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He’s known as King Khan of Bollywood and is one of India’s hottest actors and producers. Shah Rukh Khan joins CNN’s Talk Asia for an in-depth interview in Mumbai with host Anjali Rao. The global superstar explains why the time has come for developing nations like India to assert themselves internationally, discusses the furore surrounding the premiere of his film My Name is Khan and talks about his hopes for his Kolkata Knight Riders team in this season’s Indian Premier League.
It’s fantastic to have you on the show, you are easily Bollywood’s biggest star these days. For those watching it might have seemed easy. You are so big they call you King Khan. Is this the way you saw you life panning when you started off as an actor?
Not at all, I still don’t believe it. I still think it’s like a dream. But when I started off, I never thought I would do anything else but wake up in the morning and work. But the only thing that’s added to it, and I tell this to everyone, is that I still wake up in the morning and work but the only odd thing my kids find is that I’m a man and I wear make-up.
I still wake up in the morning and work but the only odd thing my kids find is that I’m a man and I wear make-up
We’re doing this interview at your house and there are often throngs of fans waiting outside trying to get a glimpse of you. As they wait to see what crumb you might throw them, is that kind of a weird feeling – the immense scrutiny that you get.
I feel very embarrassed and odd. I don’t even call them fans. I think they are people who appreciate what I do. My wife tells me on the weekends, especially because there’s a crowd – a thousand people outside. So I go for five minutes and wave, then the cops get very angry because the traffic stops so they shout at me. So I’m really embarrassed. I feel really odd but I think when people come to visit me at house then I should be sort of kind to them and say hello to them. The scrutiny part, there was a time, I have a sense of humour and my family feels I should stop it because it’s gets me into trouble. I say things and maybe people don’t understand it or they give me more importance than to think, I am flippant. I should not be flippant. I should be more serious. But I feel I’ve never been like that and I just want to have fun and say things that are easy going but many a time, it’s not taken like this and everything is scrutinized.
One of things that got you a lot of headlines recently was that as Muslims it was shame that the IPL hadn’t picked up any Pakistani players for this season and you own an IPL team, The Kolkata Knight Riders. Your comments caused an absolute firestorm particularly with Hindu Nationalists, did you anticipate the furore those words would cause.
You know I did say in the interview, you know I do hope I don’t get into trouble for saying this before I said that. But I didn’t think it would go to this extent. It became strange. Strange things were said. And I said “the bottom line in my country is that, there is a certain amount of freedom of speech which we also restrain unto. We are not completely outspoken, we don’t do strange things – at least I don’t and most of the people I know, don’t. So there’s freedom of speech. This was my point of view.
They were burning effigies of you in the streets, some people I mean, people are absolutely going nuts about you.
Some guy had a slipper in his hands and was hitting poster. I want to find him. I want to meet up with him. He should try it when I’m standing in front. Not on a piece of paper.
The main Hindu Nationalist party, Shiv Sena, obviously took what you had to say extremely badly, they were the ones who campaigned against at this time and threatened to disrupt the premiere of your movie “My Name Is Khan”. Were you worried at all about the safety of yourself and you family and your fans?
I’ll be honest. I know Balasaheb Thackeray very well. He’s also been very gracious to me. I know Uddhav Thackeray, he’s been very helpful. I know them very well. We’ve never had … and I’ve said this many times…
I know Balasaheb Thackeray very well. He’s also been very gracious to me. I know Uddhav Thackeray, he’s been very helpful
The top level of the Shiv Sena…
They meet me, I go over to their house, they’re really gracious and wonderful with me, and we’ve never had ideological discussions, maybe they have a different ideology for the party that they run, but I’m not a political person so we’ve never sat down and “so, why is it like..”, so we’ve never had this discussion. If there was genuinely a misunderstanding about what I said, which is quite possible, pick up the phone and I’d explain it, it would have been “oh, okay, that’s what you meant? Sorry. We thought you meant this. You don’t mean that.” That’s the way it should have been but I just think it became bigger than the personal relationship we share.
Your team the Kolkata Knight Riders hasn’t had a terrible successful track record in the past couple of years, what do you think are the prospects for it to do better this time around?
The thing that I say, you’ve been very kind when you say they haven’t been doing very well. The first thing – and I’m a little philosophical about this – is that I have to accept and the team has to accept, the truth is we haven’t done well at all. We’ve accepted that. The second part is, it’s very easy to do better when you’re in the eighth position with only eight teams you can’t go worse than this. So we are going to do better. I think what we tried to do is get the Indian part of the team stronger. I think the senior guys like Ishant and Ganguly, they just need to get into the groove. I think the main thing the coach and Dada have brought in this time is the fact we training the young guys just to make them enjoy themselves. 20/20 needs to be enjoyed, when you see a Matthew Hayden play, he’s enjoying himself. I sense that. You have to enjoy it. You can’t just have the test match pressure on your head. Or the one-day pressure on your head. You need to go and enjoy yourself. Have a good time. So yesterday when the team was leaving, somebody turned around, one of the managers and said we have to win only seven or eight and if we only lose five. And I said we can’t lose anymore. We’ve lost too many. We’ve lost for the next four years. So I think we’ll do better. I think we will do much better this year.
