The only thing that could have brought Aamir Khan to the Jaipur Literature Festival was the chance to meet Gore Vidal, one of the star writers at the five-day literary meet in the Pink City. When Vidal dropped out citing unavoidable circumstances, Aamir Khan supposedly let out a shriek: I am destroyed!
The man behind Taare Zameen Par laughed out loud when the festival organisers revealed his reaction to the huge crowd — bestselling writers, poets, publishers, performers and Jaipur socialites — that had taken up every bit of the sprawling lawns of Diggy Palace.
In pale blue shirt, brown trousers and red sweater, Aamir stole the show from all the 50-odd writers who had gathered to talk books, including Atonement author Ian McEwan and the films Oscar-nominated screenwriter Christopher Hampton.
The Republic Day evening was reserved for Aamir and his fans, as he responded to queries professional and personal in an hour-long interactive session. Reshmi Sengupta was there to catch all the action.
As a first-time director, what attracted you to Taare Zameen Par?
When I am doing a film I tend to prefer a narration of the script from the director or the writer so that I can see the film through their eyes. I was moved when Amol (Gupte) narrated the script to me. I asked him to stop midway, went to the bathroom and got a towel (laughs). I was sobbing my way through it. Its a script that sensitised me towards my children. I think I am a good father and I wanted to share what I felt with others.
What was the most difficult thing about directing TZP?
I wanted to be true to the script. The film has an unusual pace for mainstream cinema. But I consciously stuck to the pace of the script as it was written. Mainstream films dont afford such luxury but when I see the film now I think I probably did the right thing. As a director my aim was to convey on screen as it was on paper. And I was happy to see the way it turned out.
What was your way of working with children, especially Darsheel Safary?
This is a question that I am often asked. But the truth is that I didnt have to do anything with Darsheel. He seems to be a natural. He is about nine but I felt I was instructing an adult. The few times he had trouble I found he could adapt to my instructions. One of his problems was that he just couldnt cry. He is such a happy kid. So I told him to watch me as I cried and then imitate me. I asked him to watch what happens to my breathing, my mouth, my eyes. And he picked up really fast. So that was the only instance of showing him the craft.
Has being a director changed how you perceive films as an actor?
No, I dont think so. I have always felt the same about film-making, all along.
Which is your favourite scene from TZP?
Well, one is when Ishaans (Darsheel) father comes to meet Nikumbh (Aamir) and talks about caring for kids. And the other one is when Ishaan is listening to Nikumbh talk about some great people who have had dyslexia. I love the expressions on Ishaans face.
Lagaan has been a turning point for you and Bollywood. How do you feel about working in films that are different from the rest?
See, it might seem so apparent but this change has been a process for the past 18 years for me. Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak broke a lot of rules. So I have been doing films that push the limits and their success gave me the courage. I think it culminated in Lagaan as I also became the producer with this film, and there were no compromises.
Often it becomes very difficult to make a film... Has that ever happened with you?
Well, Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar was one such film. All of us were really committed, we had a great script, but things kept on going wrong. We had shot about 40 per cent when Mansoor (Khan, director) saw the rushes and felt one of the characters wasnt right. He said he made the wrong casting. We started off again and then another actress didnt want to be a part of the film anymore. Then we reshot and were 80 per cent done when Mansoor said it wasnt going the right way. Lets reshoot! It was hell! But somehow we trudged on. We lost great locations because the budget overshot. We had to recreate the feel in the Film City. Then Mangal Pandey is another film that kept not happening. We were five days into the shoot when the financier backed out. So, things happen that are beyond your control. A film has its own life, its own journey.
What do you look for when you choose a script?
The first thing I want to know is, is the director dying to tell a story? And is he capable of telling the story? The narration is very important. How you tell your story shows how good you will make it. I saw it in the directors of Lagaan, Dil Chahta Hai, Sarfarosh and Rang De Basanti. Each of these people had a story to tell. Thats what I look at when I entrust my life as an actor in a directors hand.
How do you portray your characters so differently?
I am not a trained actor. I first use common sense, with a certain amount of research. I try to understand the mind of the character. Mansoor once told me that there are two kinds of actors — one is the aashiq actor, whose focus is on the object, the moment or the person rather than on himself; the other is the mashooq who focuses inward, on himself. I think he was very right.
So, is Aamir a mashooq or an aashiq? Is Shah Rukh Khan mashooq and you aashiq?
(Laughs) I never said that mind you... I try to understand the characters head. And everything flows from that — the body language, the look, the physicality. For instance, Bhuvan in Lagaan. He is a classic hero. His strongest character is his will power and that is the thing that I felt should come out the most. His eyes are always steady; he stands upright, never slouches. It was a trick for me to bring his innocence and his strength together. The moment I work on the innocence part I lose the strength. So I asked make-up artiste Mickey Contractor and he suggested I curl my eye lashes and that gave a touch of innocence to the character. Akash in Dil Chahta Hai is just the opposite. His eyes are always darting around, his neck is jutting out and hes a slouchy guy.
What do you see yourself doing in the coming years?
I see myself being very much a part of Indian cinema. I have done films that I am ashamed of. But I love mainstream Hindi cinema. For instance Fanaa... Apart from the fact that I was grossly overweight in Fanaa, I loved it. Its a mushy, Mills & Boons type of story. I want to bring my strength as a mainstream actor to support the films that are different. I want TZP to be seen by the whole country and that is possible because I can reach the grassroots level with my popularity.
If you werent an actor, what would you have been?
I may have been the captain of the Indian cricket team (laughs). I love sports, so maybe... But teaching, yes... I love to teach. I would love to teach films. I plan to open a film-making school someday, when I retire, and take maybe 10 kids who are interested in cinema. I want to pass on to them what I have learnt all these years...