In 1993-94, when you first broke into the Hindi film industry, critics and filmmakers took notice of the fact that you were ready to play the anti-hero. That was seen as a ‘risk’ then. In the past decade, starting with Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi (RNBDJ, 2008), would you say that the risk has become more about physically transforming yourself? Whether it is getting those abs for Dard-e-Disco (Om Shanti Om, 2007), a moustache for RNBDJ, a prosthetic nose for Fan (2016), and now VFX for Zero?
I guess when you get older, you need prosthetics to be thought of as a good actor (chuckles). Let me analyse this a bit: when you start off, you’re new, physically as well. People take you more for the novelty factor than for the acting. Of course, it was very different when I came to Mumbai. I was told by more people than I can count on my fingers that I could never be a hero. I said okay, I just want to be an actor; I’d like to do whatever I can get — something like Sunil in Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa (1994), who wasn’t meant to be good-looking. That film is based on a book about a guy who was overweight, short-sighted, and had buck teeth. I think the director, Kundan Shah, and the producer (Vikram Mehrotra) thought that I am all those things. Mansur Khan once told me very sweetly, ‘Tum itne unattractive ho ki you can play any role (you are so unattractive, you can play any role)’, and I love him for that. But he still cast me in Josh (2000) as the bad guy… and Aishwarya Rai’s twin. Unfortunately for him, by then, I’d become a poster boy for romance.
When I came to this industry, I felt a great attraction to the bad guys. I was told that I did not look like a hero. Somewhere along the line, I got accepted as one, even though I was doing very bad things in my films, like stalking and all kinds of nonsense. Then came a phase where I played a sweet guy. I’ve not done too many of those romantic films — only four — Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995), Dil Toh Pagal Hai (1997), Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998), and, perhaps, one more. Those four films define my 80-film career — I became known as this boy who people liked to see on Brooklyn Bridge. I still wanted to play bad guys, but now I was too good-looking to play them. So, then I went for prosthetics, to make myself look bad and play those characters.
I have always wanted to act differently, but in order to do that, I have to look different. I think the first person to realise this was (director) Aditya Chopra. He came and told me that ‘Mujhe Shah Rukh Khan nahin chahiye iss film mein’. I asked him, why are you casting me then? He told me what he wanted me to be in RNBDJ. I remember reading the script in my bathroom. While I was reading, I recorded my voice as Suri on my iPhone. Then I went to my library, combed my hair, put on a moustache that was lying around, put some glasses on. I made a video recording and sent it to Adi. This is Suri, I told him, and he was really happy. I remember going to the sets of RNBDJ on the first day. There were two light men who pushed me out of the way; nobody recognised me. It’s that antithesis, where you want to take Shah Rukh Khan, but you don’t want him to be Shah Rukh Khan.
In my stardom, I think I lost my ordinariness. When I became a romantic hero, women started thinking of me as more beautiful than I am. I became Cupid’s main man, item number, lover boy. So here’s the thing: if you want me to play normal, I can’t look like myself anymore. My co-actor in Zero, Mohammad Zeeshan Ayub, recently told me that I’ve become a phrase, main ek muhawra sa ban chuka hoon. It’s odd because I’m not like that at all.
You’re saying it’s only four films, but the cultural impact of that kind of romantic hero has spanned decades. As an actor, how do you reinvent yourself?
I think acting is very simple. If you can allow yourself to be naked, or as I call it ‘nudify’, there is more room for a childlike innocence. That’s why children are the best actors, even the most obnoxious of them. They are unfettered by any social conditioning. I remember when Aryan, my elder son, was very young, he and I met a 30-year-old man. This was in Delhi and his mother requested me to meet him to tell him to stop eating so much. When you’re famous, people make the strangest requests. How could I stop him from eating? But I said I’d meet him anyway. When he entered, I saw that he was as tall as he was wide, and Aryan started chanting, ‘Fat man, fat man!’ I had to quickly cover up and say ‘Oh he’s saying Batman, Batman.’ Even though it was politically incorrect, and as social media will tell you, body shaming, the other guy didn’t mind it because it was said in innocence. Acting is as simple as that. So, your ‘reinvention’ is trying to return to that raw state. I’m sorry I’m taking this case in point, and only because it’s just a movie, but when I threw Shilpa Shetty off the roof in Baazigar (1993), the audience forgave me.
Because like me, they must have seen the larger picture.
Oh, I thought you meant Kajol ke paas ja raha hai! (laughs) It was such a vicious film, but it had a strange innocence to it. If I attempt to do something like that today, I may not be able to. Even romance, for that matter.
What is the essence of romance? To make somebody feel it at a particular moment in time. Personally, I’m not like that. If I stood with my arms open and sang a song in front of my wife, probably she’d throw me out of the house. I told my daughter, that if a guy meets you and says, ‘Rahul, naam toh suna hoga’, he’s a stalker. If a boy looks at you across a room at a party and says, ‘Aur paas, aur paas’, go kick him in the shins. But in the film, if I’m able to activate an element of innocence and make it attractive, the role gets reinvented by itself.
How has that played out in Zero?
In this film, there’s a vertically-challenged man and a wheelchair-bound girl, who has cerebral palsy. When we began shooting for it, we wanted to seek an answer to a question: can there be equality between these two characters? I thought, what would a woman like Aafia want to feel? That she is not made to feel lesser than anybody. For example, if I were to do this with Madhuri Dixit, Juhi Chawla, or any of the actors I’ve romanced in the past, my character could never have asked, ‘Will you sleep with me?’ In a film like Zero, to articulate that question, regardless of the differences between them, that’s equality. I’ve not done it in the film, but that’s the mental space for my character; that is the reinvention of romance. It can be shown in films of a certain sensitivity, sensibility.
