something familiar about the barefoot figure with shoulder-length
hair and full beard, wearing tatty jeans and a loose linen shirt,
padding across Aamir Khan's minimalist Bombay apartment. Only
when he curls his legs onto a chair and waits expectantly for
the questions to begin does it become clear that this is not one
of Khan's friends but rather the latest incarnation of India's
most respected and versatile young actor himself. Gone is Aamir
Khan, the hipster in a tight-fitting silk suit, outrageous tie
and boyish close-crop whom millions watched stride the red carpet
outside a score of premieres. In his place, meet Aamir Khan, Jesus
Christ Superstar. In a few weeks, Khan will star opposite Aishwarya
Rai as the rebel leader Mangal Pandey in The Rising, Ketan Mehta's
$10 million epic about the 1857 Indian mutiny against British
rule. But despite Pandey's pivotal place in Indian history, says
Khan from beneath his straggly growth, no one knows what he looked
like. "So I thought if I grew everything, then the makeup
and hair people would have a full palate to make him look however
Spending months to prepare for a character might be routine for
a method actor in the West. But in Bollywood the idea that any
actor would take even a weekend off—let alone four months
to read history books and grow a beard—is verging on the
Khan, however, is just that. After a stereotypical start in Indian
film—a breakthrough smash-hit song-and-dance romance in
1988 followed by eight forgettable musical extravaganzas in three
years—Khan broke ranks and, as he says, "began to swim
upstream." He became the first Indian star in memory to pick
and choose roles by artistic merit. By carefully mixing commercial
hits with experimental releases, Khan built a name as both a bankable
star and a credible actor. His simultaneous conquest and transformation
of Bollywood was cemented with the 2001 releases of Dil Chahta
Hai (Do Your Thing), a groundbreaking portrait of middle-class
Bombay, and Lagaan (Land Tax), about Indian villagers struggling
against 19th century colonialism—which earned India's third-ever
By the time he steps onto Ketan Mehta's set, Khan, now 38, will
not have appeared before a movie camera for more than three years.
It is a measure of how highly he is regarded that a hiatus that
would have snuffed out lesser stars has only bolstered Khan's
reputation for Stanley Kubrick-like discernment. "For a star
of Aamir's size to have chosen to work the way he did, when he
did, created huge waves," says Mehta. "He is responsible
for bringing realism, passion and joy back to Indian film."
Although his fame has grown increasingly global, Khan says he
has no intention of leaving Bombay's bright lights for more earnest
Western environs. He tells a story of taking Lagaan to Los Angeles
in 2001 and meeting a Dreamworks executive who liked to watch
Bollywood movies with his children and who pleaded with Khan to
stay on in Bombay and produce more "wonderful, innocent films."
The executive need not have worried, says Khan. "I'm very
happy doing Indian films and working with the musical form we
have," he says. "When it's done right, it's like opera.
It can be truly great." Indeed, the idea of taking part in
a film with prospects he judges as anything less, he adds, "is
something I just can't do." It's been Khan's personal code
for a decade. And, as the rest of Bollywood is finally realizing,
it's also a mantra that distinguishes mere movies from art.
Interview: The Young
Aamir Khan is Bollywood's most respected young actor, and set
the standard for an industry when he became the first actor in
a generation to pick and choose his roles, to insist on only taking
on one role at a time, and devote time and energy to preparing
for them. In 2001, Lagaan, in which starred and which he produced,
was nominated for an Oscar. The 38-year-old returns next opposite
Aishwarya Rai in The Rising, the story of the 1857 Indian mutiny
against British colonial rule. He spoke with TIME's Alex Perry
at his apartment in Bombay where he was preparing for his new
TIME: What's happening to Bollywood?
Things are changing really quickly. There is a distinctly alternative
path that Indian cinema has been taking over the last 12 to 15
years, but we are really seeing this manifest itself more obviously
now. When I began, there was a lot of resistance to new ways of
thinking; now there is a lot less.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Indian cinema was making really good stuff,
but in the late 1960s and 1970s there was a gradual decline and
the late 1970s and 1980s, things could hardly have been worse.
Finally, in the late 1980s, some better films started being made
again, using music, but using it with some sensibility. A bunch
of people got into film who were completely fed up with the sort
of films coming out. It was like, 'F--- you. We can't stomach
this any longer.' Plus the audience is changing and getting exposed
to more and more different times of entertainment. In fact, it's
quick stunning how quickly people have changed: we've gone from
one television to 100—not a natural growth—and people
have been bombarded with a whole host of new things from outside
Anyway, so now people are building on the good work that was being
done then, and doing completely different stuff. People are suddenly
willing to experiment with new ideas: the films being made today
wouldn't have even seen a release 10 to 15 years ago. There's
a whole new level of passion and integrity and commitment. We
have a lot to learn as a film industry, but the momentum is building
TIME: Do you feel you want to move on from Bollywood?
No. I feel very protective and close to our cinema and I'm very
much a part of it. I'm very happy doing Indian films and working
with the musical form we have. Of course, Bollywood can be quite
ghastly, but at its best, it's a wonderful form. There's a level
of passion and excitement and a heightening of emotions which
can be momentous. It'd be awful to lose it.
Music and singing and dancing are also part of our culture and
our aural tradition. We don't write anything down in our history.
But Bollywood is not something I look down on. When people say,
'Indian films are Bollywood musicals,' I think that's great. When
it's done right, it's like opera. It can be truly great. When
it's done badly, it's not good, but then nothing is. In Lagaan,
when the first song happens, the clouds are coming and the villagers
think it's going to rain. Imagine that without a song, it could
easily be done, but with the song it completely enhances the moment,
it makes you feel more, it sucks you into the story.
