Back on screen after a paternity break, Imran Khan’s raring to return to his kind of cinema. He’s staying as low profile as ever – and telling it like it is
I expected my interview with Imran Khan to be boring. The obvious. It’s what a lot of friends, colleagues and fan opinions had led me to believe. And his shyness on the day of our photoshoot only compounded this theory.
He’s an articulate guy. He’ll speak his mind and not mince words – even if they aren’t the most flattering towards him – but you know he’s thought about every one of them while framing his sentences. That’s why he was no good when we tried playing a word association game with him on camera. For heaven’s sake, who takes 15 seconds to utter the first thing that comes to their mind when you say ‘man’?
“I’m not surprised. He’s the guy whose idea of a party is having 5-6 people over, bonding over drinks and classic rock,” said a friend of his, whom I happen to know. The actor himself tells me that recently, he left a party without finishing his first drink because “there were too many people, and someone stepped on my shoe”.
For better or for worse, I decide to wing this one. I pen down a good two dozen questions I’m fairly sure I won’t even ask Imran, and a week later, I land up at his sprawling Pali Hill bungalow just in time to watch his little daughter Imara – thumb in mouth – going off to playschool in mother Avantika’s arms. I’m looking out at this scene from Imran’s study on the ground floor, when he walks in. Half an hour later, he must head to the nearby Mehboob Studios for a round of music channel interviews. “You’re welcome to tag along everywhere,” he offers.
The interviews are to promote Katti Batti, which releases this month. It’s an important film for Imran, considering it’s his first release since November 2013, but he’s not seeing it as a big comeback. “I view it as a film that is made in the style in which I started my career, and in which I would like to continue working. The way we made Jaane Tu… Ya Jaane Na, Delhi Belly, I Hate Luv Storys and Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu –with a great deal of love, care and attention. These are handmade films, so to say. I find that whenever I’ve worked in that manner, I’ve been happier and the films have also been better.”
Lesson now learnt, Imran is quick to admit that he’s been carried away by success in the past. “There are endless advisors – be it your mother, wife, friends or people you work with – who will tell you what they think you should be doing,” he notes. “There’s always a reason, and invariably that reason goes against your gut or first instinct”
After Imara’s birth, the plan will remain taking it easy. There’s talk of him agreeing to do all kinds of films, but he hasn’t signed any. “I’ve only agreed to one with Tigmanshu Dhulia, but we’re far from starting work on it,” he says.
Sounds like he has it all figured out, then. Imran, however, says there’s no formula for sure-fire success. “You do get a sense of things a week or 10 days into filming. Katti Batti is something I entered with great hopes and expectation, but not knowing things for a fact. But as we worked on the sets, I started thinking it’s in line with my creative sensibilities,” he says, revealing that some of his earlier flops were a result of not being considered important enough to get a full script before signing up.
That can’t have been easy for the actor, who seems obsessed with having everything in order. Five minutes into our conversation, he gets up just to scoop a stray piece of rubber off the carpet, because it has been distracting him all along. Apologies out of the way, he continues, “It’s changed now, but some people are still averse to taking your feedback and suggestions. Very often, the director is a highly regarded person with critical and commercial success. You can express your doubts to them, but if they say, “Trust me, I know what I’m doing,” then you can’t do much. So what drives me to come back is the fact that in my life, I’ve never done a film where I felt, ‘Wow, we’ve made a masterpiece,’ and then that film has failed. The films that haven’t done well are ones that I have had personal creative doubts about while making or watching them.”
Half an hour later, we’re off to the studio, ten minutes away, and the conversation continues in the car, followed by the vanity van, where he gets ready in no time by star standards. Lots of what Imran says surprises me – some things I didn’t know and expect, and the rest, I’d have never imagined. Sample this.
Imran’s career has seen extreme highs and lows. A hit debut was followed by two flops. When people started writing him off, he bounced back with a string of hits. And when the same set of people heaped praise on him after this streak, they changed their opinion yet again when there was a downswing, with three successive duds.
The actor did the wise thing by opting to take a break and revaluate his career. It helped that this time off coincided with Avantika’s last trimester of pregnancy, followed by the birth of their baby girl.
