Aamir Khan: Acting on Instinct

Aamir Khan in Lagaan (2002)

Aamir Khan is arguably India's most ambitious and accomplished actor. Most recently known as the star and producer of the colonial drama Lagaan, Khan has proven that Bollywood films can be artfully executed, address important issues, and draw large crowds both in India and abroad. With Lagaan, Khan has been credited with breathing new life into India’s film industry and has drawn international attention to Hindi cinema, winning the Public’s Choice award at Switzerland’s Locarno Film Festival and making the shortlist for India’s official entry into the Best Foreign Film category of the Academy Awards.

Even before the tremendous success of Lagaan, Khan was known for his outstanding integrity and intensity. While other Bollywood stars churn out dozens of films, Khan has opted to appear in one carefully chosen film a year, fully dedicating his time and energy to strong, selective roles. Since his commercial debut as the young star-crossed lover opposite Juhi Chawla in 1988’s Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak, Khan has distinguished himself as a different kind of Bollywood star — risky, instinctive, and talented enough to blur the boundaries between popular film and art cinema. Most notably, his unforgettable performance as the Ice Candy Man in Deepa Mehta’s 1947: Earth brought depth and sensitivity to a character caught in between both a complicated love triangle and the horrors of Partition.

In spite of all these accomplishments, Aamir is surprisingly down to earth, refreshingly unpretentious and, at least for the time being, relieved to be less well known in the US, where he can walk the streets without being mobbed by adoring fans. Asia Society.org met with the actor in New York City at the tail end of his international tour to promote Lagaan.

Are you surprised at how well Lagaan has done in the international market? It was on the UK's list of top ten films, but even in the US where people don’t know about cricket, it has done immensely well.

Yes, I am very pleasantly surprised by the reaction the film is getting outside India from audiences who do not generally see Indian films. However, we had received a slight indication of this when the script was read by British actors, casting directors, and technicians before we began to film. That was the first time we got an inkling that non-Indian people would react very favorably to the story and the script and identify with the characters. I am really thrilled.

You’re the closest thing India has ever had to a crossover star given your success in both Bollywood and art films; your role in 1947: Earth in particular established you as a serious actor. Would you be interested in crossing over to do an American or European film?

I do have interest in doing an international film, though I don’t know if I am inclined to work towards that goal. In my opinion, if you want to make a place for yourself in the international market, one of the things you have to do is move to Los Angeles. It’s not the only way, but it’s one of the ways and I don’t know if I want to do that.

A lot of people call you the Indian Tom Hanks but I say that Tom Hanks is the American Aamir Khan.

For some time people have been telling me that they see a lot of similarities between me and Tom Hanks, but somehow I have never seen that similarity. I think he is a great actor, so if people think I am like him, I am really thrilled.

I don’t know if I want to work towards being an international actor. I prefer to stay where I am in Bombay, and perhaps do films that address an international audience. You see, Lagaan was not meant to address an international audience. It ended up doing that, but that’s not how we thought about it initially. It has given me a lot of encouragement to start thinking more widely, thinking of an international audience. So now I am looking for scripts that could appeal to an international audience.

Do you think the message of Lagaan rings true today, over 50 years after Independence?

I think that the message of Lagaan really has nothing to do with independence. In fact, if you notice, the villagers are not fighting for independence at all; they are just struggling to survive. It’s only a human story and not a story about Indians fighting for independence.

The reason that people across the world are reacting so well to it is that the topic is something which is universal; it’s the David and Goliath story. If you see two people fighting and you see one of them is the nice guy and the other guy is not a nice guy and he’s bullying the nice guy, then the guy who is doing the bullying is a giant, and the guy who is being bullied is small in size. Instinctively, you want the small guy to win, even if you are just standing on the road and watching this happen. You want the small guy to overcome the giant. That’s what Lagaan is, which is why everyone’s heart goes out to the villagers and everyone wants them to succeed in what they are doing. In that sense, it’s a very universal story, with a lot of potential to become a popular film. Since the film was completed, I spoke with Ashutosh [Gowariker], the director, and we discussed the possibility of the film having an international release. I decided to first release it for Indians both in India and outside India, which is the regular Hindi film audience, and then try to give it a crossover release, which is what we’re in the process of doing right now. Presently, Columbia-TriStar has shown a lot of interest in releasing the film in Europe and in the US. Let’s see how that goes.

There is talk that the film might be India’s official entry for the Academy Awards. How do you feel about that?

It will help the film a lot. If Lagaan does get nominated for the Oscars, it would help the film a lot in terms of getting a mainstream release in the U.S. and getting a lot of public attention.

You are known for being really selective with your films. What do you look for in a script?

I’m not looking for anything in particular. When I’m reading a script, I become the audience, and if what I read moves me and excites me and I really love listening to or reading the script, then that is the script I choose to do. It’s all instinct.

What are you working on next? Do you have another script in the works?

No, I don’t. I’m committed to doing a film for Mr. [Amitabh] Bachchan. He has a production company and we are in the process of looking for a story to make into a film for his production company.

Well, we certainly look forward to seeing it.

Interview conducted by Michelle Caswell, Asia Society.