'For an entire year I was sad'
Shah Rukh Khan on Devdas, the ultimate lover
When a brand of anti-dandruff shampoo on Indian shelves got Shah Rukh Khan to endorse it, the company struck pay dirt --- the man wears black all the time.
In person, he is diminutive. But there is something about him that transcends his lack of inches; some sort of metaphysical platform heels that give him heft and stature to the point where he is able to walk in and dominate a room where every single male --- and some of the females --- are taller than him.
That phenomenon was on view at The Mark Hotel, East 77th Street, Madison Avenue recently, when Shah Rukh Khan arrived, with costar Aishwarya Rai, to promote his latest film, Devdas.
For Khan, the cliché, All The World's a Stage, comes true --- he is a consummate and, more important, constant performer. The curtain is always up when he is around; the show is always on.
And there is only one star --- the chain-smoking, wisecracking giant of the Bollywood box-office.
Press conferences are in general boring affairs. A Khan conference, though, is the nearest thing to getting ringside seats for a stand-up comedy show. Someone asks him: "Today, when you are low, depressed, there are various societies that offer help, there is psychiatric counselling, there are so many ways of getting help. Do you think if Devdas were alive today, he would really have drunk himself to death?"
The answer comes without pause for thought: "No, he would have come over to live in New York!"
Someone else wants to know how come he smokes in public despite so many television cameras being trained on him. "Ah, that reminds me," he says, "let me do my bit for a social cause. If you are watching me, hear this --- don't smoke. Smoking is bad for you; smoking can kill you. Do something else --- chew gum, kiss a pretty girl, whatever. But don't smoke."
For close to 20 minutes, Shah Rukh and Aishwarya Rai answered media questions. For a further ten minutes, he then sat down with Prem Panicker for an exclusive interview. A compilation of the two:
Why would anyone want to make the twice-made Devdas all over again?
Devdas is a very, very special film in the history of Indian cinema. The chance to interpret it as a person of today's generation would --- and I belong to today's generation --- be irresistible. Why make Psycho again? Why make The Sound Of Music again? Why commit harakiri?
Devdas is a classic film, and our version, our interpretation, is a tribute to that Devdas. I hope you guys enjoy it, and I hope we make a lot of money.
(Pause) You know, what we are really hoping is that today's kid will see the film, then go home and say, 'Yo, Dad, I saw Devdas; it was real cool!' Ever since we started this film, we have been asked whether this story is relevant today. Yes, that talk makes us nervous.
But I repeat, it is a great story, one of the greatest ever. Great stories can do with retelling.
The subject of Devdas is sad, melancholy. Today, the family entertainer is doing well. When making a subject like this, isn't there a big risk?
I would disagree --- good films do well, not only family films. And I do have a selfish reason for doing this --- it is not often that you get a chance to be part of a classic. For me, Devdas is the greatest story ever told, the greatest film ever made.
Apart from the original novel and the earlier films, what research did you do to help you interpret the role?
I read the book, saw the movie several years ago. I kept it that way till 90 per cent of our film was completed --- I did not want to see the original again. I admire Dilipsaab [Dilip Kumar, who acted in Bimal Roy's 1955 Devdas], enormously. I did not want my own interpretation to be influenced by what he had done.
One thing I did --- I normally never drink. But for this film, I drank. I tell you, life can be very hard. Imagine, it is two in the morning and I have to drink Bacardi and have Madhuri [Dixit, who plays Chandramukhi in the film], fawn all over me on one side, while Ash [Rai] is dancing for me on the other. I tell you, life sucks!
If you were to define the story of Devdas, what would it be?
I would say it is the story of three people who loved each other so very, very much that they hurt each other and themselves.
This film is actually one man's dream. I think it is creditable that Sanjay [Leela Bhansali, director], after a Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, did not opt for something similar, did not decide to stay on safe ground.
Someone asked me if I thought a 'historical' film like Devdas would do well. Devdas is not historical. Emotions are not history --- love is eternal, really. Even if you mean it in the sense of a period film, well, why not? [Aamir Khan's] Lagaan did very well both at home and here. It was even nominated for an Oscar.
Pakeezah did very, very well; Umrao Jaan did very well. Good historicals have done well. Actually, only Asoka [his film costarring Kareena Kapoor] flopped badly. But then, that is probably because of me!
