Instead of the old style in-person, sit down interview we catch up via Zoom, on a virtual junket organized by Paramount. But aside from the technology, which allows for a chat across lands and over oceans, little has changed in the way Aamir Khan looks, talks and relates to others.
He is the same young, slim, energetic, intelligent, thoughtful and kind man he has always been, to those of us fortunate enough to interview him multiple times. The last time we spoke, in 2011, he was on a Berlinale jury with Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi, who couldn't attend due to his imprisonment by the authorities in his native country. Little has changed with the world as well, it seems, though this time around, the Indian megastar sports a pair of black rimmed eyeglasses which somehow magnify his boyish good looks.
Khan is busy doing a blitz of junkets around the world for his latest project, the official Indian remake of Hollywood hit Forrest Gump. As well as starring in Laal Singh Chaddha, he's also co-producing the film, along with Paramount, the original production company of the Tom Hanks version, and Viacom 18. Where Forrest took the audience through some of the milestones of American history in the 20th century, so Laal brings us along on a journey through Indian events and popular culture and the result is the stuff cinematic dreams are made of.
I ask Khan what the biggest challenge was in inhabiting this role, someone so different from the actor. "I was 53 or 54 when I started prepping after we got the rights -- and I would have to play a character who is 18 and 20 and 25 and 30 and so on… and he's a very innocent and pure character. I knew that my biggest challenge was going to be to unlearn everything that I've learned through my life, through various experiences. Because the way you react as a person changes as you grow older, and so I knew that was my biggest challenge — how am I going to get that raw, pure innocence?" Khan pulls it off, of course, even if at times the audience does still get a glimpse of the man behind the hero. Or maybe this character has also coloured the star's way of talking, which although still quick and on point, does now possess more than a hint of introspection.
It's not the first time of course that Khan has played an unlikely hero in unconventional Hindi films. He's played a Kashmiri insurgent in the 2006 film Fanaa, and the same year also a carefree youth turned revolutionary in Rang De Basanti. He's also played a man trying to avenge his fiancee's murder in Ghajini, a film loosely inspired by Christopher Nolan's Memento, as well as twin baddies donned in all-black and wearing a stylish bowler hat in the 2013 action flic Dhoom 3. Anything Khan does turns to gold, and understandably so as he brings his own brand of integrity and humanity to his projects.
I know it's a cliché, but Khan is down to earth in real life. He doesn't play the superstar, and he's known to be punctual and a perfectionist.
Laal Singh Chaddha notably marks the first time an American studio has backed the Bollywood remake of one of their films, and the road from Forrest Gump to his Punjabi comrade was indeed a long one.
The actor says that when he first watched "Forrest Gump, I really fell in love with the character, I thought Tom Hanks had done a wonderful job. And the film is so beautiful. When I heard the script from Atul [Kulkarni], it had been I don’t know 20/25 years since I'd last seen the film. So when I heard the script, I just fell in love with the script. And then we never went back to the original. For us, for Advait [Chandan, the film's director] and me, I think that became the bible and that's what we were trying to make."
Khan admits, he didn't have to prepare in the traditional way, as the character of Laal "has been with me for so long... " He knew immediately he loved the script and decided then and there he was going to make sure the film was made. "And then the journey to get the rights began and that took about eight years," Khan explains, "so while we didn't really start work on it, it was kind of in our minds for eight years. And so in many ways, I was just thinking of the character all the time, and finally we got the rights and then started working on it." Khan's collaboration with actor Atul Kulkarni goes way back, and their long-standing friendship is something special to the star as well.
I ask him how it was to work with Kulkarni as a writer, not as an actor -- the two famously shared the screen in Rang De Basanti. "Well, Atul is a close friend and he's a wonderful actor, a great actor," Khan chuckles as her recalls the rest. "This all started with him and me having a conversation one night, and he said, "What's your favorite film?" And I said, well, one of them is Forrest Gump. And we spoke a bit about it. The night ended and then I forgot about it." But Kulkarni didn't, as Khan continues telling me the story. "Two weeks later, he calls me up and says, "I've got a script for you." So I said, "Oh, I didn't know you wrote." And he said, "No, I don't. This is the first time I'm trying my hand at it." So I said, "What have you written?" and he said, "it's an Indian adaptation of Forrest Gump." And I was like, Oh, I was so surprised. And I mean, Forrest Gump is such a cult classic. I couldn't imagine how it would be as an Indian film. So I didn't take him very seriously. And he had never written before. And I also was a little worried about hurting his feelings, when I would hear this script and said, I don't like it -- I might disappoint him."
