Aamir Khan is one of the few actors and filmmakers who have displayed a strong sense of social commitment. Of course, he does feature in commercial entertainers (like the upcoming Dhoom 3), but he has consistently dealt with socially relevant issues by acting, directing or producing films like 3 Idiots, Rang De Basanti, Taare Zameen Par and Peepli [Live]. Then there was the groundbreaking (and very successful) television series Satyamev Jayate, which took on issues that deeply affect our society. A week before he was to inaugurate the 11th Chennai International Film Festival, he consented to a curtain-raiser interview in his new sea-facing office in Bandra. He was in casual clothes — baseball cap, a grey T-shirt, cargo shorts, sneakers. I asked him if he wanted to change. He said, “If you want to me look all formal, it will take an hour.” So we just began to talk.
We keep hearing that the reason we don’t make the kind of cinema that other nations make is that our audience isn’t cine-literate enough, that they only want entertainment. Do you think stars have a responsibility to guide their fans towards a different kind of cinema?
The primary responsibility of a film person is to entertain. The audience comes to the theatre to be entertained. If they want a lesson in sociology they will go to a college. This entertainment, however, can come in different ways. I could entertain you by making a movie with cheap jokes, appealing to your baser instincts, or I could entertain you by making a movie which appeals to your finer sensibilities. Either way, my primary responsibility is to entertain. Having said that, I also believe that an entertainer has a much larger role to play in society, one that perhaps only he/she can play best. And that is to bring grace to society, to help build the moral fibre of society, to instil higher values in young children. This can be a great contribution in nation-building, and in creating a healthy progressive society. This, I believe, is the true role of an entertainer — in fact, of any creative person, whether musicians, artists or poets.
Let me put the same question a little differently. Some of your most memorable hits in the recent past — Rang De Basanti, Taare Zameen Par, 3 Idiots — have been in the genre that one might label “the sugar-coated message movie.” Have you wondered about taking away the sugar coating, the commercial trappings?
First of all, I don’t think that it is sugar-coating. In my opinion none of these movies you mention has an artificial coating of sugar or any inorganic entertainment which is alien to the subject matter of these films. 3 Idiots had a strong message and it entertained. The film changed the way parents look at their children’s education, and the way teachers look at students. Parents stopped saying, “You have to do engineering.” They stopped trying to live their dreams through their children. Entertainment was an integral part of the film. Why should we remove such a beautiful and integral part of the film? If we did that we would be trying to take ourselves too seriously and also make the message we are trying to give less effective.
Is it different with television, then? Because with Satyamev Jayate, you did take yourself “too seriously,” as you put it, and that’s exactly why the programme became such a game changer in our society. Had you taken the topics behind each episode and made a series of low-budget films (like Peepli [Live]), would it have been necessary to add “entertainment”?
The kind of topics we covered in the first season of Satyamev Jayate are so important and fundamental to our lives that I feel I can’t get serious enough. Each and every topic needs to be taken utterly seriously. So, yes, I took Satyamev Jayate extremely seriously. But at the same time, I also made every effort to make each episode as engaging as I possibly could. The attempt was not simply to pass on information but also to touch people’s hearts. We tried to reach out to people not only through their minds but also emotionally. And that’s precisely what we attempt when we choose important and serious topics to make films on. For example in Taare Zameen Par our topic is childcare and education. And we made every effort to make the film as entertaining as possible. I must clarify here that when I use the word “entertaining” I also mean “engaging.” Some films may not entertain you, as in make you laugh or clap, but they engage you emotionally, spiritually, and are therefore “entertaining” in their own way.
In the 1970s and even in the 1980s, our films used to hold a mirror up to society. We don’t see those kinds of films much any more. Does the average post-liberalisation Indian just not want to see hard-hitting films based on social and political issues?
I think there is an audience for these films. It’s not a huge audience but it’s significant. I think one of the things we need to do is have a chain of theatres across the country that only plays art-house cinema. This move will further the cause of offbeat films, and make it easier for that audience to know where to go to see the film. Independent cinema needs nurturing. If you screen the film in the same multiplex that’s playing a huge commercial film, then it will get crushed.
The same thing could be said about low-budget mainstream films, say, the ones made by and featuring newcomers.
