Aamir: The Young Turk

There's 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 they wanted."

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 revolutionary.

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 Oscar nomination.

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 Turk

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 role.

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 India.

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 now.

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.

There 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 me.

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 22-week shoot.

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 to.

[Editor's Note: All credits to TIME ASIA except for Lagaan poster. Title herein is by editor.]

November 28, 2003
© 2001