|CINEMA: AAMIR KHAN
Unlike the other Khans -- flashy Shah Rukh and boy toy Salman -- the Aamir appeal is about an actor assiduously honing his craft to perfection. Above all, it's about the decent bloke next door.
By Anupam Chopra
Aamir Khan lies mangled underneath a train, his 5-ft something frame crunched like a toothpick. All the boyish charm turned to blood. 1.3 seconds make these lines fiction. 1.3 seconds was all that remained when Aamir, attempting a dangerous stunt for the upcoming Ghulam, running toward a speeding train, calculating the time when it would hit him, decided it was close enough and jumped off the rails. "It was very foolish of me," he says. "But sometimes you get swayed by your feelings to achieve a great shot."
COMMANDMENT NO. 1
The relentless pursuit of perfection is the hallmark of Aamir's career. This April, the 33-year-old celebrated a decade in the movies:10 years, 22 films, a reputation for being a brilliant actor and a perfectionist "pain in the ass". "Bahut khit phit karta hai (He is very finicky)," says a pro. But it's working. Since his effervescent debut in Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak, Aamir has notched up an astounding six hits, delivering a blockbuster every year for the past three years. The actor, who started on a modest monthly stipend, today takes home an estimated Rs 1.5 crore-plus paycheck. His films are hot on announcement because, as Film Information's Komal Nahata puts it, "Distributors feel that if Aamir is doing it, it must be a solid script." And he is, along with the other Khans -- Shah Rukh and Salman -- a star attraction overseas.
Aamir has won the game by breaking the rules. After the euphoria of initial stardom, he spent two years shuffling between studios, completing nine, mostly forgettable films. He decided then that if success were to happen it would be on his terms. Cinema may be the art of compromise but Aamir is an uncompromising man. He's got, as cousin, friend and director Mansoor Khan says, "his fundas very clear".
Six years ago, Aamir stopped talking to the film press -- "I don't believe in their policies." Around the same time, film awards lost meaning -- "It's too commercialised." He collected the Filmfare Sensational Debut Award in 1988 but by the time they called his name for best actor in 1997 for Raja Hindustani, he had quit the awards circus. He was among the earliest actors to be selective. He won't work on Sundays. He shoots two films a year and by next year, hopefully, it will be one. He wants to work four months, then take four months off "to learn things like special effects, the tabla, carpentry".
COMMANDMENT NO. 2
In an industry marked by chronic unprofessionalism, a committed actor is a rarity. And Aamir's dedication is well-known. For Ghulam, he's been dubbing at 5 a.m. because he feels his voice is better in the mornings. For the film's climax, he didn't wash his face for eight days so that he looked appropriately "battered". On a bitterly cold night in Jaisalmer, he was up at 2:30 a.m. giving cues to co-star Naseeruddin Shah for director John Matthan's Sarfarosh. Aamir used to carry a mobile phone but later traded it for a pager because "the phone calls would disrupt my thoughts". Some months ago, he gave up the pager too -- "I figure if anything is really urgent, they'll find me."
Director endorsements are glowing. "Aamir is one with the project," says Ghulam director Vikram Bhatt. "He's always part of the solution, not the problem." For 1947 director Deepa Mehta, Aamir was "a director's dream". "He's a world-class actor and the first one on the set every day." Mela's Dharmesh Darshan is equally effusive: "Aamir is an actor willing to grow. Twenty years hence when you look back, he will be a legend."
But the Aamir myth is not just about a well-behaved star. It's about an actor assiduously honing his craft to perfection. Shah Rukh may be the flashier actor and Salman, the boy toy, but Aamir's performances have rare depth. Shah Rukh, no matter what role he plays, is always Shah Rukh, but Aamir becomes Raghu in Dil Hai Ki Manta Nahin (DHKMN) and Munna in Rangeela.
The transformation takes sweat. And no Stanislavsky works here. Aamir, an untrained actor, has concocted his own method: "First, I understand what the director has in mind for the film. Then what he wants out of me. I understand the character's mind. I come on the set prepared with the lines. How many rehearsals I need depends on how cooked I am. I try to achieve a state of semi-consciousness where I am that character, but I can also take instructions. I try to give an honest shot. Sometimes I get it, sometimes I don't."
