What is the one question you are being asked these days?
How do you feel now that your film is a big success? (laughs) I want to tell them, I feel awful. I was hoping this film would not succeed. It has completely thrown me off and I am completely depressed.
The other one is: how do you feel about your comeback? I don’t know where I’d gone that I have to be making a comeback.
In a poll conducted by ORG-MARG for Filmfare, you and Amitabh Bachchan have been voted the most powerful men in the film industry. How did you react to that?
Honestly, I was quite surprised. I take it that this is a purely business decision because I haven’t been voted the most powerful guy on humanitarian grounds. A lot of people in the industry obviously think I am powerful but I don’t know who these guys are because so many people are getting angry with me; they’re all troubling me for dates or asking me to work with them.
Perhaps the voting was done on the basis of consistent performance over the last eight to 10 years. When a film does well, the hero gets the maximum credit for it. Though that is very good for me, I think it’s very wrong, because a lot more goes into a film than just a hero. So I can’t take it too seriously. I don’t know what to make of it. Still, it is a nice feeling.
You’re also being called King Khan and Badshah of Bollywood. Is that a nice feeling too?
(grins) I like King Khan—it sounds good and has a nice ring to it. But again, I don’t take this seriously because if I did, then I would have to be equally serious about the reports three years ago that my films were not doing well and I was finished. If I’m called King Khan and the most powerful guy today, it can all change next week. I have to look at it philosophically. As I always say, you are never as good as they say you are and never as bad as they make you out to be. I’m somewhere in the middle. The best way to be is to keep working, so that I don’t get too caught up in these tags and titles they attach to stardom.
You know, I have always said my films should be like an ISI mark. Once you have reached a position of choice, your films should seem important. They can flop or they can be hits but their release should be an awaited affair. People do say that a film with Shah Rukh in it is something to look forward to. I’m very glad I have been able to achieve that.
What do you think makes you stand apart from the other actors?
(chuckles) My average looks, my fast speech, my soulful eyes, my dimples like Preity Zinta’s, my thick lips and my saying “I’m the best.” Jokes aside, I am very serious about my work but I don’t take an emotion seriously. I’d be embarrassed to sit on my laurels or emotions. One thing that sets me apart from other actors is that I don’t think there is a right or wrong way of doing a scene. Lots of actors say, “This is the wrong way to do a scene.” I don’t agree. Tell me to do a death scene standing on my head and I will do it and I’ll make it work. Acting is about your making the unbelievable believable.
What was your gut feel about your performance in Kal Ho Naa Ho while you were doing the film? Did you anticipate such a great reaction?
Honestly, I didn’t think I would be liked so much. Somewhere down the line, halfway through the film, I lost faith in my performance. I even had discussions with Karan (Johar) about it. But Karan and Nikhil (Advani) had faith in me.
The only contribution from my side was that I decided my character would be nasty. I call the heroine chashmish, I call the old ladies budhiyas. I wanted him to be the way I am. It is a lot like me as far as characterization goes—funny, tongue-in-cheek. So I didn’t have to work too hard on it.
Besides, I worked with sync sound for the first time in Kal Ho Naa Ho and that improved my performance. I would also like to believe that with this film I have become a better actor. There are some films that make you feel like that (I remember I felt that way with Dil Se too).
However, many people tell me, “your performance in Kal Ho Naa Ho is so real because you were in pain.” They want to give the credit to my pain.
Some critics feel that you have a tendency to go over-the-top as an actor. Do you agree?
When people say I overact or ham, it is their lack of understanding of what acting is all about. I don’t blame them because they’re not actors, they’re writers. It is like me picking on a writer and saying his language is wrong. If someone criticizes the technical aspects of my acting without knowing anything about it, then I can pick up the technical aspects of their writing. But it serves no purpose because neither of us knows the other’s job. You can’t really get a handle on what people like. I’m sure some people think I overact and some think I underplay it. Similarly, lots of people find me good-looking and lots don’t.
I can’t take all of it seriously. My job as an actor is to be able to learn as I go along and to do things that are new for me. Nobody knows my job better than me and I should be left to it. I don’t think I’ve given a blatantly bad performance. But there may have been instances when I have gone over-the-top and people have not liked it. There must have been times when I could have done better with a scene and have underplayed it. You can’t really control it because it is a creative process.