Ask what the break taught him and he says, “I realised that I am happier working on my terms. I’m in the very fortunate position of having financial security. But putting that aside, I leave for work before my daughter wakes up, and return after she’s off to bed. I have missed more birthdays and weddings than I can count. These people matter to me, so as I see it, if I’m taking time away from close ones, I want to be able to say it was time well spent.” Imran adds that one never knows how a film will perform, so “it’s not enough for me to spend time making a film that’s commercially successful.”
I ask Imran if there were a lot of offers he turned down during his paternity break and he replies, “Let’s find out,” walking swiftly to the other end of his study to fish out a pile of bound scripts of all sizes. I sift through them, finding barely anything that looks promising. The only ones that ring a bell are Paakhi Tyrewala (Jaane Tu… director Abbas Tyrewala’s wife), and Delhi Safari – the previous project of Katti Batti director Nikhil Advani).
The actor settles down next to me again and picks up two scripts, opening their first pages to show me the difference in formatting. “One thing I learnt at film school is to take a script a lot more seriously if it looks like a professional one. For instance, going by the formatting, this is not a screenplay, but this one is. Some people will write on Microsoft Word, which shows lack of technique, structure and experience. If you don’t know it, I will assume you’re writing a story – which may be good – but not a script. If that’s the case, I don’t have the time.”
The ones that do pass Imran’s formatting test will be given a chance for around 20 pages, to see if he finds the story catching him. If it doesn’t, that’s the end of it.
“Now that you mention it, my only hit films have been made by first-time directors. Ever. It can’t be coincidence. I think a major part of it is the kind of collaboration where your director is someone you can have a conversation with, and who will listen to you,” says Imran. He’s not worried about Katti Batti for the simple reason that “Nikhil has been more collaborative than ever. He welcomes my opinion on everything – songs, lyrics, set, costumes. He will ask a 100 questions and also listen to what you have to say. He’s seen success as well as failure. He even tells me that if you’ve been smacked around the way he has, your ego just goes away”.
She’s the actress of the moment, and seems to be getting only praise from all quarters. Imran joins in too, but he’s also honest in pointing out the problems that cropped up because of their drastically different styles of working. “She’s someone who puts great thought, care and effort into her character, and I have tremendous respect for that. Her mood and headspace are different depending on the scene we’re shooting. On some days she’s chirpy, while on others, she’s sitting in her van quietly,” says Imran. “Her style of working is also very different from mine. She’s very meticulous and detailed. I will do a dozen rehearsals and the take will be a 13th different thing. I will react to what my co-star is doing. Sometimes, when we were in different zones, I would wonder whether we’d look like we’re acting in two different films. The end result is damn good, but I swear there were times when I worried about how it would turn out. Somehow, we’ve managed great chemistry on screen.”
Imran went to film school in the US and trained in writing, directing and cinematography. “When I came back to India, I had grand notions of changing the industry and showing these guys how it’s done. But when you go on the sets and work on a film daily, see what your intent is and then how people perceive the film, it humbles you. Suddenly, you feel like you don’t know quite so much. At 22, I felt I had all the answers, and now at 32, I feel I know nothing. My confidence back then would have been my downfall. Now I better sit down and shut up till I’m anywhere close to having the skill set I need to make a film,” he admits.
When that does happen, Imran imagines he’d produce his own film. And what would its theme be? “I like inter-personal relationships, and for stakes to be higher than they are in real life.” Hollywood films like Heat and Warrior are in the kind of space he’d be drawn to.
I mention to Imran the dichotomy of him hailing from a family of film-makers, but not growing up with the charmed lifestyle associated with a star kid (the guy was washing his own clothes at boarding school, and can probably cook better than you), and he nods in agreement. For instance, barely anyone knows his father’s name (it’s Anil Pal, by the way), let alone knowing that he’s a gent who works with Amazon. “He’s been one of the Silicon Valley guys since the mid-’90s. He’s had stints with Yahoo! and Netflix as well. His work is too technical for me to understand. He comes down around release time and watches my movies, but not other Hindi films,” explains the actor.
