The sahib of cinema: Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan BY:SHARON VERGHIS From:The Australian August 10, 2013 12:00AM http://www.theaustralian.com.au/art...r-shah-rukh-khan/story-fn9n8gph-1226692933589 IT'S almost midnight in sticky, monsoonal Mumbai and the car containing arguably the world's most famous actor is racing a fat yellow moon reflected in the serene Arabian Sea. Shah Rukh Khan - India's snake-hipped superstar of romance, worth $US600 million and with an estimated fan base of more than one billion - leans back in his seat, his silhouette wreathed in a cloud of cigarette smoke. Immaculate in a crisp grey suit, dyed black hair swept up in a luxurious bouffant tapering into a tiny ponytail, the man Newsweek named as one of the world's 50 most powerful people and who the Los Angeles Times dubbed "perhaps the world's biggest movie star", sits in a serene bubble of calm, cradling a tiny glass of black coffee with an elbow propped on a favourite pile of books. We're racing through the wet, oily streets of Bandra, home to the biggest stars of Bollywood, India's $2.2 billion film industry. A pack of paparazzi is chasing us on motorbikes, honking horns and occasionally thumping the boot of the gleaming white BMW with its instantly recognisable "555" plates, but Khan seems impervious. King Khan, as he's popularly known, is on his way tonight to the premiere of a new movie, Issaq, hosted by his producer friend Jayantilal Gada. Shorter than you'd imagine, at 1.73cm, Khan is courtly, charismatic and softly spoken. Chain-smoking relentlessly, he chats about his passion for books, the "very strange" cultural phenomenon of his fame, his string of bad habits ("I smoke too much, eat too little"), his political clout as arguably the most famous Muslim actor in the world, the Bollywood phenomenon ("we do superheroes, social justice movies ... our diversity and long history since the Lumiere brothers showed their films here after Paris makes us the world's best filmmaking nation") and India's complex attitude towards sexuality. "It's such a dichotomous country," he purrs in that husky, honeyed voice immortalised in more than 75 Hindi films. "You have the Kama Sutra, and then you have film censorship showing bees or flowers instead of people kissing." I smother a cough in the smoky car: the blacked-out windows are always up, I'm told, because fans have tried to reach in to claw at the superstar. In a country that worships film stars as deities, Khan is perhaps the biggest and most revered figure in the pantheon: during Eid, the festival marking the end of Ramadan, his millions of Muslim fans have been known to watch his latest blockbuster up to three times in a day in a quasi-religious celebratory ritual. Influential Indian film critic Anupama Chopra has described him as a "modern-day god. On the streets in India, his posters are sold alongside those of religious deities. Temples have been erected in his name." After a 16-hour flight from Sydney and a mad dash from Mumbai's Chhatrapati Shivaji airport through this most cinematic of cities - a passing scroll of shiny studios and slums, giant billboards and garlanded trucks - I witness the cult of Shah Rukh Khan firsthand after getting a late-night ride with the man himself from his seaside mansion Mannat to the Infiniti Mall in Andheri West. Immediately the car pulls in, his bodyguards swing open the car door to a sea of screaming fans lining the red carpet: flashbulbs explode in starry, retina-scorching patterns, chants of "Shah Rukh, Shah Rukh" merge into a hypnotic vortex of sound. Warm bodies push in frighteningly; when I stumble a member of his entourage rescues me with a hooked arm. Some of Bollywood's most powerful figures are here tonight, including superstar action film rival Aamir Khan (a third Khan, Salman, facing a culpable homicide trial later this month over a driving fatality, makes up Bollywood's Muslim superstar trinity). But it is SRK, as he's known, who attracts the eyeballs. In a lift taking us to the private film screening, a young woman asks tentatively for a photo: when he obliges, she is tearily overcome. (Later, an ancient birdlike woman presses her face to the car window and salaams in awe. "Have a good life," he wishes her as crowds part to let his car through.) Khan is described as "brand SRK" in India. His suave visage - boyish dimples, purply cupid's bow lips and hooked Pathan warrior's nose - smiles down from giant billboards all over this ancient crumbling maritime city of 20 million people; his friends range from actor Hugh Jackman, whose muscled torso on billboards for The Wolverine rivals