In a career spanning over two decades, Rahul Khanna has done around a dozen film projects, many of which have left an indelible impression in the minds of the audience. The actor, who was seen in Netflix series Leila earlier this year, is fondly remembered for movies including Bollywood/Hollywood, Raqeeb, Love Aaj Kal and Wake Up Sid.
The model-turned-actor has remained a favourite television anchor starting 1990s, and has also hosted various award shows and B-town events. From endorsements to writing, there’s nothing that Rahul hasn’t done. But one of his most striking works is Deepa Mehta’s directorial 1947: Earth, the second movie in Mehta’s elemental trilogy (Fire, Earth and Water). The film was also India’s official entry for the Academy Awards in 1999.
But how did Rahul Khanna, who was already hosting shows on MTV, land the role of Hassan in 1947: Earth? Here’s what the actor shared:
1. How did you land a role in your debut acting project – 1947: Earth?
Deepa Mehta was in Chennai for a meeting with AR Rahman, the film’s composer, and she turned on the TV in her hotel room and saw me hosting a music request show (I was a VJ with MTV Asia at the time). She thought I’d be perfect for the role of Hassan, the romantic lead of the film and asked her casting director Uma DaCunha to reach out to me. I was living and working in Singapore at the time and the next thing I knew I was on a plane to Mumbai to meet her.
2. What do you remember of your first day on set?
My first scene was to be shot in the ruins of Tughlaqabad Fort in Delhi. By that point, it had been weeks of flights between Singapore, Mumbai and Delhi for workshops, rehearsals, wardrobe fittings, hair and make-up tests and hours spent with a dialogue coach—all leading up to this moment. I was so excited. I don’t think I slept a wink the night before. We were to shoot in the first light of the morning so I was picked up from the hotel at around 4am and driven to the location. Once I was ready, I remember thinking—this is it! It was still pitch dark and freezing. We shot through a brutal North Indian winter. When I stepped out of the make-up trailer, David, the producer, was waiting for me. He gave me the news that Deepa had fallen terribly sick and couldn’t even get out of bed and that they had no choice but to cancel the shoot that day! I was like, “Damn! I hope this isn’t some sort of omen!”
3. Were you nervous? How many retakes did you take?
The next day, Deepa recovered and we finally shot my first scene. It was a really simple, lyrical scene with no dialogue. All I had to do was walk through the ruins a bit and then kiss my co-star Nandita Das while Maia Sethna, who played the little girl Lenny, looked on. I don’t remember being nervous at all. Instead I was more incredulous that I was getting paid to do this! At one point, hundreds of locals from the area had climbed up the walls to watch the shoot and it was making Maia nervous. I remember telling her, “Just pretend you’re doing a play and they’re the audience!” There were a few re-takes but mainly because the cinematographer wanted a somewhat uncooperative peacock in one of the frames!
4. And who were your co-stars? How was the rapport with them when you got to meet or work with them again later?
I was really lucky to have co-stars like Aamir Khan, Nandita Das, Maia Sethna (who was the daughter of my dance teacher Farida Pedder), Kitu Gidwani, Aarif Zakaria (who would help me rehearse my lines after we wrapped for the day), Raghuvir Yadav, Pavan Malhotra and the amazing Kulbhushan Karbanda. Everyone was extremely kind and generous, even though it was my first ever acting job and I was a complete newbie to a film set. I also developed friendships with many of the crew members (who were from India and all over the world) and we’re still in touch today—including the author of the book the film is based on, Bapsi Sidhwa.
5. If given a chance to go back to your debut role, is there anything you’d like to change or do better?
It really was a dream debut and I was so well taken care of that even if I could think of something I’d like to change (which I can’t), it would be ungrateful to articulate it.
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6. One film or role that inspired you to become an actor?
There’s no one film that inspired me to become an actor, but I remember around the time Earth was released, I watched Such A Long Journey and was so moved and impressed by Roshan Seth’s performance that I actually wrote him a letter. Years later, I was discussing it with my brother Akshaye and he was like, “No way! I wrote him a letter after watching the film, too!”