Asoka had aroused tremendous expectations. You as producer had an enormous amount of money riding on it. In retrospect, do you think you would have made that film differently? Any regrets over the way it turned out?
None. Honestly. The film I made was one I wanted to make. That it did not do well at the box-office is another story.
You talked of having to really drink in this film. If you got into the character to that extent, how difficult was it, at the end of shooting, to put it behind you?
You know, I have heard from Dilipsaab that he had to go through psychiatric treatment after he finished the original version, he told me it was so intense it took him over a year to recover. But then, you are talking of the previous generation of actors. They were a lot more conscientious than we are!
But I remember the last day of shooting. I was up in the branches of this tree, loving Ash --- now how difficult is that! Anyway, I was up there, holding her hand, and the shot was canned. I kept holding her hand. I realized that I was going to miss being sad.
For an entire year, that is what I did. I was sad.
I don't remember the exact quote, but someone once said something to the effect that sadness brings out the best in art. After we wrapped this film, I have not worked for six months --- I have just enjoyed the feeling of being sad. It is a very beautiful emotion to be in. We stars live in this bubble where everyone is smiling at you, where everyone loves you. Somehow, you lose touch with real, deep down sadness. Working on this film put us in touch with that emotion.
You come across as an actor who takes a lot of pains, preparing for whatever you do. Where and how did you study your craft?
Well, in my early days, I studied at the National School of Drama in Delhi. I belonged to a semi-professional theatre group. We had a lot of workshops, and put up some semi-professional plays. I did two years in television, now ten years in film --- it has all been part of the learning process.
More than that, I read books, I watch films. I like kids. Not the way Michael Jackson likes them perhaps --- oops, maybe I shouldn't have said that --- but I like kids. You watch kids, you learn. They are so uninhibited, so natural.
I have a son who is four, a daughter who is two. And I suspect that, mentally, I am somewhere between those two ages!
What would a child know of the kind of deep-down, gut-wrenching sadness of a Devdas?
Have you ever tried taking candy from a kid? Kids know sadness, believe me. In fact, Dilipsaab once said to me that Devdas is really a child trapped in a man's body.
You were recently at Cannes for the film festival, where Devdas was screened out-of-competition. What was the experience like?
Beautiful. I was like a kid in a candy store. Imagine, wherever you go, whoever you meet, they are all talking cinema! The people there are very gracious, very welcoming, very receptive of what you do.
I have never in my life walked down a red carpet that size. I have never in my life had an audience of 2,000 after the screening of the film, give us a 20-minute, non-stop, standing ovation.
Then I got to meet Martin Scorcese, which was cool. I also met Sharon Stone --- wooooh!
Have you ever thought of crossing over into Hollywood?
Hey, that is not for us to do it. It is not like they are waiting, you know. The big Hollywood studios, with their gates wide open, going, 'Hey, where are those guys from India?'
Actually, more than crossing into Hollywood as you call it, my dream is to make a Hindi film that will be welcomed in Hollywood. That will be released like a Spider-Man is released, or a Minority Report. There are some obvious constraints --- for instance, the mainstream audience here likes its films shorter.
I would like to keep that in mind, but still stay within Bollywood's formula --- the songs and dances and romance and all the rest of it. Because that is our idiom, that is what we are comfortable with, and that is our USP.
Acting in a film like this --- how has it changed the way you will chose your future roles?
Devdas is a romantic character and I have been responsible for a lot of the romantic characters on Bollywood these last ten years. So there are times when I wake up and say hey, I don't want to be in love today.
That feeling got reinforced. I mean, where love is concerned, this is it. Devdas is the ultimate lover. I don't think there is much more I can do in that line, not for a while.
You know what I would really like to do now is something radically different --- I would like to do a Spider-Man: fly from building to building in tights. I would like to have some fun.
We read that you are working on your autobiography. How is that coming along?
You are not the only one. I too read someplace that I am working on my autobiography. I wanted to ask the guy who wrote that story how it is coming along!
The thing is, people take a button and sew a shirt on it. I like writing and I write lots of notes. I have this laptop I carry around everywhere and that is the only thing I can do with it. Jokes aside, what I do is write down little things I see and hear and observe --- you know, it might be an incident, a joke, a quirk in someone's character, whatever.