SRK's for ubiquity in Mumbai this week ("a very sweet guy; he came to dinner at Mannat") and 20th Century Fox's Jim Gianopulos to billionaire Indian industrialist Mukesh Ambani. Earlier, in the fortress-like compound of Mannat, a tourist landmark where hundreds of fans gather every Sunday to see Khan wave regally from the balcony, I witness the workings of the well-oiled machinery behind his public image. Mannat is home to his teenage children Suhana and Aryan and infant son AbRam (born in a storm of controversy in May via surrogate), his Hindu wife Gauri, sister Lala Rukh Khan and a domestic retinue of chefs, bodyguards, stylists, managers and drivers. It has its own fevered microclimate and rhythm: frantic staff push racks of designer suits, fine-tune military-style schedules. The workaholic, insomniac actor has been on the move all day, spruiking his latest movie - the huge, lavishly colourful Chennai Express (it has just opened in Australia as part of Indian cinema's biggest ever worldwide release). Rarely alone, he paces his mansion late at night, enjoying the rare luxury of "time spent just with myself. People think I'm lonely but when else could I do it?" Time, it seems, is this cinema titan's most precious commodity. He tells me plaintively he never has time to watch movies in the home theatre he built, that there are rooms in Mannat he doesn't even know about because "I'm never here enough". While I'm waiting at my hotel, my interview with the star is cancelled a number of times before I'm rushed to his high-security home: on arrival I'm told sternly I'll have just 15 minutes with Khan in the car taking him to the Issaq premiere (luckily, he invites me to watch the film with him and we continue to talk on the ride back). The next day, he's off on a regional three-city promotional tour before heading to Dubai and London. A burgeoning Indian diaspora ensures his fame is just as intense overseas. Chennai Express director Rohit Shetty says it's fuelled by a deep nostalgia for the idealised, traditional Indian values of his movies: "It's strange that our most popular overseas actor does our most Indian films, isn't it?" A shoot in New York's Grand Central Station in 2005 had to be cancelled when security was overwhelmed by thousands of fans. He sells out Wembley Stadium in minutes. In this jaded age, it's intriguing to behold this level of fame, which Khan has leveraged adroitly to turn himself into India's - and perhaps the world's - most bankable star. He understands the value of having a larger-than-life public image: it explains that hyper-real, almost surreal superstar persona of dark glasses and sharp suits. He quotes friend Quentin Tarantino as saying: "If you don't have a film industry with heroes and heroines to look up to, it won't survive." In Bollywood, that old-school mystique is still very much alive. Hollywood stars, he muses, don't experience this level of deification because "being a movie star there is still just a job. But in India, anyone who can take you away from reality is given a demigod-like status." Far from finding this suffocating, he says he loves being a movie star, though the hysteria he attracts can constrain family life (his kids don't want him to accompany them to The Wolverine premiere the following night, he tells me ruefully). Khan maintains his legend through sheer availability, tirelessly tweeting and signing autographs. This hard work has yielded him great wealth, though the actor, a self-mythologiser and dissembler who likes hiding behind a shield of self-deprecation (he has said he's just "an employee of the Shah Rukh Khan myth") tells me, wide-eyed, he doesn't understand this hungry, clamouring thing that is fame. He insists he's no businessman and that he is supremely disorganised. "Deep down," he says with a sigh, "all I know to do is act." "That's not true," his assistant Pooja retorts - and Pooja is right, if the sheer size of the business empire built by this smart actor with an economics degree (he has strong friendships with India's billionaire Birla, Tata and Ambani business dynasties) is any guide. Forbes India brands him "Shah Rukh Inc" courtesy of a sprawling corporate kingdom that includes co-ownership of the glamorous Indian Premiere League cricket team Kolkata Knight Riders, film special effects production, dancing at society weddings for reported fees of up to $500,000 ("I'm a performing monkey," he once quipped), children's amusement parks, international concert tours (he'll perform in Australia in October), and endless product endorsements ranging from Pepsi to luxury watchmaker Tag Heuer. More prized than all