Christine Iyer chats with one of India’s most loved film stars, who charms amid all the chaos
Sitting at the back of the Chennai Express press conference at Atlantis, The Palm last week, it’s hard not to smile as the Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan laughs and banters with an audience, who won the opportunity to meet him through a contest run by Radio Mirchi UAE.
His female fans, dressed in their finest, are starry-eyed, constantly shouting “I love you, Shah Rukh” and drowning out his words in their excitement. Some beg for hugs, others for kisses, and Khan indulges them all. They throw him questions and he answers wittily, remembering to ask their names and never once breaking eye contact.
When all the hoopla has died down and the last of the winners has been hustled through the photo op, I am taken to meet him.
He’s dressed in a black suit, hair slicked back and tied in a ponytail, a streak of blond running down the right side.
We are seated on pale green sofas in a corner of a golden ballroom, press aides hovering and mouthing “You’ve only got 10 minutes”, but Khan waves them away.
“Ignore them,” he tells me. “Take as much time you like.”
He turns his brown eyes on me and we begin.
I ask why he keeps coming back to Dubai, and he pretends to take offence: “What? You don’t want me here?” Then he laughs. “No, this is a special city and I always love coming here. It’s been hectic, shooting Happy New Year, so I don’t have much time to myself. But tonight, after all this, I’m going to play football on the beach by my house.”
The actor is in town for another week; the cast and crew have been here for a month or so, then filming wraps up and moves to India, where it will continue on sets built to resemble the hotel.
“The Atlantis is a character in Happy New Year,” he explains. “But there are too many actors. We cannot bring everyone here and so we will recreate it in India.”
The film, directed by Farah Khan and also starring Deepika Padukone and Abhishek Bachchan, will be out sometime next year.
Khan says his life revolves around his work and family, adding that this is how it has always been.
“I shoot 200 days of the year. Work, that is what I do, and when I finish I go home to my family.”
He’s also writing a book, he says, which is titled Twenty Years in a Decade and is about his experiences.
“I’m always surrounded by people so I don’t get time to myself to write as often as I want. I usually write on the plane when I am travelling; sometimes I finish one chapter,” he says.
When will it be published?
“Whenever I finish it,” he says, shrugging. “I can’t work on such deadlines. I’ve told them [the publishers], I’ll finish it in my own time, at my own pace.”
Then I ask him what he thinks of Ranbir Kapoor, India’s current acting sensation and heart-throb.
Khan pauses. “He is good,” he says. I wait for him to elaborate but he doesn’t.
Who is his favourite co-star?
He answers immediately: “Always the one I am currently filming with.”
Not Kajol? I prod. How about Madhuri Dixit? I’m trying to put words into your mouth, I tell him, and he smiles. “I know,” he says. “They are all good; Madhuri is beautiful.”
I ask if he wants to do more serious films, such as the critically acclaimed Chak De India, in which he played the role of a former hockey player hired to coach India’s national women’s hockey team. It’s a far cry from the romantic roles he is famous for, such as the one he has in his latest blockbuster Chennai Express, but Khan shakes his head.
“The directors come to me with films. I choose what resonates with me, it has to come from the heart. Movies like Chak De, they come once in 40 years.
“I love my work. I want to entertain the audience, keep them happy. It’s what I am constantly striving for. The superhero film Ra.One , I did for my son,” he says. “He liked it a lot. And my daughter, she says she has still not seen Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jaayenge , but she was not yet born when it came out.”
I remember to congratulate him on the birth of his son, AbRam, his third child.
“Thanks, he is doing fine,” he says, smiling and nodding. Then the press aides begin swooping in again; it’s time to say goodbye. But the actor is not in a hurry. He chats to the last, shaking hands, patting me on my shoulder and posing for photos, his arm around my waist. Then he says “Khuda haafiz”, (May God be your guardian) and is suddenly obscured by a throng of people.
As I walk away from Shah Rukh Khan, one of India’s greatest, most loved stars of all time, three words leap to my mind: patient, gracious, self-deprecating.
And just like that, I become a fan.