TIME: But some times the songs are ridiculous. You know, all this
running off to the Swiss Alps in the middle of the narrative.
are these films, stories that do not make any sense, suddenly
you're in the Swiss Alps with 40 dancers behind you. No, I don't
like that. I used to be really upset at the kind of films coming
out of India. I couldn't watch this crap. But on the other hand,
I do strongly feel that we have a lot of talent here, and a huge
potential to entertain the world, and I feel we should do it in
our own way. I don't think we should tailor ourselves. We should
retain our own style of story-telling.
A second point is that, it's a very positive approach to story-telling.
There is a lot of hope in it, not much cynicism, and that's what
cinema is for me. Life is Beautiful is a film that moves you:
it's larger than life, saying things with a broad sweep and hitting
the high notes of emotion.
So I'm quite happy doing films for an Indian audience. What excites
me and what is changing is that we can now entertain a world audience.
And we should explore that, but we shouldn't neglect our audience
here. There are filmmakers who are looking towards a Western audience.
But I'm not interested in making a Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
or looking for a pattern of what might be successful. I want to
make films that I believe in and if that happens to interest an
international audience, then great. Lagaan is an example of a
mainstream Indian film that was seen all over the world and that
was never intended for an international audience.
TIME: Has is been difficult to choose the kind of films you wanted?
The first film I made, nobody wanted to buy it. At that time the
star system was very rigid and really crude action movies were
all around. And this was a love story, not crude at all, very
subtle and the girl and boy die at the end. The marketers viewed
it with a lot of suspicion, they thought it was a hell of a bummer
and wouldn't release it. And then when it did come out, it was
a breath of fresh air. It went through the roof, people came to
the theaters in droves.
So it's been an exciting journey, but I have been swimming upstream
and trying to do my own kind of stuff. I am not trying to make
any great change, but I want to do what I want to do, for Christ's
sake. And now, I feel less and less need to do commercial work.
TIME: That's not always been the case, though, right?
When I first came in, actors were doing 30 to 40 films a year.
Within six months of my first film, I'd signed for eight more.
And I couldn't manage. When I started work, I realized it was
absurd: I had to work 16 hours a day for three or four years,
shooting on two sets a day. And then these eight films started
releasing and they all started bombing: they were horrible films.
But it was a learning experience, and after I finished these films,
I began to choose. And ever since, I've been working towards establishing
a way of working that I'm comfortable with. And it's taken quite
a time to achieve that. Actually, I've been extremely stubborn.
I've said 'No' to a lot of very, very good directors. But I think
if I hadn't, I wouldn't have survived. You see, I need to feel
I like doing it to do it well. And I need to have an audience
in Bihar [eastern India], I need a guy there to feel like he loves
TIME: Were you always confident of your choices?
No, I was a scared as hell. The press was writing me off as a
one-film wonder. And people were saying, 'Has he gone mad? He's
not taking on any work.' But my fear and insecurity... I did not
allow them to make me take decisions to play safe. I took risks,
because I just could not bring myself to do certain films and
work a certain way. Shooting two films in a day is just ridiculous.
So when I produced my own film, Lagaan, I said, 'I've always wanted
one single shooting schedule and let's please have synchronized
sound'. And now The Rising is coming too: that's a continuous
TIME: How big a problem is mob money in Bollywood?
What we must realize is that the underworld is very much part
of society and it's very much in India. You can't expect it not
to impact every walk of life. So, yes, there is that involvement,
but it's not to any degree that's unusual. People in the film
industry haven't come from Jupiter and Mars, we're all part of
the same society, and my level of integrity is the same as other
people's, the same as my instinct for survival is the same as
others'. And let's face it, the film industry is something that's
quite attractive to people and certainly people who are interested
in power. There areas where the underworld does exist and should
not are administration and law and the police and political life.
But people in these areas focus on us to deflect attention. And
it angers me because the press falls for it.
TIME: Is Bollywood becoming more professional?
Things are getting more organized. In the 1950s, films would take
nine years to make. I just don't know how they did that. But what's
not good is if it goes too far and everything is calculated and
measured, as you cannot be creative. Big business can spoil entertainment.
TIME: Why did you choose The Rising?
I like the concept of a company taking over a whole country and
ruling it for 100 years, and the relations between power, money,
drugs and weapons. And the sub-plots are really exciting, the
relationship between the two cultures.
TIME: What about your co-star, Aishwarya Rai?
When I was offered the film, nobody else was cast. But I think
she has a lot of potential as an actress and a star. She's extremely
popular here and has the potential of winning over an audience
outside India. She's talented and extremely good looking, and
bigger than Julia Roberts in terms of fans.
TIME: What about the new Western interest in Bollywood?
It's happening very fast. After Lagaan, at the Oscars, I had 30
scripts thrown at me. And there's a lot of productions coming
and shooting here. But it's unlikely that all 1,000 Bollywood
films that get made in a year are going to get a world release.
But people have heard of Bollywood now and they are getting a
taste for it and I expect there will be a huge audience for Indian
film for a while and then it will slow down, but there will be
a certain audience that sticks with it. Indian cinema can be very
addictive, it sucks you in. Some of it is ridiculous, but you
can't help but watch it.
One thing I'm worried about is that a lot of talent might be absorbed
into Western film-making. That's not something I am looking forward
[Editor's Note: All credits to
TIME ASIA except for Lagaan poster. Title herein is by editor.]