Candid as always, Shah Rukh Khan talks of his journey before we hop on to “Chennai Express”

Once an epitome of NRI romance, Shah Rukh Khan is returning to hinterland with “Chennai Express”, a love story that bridges the barriers of language and ethnicity. The description sounds too loaded for a Rohit Shetty film but then, Shah Rukh says you never know what will work with the audience. “When I did ‘Karan Arjun’, I had no idea that this film will be so big. I had no understanding of its setting. I remember asking Rakeshji (Roshan), what kind of film is it? There are two kids and then there is reincarnation. It is a very basic Hindi film and I am unable to understand it. But a friend that he is, Rakeshji told me to keep quiet and do as he wants. And when I saw the film with distributors, I still couldn’t get it though they were clapping profusely. So you don’t know,” says Shah Rukh as his “Express” promotion stops over in Delhi.

Talking about the image trap, Shah Rukh analyses, “Being a Delhi boy, there is a part of me that is Hindi, then because of my parentage there is a part of me that has akhlaq (virtue and manners) and shayari, and then there is a part of me that is Irish because of my education. I find it very strange when I go abroad and people call me NRI hero but I think it is my upbringing that lends itself to that. I don’t consider myself as the greatest lover but I have an understanding that I have a nature that is loving and giving. So, may be, the romantic image stuck. Then, my friends are like that. We had set out to make an action flick, probably called ‘Auzaar’, but Aditya Chopra ended up making ‘Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge’. He still tells me, our next film will be an action film but he keeps making ‘Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi’ and ‘Jab Tak Hai Jaan’.” With Rohit he got to blow up cars!

We tend to believe that when Shah Rukh looks for numbers he works with the Johars and Chopras. And when he ventures out of the camps, he delivers a “Swades” or “Paheli”. But it is no longer the case. “It is an impression that people make from outside. What appealed to me is Rohit’s sense of humour. I liked ‘Golmaal 3’. I like the comedy shows of Kapil Sharma. The film is in that zone. Also, I do only two films in a year. After doing a romantic film (“Jab Tak Hai Jaan”), I wanted to something funny. Rohit actually offered me the remake of ‘Angoor’. It is my favourite film, so I didn’t need a narration. When he was about to leave, he said that he has another story which he wrote eight years back for some other hero (Ajay Devgn). I thought he wanted me to produce it, so I agreed for a narration. I found it really funny. And I was in a state of mind to play a funny part.” Now, he is eager to play a bad person. “So if somebody comes up with a dark character I will do it after Farah’s (Khan) ‘Happy New Year’. And I will wait till December. Sometimes a good offer doesn’t come by. Then, I have to make do with something that is close to what I have in mind. But it is right that what I have done with Rohit is something that I have not tried for a long time. Rohit’s cinema is extremely different for me in terms of believability, expression and presentation. May be ‘Baadshah’ was something like this in terms of over-the-top approach,” he muses

Isn’t he servicing his star side for a long time now? Isn’t it time to give the actor in him a chance? “I do good acting in whichever space I am in,” Shah Rukh says with his trademark swagger. But now he keeps adding ‘don’t get me wrong’ every time a statement reeks of arrogance. “I don’t meet that many people but I believe I cater to at least 500 million people. And each one has a different taste and each one wants me to play something. I can’t satisfy all. It is better to satisfy myself as an actor. And I am selfish. I am not concerned about 50 crores or 100 crores. I do a film which gives me satisfaction at that point of time. If it pleases me, chances are that you will also like it.”

Then he switches to his not-so-sweet experiences at the box office. “When I did ‘Swades’, people said, what is he doing. Five years later, everybody called it my best performance but not many liked it when it was in theatres. At that time, people were disappointed with me for not romancing enough in the film. At 55 per cent, ‘Chak De’ gave me my lowest opening in my career. You can say in retrospect that it was a good film but when it opened in theatres it got a poor response. A senior Hindi journalist sent me a message that you haven’t looked uglier than this in your entire career. Vidhu Vinod Chopra told me that had I not been in the film, it would have been a hit. And he is a friend. But I was happy because I wanted to do a film around hockey. I cater to my creative gene. At times it is the star, at others, it is the actor and sometimes it is just for the fun of it for a friend.”

He says that he is often self deprecatory about his acting but it doesn’t mean that it is easy to convince people about the so-called commercial stuff. “Looking in to the eyes of Deepika and say, don’t underestimate the power of the common man, may look easy but it can take nine takes to get the right timing. Sometimes, people think that if I have conveyed a deep thought in romance, that is difficult. Actually, it is easier. Real emotions are easier. More unreal the emotions, more difficult it is to convey. So there will always be this dichotomy: Is real cinema real acting or unreal cinema real acting. To me, it is a combination. If I were to take a very serious actor to dance around the trees and ask him convince me it is alright, it will be very difficult for him. It takes a lot of conviction and a lot of nudity. You have to take out every layer of sharm (shyness) and do it.”

He cites an example. “I also find it odd to stand on the train and say ‘Chhaiyaan Chhaiyaan’. Have you ever seen somebody dancing on the train? But now, every time you see the train you will feel it is possible. Nobody does it, nobody should try it, but still, you feel how beautiful it could be. I am not saying it because I am associated with it but somehow, train is now associated with ‘Chhaiyyan Chhaiyyan’. Two hundred people are sitting on top of the train in good clothes with a very beautiful girl and nobody cared to notice that there are very few people sitting inside the train. It is very difficult to convince people about something that is so unreal.”

So this time, he is out to convince us about the South Indian stereotypes. “There are no stereotypes at all,” he counters. “We have so many South Indian actors in the film. There is no spoofing of the culture. There is no making fun of the ethnicity and it should not be. We don’t need it.”

Once a representative of the urban angst, Shah Rukh seems to be missing out the new wave unleashed by the Anurag Kashyaps and Dibakar Banerjees. “I don’t know why people have made it fashionable to talk about different cinema. When Anurag sits with me he says that he will make a commercial film with me.” Isn’t it a problem that numbers decide the contours of the character he plays? “No. I don’t tell him to change his expression.” Still, it prevents him from playing rooted, region-specific characters. “How can the character in ‘My Name is Khan’ be called a commercial character? He was autistic, couldn’t sing, couldn’t dance but he was part of a commercial film because it was mounted like that. So when I sit down with Anurag and Sujoy (Ghosh), and mind you, they were my boys when they started, they tell me how they want to see me. I tell them to write what they want. But I can assure you, whichever film I do, wherever it starts from, it is going to end on a note where more people would come and watch it. And it is not a bad thing. I am an all world star. I can take a niche film and make it all world.”

“The problem is,” he continues, “when you do two films, most of the times the choice is already made.” Perhaps also because he insists that he will be the producer, limiting the options. “I will never design a film for myself. I am an actor. You tell me what to do and I will do it. If I were to design films for myself, then I will only do what I know,” he clarifies. But that is the impression one gets when he continues to play Rahul. The only difference is that Rahul has turned 40 in “Chennai Express”. “Oh! you have got stuck to the name. Mera naam Sudeep samajh lo,” he parts with a mischievous smile.