SINGAPORE: Call Aamir Khan an “inimitable actor”, a “film legend” or “Bollywood superstar” and he would be the first one to brush off the labels. “Passionate”, he says, is the word he would use to describe himself.
Yet for this writer who has interviewed him twice in three years, it’s the words “self-effacing”, “dedicated” and “phenomenon” that ring out the loudest and truest.
And few will disagree, because over the course of his almost 30-year-long film career, Aamir Khan has achieved above and beyond what one expects from a movie star.
Khan is definitively one of India’s top movie megastars, having headlined three of the country’s top 10 highest-grossing films in history: Dhoom 3 (2010), PK (2014) and most recently Dangal (2016). Not only is the 52-year-old actor a reliable box-office success, more importantly, his choice of films and characters have consistently been lauded for inspiring real life shifts in perspectives and encouraging a deeper look at pertinent social issues.
It’s evident in his oeuvre that Khan is unafraid to use cinema as a platform to shine a spotlight on social causes or raise awareness. His 2007 directorial debut Taare Zameen Par (Like Stars On Earth) strived to destigmatise children with dyslexia and learning disabilities.
His other top grossing hit, the 3 Idiots (2009) called out Indian education system, while PK (2014) questioned the nation’s fixation on icon worship and superstitions.
In 2012, he also produced and hosted Satyamev Jayate (Truth Alone Triumphs), a popular documentary series centered on India’s social ills. In that show, he brought to light the country’s mental health initiatives and domestic violence.
That said, Khan’s process on how he chooses his projects might surprise his fans.
On his first visit to Singapore, Khan told Channel NewsAsia that he never actually sets out to make films with a social cause attached to it.
“I think it’s very fulfilling doing that … but I want to clarify (that) I don’t set out to decide which social (cause) I should pick next to do,” he said. “That’s not what’s going in my mind when deciding what film to choose. It happens naturally. I’m actually reading scripts or listening to narrations from the directors and writers hoping to come across something that excites me and touches my heart.”
He cited Thugs of Hindostan, the film he is currently filming with Amitabh Bachchan, as one such example.
“It’s an action adventure film. It a very entertaining kind of a story… so I am not always attracted to films which have something socially important to say,” he said. “But I guess because of the kind of person that I am, I do get attracted to films of a certain kind. And it reflects in my choices.”
Choices like the game-changing Dangal recently became the highest-grossing Indian film of all time with a box office of US$310 million and counting.
The film is the true story of former wrestler Mahavir Singh Phogat, who trained his daughters, Geeta and Babita Phogat, to become world-class competitors despite the long-standing bias against girls in the country and within the wrestling world.
It also broke new ground in an entirely unexpected market: Dangal took over the China box office with an unprecedented US$200 million haul, cementing it as one of the country’s biggest hits of all time.
Even with all that success, Khan believes his newest film, Secret Superstar - which is about a small town teenager who defies her conservative Muslim family to pursue her dream as a singer - will have a much bigger impact than Dangal. In it, he plays a sleazy obnoxious music producer named Shakti Kumar. It also reunites Khan with his Dangal co-star Zaira Wasim who plays the lead.
“While Dangal was about the dream of a father which a daughter fulfils, this is about the hopes and aspirations of a 14-year-old girl from a small town in India,” he said. “I don’t know what the box office (takings) will be but it’s a bigger film than Dangal in what it’s trying to say.”
So is there a social issue Khan feels that Indian cinema has yet to give fair play to?
“I feel that in India we have films that have tackled various issues over the years but perhaps one of the issues that we’ve tackled less is the issue of caste-ism,” he said. “That’s an issue we’ve more or less stayed away from … although we touched on it briefly in some films like Lagaan.”
He believes that there’s “always a platform and space” to do so.
“You can always decide to speak about any issue that you want in a film,” he added.
Always a champion for good storytelling, Khan said he still has “no external desire to break into Hollywood”, even if it does provide a more international platform.
“Unless there’s something that excites me,” he said with a smile. “When material comes to me, I don’t care where it’s coming from. Japan, Singapore, China, Africa … it could be from everywhere. The material should excite me. It’s not important where it’s coming from.”
And he has no qualms about Western directors wanting to make films about India.
“I don’t think anyone has a monopoly on that. If Danny Boyle, who is British, wants to make a film that is Indian, that is fine. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.” he said. “And tomorrow I might come across a story which I like that’s about a different part of the world. I would spend some time understanding the culture and the people there but it would not be something that I should not do.
"Because creative people have no barriers. Ultimately it’s connecting with human beings. There’s just one planet. I don’t see it as different countries.”