If we want to encourage young talent in mainstream cinema then we need to change our economic policies. Currently, the dice are loaded against small films and films made by new talent. I don’t know about the South, but in the Hindi circuit the revenue sharing between the theatre chains and producers/distributors is a sliding scale in favour of the theatre chains. With the passing of each week the theatre gets more and the producer/distributor gets less. There is a certain logic to this formula, but it is very detrimental to young and new talent. This formula benefits big films which rake in most of their revenue in the first two weeks. But a small film releases in fewer screens and depends on word of mouth to grow. By the time this small film is appreciated and starts to do good business – say, in the third or fourth week – the producer/distributer earns only 25% of collections. This formula almost penalises you for making a good film with new talent, effectively discouraging new talent. It’s almost like we’re telling producers not to invest in new talent.
Twenty-five years ago, you were a newcomer. Do you feel you are, today, where you set out to be?
I had no plans when I started my career, and I certainly never imagined that I would reach this far. It’s been an exciting journey. I’ve learnt a great deal. I feel very humbled and at the same time very proud that in this journey of 100 years of Indian cinema I have had the privilege of being a part of the last 25 years.
Quite a lot has changed in Indian cinema in this quarter century. What, in your opinion, is the most significant of these changes?
I feel that in the last 25 years the quality of our cinema has greatly improved – I speak about Hindi films, as I haven’t watched too many films in other languages. Earlier mainstream cinema had a very limited and narrow definition. Now there is much more variety, people experiment with different kinds of films, and audiences are also open to different kinds of cinema. We have better stories, better creative talent, better technicians, better production values. We have things like sync sound now, which is a boon to people like me, who find it difficult to recreate the magic of what happens during shooting six months later in a sterile recording studio. And we no longer have the system of working in multiple films in shifts. This means that, as an actor, I can concentrate on one film at a time. Film releases have also become much more efficient and streamlined. Earlier, we used to have staggered releases. A film would release in the Bombay territory, then go East and South and so on. We used to have films running for months and years but in fewer theatres, and they had to keep marketing the film for a long time. But now films release wide, and complete their run in a few weeks, so the promotion effort is concentrated.
Is it easier for a filmmaker to make an “uncompromised” movie now, one that’s closer to his vision?
Filmmaking is all about compromises. I could want sunlight for the shoot, but it could be a cloudy day. I have permission to shoot only on that day. What do I do? The key is to know when to compromise and when not to. Which are the small battles you are willing to lose to win the war? I believe that one should never compromise with one’s dream. One should be willing to compromise to achieve that dream – but never with the dream itself. Finally, it depends on the individual. Across the decades, you will always find people who guarded their dreams with insurmountable passion. And in some ways it’s easier to make the movie you want to make today. Earlier, if you did anything different, it would be labelled an “art movie,” and would only attract a very small audience. Now it’s possible to make a different movie within the mainstream.
In the race to get to the Rs. 100-crore club and with the constant eye on the lucrative foreign markets, do you feel big stars are less likely to take risks?
There are stars who’ve always played safe because they wanted to hold on to their stardom. And there are others who’ve taken risks. Personally I don’t care about numbers. And as far as I know, neither does the audience. I don’t know how much business Gunga Jumna or Pyaasa or Mughal-e-Azam did. I love these films, but my value for them is in the emotions they evoke in me, not in how much money they collected at the box office.
But sometimes, a project appears to be only about the numbers – like your upcoming release Dhoom 3, which looks like a preordained hit.
No film is a preordained hit. But yes, the chances of success in this case are high. And like any project, I chose this one because I loved the script. I listened to the narration and I was excited by it. And then we go back and work out the economics – how much we can spend, and so on, so that we can ensure profits for everyone down the chain, the exhibitors, the distributors, everyone. My interest in numbers is limited to the fact that I want my films to make back the money invested in them. I would like to be responsible about my creative decisions and don’t want others to lose money due to my creative excitement. Beyond that, numbers don’t interest me.
You are going to inaugurate the 11th Chennai International Film Festival. How much world cinema do you watch?
I must confess that I don’t watch too many films. I’ve always been more of a reader. On principle, I don’t watch pirated movies, and once you become a celebrity it becomes difficult to go to the theatre to watch films, and I love watching films on the large screen. But when I am abroad, I watch a lot of films. I saw this amazing documentary called Searching for Sugar Man. I loved Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon. Asghar Faradi’s A Separation is a great film. That’s what I was saying. I wish we could have a small but dedicated chain of theatres across India which curated only art-house cinema. I believe that this would also eventually increase the audience for these films.