His Twitter and Instagram accounts describe him as a “boutique Bollywood actor”. For someone returning to the big screen after five years — he was last seen in Love Aaj Kal and Wake Up Sid — the description is not far off the mark. Rahul Khanna is a firm believer that the only way an artiste can grow is by doing different things. In Fireflies, Khanna plays a successful banker caught in the superficial glitter of corporate Mumbai.
“I picked this film because it was something I have never done before. It is an independent film in the purest form of the word because the director, Sabal Shekhawat, made it on his own terms. He did not want any creative inputs from outside and produced the film himself, which, in itself, is very rare. Also, the script was very lyrical and poignant and different from anything I have seen on Indian screens,” explains Khanna. He adds that Fireflies showcases a milieu of Mumbai — the lifestyle, the struggles and relationships — that has never been portrayed on screen before.
The film explores Khanna’s character Shiv’s troubled relationship with his brother, and the events that take place when an incident from their past catches up with the present. Playing the role was challenging for Khanna in more ways than one, the biggest of which were the contradictions between his reel and real life. “In the film, I don’t have a close relationship with Arjun Mathur’s character, and I am not nice to him. But I am very close to my actual brother so it was strange behaving badly with someone who was my brother on screen,” he says, adding that the character was also a departure for him because he usually plays the part of a nice guy. “Shiv is quite ruthless. This is also because of his circumstances. He has had to struggle, make certain choices and this is the path he has chosen, but then there is an evolution in his character,” he says.
Khanna’s career trajectory has been laden with diverse choices. While he started out as a DJ for MTV in the ’90s, he made his debut with Deepa Mehta’s 1947 Earth, and continued to mix up the equation with films such as Bollywood Hollywood and the more commercial Elaan and Raqeeb. Currently in the US where he is shooting for a TV show, The Americans, Khanna says he has always been attracted to the unconventional side of things. Frequently featured on Best Dressed lists for his natty style, Khanna thinks that his selectivity and interest in visual elements has, to a large extent, translated into the kinds of films he chooses. “I like uniqueness, so when someone comes to me with a film project, I look at the story, the director and the people who are going to put the visuals together. If there is a fantastic cinematographer, for me, then that is a big draw. If it is going to be a period film, then production design in terms of costumes, sets and props are important. At the end of the day, you watch films, so they should be visually interesting,” he says.
For the same reason, he was inclined towards Fireflies. “Sabal is one of the top Indian ad film directors and I liked the team he had assembled. He has access to some incredible technical talent so I was eager to work with them. The soundtrack of the film is fantastic and, with people such as Monica Dogra and Karsh Kale on board, it is music we don’t hear often,” adds the actor.
While not seen much outside of his films, Khanna is an active blogger and has developed his own distinctive brand of humour on social networking sites. He admits that he loves writing, and is sure that he will write a script someday. “I’ve gotten a couple of offers to write books and will take it up at some point,” he says. He admits that he is often mistaken for being snobbish because he is not comfortable in social situations, but adds that his introverted nature does not interfere with acting. “Acting is not all out in public. It’s very scripted, done with a very small group of people who are all protecting you, in a way. They are making sure you look good, your lines are said right and that everything is perfect around you. So you can be extroverted but are in a controlled environment,” he explains.
While Fireflies caters to a niche audience, Khanna hopes that it breaks perceived stereotypes of an indie film. “When most people hear ‘independent film’, they assume it’s low budget and will look like that. But this is one of the most visually beautiful films that I have been a part of. All the little technicalities are spot on,” he says. Though he is reading some scripts and is uncertain about his next film, Khanna is quick to reveal his dream project: “Quentin Tarantino. India would lend itself very well to a Tarantino film.”