Hailing from a film family, actor Aamir Khan made his debut in Hindi films at the age of eight in Yaadon Ki Baraat (1973). After a few early missteps in the wake of the phenomenal success of Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak(1988), his first lead role, the savvy Khan slowed down, became selective, and diversified into producing and directing movies that have not just been commercial blockbusters, but have been critically acclaimed and responsible for starting national dialogues on the issues they deal with. With the Oscar-nominated Lagaan (2001), which he produced and acted in, and the highly acclaimed Taare Zameen Par (2007), which he also directed, Khan has firmly established a reputation as an uber-intelligent filmmaker with his finger on the pulse of both Indian and international audiences.
Khan is touring the United States to promote his newest production Peepli [LIVE], a low-budget satirical comedy that screened to much acclaim at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. He took time off his busy schedule to talk to India Currents.
I must applaud you for your phenomenal instincts in picking films. Whenever I see your name even tangentially associated with a movie I will watch it, because I trust those instincts. So tell me, when you see a script, what do you look for? What says to you, script mein dum hai.
I’m not looking for anything. I’m quite open-minded about scripts. I don’t have any preconceived notions about the kind of films I should do. Whatever moves me, touches me, engages me, affects me—I don’t try and second guess the audience. I don’t think anyone is capable of that. I’m the audience when I’m listening to the script. I pick the movies I want to do and I hope people like them. Cinema is my life, my passion. I give 2-3 years of my life to any film I do, so one of the key things for me is the process. The process is very important.
What about the director?
The caliber of the director is separate. If the person has worked before I can tell by looking at their previous work. Anusha (Rizvi, the debutant director of Peepli [LIVE] ) had never made a film before, so I did ask, “How do I know you can do it?” I ended up asking her to shoot 5-7 scenes and was satisfied when I saw them that she could do the job.
What did you see in the Peepli [LIVE] script that inspired you to produce it?
When I heard the narration for the first time, I found it very funny and humorous and also thought it was provoking and heartbreaking. I liked what the film was saying.
You have a reputation of being very involved with the movies you are associated with. What was your level of involvement with this one?
My level of involvement as a producer was complete, like greenlighting the film, helping put together cast and crew. All the prep was done by Anusha and (her co-director) Mahmood, but I was part of the final decision. [When making movies] we rehearse the entire script. This was about a 3-week process forPeepli [LIVE]. I came in at the end and watched the entire movie played out in front of me. If anything has to be added I do it at this stage because unless I am acting in the movie I am not going to be there at the shooting stage.
Then once the shooting is complete and the first cut is ready, I am involved from the first cut to the final cut. I am involved in the final shape of the movie, in the editing process. The last thing as a producer is to give it a good release. This is how it worked in Jaane Tu … Ya Jaane Na (2008) also. These are the stages where I come in.
Rizvi wrote the script for Peepli [LIVE] and directed it. Was she comfortable about your level of involvement?
Ultimately, it is her voice and her expression. If she didn’t want my input she wouldn’t have come to me. I think she felt that I shared her viewpoint and she trusted my instincts. I’ve produced some very challenging films. Lagaan is known today as a big success, but while it was being made it was a very challenging experience.
How would you describe Peepli [LIVE]?
It is a satire on our civil society as it is—it includes politics, media, the administration. It includes us too.
You picked an Indipop band (Indian Ocean) to score the movie rather than conventional composers. Why?
It was Anusha’s decision and I was comfortable with it. Indian Ocean is a great band. Anusha picked a number of musicians for the film. There’s Nageen Tanvir, a singer and composer. There is also a village mandli from Badwai, where the movie was shot. These village musicians had created their own song, “Mehengayi Dayan,” which Anusha liked and requested them to allow it to be used in the film. The song was shot live, with the musicians standing under the tree they normally gather at. It has a raw and authentic sound, as the musicians have used thalis (plates), chamchas (spoons), all kinds of home-grown instruments. Interestingly the background score is by a French composer.
She also picked theater actors for the cast.
Most of them are acting in film for the first time. They are really amazing actors. Anusha’s strength was she was honest with the material and very honest with the film. Whether it was location or story it was all very real.
What should a moviegoer expect when he or she goes to see Peepli [LIVE]?
It is a film that we‘ve made with a lot of love and care. It is a film that has some important things to say about life in India and our priorities as a society. The vehicle we have chosen for this message is humor. We are hoping people find it sad and also funny.
Bollywood seems to be experiencing a renaissance of sorts, with new directors and new subjects. Do you agree? Where do you think this is going?
There is a change happening, there is always a change happening. Lots of talented people are coming in with their own voices. Audiences are also experimenting. As for where it is going, you shouldn’t ask me; I am not a great one for predictions! (Laughs.)
All your recent movies have been so grounded in India— Indian ethos, Indian mindsets, like Taare Zameen Par or 3 Idiots. Is it a conscious choice or just a happy coincidence?
I don’t think about it that way. Almost all the films I’ve done are grounded in India and Indian situations. It’s something I’ve been doing all the time. I am not really thinking of all that. It is more of an instinctive decision.
You have always been known for doing very few movies. Now with forays into directing and producing, are you slowly easing out of acting altogether?
(Laughs.) No, not really. I’m doing it at a pace that I’m comfortable with; it is just the pace I’ve always followed.
What is the next film that we will see you as an actor in?
My next film as an actor is Dhobi Ghaat which is written and directed by my wife Kiran Rao. It should release sometime in January.
What about with one of the big studios?
You don’t think Aamir Khan Productions is a big studio? (Laughs.)
That it is!
Between acting, directing and producing, which role are you most comfortable with? Which is the most fun?
That’s very tough to compare. I guess acting is more relaxed. When you are directing all the responsibility is on you. While you are a producer, you also have many responsibilities. Acting is the least stressful thing to do.
What is your next project?
My next release is going to be Dhobi Ghaat. Once Peepli [LIVE] releases, I’ll start reading scripts. I have so many that have come my way but I haven’t gotten to them yet.
3 Idiots and Taare Zameen Par(TZP) had a big buzz when they were released and they started a national conversation about the state of the Indian education system. Did you feel the effect was temporary, ephemeral?
Not at all. Both these movies had a huge impact on people. They dramatically changed the way parents looked at children. After TZP, the education policies of the government actually changed. Today dyslexia is recognized, learning disabilities are recognized. I’m not saying it is all due to the movie but it came at the right time and certainly got these issues talked about. Whenever I meet parents and educators they tell me parents look differently at children these days. Earlier if there was a child with learning problems it would be difficult to convince the parents, they would say there was nothing wrong with their child. It is a lot easier to explain to parents now. A lot of parents came to me after 3 Idiots and said they had stopped pressurizing their kids and let them figure out what they wanted to do in life on their own.
What message do you want people to take away from Peepli [LIVE]?
I’m hoping it sensitizes people and they start thinking about life in rural India, paying attention to it. It is a story about the growing divide between urban and rural India and how, as a society, the bulk of our resources go towards our cities, whereas most of India is in the villages. That is why there is a constant migration to the cities. I can only imagine the kind of trauma it puts people through to be wrenched out of their homes and all that they are familiar with. What would happen to the country if everybody moved out of the villages?