Clearlry, Imran Khan is in a happy space these days. And that’s largely because his career is taking care of itself. The actor has emerged with an aura of invincibility these past few years. One movie after another has done exceedingly well, levitating him into stardom. The driving force is with him. The heat is slowly being turned up now. He’s taken the pole position. If the movies on his platter are anything to go by, he’s all ready to zoom off at supersonic speed. Right now, he’s the toast of the town. Since Matroo… is on his mind, it’s our conversation opener.
Q. How much does the director help in an actor’s performance?
A I had no idea until I started working with Vishal Bhardwaj. One good thing about Vishal is that he insists on prep time. We spent a month and a half on learning the language, the dialect, the works. When we started shooting Vishal would tell me little things like, ‘When you’re saying this line don’t blink’. To you and me it seems who notices when someone blinks? But ‘not blinking’ suddenly makes your performance so powerful. He’d say ‘When you say this line, take a pause and just look to the side and scratch your head or at this point do this’. It would seem inconsequential; you’d wonder what difference can a small gesture like this make. But it would add a punch to the performance.
Q. How difficult was it preparing for your role in Matroo Ki Bijli Ka Mandola?
A It was terrifying. The first day when we did a reading, I couldn’t string a single sentence together. I had to say, ‘Ra bhutniwade, bawra samajh rakha hai manein?’ And I couldn’t put them together. I felt I’d made a big mistake. I thought I should back out now before I make a fool of myself on screen. I went in again and it was a disaster once again. But Vishal was cheerful. He was like, ‘Ho jayega’. By the fourth day, I was fumbling with the dialogue. I thought if this is the best I can do, maybe we’ll dub my part. Vishal then recorded the dialogue in his voice and gave me a CD. I put it on my iPod and would constantly listen to it in my free time. I also worked with NK Sharma, a teacher at the NSD in Delhi. I went to Delhi and set up camp for a month and a half and did workshops with him. He got boys from Haryana and we’d converse in Haryanvi. I’d spend my day listening to my ipod or conversing with these guys. Sharma said the best way to learn a language is through songs. He taught me songs in Haryanvi. I’d sing them at all times. That taught me the sounds, the accent, the inflection and the rhythm of the language.
Q. Is this your way of trying to push the envelope?
A Yes. As you age as an actor, you want challenges. You want to push yourself; you want to explore what you’re capable of. I’ve been around for a couple of years, I’ve had some success. But playtime is over, now it’s time to ask yourself what more can I do? Another thing I’ve found interesting is the relationship between the actor and the audience. I believe the audience grows with the actor. So when I start off with a film like Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na, which is a college film, that kind of crowd gets attracted to the film and they say, this is our hero. They relate to the issues I talk about. As I grow older, they grow with me. And I have to continue speaking to them. As we get married, have children, have problems at home, difficulties at work, that audience continues to tune into me. You have to know who your people are and how to tell them stories that are relevant to them. So starting with Jaane Tu… going to I Hate Luv Storys, Break Ke Baad, Mere Brother Ki Dulhan, it was all in fun space. But now it’s time to grow up and start talking about stuff that’s different, stuff that has more substance.
Q. Does it irk you when critics dismiss you saying you aren’t a good actor?
A No. Because I’ve seen enough of the industry through my family. I am intelligent enough to know that in life there will always be people who will like me and those who won’t. And there’s not much you can do about it either way. So you have to continue to do what feels correct. And you can never know whether people will be with you or not. That you’ll figure out later on. Unfortunately, for my critics, the past four years have been good for me. My last failures were Luck and Kidnap and they were some four years ago. Take a look at any other actor and talk about their failures. They’ll all be in the recent past. Somehow my flops have stayed because those are the only flops I have.
Q. How would you analyse your growth as an actor?
A I’ve always been self-critical. In my family, there is an aversion to praising each other. Doing well is something we expect of each other. So it’s hard for me to blow my trumpet and say I’m great and I’ve done good work. And that’s good because the moment you rest on your laurels, your growth stops. It takes away that hunger, that drive to prove yourself. That’s the reason why I’ve done so much work with first time directors. Because these guys are hungry and have a fire burning inside them. They’ll cut off a leg to prove themselves. A director who’s given big hits, has nothing left to prove. These guys, Shakun Batra (EMAET), Ali Abbas Zafar (Mere Brother Ki Dulhan) have had a point to prove. They’ve come from nowhere, no film background nothing, and have worked their way up. They know that if this chance goes wrong they are sawed. So they will give their last breath to make sure that the film is a hit.