this, perhaps, is the public platform he's been given to voice his opinions. In India, when Khan talks, people listen, and this year he's spoken out on everything from the gang rape and murder of a young woman in New Delhi that shocked the world to the occasional downside of being a Muslim actor in a predominantly Hindu nation of 1.2 billion people. The son of a Peshawar activist, the actor sparked a fiery diplomatic war of words between Pakistan and India this year after writing in a local magazine that he rued the fact he sometimes "becomes the inadvertent object of political leaders who choose to make me a symbol of all that they think is wrong and unpatriotic about Muslims in India".The public reaction over this perceived discrimination was so heated, Pakistan's interior minister Rehman Malik offered him asylum, only for an angry Indian Home Secretary RK Singh to advise Rehman "to worry about the security of his own country's citizens". Khan was forced to release a statement to clarify his words; his face darkens when he talks about this "extremely stupid" affair - sparked by "an irresponsible journalist who hadn't even read the f . . king article: too often my words are twisted and misinterpreted, so perhaps I should stay quiet". As one of the country's most prominent Muslims and a moderate one at that - he describes himself as "modern, educated and extremely liberal" - he's felt obliged to speak out but has often found himself in the crosshairs of "angry bigots on both sides seeking to score political points". Hindu nationalist party Shiv Sena members demonstrated outside his home following the release of My Name is Khan, his 2010 film tackling anti-Muslim discrimination in post-9/11 America. Ironically he was held up and interrogated by American airport officials while on a promotional tour for the film and, amazingly, was interrogated again in another trip to the US last year, earning a grovelling apology from the US embassy (later he quipped that whenever he feels arrogant, he goes to America "because the immigration guys kick the star out of stardom"). Born in New Delhi in 1965 to middle-class parents, Khan launched his film career in Mumbai in the 1992 blockbuster Deewana. His big breakthrough came in 1995's international romantic blockbuster Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge; through the years, however, he's played everything from a NASA scientist in 2004's Swades to a sci-fi superhero in 2011's Ra.One. In his latest film, Chennai Express, Khan is rebooting his brand with a return to high-octane action as a classic "masala" film hero who combats villainy and finds true love on a comic, adventure-filled train journey to south India. It represents an astute move by Khan to tap into an old-school type of Bollywood filmmaking that's increasingly popular with nostalgic Indian audiences. He's the first to concede he's not the most handsome or talented actor in Bollywood (critics have praised his raw energy but he's also been derided for overacting and having "five expressions to play about with"). So what is it that fuels his enduring popularity in a country so deeply divided by caste and religion? Smiling, Khan, winner of 13 Filmfare awards and the 2005 Padma Shri award for contributions to cinema, attributes it to the fact he is deeply flawed: "My friends say I'm like a kid, silly and impudent. I smoke too much, I fight with my wife." It's all said with a disingenuousness that masks a keen native intelligence and the great effort he's put into crafting this down-to-earth image. Observers have noted the appeal of his clean, largely scandal-free image and his "prominent secularism" in a religious tinderbox of a nation. According to Indian writer Harish Dugh, Khan, as a young Muslim outsider with no family connections and never afraid to send himself up, was the first in the Bollywood pantheon to demystify stardom. The industry was "transformed by SRK singlehandedly into an entity that caters to people's desire to see their superstars reflect their own weaknesses, pain and anguish", Dugh says. Khan has also benefited from a happy accident of good timing: he rose to fame during India's breakneck era of liberalisation in the 1990s, the glamorous clothes and overseas locations of his yuppie blockbusters suiting the cultural embrace of Western-style consumerism. However, he's also adroitly cultivated that everyman touch in public. The only strange thing about him is that "I wear make-up in the morning", he says. He stresses his careless disregard for the whole shiny, glittering carapace of fame and wealth: if he lost his "nice big car and house" tomorrow, he'd just go