COMMANDMENT NO. 3
What helps is an inbred understanding of cinema -- Aamir's father and uncle, Tahir and Nasir Hussain, are famous director-producers -- and an instinctive sense of script. "Most actors read a script and focus on their own part," says Mehta. "But Aamir understands that a film is not one person." Shekhar Kapur, with whom Aamir did the aborted Time Machine, remembers him as "verrrrry bright". "He absorbed things like a sponge."
Despite the talent, Aamir has been slotted into the wholesome lover-boy category. He may play a boorish chauvinist in Raja Hindustani or a selfish husband in Akele Hum Akele Tum but the audience knows that at heart, Aamir is the decent boy next door. "What works for him is his tremendous charm," says critic Maithli Rao. "But he still lacks a range of role-playing." Mansoor, who created the golden boy image for Aamir, says he must now break it. "He needs to be more experimental with his scripts." Perhaps the breakthrough film will be 1947 in which Aamir plays the unsavoury Ice Candy Man.
The other complaint is that Aamir is, if there is such a thing, oversincere. The grapevine buzzes with stories: that he spent 10 hours looking for the appropriate cap to wear in DHKMN; that during an action scene, he told his co-star to give him exactly five punches because that would be more real. "Acting isn't a thinking game," says Mahesh Bhatt. "A film can't be looked at as a life-threatening event. Shooting a scene can't be like defusing a bomb." Aamir smiles. "These are exaggerated stories," he says, "but yes, most of them are true." He will work on the screenplay, he will question everything, he will offer suggestions but no, he will never supercede the director. "He is very insistent," says Ghulam writer Anjum Rajab Ali. "We had passionate arguments but he never pulled rank. He was gratifyingly respectful."
COMMANDMENT NO. 4
The thing to understand is that Aamir is, above all, correct. The shy, well-behaved child grew up into a less shy, well-behaved star -- not a drinker, he imbibed alcohol to do the drunken party scene in Raja Hindustani, but even when high, he was, says Darshan, "really well-behaved." Aamir is polite to a fault -- an irregular smoker, he will ask permission to light up even in his own house. His language is peppered with quaint words like "proper". As in, "I don't talk to film magazines just because I have a film releasing. I can't break my rules when it benefits me. That wouldn't be proper."
Aamir is a homebody. He rarely socialises and his friends are mostly from outside the industry. He's not into expensive cars or hi-tech gadgets. In fact, he doesn't know how to use a computer. Twelve years ago, he married, literally, the girl next door. Her window faced his and they fell in love, Padosan style. Reena and Aamir have a five-year-old son, Junaid, and a few-weeks-old daughter, Ira. Privacy and family are high on Aamir's priority list. When he had enough money to move out, he bought a house in the same building. "I wanted to be close to my parents." Mansoor lives down the road. All three homes are connected by an Epbax system. Aamir only picks up the phone when the intercom rings. Outside calls are directed to the answering machine.
If he sounds too good to be true, it's because he perhaps is. "It's pretty hard to find fault with him," says Mansoor, "only, he's very stubborn." Despite the ramrod rules, Aamir is a softie. He collects clapboards from films and costumes of characters he's played. On the day his film releases, he watches it with the audience -- all three shows, standing at the exit door, behind the curtain. It's nerve-racking but it's the only way to find out what works. "A positive reaction is the biggest high. Sometimes when I hear them clapping for me, I'm moved to tears." Sometimes his mistakes make him cry. "On screen, all the problems pop out," he says. "I just shut my eyes."
That can't be happening too often. Because Aamir leaves little room for error. On a blistering May day in Mumbai, on an outdoor set, surrounded by 1,500 junior artistes and dancers, Aamir is Kishen Pyare Nautankiwala, a truck driver in Mela. It's hot enough to make the devil weep but Aamir stands stoic in a leather jacket. The song sequence requires him to look angry, while heroine Twinkle Khanna gives him entreating looks. The dancers have wilted by the time Darshan approves the eighth take. But Aamir is not happy. Did the camera reach me too late? Will the cut be too quick? Darshan convinces him that it was fine. Only after the shot has been discussed and approved does Aamir remove his jacket. Anything else wouldn't be proper.
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