Let’s discuss movies now, and specifically My Name Is Khan in which you play an autistic Muslim in America post 9/11. The film’s done great and particularly well in Islamic countries, is that your intention. Were you trying to appeal to most of the Muslim audience?
The fact that, you said it so well and it was a convoluted plot, an autistic Muslim man in America post 9/11, when you put it so simply it sounds so complicated. No, you make a film, normally for a universal audience, the kind of films that I do especially I would like everyone to see them. Within them, I’ll try to put in something different that appeals maybe, if you do hockey, maybe the hockey guys and girls will like it more. You do it about a bad guy recently, so when you do that thing and the youngsters like all the bad stuff, cool stuff. So, they like it. But the intention was never like that. I do remember the wonderful distributor Fox, they were going to say we’ll release in UAE, and we’ll release it in Morocco like this, and Indonesia and Malaysia and I said “why are they doing it so specifically”. Maybe they understood the spot much better than we did because yes, it’s record breaking in the Muslim countries, I never thought it would have been like that. I really thought the film was about humanity.
Yeah, this was the latest collaboration between you and director Karan Johar, you’ve worked together on countless movies but you’re also best mates away from the set. What is it do you think that some sort of magic formula you have seems that helps you two work together so well?
I think the first thing is that’s trust. I gave him a book the “Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night” and I said you should make a film with a little kid who’s autistic and a story of a father and a son. Obviously assuming if you took me as a father and a little child who’s autistic. And then he came up with the script with me as autistic with this whole plot. And I’m like “this is a little strange” because when you make a film with me, as far as Karan and me are concerned, we normally make a little more commercially viable films. But he said no, this is what I want to do. So I trust him, I trust him completely.
I had told Karan that he should make a film with a little kid who’s autistic and a story of a father and a son
One of the things that got a lot of publicity for the movie was when you were detained by US immigration which in a way which mirrors a scene in My Name Is Khan when you say “my name is Khan and I’m not a terrorist” to have it play out like that in real life, there was a lot of press on it, what was it like from your standpoint?
It happens to me every month, whenever I travel to the western world because of the name. But it’s not only me. There are another 75 people in that line. It happens to my kids. And I say this again and again. I have no issue. I have no issue with it personally because this is the world that we have created. This is how it is. I think what happened that day was that it took a little longer. This was at the immigration for the first time – normally it happens at the security. I think the processes just went wrong and it took a couple of hours. I had to call the Indian Consulate because I had a meeting in Atlantic City, if I got caught up here, there was no point me going all the way to America. So I asked “can you get me out of here”, so I think it just went out to the press and we have reached a stage in India and I think rightly so, when a developing nation is on the threshold on coming out and Inshallah taking over the whole world – in terms of economics, in terms of politics, in terms of business, I think certainly we have a voice. We’ve been pushed, all developing nations, I’m not just saying India and suddenly we have a voice in the world which matters and sometimes that voice is a little louder than it should be. So anytime anything goes wrong with Indians anywhere in the world, you notice all Indians get up. Not on the outside. It happened when the Shiv Sena thing happened – all the Indians came and said “no, this is wrong”. I’m really glad we have a voice like that, and that’s what happened “they stopped Shah Rukh, how dare they” and I was joking about it until about half a day actually, and I even joked that when the American Hollywood actresses come that I should be given the right to frisk them in India. I want to be the first guy. It’s only fair.
I didn’t do Slumdog Millionaire coz I didn’t want to be the bad guy because I won’t do it like that
You did say you wanted My Name is Khan to be a global hit like Slumdog Millionaire. You could have been in Slumdog Millionaire. You got offered the role of the quiz show host but you turned it down and Anil Kapoor got it. Do you beat yourself over that decision?
No, I really wanted that film to be made. I’d read the Indian novel. I’d bought it. I wanted to make it myself but an Indian film. When I read the script, I knew they’d made a much better film than I could ever.
Why didn’t you want part of that fantastic film then?
One, I’m not offered many great films; honestly, I don’t have an agent for stuff in the west. Also, I’d hosted “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire”. Here the host was a bit of a fixer. I only fixed “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” in a way that I felt bad for the people and I’ll like “listen why don’t you retire now, don’t don’t, this looks like a difficult question. So you’ve got half a million dollars, go back relax” then they say “no we want to play” and I’m like “can we go for a break”. I used to feel really bad and I’m not allowed to say anything but I know this question’s a little difficult young man. So, I just felt that I had so much fun doing it personally that I didn’t want to be on the side where I take the guy into the loo and say “I can fix this for you”. I didn’t want to be the bad guy because I won’t do it like that.
Watch this space to read Part 2 of the conversation with Shah Rukh Khan