Such as My Name is Khan (2010), where your character announces that it is time for sex?
Absolutely. He has trouble with social interactions, even though he is with somebody he loves. Romance is whatever the lady wants at that moment.
In the age of #MeToo, what advice would you give anybody about navigating relationships between the sexes?
Three things: Respect, respect, and respect. I really believe that. Some of my women friends, whom I have known for years, find me too formal at times. But there is no romance and love without respect. Respect means equality, and I don’t mean the social media’s #equality. To me, equality is letting you know how weak I am, equality is asking you, can you take care of me? This is what I’ve done with my wife, and my women friends because I genuinely love them.
I teach my 21-year-old son that disrespecting a person is not okay, and I don’t mean beating or the kind of things that #MeToo has brought out. I’m talking about basic respect. I’ve been married for 30 years — I’ve never looked into my wife’s purse. I still knock on the bedroom door if she’s changing; I knock on my daughter’s bedroom door. They know it’s me, but this is their space.
You’ve played a college student; you’ve played your own age in films like Swades, Chak De, etc; you’re 53 now but you’re playing a 38-year-old in Zero. But your female contemporaries from the ’90s just can’t seem to keep up. I ask because you once asked your producers to include your female lead’s name in the same frame as yours during the credits. You’re a producer, too, so what changes can be made to promote equal opportunities for female actors past a certain age?
You’ll have to age backwards like me (laughs). But on a serious note, some of my most talented co-stars, and I may sound patronising here, when they were really big superstars — like Madhuri, Juhi — got married, took time off because it was important to them to do so. At their peak, when the magic was happening, they took a decision to move on with life. If you’re not happy with acting, then one shouldn’t do it. I believe that both of them, and some others now, are at the best stage of their acting careers, in terms of being able to emote more masterfully. An actor can recognise that, but you need to have directors who recognise that, too. Hopefully, they will be approached with roles befitting their emotional stage.
Not long ago, we used to say that public memory is short. But look at how even after 17 years, your film Asoka (2001), incited the Kalinga Sena to protest your presence during the recent men’s Hockey World Cup in Bhubaneshwar. As an actor-producer, what would you say is the biggest fear in the industry today?
You have to do films that keep you fearless, but without stepping on anybody’s toes. I’ll be honest, I’m extra careful now. I’ve been bitten many times, so I’m 10 times shy. I have never done a film that, in any way, incites people to do something. Main toh gaali-waali bhi nahin deta hoon (I don’t even use abusive language in my films). I’m extremely liberal in watching films, but somehow, from day one, I’ve never thought that ‘cinema hai, kuchh bhi kar lo (It’s only films, do whatever you want).’
I had a couple of jokes in Zero; I ad-libbed them. If you have a director like Aanand L Rai and a writer like Himanshu Sharma, who enjoy my sense of humour, it’s great fun. Then we cut them out. Because there is an extra sensitivity about things today, you have to be extra sensitive, too. I believe in myself. So, even if I don’t find something hurtful, but if it hurts you, I can remove it and still entertain you and convey my message.
As an actor, what are you still afraid of?
The only thing I’m scared of is that when I put my arms out, somebody will cut them off.
So take me back to the first time this arms-open scene happened. How did it become singularly your own?
It was with Saroj Khanji. I’m not a great dancer, but Gauri and I, Dilliwale hain, we love dancing. During the shoot, Sarojji gave me a count, 1-2-3-4, and I couldn’t move. I dance to words, not to rhythm or numbers. I’m also the most effeminate hero, I’m nearly androgynous and I’m proud of it. But there are certain steps I just don’t do; it’s too un-macho for me. So back in the ’90s, I told Sarojji I couldn’t do some simple steps and if I could just stand with my arms out. She used to call me ‘Only Vimal’ and say, ‘Haan, tum karlo, Only Vimal, tum haath kar lo (Yes, Only Vimal, you do the hands).’ For the longest time I worked with her, and when I worked with other choreographers, I would say that if this was acceptable by Saroj Khan’s standards, it should work for them, too. I had won a few awards by then, people had started to think I’m a good actor, so I would say that my character won’t allow me to do those steps. It’s my dancing step when I can’t dance.
So what’s it like to dance at celebrity weddings?
For years, people have looked down on it. Mujhe naachna nahin aata, mera aangan bhi teda nahin hai, but people are happy to have me and pay me for it, too. So, why won’t I? And with that money, I make great films such as Fan, Zero. I feel happy that I can utilise a part of my non-art to earn money for the art that I sell commercially.
After so many films, which of these have you discovered to be more powerful — power of attorney or ek chutki sindoor?
(Laughs) Main toh bolun power of love.
Which is the last book you read?
I’m trying to re-read the Jack Reacher series by Lee Child. The Tom Cruise movie was okay but I like the older stuff. So I’m reading these short stories about how Reacher came to be who he is.
Last show you watched and liked?
I really loved Adam Sandler’s brilliant comedy special 100 % Fresh.
Last joke you cracked?
It was one of those prank call shows on radio. I called a girl to tell her that her driving licence has been cancelled. In order to get it back, she has to answer a question: a young man, an old man and a child are in your path. You can save one of them while driving. Aap kis ko maaroge (Who will you kill)? She chose the old man because he’s lived his life. Then I said, ‘Nahin, aap kisi ko nahin maaroge, aap brake maaroge (You won’t kill anyone, you’ll hit the brake)!’ I thought that was really funny.