I write them all down and, some time or the other, they come through in the movies. I might think of something and get the screenplay writer to work it into the story or use that in my acting.
I have been making notes on Devdas because I thought it might be interesting for us to do a collector's book kind of thing. An actor talking about what acting means to him, through the process of working on a film. It is all pretty vague yet, but one thing for sure it is not an autobiography.
You have been directed by Kamal Haasan, Mani Ratnam and there was talk you would do a film with Shankar…
Who told you that?
Did he also tell you that I signed for him and took a signing amount? You know how much? One rupee. I took one rupee from him. And told him I would give him dates in bulk whenever he wanted them.
We were supposed to do Nayak [which Shankar then made with Anil Kapoor in the lead] together. I saw the Tamil original [Mudhalvan] and loved it. But I was not comfortable about doing the Hindi version. I told Shankar that in Tamil, that whole chief minister for a day thing worked brilliantly, but I did not think it was such a big issue in North India. I didn't think the concept would work as it is.
So on that project we had some issues --- nothing major, just that we didn't think alike on a few things, so it did not make sense to do it.
But I still have that signing amount; he still has my promise of dates. He is one guy I most definitely want to work with. For me, he is like James Cameron --- you know, he makes out-and-out entertainers on a gigantic scale, and that kind of thing can be a huge high.
You haven't signed a film in ages. You mentioned you haven't worked for six months. Your next film is your own home project and that is still a long way from getting off the ground. Is all this the signal of something?
Actually, you know, June 26 marks exactly 11 years since I faced the cameras for my first shot for Dil Aashna Hai, in 1990. I knew it would be a tough field, a very demanding profession. So I promised my wife [Gauri] I will work like hell for ten years, then I will take a break, slow down, spend time at home, rethink what I want to do.
Last year was the tenth anniversary of that day, but Devdas was on the floor then. I could not take the break I had promised myself and my wife. So I am taking it now.
Any professional needs time to look back at what he has done, evaluate himself and his work, learn, move on, maybe even make the same mistakes again. But here, for ten, no 11, years, it has been like a film of mine releases on Friday, and on Monday I am on another set doing something else.
Your back problem has nothing to do with this break, then?
Oh no, not at all. That is another thing I keep reading about myself, a back problem that keeps me from working. I do have a back problem and it is kind of serious, I will not deny that.
I have what they call a prolapsed disc --- I like getting into everything I do. So I end up doing a lot of my own stunts. I have damaged my knees, my ankle, all kinds of things.
I had a guest appearance in Shakti, and I had to do a stunt. Later I felt a pain in the back. You know how it is, you think it is overwork and you ignore it. But it got bad, so I had it checked up and they told me a disc had slipped.
Surgery is an option, but I don't want to go in just now. I did that with my knee, I had surgery. The doctor told me to rest for six weeks, but I went right back to work. I shot Mohabbatein on crutches. As a result, my knee still bothers me.
This time, I thought, instead of going in for surgery like a quick-fix thing, I will rest, see what happens, check it out. If necessary go for surgery and make sure I also have sufficient recovery time.
So you will now take a holiday before getting back to business as usual…
No no. I am taking a holiday. In fact, just before coming here, I was on holiday with the kids and it was wonderful. The thing is, really, I have been telling myself for some time --- I want to do one film at a time.
But if you are working flat out, that never happens. You will be doing a film and then someone comes to you and asks you to do something and you sign up, and then someone else comes along. It never ends.
So the only way out is to stop doing films altogether for a bit. Now, I have stopped. So here on, I can focus on doing just that one film --- I have my home production next. And by the time I am done, I can think of what I want to do next.
The thing is also that when you do this day in and day out, you become kind of practiced, facile. There are little shortcuts you learn and you begin to use them unconsciously, instead of acting. That is because you are doing it all the time. So you try to make it a little easier on yourself. You know how to do a shot. Often, you just breeze through it without effort, without putting anything of yourself into it.
That is what I want to change. I want a break, so that when I face the cameras next, I will feel that tension again, that fear.
I want to be raw again.
ALSO READ: The Devdas Special