Before facing his customary army of fans, Shah Rukh Khan sits in a suite in Emirates Palace, anxiously answering messages on his BlackBerry. The premiere of his latest film, My Name Is Khan, is already shrouded in controversy. Right-wing nationalists in Mumbai were protesting about his comments expressing regret that no Pakistani cricketers had been chosen to play in the Indian Premier League with such fury that the star was still being drawn back to India from a couch in Abu Dhabi.
Dressed in an open-collared grey shirt and a black suit, his hair gelled back, he smiles. He grins. He frowns. He tries to ignore his phone which constantly beeps with incoming messages. Two decades in the industry - some 71 films - and the unsurpassed stardom that has been bestowed on him have made Khan, 44, a deeply philosophical man. In My Name Is Khan, perhaps his best performance to date, he is no longer thee actor of innumerable Bollywood roles: anti-hero, jilted lover, army officer. Instead, he plays the character of Rizvan Khan, a man who has Asperger's syndrome, with a maturity that only experience can bring.
A friend of Khan's son has a similar disorder. The actor has also worked in theatre with special-needs children. As an undergraduate economics student at Hansraj College in New Delhi, he participated in the theatre director Barry John's Theatre Action Group. "Two projects a year were dedicated to street kids and special needs kids," says Khan. "So I worked with people with autism and dyslexia. It was really wonderful, because for those two months, we kind of became aware what the disorder was. As we became aware we also realised how normal [these children] could be. So you can say that I've always had this interest. I've always been intrigued by how the mind is different for different people. Maybe somewhere deep inside me, I really wanted to be able to utilise that experience."
This film also led him to do the most research he has ever done before embarking on a project. "I spent some time with two kids who have Asperger's. I read a lot of books and watched a lot of documentaries and footage that the writers gave me. Then I rehearsed a lot. My only concern was that I should remain within the parameters and in no way should I deride or demean the fact that some people could be suffering from this and are watching this film."
The film is also the story of a man who undertakes a journey across the US to meet the president and to deliver a message: My name is Khan and I am not a terrorist. Khan had a taste of this in real life when he was detained by American authorities at Newark airport for two hours last August. He had been invited to attend an Indian Independence Day celebration in Chicago. Indian politicians protested the incident while US authorities said it was part of their routine procedure to screen foreign travellers. At that time, Khan said he felt "angry and humiliated". He had also just finished shooting My Name Is Khan in California and San Francisco.
"Of course, he was detained because his name was Khan," says Karan Johar, the director of the film. "That is a fact of life. It is a rampant reality. That's what happens. Of course it was blown out of proportion. We were even mildly accused of promoting our film. [But] it happened eight months ago, so it would be ridiculous to insinuate that. Secondly, if I had that kind of power over US homeland security, that would make me a completely different entity altogether. Clearly that is not the case."
Johar, 37, says he had initially set out to work on a different script. But, as he says, "one thing led to another". He travelled to the US and met with a number of associations that work with minority groups in order to research how Muslims were being treated in the wake of September 11. Along with Shibani Bathija, who wrote the screenplay, Johar says the focus turned to a protagonist with Asperger's syndrome, that became a "story point in the film."
"If he was [an average person], he would not embark on an impossible journey. But when you are not neuro-typical, you think honestly, earnestly, in a certain fashion. Our protagonist needed not to be like you and me." My Name Is Khan is one of several recent Bollywood films to deal with special-needs characters. In 2007, Taare Zameen Par (Like Stars on Earth) was produced, directed and starred Aamir Khan, and dealt with dyslexia. Its net profit was 10 times the cost of production. Last year, Paa (Dad) starring the father and son team of Amitabh and Abhishek Bachchan, looked at how progeria, a rare genetic disorder affects the life of a child.
Does this mean that Bollywood, known for elaborate plots that make you suspend disbelief, is finally moving away from musicals? Not necessarily, says Khan. "Heart patients, cancer patients, blind people - there has been always been that kind of aspect [in Bollywood," he says. "There is always going to be one aspect of storytelling where you take a [non-typical] person and make story of human triumph around them."
However, Khan agrees that addressing the issues surrounding people with special needs will get a number of important messages across to a nation where generally, awareness about special-needs children is lacking. "We are still a developing nation. [In many ways] we are doing really well, but there are a lot of areas where the awareness hasn't reached. Some areas the awareness has reached but the facilities haven't. Then there are places where the facilities have reached, but where people have not been able to utilise [them] to the fullest."
But this is a film with two messages. With its release in the Middle East, both Khan and Johar are hoping that its other central issue will resonate with audiences. "We feel the core content of the film will connect very well with the Middle East market," says Johar. Although the world premiere of My Name Is Khan was held in Abu Dhabi, Khan, Johar and the actress Kajol have been on an extensive tour. Beginning in small Indian cities such as Indore and Ahmedabad, their promotional travels have taken them to New York, London, and the UAE. When we spoke, Khan was already steeling himself for the film's European premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival on February 12.
Johar believes My Name Is Khan will find a robust audience in India and abroad. "It is [a film] about human endeavour. Whether you live in Abu Dhabi, the heart of Bangalore or Canada, it's a film for you," says Johar. At the premiere in Abu Dhabi, Khan was mobbed by both adults and children. He calmly signed autographs for children who managed to slip through the security barriers and began tugging at his trouser legs. As a young girl looked up at him, he asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up. "A journalist, she answered. "Then ask me a question," he said. She asked for a hug.
More elaborate stories of fan worship have emerged on a recent reality television show hosted by Johar. In Sony TV's Lift Kara De, Johar and his team search the nation for a star's biggest fans. In Khan's episode, he is taken through the lives of three such people. Khan is in awe of what his fans will do for a chance to meet him. Khan, who comes from a lower-middle-class family with no connection to the film industry, says that such adulation always takes him aback.
"I've worked very hard. Stardom can change you. I've taken chances and there are little portions of my life that have turned out well. These are things that people always tell you about your life. I never thought of myself as anyone special. I think life has been very kind to me. In whichever way I can return that kindness, I like to." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org