But surely, as a kid, he’s bumped into the stars at uncle Aamir Khan’s house, and had his share of time on the sets as a junior artiste in his early films? “Yeah, but those are in-house, family films. I vividly remember those experiences. My grandfather was producing, while my uncle was directing. Another uncle was acting in it; my mom was doing the costumes. Half of the supporting cast were my uncles, aunts, their college friends etc.,” he says.
Imran attributes his family’s working class mentality to late grandfather Nasir Hussain, who he says was thrown out of his house in Bhopal for wanting to make films, and made it purely with hard work. “He returned home one day to find the gates locked, and his stuff in a pile outside. He came to Mumbai and started off as an assistant dialogue writer, living on two eggs a day. My grandmother was a back-up dancer whom you can spot behind the actresses in 1950s songs.”
I point out that around the beginning of Imran’s career, all people wanted to discuss was that he was Aamir’s nephew, and was learning the ropes from him. He shoots back, “Do you think Aamir would have advised me to do Luck or Kidnap? If anyone thinks he has handcrafted my career, well, he’s done a terrible job of it. Maybe they just enjoy crying nepotism. But really, he’s watched only three of my 12 films (Jaane Tu… Ya Jaane Na, Delhi Belly – both of which he produced – and now, Katti Batti). And he’s never introduced me to someone or suggested I meet them.”
What Aamir has done, however, is taught him not to let a string of hits or flops mess with his head. “You may not remember a time 15 years ago, when Aamir wasn’t the people’s darling that he now is. He was this maverick on the fringes of the industry, and he had some insane ideas and ridiculous notions. He wanted a bound script before shooting, and would want to do only one film at a time,” says Imran, adding, “What we consider norms and celebrate in actors today were an affront in that time. The media wasn’t particularly fond of him. This perfectionist thing was only ever used as a snide comment. His success was either underplayed or just denied. Everyone else has forgotten about that, but I haven’t, and I don’t think he has either.”
I get to drive it about twice a month, but it’s currently parked inside because of the rains. I remember while working on Kidnap, I would work out in Sanjay Dutt’s gym. It’s in the ground floor of his building, right next to where his car is parked. So every time I went in, I would touch it, never thinking that I would own one someday. I would have been content just to drive one.
… In The Dark Knight, that is. Imran tells me he’s a Batman geek. I would’ve figured that out anyway, seeing that the massive TV in his study is rigged to a console that’s currently loaded with the new Batman Arkham Knight game (“I try to play for about 30 minutes daily.”). The debate comes up when we’re weighing up the merits of playing relatable characters, and those out of Imran’s comfort zone. He cites the example of Heath Ledger in the role that won him a posthumous Oscar, and feels a lot of it had to do with the drastic make-over. “On the other hand, Aaron Eckhart played the district attorney, Harvey Dent, whose character goes from here to there,” he says, moving his hand swiftly across the room. “That was the performance that gripped me more.”
In his own films, Imran has arguably seen more success playing the urban guy, closer to his real-life persona. “I like playing relatable characters. I get that people like it when you go against your real-life nature, but when I’ve tried to do something different like Kidnap or Once Upon A Time In Mumbai Dobaara!, it failed,” he reasons.
Refusing to be on social media means Imran has limited interaction with his fans, especially when there are no releases on the horizon. Does he see a flipside to his audience knowing too little about him? “Possibly. But it’s not something I’m particularly looking to change,” he says, after a pause. “I like to think of myself as an acquired taste. I like to think that people should put in some time and work to get to know me, and then they would find me to be interesting. I’m not really taken with everyone loving me and knowing everything about me. I’m in the very odd position of being an actor who doesn’t like fame. I do the work because I like making movies. Fame is a by-product of it, but it’s not a motivating factor for me. Social media builds your brand, and if you’re good at it – which a lot of people are – they are able to use their online presence to pump up their own stardom. That’s of no interest for me.”
And what are his fans like? Do they go crazy? “Actually, I think your fans tend to be a lot like you. Salman Khan’s fans are the way they are, but mine are like me. They write me letters,” he signs off.