So Khan delayed hearing the script. "But he kept persisting and then finally, two years later, he called me up and said, "You know, it's been two years and you haven't heard the script. And by now I'm pretty sure you are never going to do it. But at least listen to it." So then I felt really bad," Khan confesses. He continues, "and then I said, I'm really sorry. And that day itself, I heard the script. And once I heard the script it you know, I just fell in love with it. And the moment it was over, I said, "Listen, I want to do this. I just love what you've done. And I don't know how you've done it, but it just worked beautifully, and I want to do it."
The rest, as they say, is history -- Indian history though this time around, substituting for American history. And what a brilliant way to learn about the Desh, through the innocent eyes of Laal, as he talks us through the events of the second half of the past century.
So whose idea was it to call the character Laal Singh Chaddha? "Well, Atul, the writer who wrote the adaptation, the person who thought of the character, thought of the name…" Khan discloses further, "the film originally was so deeply rooted in American culture that I could never imagine it in any other culture, but Atul did a fantastic job of, you know, setting it in Punjab, in the middle of fields. And when I listened to the script, I felt I'm listening to something which is Indian, and so that is what we went for." Even Laal is different in many ways from the character of Forrest, Khan admits, in this new version.
Laal Singh Chaddha is also a wonderful showcase for the beauty of India, as Laal runs through it from north to south, shore to shore, up mountains into valleys -- in one stunning sequence both emotionally touching and visually stunning. I ask the actor how he managed to film those running scenes and he concedes, "they were tough. There was a lot of running for me to do and unfortunately, I’d hurt my knees just a little before we began shooting the running sequences. He continues, "as a result for the month and a half that we were traveling across the country and running, I was running everywhere, it was really painful. But I had to do it, so I had painkillers to help me and then sometimes had to deal with the pain and hold it in."
Doing the impossible isn't foreign to Khan, who holds a kind of record as having produced one of only three Indian films ever to be nominated for an Academy Award. The highly successful cricket underdog story Lagaan, directed Ashutosh Gowariker and also starring Khan, just celebrated twenty one years, and is currently the last film from India to have been nominated, for the 2002 Oscars -- after Mehboob Khan's 1957 Mother India and Mira Nair's 1988 Salaam Bombay. Years ago, when I asked Khan about the film he admitted "Lagaan was like a wild horse that kept traveling all over the world and we were getting pulled along." While the actor and producer was very thankful of the worldwide journey of the film, he's always maintained that international success isn't really on his mind when making a film.
"We have such a large and healthy audience of our own in India, the fact is that none of the filmmakers have really felt the need to reach out to a world audience," Khan told me in 2010, "and when I say really felt the need, I mean filmmakers in Argentina perhaps, or in France or Germany, different parts of the world, don't have such big and healthy audiences of their own and so they come from a situation where they really need to reach out to a world audience and an audience in the West."
Spirituality is something as an audience member I connected with while watching Laal Singh Chaddha -- not religion of course, but a deeper sense of connecting with humanity. I ask Khan if he approached Laal as a spiritual man, and, after a moment of thoughtful silence he answers "no, I didn't do that because I think I was focusing more on just being simple and trying to be Laal and I don't think Laal thinks so much about philosophy. And he doesn't think so much about spirituality, but just the way he is is very spiritual. So I didn't think about it, but I just tried to play him as honestly as I could. And I'm hoping that translates."
Is there a particular message that Khan hopes audiences will take away from Laal Singh Chaddha, once the film opens worldwide on August 11th?
"I really feel that Laal’s innocence, his pure innocence is so disarming, and that's his strength, actually." Khan explains, "he doesn't have physical strength or he doesn't have any great moral strength to fighting for the underprivileged. That's not the kind of hero he is, but his strength lies in his innocence. And it's almost as if the universe conspires for things to happen to a person who's so pure and innocent. And that's why there's so many miracles in his life. So what I would like people to take home is a little of Laal and I do feel that if all of us become a little more like Laal, the world would be a better place."