He's the biggest movie star in the world. Because even if you never heard of Shah Rukh Khan, a billion people in India — and more across the Middle East, Africa and beyond — certainly have. He's the biggest draw in the outrageously oversized films that come from the Hindi-film industry often called Bollywood.
How big a draw is that? More people around the world watch Shah Rukh Khan than Meryl Streep or Brad Pitt. Maybe Meryl Streep and Brad Pitt. His film Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, made in 1995, is still playing in one Mumbai cinema.
"In India, the films are not looked upon just as entertainment," Khan says. "They're a way of life."
And Shah Rukh Khan has made them his life. At age 44, he owns a production company and is host of India's version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. And he keeps starring in Bollywood productions — films that get shown everywhere from remote Indian villages to multiplexes in New York.
In some ways, that broad distribution requires a certain style of filmmaking.
"The idea is that you have to some way make a film that appeals to my 90-year-old grandmother and to the 9-year-old kid," Khan says. "So it's like a cabaret. Like, I have a couple of films written by American guys, and I bring them back to Mumbai, make them sit down. And then I say: 'OK, here's the song, and here's the mother.' 'But there's no mother in the film.' And I say, 'There has to be a mother in the film.' "
In movies that commonly last three hours, Khan might howl his lines, with his hair flying everywhere. He may dance on the roof of a moving train. It comes with the territory.
"People talk about Bollywood being very kitsch," he acknowledges, "and just songs and dances, and over the top and colorful."
But in his latest production, being released in the U.S. Feb. 12, he's not doing anything quite that over the top. He plays a Muslim man with Asperger's syndrome who is driven after the events of Sept. 11 to constantly repeat a single explosive phrase:
"My name is Khan, and I'm not a terrorist."
From A Real-Life Horror, 'The Butterfly Effect' For Two Innocents
A Muslim star in a mostly Hindu country, Khan says he has always been interested in the challenge of starting from a real-life incident and weaving a fictional story around it.
"And there is an aspect of Islam that needs to be addressed now, otherwise this demarcation, this divide we keep on increasing," he says. "So I just thought we should have a message about a film with humanity. Just goodness."
In one way, Khan says, his character is speaking for millions of Muslims with that startling sentence.
Shah Rukh Khan and director Karan Johar on location
"Yes and no — because the line is actually very emotional," he says. "People who are autistic or have Asperger's have a compulsive behavior. He just gets this line in his head, and compulsively keeps saying, 'My name is Khan, and I'm not a terrorist.' And it's a more emotional thing."
The movie, he says, isn't really about Sept. 11, or about terrorism. It's a love story. It's about "the butterfly effect of an incident like this."
"That, you know, two people who are actually unrelated to an incident somewhere in the world and how their lives and their love changes, and gets completely thwarted."
Soon after he finished filming My Name is Khan, India's biggest film star almost found himself thwarted. On a visit to the United States, he was detained and questioned for two hours at U.S. immigration. The incident made front-page headlines across India.
"I didn't react to it as vehemently as I think everyone back home did," Khan says, "because I'm used to it. You know, my name is Khan, really. And I'm sent to the other side, which is OK. I don't make a big issue out of it."
Others were more offended, though Khan makes a joke of it now.
"The foreign minister in India said that, you know, we also are going to do the same to the Western world people when they come," Khan says. "So I said, 'Give me the chance to frisk Angelina Jolie if she comes to India, please. I should be the first one to try this.' "
'Our Fantasies Are Very Real'
My Name Is Khan isn't like most of Shah Rukh Khan's other films. Most of them, for one thing, are primarily secular in character — while most audiences might presume he's playing a Hindu character, that character's religion isn't central to the plot.
But Khan says it wasn't a particular risk for him to make a movie about an explicitly Muslim character.
"As far as the public is concerned, India is amazingly secular. I am a Muslim, but I am a leading star for the last 20 years, so if you just go by that, there is no issue ever.
"There are vested interests who will always bring that up to provoke people, which I guess keeps happening everywhere."
What the movie has in common with many Bollywood fantasies is this: Khan's character comes to America.
"I say this to everyone: Our fantasies are about earning a good living," he says. "Having maybe a car — not two. Getting an education for your kids. Our fantasies are not about getting to be president of the country, to sit in a rocket and go and break a meteor. Our fantasies are very real.
"As a matter of fact," he continues, "I find the Western cinema very fantastic. You've got aliens. And you've got things we don't know about. Blue creatures. You have Batman, you have Superman. I remember the first time I was here — someone was interviewing me in a hotel, and they said, 'Your films are such fantasies.'
"And I'm like, 'We are fantasies?' Our guys just want to sing and dance on the roads. Our guys just want to drive a big car. Our guys just want to come to America. You know, we don't want to go to Pandora. America is our Pandora."