His name may not mean much in the West but Bollywood megastar Shah Rukh Khan is quite possibly the most popular movie star in the world.
With Bollywood cinema reaching an estimated three billion people his following far exceeds that of Hollywood’s stars.
But after nearly 30 years in the business – and more than 70 films under his belt – 46-year-old Khan remains unexpectedly shy and still can’t quite fathom why legions of fans commonly refer to him as the King of Bollywood.
“I get amazed they call me that – and I think maybe deep down inside my heart I don’t deserve all of this,” he says. “I feel very grateful and very odd. I don’t even know why people like me so much.”
He explains how his confident exterior masks a withdrawn personality. “I’m a very shy person. As I’m getting older, I’m becoming more and more reclusive,” he says.
Given his proclaimed shyness he says acting has been a source of solace. “I actually act just to cover up my awkwardness, so I become some other person and do all the strange things. It’s nearly schizophrenic, and I can just go and do something and not feel responsible, not feel shy, not feel odd, not feel awkward.”
Khan is known for his wide range of films. Some of his pictures have become modern popular classics where he often plays the romantic lead.
“You know, it’s so strange that I’ve done so many love stories, and all my co-actresses and all my friends and ladies, they say, ‘Oh, you’re so romantic.’ I’ve never in my life been able to go and say hello to a girl at a party. The first person I said it to was my wife and I married her quickly.”
He says he’s thrilled by acting but doesn’t want to review his work once shooting is complete. “I can’t even see my films. I think out of the 70 films I’ve not seen more than three, I can’t watch my films. I get embarrassed.”
With other Indian actors gaining popularity in recent times Khan’s stature has taken a little bit of a beating – but for his followers he has an almost magical ability to keep them enthralled.
Top Bollywood actress Priyanka Chopra believes his popularity is partly explained by his humility. “There’s a relatability to him,” she says. “He’s humble, and at the same time, he has the qualities that every mother would want in her child or every wife would want in her husband and every kid would want in her dad. He has all of those in him, so that makes him more than just this movie star who sings you incredible songs. It makes him a brand or a commodity which everyone relates to, and hence why he has become more than just a movie star.
The actor enthusiastically engages with his fans wherever he goes – but he’s also very involved with colleagues in the movie business working hard to push the Indian film industry forwards.
His latest starring role was in Ra.One, released in October, a film which he also produced. It’s been described as India’s most expensive film. It’s a state-of-the-art superhero picture which, its promoters claim, boasts more special effects than director James Cameron’s Avatar.
Khan believes the Indian film industry has to bring up its production standards if it is to survive – especially at a time when Hollywood is beginning to make inroads into the Indian market.
“Youngsters are exposed to international cinema. They are wanting quality. They are wanting styling. They are wanting designing. They are wanting storytelling, which is international now, and if we don’t cater to that, I think five, seven years later, young kids, the ones who are 15, 16 will stop watching Indian films.”
Many critics were impressed by the special effects in Ra.One but there were some gripes about the weakness of the storytelling.
Khan, while not pointing to any particular deficits in Ra.One, concedes Indian screenwriting needs to change – especially with overseas markets in mind.
We make musicals. That format needs to change”
“I think our screenplay technique needs to improve a lot more. We make musicals. That format needs to change. We can still have the music, but maybe not so obtrusively.
“If you want to sell a film overseas internationally, it will have to be initially written by screenplay writers from the West, because they understand.” But he believes Indian content should definitely be retained.
One of Khan’s big ambitions is to make a film that will cross over and satisfy audiences in both the West and India. “I’ll keep tirelessly working towards that… I don’t want to sell the poverty and the snake charmers of India. I want to sell the educated middle class of India. I want to tell them there’s a lot of intelligence here, intellect here, rich here, happiness here, colourful culture here, and with due respect, we are not just some country, a Third World country. I don’t want to sell the sadness of this country. I want to sell the happiness of the country.”
Although many of the films that in which Khan has appeared are escapist he remains committed to real life issues.
Last year the actor, who was born into a Muslim family, starred in the film My Name Is Khan which dealt with Muslim profiling in post-9/11 America. “I thought I should be one of the few people, at least in India, to tell people that being Muslim is not necessarily being a terrorist or bad guy. The world should not be divided like this.”
But the actor maintains that despite living in a country where Muslims are in the minority he’s never experienced any discrimination in the film business. “I think the Indian film industry is the most secular place to find a job in. I don’t even know if anybody knows anybody else’s religion while we’re working together. I’ve never been disadvantaged as far as being a Muslim is concerned in this industry.”
Despite his sometimes humble and insecure assessment of himself Khan doesn’t come across as an unfulfilled man.
“I feel very happy that I’m allowed by God to come and be someone else. That’s all I need to do, and I just keep doing it every morning I get up. My family keeps asking, ‘How do you do this?’ I said, ‘I just love it. I’m just very happy doing acting.’”