You can’t be a selfish actor and say, I will not do this because I don’t think it is right. You have to do what the director thinks is right. He is the direct connection with the audience he is making the film for. When I do a David Dhawan film, I can’t decide to act the way I did in Mani Ratnam’s film or the other way round. Both are good filmmakers, both make films for an audience they have an appeal for, they understand their audiences and they are both right. You have to change with every director.
You are often accused of playing the same role, with different names— Raj, Rahul, etc—in your films. How would you react to that criticism?
I don’t think I am playing the same roles. And I haven’t yet felt the need to change my look to play a character. People who criticize me can spot overacting but they can’t catch the subtleties of a performance. They can comment about going over-the-top but they don’t spot the nuances. But the audience catches the nuances, the subliminal changes in character.
I think people also mistake roles and looks for characterization. Characterization is a very soul-felt, internalized thing and it is what I give importance to. For example, nowhere in Kal Ho Naa Ho will you find me clutching my heart. I did not want anyone who saw this film to think of heart disease as a disability (just as I wanted everyone to hate alcoholics after seeing Devdas). People who have had cardiac arrests told me that often there is pain in the left hand and if you watch the film carefully you will see me holding my left hand in a few scenes.
Those are things people understand but critics don’t. Still, if they insist I keep playing the same characters, my answer is: Yes, I do. And I am happy doing that. I’ve always said I have five expressions and I think I’ve done enough combinations with those expressions. If that sells, then that sells.
Why is it that though you shot to popularity with edgy performances in films like Baazigar and Darr, we haven’t seen you in roles like that for a long time?
I was the first one who killed women and threw them off the roof. But I don’t feel like doing it now. It is something I don’t desire as a person. I don’t want to do a film I have to explain to my children. As it is, they keep wondering why Amitji is always shouting at me in films (Mohabattein and Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham). They ask me, why is Crorepati Uncle (Amitji) always shouting at you and throwing you out of the house? They take these things seriously. It affects them. I had to tell Amitji to tell them we were acting, but they don’t understand. So I want to do films that make them feel nice.
Are you limiting yourself as an actor by doing just feel-good cinema?
Why should I make cinema that makes you feel bad? There’s enough around us to do that. Cinema should make you feel good, it should make you look up to it. God has given me this great gift of making people feel good and if people want to blame me for it, so be it. I don’t mind being accused of doing feel-good cinema. I am not going to change and make people feel bad through my films. In fact, I want to tell youngsters that you should not forget goodness as you go through life. My films have similar messages about the value of parents and the values they teach you.
How much pressure does the fact that youngsters see you as a role model put on you?
I’m an actor and an entertainer. I’m not supposed to be a role model for youngsters and if they want to make me one, it is at their own risk. I don’t have the best habits in the world. I don’t sleep enough hours. I don’t eat properly. I smoke. These are all bad things and I wouldn’t like any youngster to do them. But yes, all youngsters should follow my zest for life and love of doing the best you can. I’m a good role model if you want to know of someone who believes that there is a purpose in life that you are supposed to fulfill and follow it wholeheartedly. Who believes that you should never give up even if you stumble and not take it too seriously when you succeed. Love is what should lead you, love should be the ongoing process.
You have handled your own success pretty well. What keeps you rooted?
The fact that I have people around me who don’t give me special treatment just because I happen to be in a field that has put me in the Top 10. I haven’t changed towards them nor have they with me. I’ve read interviews where actors say that after a hit, people started offering them chairs. I find that very strange because I have always been offered chairs. And if someone didn’t offer me a chair even today, I would not take it personally. On my sets, I pick up chairs and give them to all my artists. I pick up my own chair myself; I don’t tell my spot boy to do it. I have not developed the habit of snapping my fingers to get something done. I believe that whatever you need to do, you need to do it yourself. Even in my own house I don’t ask anyone to get me a glass of water. I get it myself.
I have not given in to the pleasures of the mind, body, or soul. I am just supposed to be working and I do that. I have never felt I should have special dates, timings, and treatment because I am a superstar. I have never gone to check if other actors’ hotel rooms are bigger or smaller than mine. I have never, in my life, asked anyone to pay my telephone bills. I have always paid them myself. I never expect anything from anyone.
All of this keeps me quite rooted, very balanced.
On the flip side, how much do the trappings of stardom bother you?
I hear a lot of actors say, “My personal life is hampered because people recognize me on the roads.” I’m perfectly fine with that because nobody has ever troubled me. I have never been to an Italian restaurant that had to close down because I was there. I have never had to get a story printed like that either or felt happy about it. I have never enjoyed the fact that I went somewhere and there was a riot. I have never had to wear a burkha to go and watch a film of mine. And I don’t wear dark glasses to hide from people.
