The doorbell rang in the afternoon. Another guest visiting film producer Tahir Hussain’s home for a narration! Soon the telling of another story began. Sitting with them, largely unnoticed, was Tahir’s eight-year-old son Aamir. He listened with interest to both the narration and the ensuing discussions… By the time Aamir was 12, Tahir was seeking his son’s opinion at the end of these narrations…
Back then, it was the love of story-telling that prompted Aamir to participate in these discussions. More than 25 years later, speaking on the television show, Director’s Cut, to host Kabir Bedi, Aamir acknowledged that he had internalised these scattered encounters…
Aamir was the second of his parents’ four children. Before him came his sister Nikhat. After him came his brother Faisal and finally his sister Farhat. In keeping with their parents’ decision to shield them from the arc lights, Aamir and his siblings had a very normal childhood. Far removed from the glitz of stardom, Aamir’s earliest memories were those of the everyday smells of mehendi and pickle. In an interview with Cineblitz in 2009, he recollected a joyous moment as a boy. “One of my earliest memories of being really happy was when I got my first bicycle. I was a little kid and I was very keen on getting one. My mom got me the bicycle. It had those supporters so no one really had to hold the cycle and run with me while I pedalled.”
As a child growing up in Mumbai, the sense of an apartment community was an integral part of his early life. Looking back on his childhood on Director’s Cut, he remembered days spent playing games with his siblings, cycling around the apartment complex and flying kites. Later, he joined the other children in the apartment to form the Time-pass Gang, gradually emerging as a leader of the group. Together, they moved from playing games to organising fairs for their building, even inviting other youngsters to join them.
Among the interests from the early years that Aamir carried into his adult life was his love for animals and books. So great was his love for animals that it extended from dogs and cats to snakes as well! The affection seems to have been mutual. Uncle Nasir’s usually ferocious Alsatians made an exception for Aamir. In fact, often when Aamir walked from Nasir Hussain’s bungalow to his apartment complex next door, one of the Alsatians kept a watchful eye on him.
The unusual bonding would continue into his adult life, and included bringing home a baby cobra from the sets of Tum Mere Ho or adopting a dog (whom he called Pebbles) while working on Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar. Denied permission to keep a dog at home as a child, he made up with his varied pets as an adult.
While going to cinema halls was a rare event, books seem to have kept the young Aamir company. He read his first Enid Blyton when he was just six. Soon Alfred Hitchcock, Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew all became a part of his growing years. When he began to receive pocket money — Rs 20 a month — all of it went into buying books. Among the authors whose works Aamir would later speak of with some authority were names as disparate as P.G. Wodehouse, Charles Dickens and Leo Tolstoy...
His siblings too have anecdotes about their mischievous brother at home, who later grew into an actor also known to be a prankster on his film sets. It was not uncommon for Aamir to invent games to get his younger siblings to run small errands. So when he wanted a glass of water, he’d create a competition between Farhat and Faisal to see who would get him the glass of water first…
During Aamir’s growing up years, his strongest influence remained his mother Zeenat Hussain. In an interview with Cineblitz in 2008, he recalled affectionately, “My mother was the one I really connected with and from whom I learnt a lot. She’s an extremely strong person, extremely sensitive to what others are going through, very gentle as a person… she’s an amazing woman. And most balanced and mature.” It was this strong, sensitive woman who shaped the human being behind the actor.
But it was also on the tennis court that the qualities Aamir would display as an actor emerged. An oft-narrated anecdote from those early days is about film director Ashutosh Gowariker’s first meeting with 12-year-old Aamir at Khar Gymkhana. Both the boys had arrived early, with no one else in sight. As Aamir was practising on his own, Ashutosh requested to join him. But Aamir turned down the request with the legendary rejoinder that it would spoil his game. Initially, Ashutosh dismissed this as snobbery. Later, however, as he watched Aamir play, he could not help admiring Aamir’s complete mastery over the game. It was unlikely that Ashutosh would have been able to beat him.
| Flashback: Aamir Khan with his father, mother and elder sister Nikhat
So complete was Aamir’s dedication to tennis that he never missed a single practice session, even during the month of Ramzan when he was fasting. This total focus made him state tennis champion for Maharashtra during his school years.
Tennis also taught Aamir empathy, a quality his closest colleagues have repeatedly associated him with. In his interview with Cineblitz, he remembers, “Every time I came home after the matches, my mother would ask, ‘So, did you win or lose?’ I normally won, so invariably my answer would be, ‘Yes, I won.’ Once when I came home she asked the same question and I gave her the same answer. Then my mother said something that really changed my perspective completely. She said, ‘I wonder what the boy who lost must be feeling and his mother must have felt when her son walked home and told her that he’d lost.’ I suddenly realised that there is always the ‘other side’ to everything.”
Aamir brought the same dedication that he had on the tennis court to mastering the Rubik’s Cube. Like many children his age, he spent time discovering and solving the puzzle of the cube. But unlike most children his age, he took his interest in his hobby to a new level and also talked about breaking the world record. In an interview with journalist Lata Khubchandani, sister Farhat recalls that when she got bored with keeping time while Aamir solved the Rubik’s Cube, he promised her that that when he broke the world record someday, he would publicly credit her for helping him with his achievement. Well, he got Farhat to continue as his time-keeper.
But Aamir’s strategising mind was perhaps best reflected in his love for chess that continued into his adult years and has even passed on to his son Junaid. In fact, when shooting for 3 Idiots at the Indian Institute of Management in Bangalore, Aamir would often engage in a round of chess with the captain of the IIM-B chess team. But the best young business minds in the country proved to be no match for Aamir, who won these rounds hands down.