back to riding his scooter or taking one of Mumbai's ubiquitous rickshaws. He's grateful for surviving multiple setbacks - from crippling injuries to business failures to reported harassment from Mumbai's underworld: "though don't mention that", says his publicist - and, at 47, describes himself as an ultra-competitive workaholic. He has no regrets, he says, about turning down a role in Slumdog Millionaire because it conflicted with hosting India's version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire, though he says firmly that he thought of turning Vikas Swarup's book into a film well before director Danny Boyle, only to find out "Fox had sewn up the rights". Asked why he keeps spruiking and sealing deals, he offers the same reason he keeps making movies: "Why have limits?" For the moment, he's ruled out a political career ("I don't think I'm suited for it") and remains passionate about acting and the future of an industry that celebrated its centenary in May, exactly 100 years after the country's first feature film, Raja Harishchandra, directed by DG Phalke, was shown in Mumbai. The Indian cinema industry is the biggest movie ticket market in the world, with 3.3 billion tickets sold every year and an output of 1200 films annually (Hollywood produces 500 films a year on average and has a worldwide audience of 2.6 billion). But these figures mask some emerging financial woes, with industry insiders estimating that as little as 5 per cent of Bollywood films have made money in recent times. Khan is confident the industry will adapt to a rapidly changing environment that's seen the influx of Western film studios such as 20th Century Fox and Disney, the digitisation of screens and the rise of multiplexes. He sharply refutes recent comments by veteran actor Rishi Kapoor and indie darling Anurag Kashyap slamming "trashy" Bollywood films as acting as a kind of opiate to dull Indians' recognition of the country's harsher realities. Hard-hitting is good, certainly - and there are plenty of films being made in India that serve that purpose, he says - but what's wrong with a bit of escapism? "I tell you honestly that if you had the real life that most Indians had, please excuse them for watching what they want when they want to be entertained." There is nothing wrong with happy endings, he adds defensively - he believes most of the world's greatest poetry and literature, even the intense works of the Russian authors he loves such as Leo Tolstoy and Ivan Turgenev, derive their enduring magic from endings that show "that the protagonist will get by, even if he or she dies". He defends, too, Bollywood's often melodramatic boy-meet-girl plots ("How is it different to Shakespeare's timeless Romeo and Juliet?") and the industry's sometimes cheesy song-and-dance numbers (no different from Hollywood musicals of the 60s, he says firmly, and a valid cultural expression of India's early nautanki folk operatic theatre tradition of storytelling that lives on not just in its film traditions but in the country's unselfconscious love of public celebration). There's room for improvement in his beloved industry, certainly: he'd like to see India produce its own Slumdog Millionaire and Gandhi, movies with higher production values and special effects (he set up his production company Red Chillies Entertainments for this purpose), and tap into its vast, neglected youth market to fight off the competition posed by television and international film (Hollywood films make up only 7 per cent to 9 per cent of box office at present). There' s much to be excited about, however: mirroring the great social and economic changes reshaping India, Bollywood's increasing diversity has seen recent hits such as Barfi!, featuring disabled protagonists, and the small-budget Vicky Donor, a romcom about sperm donation, as well as gritty Mumbai noir films such as Kashyap's Gangs of Wasseypur and upcoming social justice epic Satyagraha. Internationally, there are new growth markets such as Australia, now the fifth biggest overseas market, according to Chennai Express's Australian distributor Mitu Bhowmick Lange. A report by KPMG predicts Bollywood will grow from $2.2bn to $3.6bn in the next five years. Khan taps the window and gestures to the crowd outside: there are hoots and hollers, an excited roar as the car slows down. "Their fantasies are - can I get married and be happy? Can I own a small car and not worry about petrol prices? Life can be very hard in India, so for two hours, I'll give them real fantasy," he says. Chennai Express, showing nationally. Sharon Verghis travelled to Mumbai courtesy of UTV Motion Pictures.