So many people want a piece of you. Does finding time for everyone and everything get stressful or do you enjoy it?
These are not pitfalls, these are part of your occupation. When you decide to be an actor your time is not your time. If you are an actor as busy as I am, you have to accept that. It just means that I have to work faster and harder. And God has given me that ability. Saroj Khan used to tell me, “Beta, never complain of too much work. Jab nahin hota hai to bahut bura lagta hai.” I wish I could work 24 hours a day with people and sort out any problems that they need to.
Your recovery from the surgery has been painfully slow. How far has that affected your lifestyle?
God giveth and taketh away. He has given the pain, He will take it away too. I’ve done everything that is scientifically possible to do. I’ve seen the best doctors, done everything I could. If the pain still remains I cannot change my lifestyle. I would feel the pain even more if I was just lying down on my bed the whole day, so it is better to get up and face the world.
I have to win this battle with my pain. I will not let it take over because I want to play with my kids just as I used to when I was 15. I’m not going against the wishes of God or challenging Him. But I have to apply my positive attitude to the pain.
During a recent schedule of Main Hoon Na, you were hanging from a helicopter for a sequence. How scary does it get with your back?
It’s not scary—I was only hanging from the helicopter, not going to fall from it. My back did pain a little but then, no pain, no gain. I cannot keep making excuses about my back and not do things. My surgeon has told me, “Do what you do every day and you will be all right.” I want to give it that shot. If my back doesn’t get better, then I’ll say okay, I shouldn’t be doing it. My back is paining now, but then it was paining all through the six months that I wasn’t doing anything. So why stop doing something you enjoy doing? I enjoy hanging from helicopters, good back or bad back.
For that matter, I was in too much pain when I did Maahi Ve. But it’s been worth it because people have liked the song so much.
How important is it for you that people should love you?
It is the most important thing in my life. I can renounce the world but I can’t renounce the love that I get from people. I’d be crushed if people stopped loving me. I would not be able to change it but I would be very disturbed. I yearn for people to love me. I yearn for people to see me. That’s why I’m not one of those stars who wear dark glasses to hide their faces. To me it is important that people know me, understand me, love me, and not dislike me.
What’s the best compliment you’ve received?
People write to me and say, you inspire us. Not necessarily as an actor. And that’s very nice. I have become a focal point for one or two people in the world and it is quite important for me.
How much does it bother you when people criticize you?
It doesn’t make a difference. You know the song, Kuch to log kahenge, logon ka kaam hai kehna, chhodo bekar ki baatein, kahi beet na jaye raina … that’s how life is. If people want to talk they will talk. I don’t even consider it bitching; I think they’re wasting their time. I can’t involve myself in it because then I’ll find myself becoming like them. I teach my kids the same thing. “What others say and do is their job. If you know clearly that you are not saying any wrong, doing any wrong and hurting anyone, God will always be kind to you as He has been to me.”
Are there any lies you’ve told that you would like to retract now?
(smiles) I have never lied, I’ve just fibbed. I generally say, main naha raha hoon or abhi aa raha hoon. To all those people I apologize and confess that whenever I say I am having a bath, I’m not.
You seem to have become very religious of late.
I have always believed very strongly in God. I’m reading books about all religions because when my children ask me questions, I don’t want to be uneducated about these matters. That’s why I have started reading books on sciences again. When they ask me, which is bigger, Uranus or Saturn, I should know. I don’t want to sound like a stupid dad who doesn’t know anything. I teach them one new thing every day to impress their teacher. It could be names—Fidel Castro, Michael Schumacher, Osama bin Laden—or a place—Hiroshima, Nagasaki. In another two-three years I am going to be reading about maths, even though I’m dying to avoid it.
What do you want from life now?
I just want my children to grow up well and be proud of the films I have done. I would like to do a little charity in my own way. Inshaallah, set up an orphanage and film studio one day. I have many dreams. Most of them are geared towards giving back to society what it is given to me.
Is there anything you would want to change about your life?
Nothing, not even my spine. Everything is balanced perfectly in my life. I would not like to change anything because that would change the balance completely.
You seem to have mellowed a lot of late.
(grins) I’m just getting younger, better looking, more successful, and my back is strong. All this rolled into one has led me to become a nicer human being. I was a very energetic actor when I started off, then I became an overacting actor and then a good actor. The time has now come for me to just be a mellow, easygoing person. I should become a better human being now.