Q. On the flipside, the new directors can’t guide you in your performance.
A Yeah. But I needed to take that chance. Also, to be honest, the big directors never approached me earlier. It has just started. Now Vishal Bhardwaj has called me, Milan Luthria is calling me. Also personal relationships count a lot in our business. I put my faith in them. These guys are going to be the star directors of the future and they will remember me. I remember the guys who helped me when I was down. And I’ll always help them when they need me. When I was down, Karan (Johar) was the one who stood for me. I will move heaven and earth to return that favour to him. So if I work with a director when no one else does because he’s a nobody, he’ll do the same for me.
Q. You have interesting movies coming up — Once Upon A Time Again, Tigmanshu Dhulia’s next and Matroo. Do you need to balance these heavyweight movies with some light stuff?
A Tigmanshu’s film is not hundred per cent locked. I like his story but I haven’t signed it yet. We’re still developing it. Funnily, Matroo is not a heavyweight film as expected. It’s a funny film. It does have layers but at the heart of it, it’s a comedy. Once Upon A Time Again is an entertaining film. It’s a film I never thought I’d ever be a part of. But when I read the script, it just knocked me over. I found it ‘tasty’. That is the only word to describe it. It’s romantic, it’s dramatic, it’s edge-of-the-seat, it’s cinema that gets your blood stirring. Serious is a word everyone is scared of. People think that just because a film is not a romantic comedy, it’s a serious film. It’s not so.
Q. Have you come to terms with being under the scanner constantly?
A The interesting thing about being an actor is that half of it is to do with your acting. The other half is being able to live that life. Can you deal with it? Can you deal with the stuff that people say about you? Can you deal with the pressure? Only half of it is the creative art. There are a lot of people who can balance both but not everyone can. Often I see my friends who are talented actors but haven’t enjoyed success. I wonder why didn’t they get a second, third chance? That’s because you have to be able to live that life. You have to be able to entertain the media at a press conference, people have to feel you’re a star, you have to be able to listen to people saying bad stuff about you and not let it bring you down. You have to take it on the chin and say if this person doesn’t like me, so what? That person does.
Q. As a star, if your success is public, so is your humiliation.
A See, we can cry ourselves hoarse saying this is my private life, this is none of your business. Will anyone listen? So at some point you have to stop doing drama and accept the reality. I would love to stand on Carter Road and eat bhelpuri without people coming up for autographs and photographs. But it’s not going to happen. I can tell someone, “Sir I’m in the middle of my meal, can you take the photograph later?” He’ll shout, “You don’t appreciate your fans, you’re so arrogant.” Can I get angry and say, “Sir, you’re being unfair to me. Main bhi insaan hoon. Mujhe bhi khaana hai.” Right and wrong goes out the window and it comes to the reality of your life. People will celebrate you; they will lift you up when perhaps you don’t even deserve it. And they will mock you if one day you turn up unshaven.
Q. So you don’t get affected by it?
A It’s never affected me that much. It used to affect mum and Avantika a lot. If they read something bad written about me, they would be furious for two, three days. They’d remember the name of the journalist who wrote the article. And they’d say if I see this guy anywhere, I’ll slap him. It used to work them up. Over the past few years, I’ve managed to calm them down. It still affects them a lot more than it affects me. I suppose it’d affect me too if I read something bad about a friend or my wife. It’s easy to take criticism about yourself but if someone says something bad about your loved one, you’d stand up for them.
Q. So is it tough being a movie star?
A You have to be able to act and you have to be able to live your life as an actor. And that is something no one tells you. They warn you about rejection, about hard work, about how difficult it is to get work out here. But no one tells you how dangerous this life is. How you can go nuts. Suddenly you’re a star and people tell you you’re the best thing to happen to the world. It’s so easy to lose yourself. I’ve seen people who live in a bubble. You live in Mumbai, you associate with industry people, you read Bombay Times and suddenly that becomes your life. All you’re worried about is what this journalist has said about me, which film has this guy signed, how much is he getting paid? How come I’m not getting so much? What is the opening of this film? Suddenly your life is defined by other people’s success and failure and other people’s opinions on your successes and failure. And you start to live in this Bollywood bubble. A lot of films get made in this bubble and that’s why no one can relate to them. You lose track of what is happening outside. You visit the heartland of India. What do people think about you there? Half of them haven’t even seen your films, they like you because they’ve seen your ads. One third of people haven’t even heard of you.