. I also feel for the rest of the world, it’s an easy compartmentalisation to turn around and always say, ‘Bollywood is about song and dance,’ [but] it is not our only storytelling.”
In India, everybody knows how to play cricket and how to make movies – Shah Rukh Khan
He is sceptical about some of the lacklustre efforts being made to deliver a Bollywood cinema that is less escapist and more reality focused, by bringing contemporary issues into narratives. He would prefer that to remain in the domain of independent film rather than big Bollywood productions. “We sometimes don’t do it in depth, at the seriousness with which you should do it, he says. “I think we should accept the fact that there is a cinema for entertainment and there is a cinema for engagement and both of them can co-exist.
Khan also wants to do away with intermissions in films to create a running time that is more manageable to audiences (the average length of a Bollywood movie screening is three hours). And he thinks cinema should be made more accessible to India’s huge population of young people, who may be averse to the traditional auditorium, as well as focusing on education and training. “I think we need to have a different set of screenplay story writers,” he says. “We need to make it more scientific, or at least create institutions in India which teach screenplay as a subject.”
The elusive awards
With the Oscars looming Khan says he believes the selection process that determines which film is submitted needs to be changed. India has been nominated in the best foreign language film category just three times in the history of the Academy Awards. It has never won the trophy, which has been renamed ‘best international feature film’.
Part of the problem might be that the individuals in India picking films for [the] Oscars consideration are not in tune with the tastes of the Academy, according to Khan. “Sometimes we choose a film which we think is the best Indian entry and more often than not it is,” he says, “but perhaps it does not fall into the way [the] Oscars looks at cinema. I think from the Indian side all the top filmmakers and associations should make an effort to understand what [the] Oscars desire from India as a film.”
In the past year, this adored Indian actor has taken time away from filmmaking to concentrate on his family and producing. This career break follows his recent films Fan, Jab Harry Met Sejal and Zero, which struggled to really ignite the box office.
“I just think we just made bad films,” he says of these failures. “You have to realise you set out to tell a story, sometimes you tell it well, and sometimes you [don’t].
“In India, everybody knows how to play cricket and how to make movies,” he laughs. But he is reluctant to get drawn into specifics. “I cannot intellectualise a failure or a success, I cannot simplify or oversimplify a failure or a success… I really believe there’s no one reason for a movie going wrong, except for the fact that I truly believe I told a story badly.”
‘Prosperity over posterity’
One aspect of Khan’s life that remains undiminished is his huge and loyal fan following. He can’t quite fathom why there’s such interest in him.
I still am really shocked at the fact that people love me so much after so many years – Shah Rukh Khan
“The fact that I suddenly became such a big star, which I’d never, never imagined, I can still not comprehend the magnitude of that stardom. I still cannot understand why me and not somebody else.”
His fans congregate outside his Mumbai home at all hours of the day waiting for a glimpse. He seems to genuinely appreciate them, often taking time to talk with them while patiently posing for endless selfies.
“I still am really shocked at the fact that people love me so much after so many years,” he says. “For me it is just very important to meet everybody. I just love the people who love me so much and I really want to meet them because my work, line of work, does not give me that many opportunities. I’m on the studio floor 12 hours a day.”
Not all attention Khan has received has been positive: his endorsement of skin lightening creams has frustrated critics, who believe the products promotes racist beauty standards. He has a rather passive view of his involvement in these advertisements. “I always tell people that the product chooses you, you don’t choose the product,” he says. “Yes, I do find moments when people question my choice of product. I turn around and say ‘You know the product chooses me, it’s legal, it’s out there’.”
At 54, Shah Rukh Khan seems to be a man comfortable in his own skin and at peace with himself. “I think legacy is too big a word, I’ve never worked for posterity. I’ve always worked for prosperity. But to me the honest truth is that if my epitaph can read ‘I tried. I worked hard, and I tried’ I think that should be the mantra for most people .”
Talking Movies’ Shah Rukh Khan interview special will be broadcast on BBC World News on Saturday 7th December at 17:30 and 22:30 GMT and Sunday 8th December at 04:30 and 10:30 GMT
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