Early in his film career, Shah Rukh Khan made a risky choice to play negative roles in the 1995 films “Darr” and “Baazigar.” It turned out to be an artistic breakthrough for Khan, who soon found himself center-stage in the world of Hindi cinema.
Today, he stands poised at another artistic breakthrough — making his debut on the global stage with his first film to be distributed by a major Hollywood studio, when Fox Searchlight Pictures releases Karan Johar’s “My Name Is Khan” Feb. 12 in American theaters. And true to form, Khan has done it with a markedly unconventional role.
Khan plays Rizvan Khan, a Muslim Indian man with Asperger’s Syndrome. Like many people with the disorder, Rizvan can’t grasp irony and takes people’s comments absolutely literally. He falls in love with Mandira (Kajol), a Hindu woman with a young son, and when tragedy strikes their family in the fallout after the Sept. 11 terror attacks, Mandira shrieks an ultimatum to him in a grief-fueled rage. Rizvan takes her demand literally, and decides to travel across the United States on a mission.
On the way, Rizvan comes across a hurricane-ravaged small town in the American south, where he finds he can make a difference and help others.
“Actually, the idea was to take a character who is considered by many to be less than ordinary — normally, we make films about ordinary people who do extraordinary things — and then let him do just ordinary things which would look huge for a person with this kind of disability,” Khan told India-West from New York Feb. 2.
“He does very small things along the way, meeting small obstacles, and he crosses them with a simplicity that’s very endearing. One of the aspects is that he’s made friends in a small town that was hit by a hurricane and he helps people out in the most simple way. There’s nothing heroic about it.
“We just wanted you to feel that just doing that much is enough: to be a good human being. That’s the message that comes across.
“You don’t need to be a superhero with super powers. The only super power you need is humanity. Just goodness. He’s helping people as his journey progresses in different places: he helps a prostitute fixing the heel of her shoe, from that to rebuilding somebody’s tractor, to just helping a little kid who’s gotten hurt on his knee. Small bits, but they seem very important the way we’ve done it in the film.”
Khan feels that Karan Johar’s filmmaking style will be welcomed by American audiences.
“What we have tried to do is to not just try and tell a story from Indian angle or from the way we narrate stories, but to try and speak the language the Western world is used to,” he said.
“The subject matter is rather topical and it’s a love story — which always has a universal appeal — and being shot in America, and having portions of the film spoken in English, helps remove barriers, too. It’s not such a different-looking film — it’s a little longer and has a few songs, though they’re in the background. Maybe there is a huge section of the Western audience that likes to experiment or see films from India. They might find this more acceptable than the regular song and dance drama that we do!”
Khan says he goes through periods where he wants to play it safe, and other periods when he is ready to take artistic chances. The “Khan” script came along when he was in the mood to take a risk.
“Given the state of mind I’m in, I can do a couple of films a year or three at most, and sometimes a story is told to me and I’m ready for it and I go, ‘Okay. This is good, I feel like I’m in this frame of mind.’
“ ‘Khan’ happened at that time, and of course the fact that Karan and Kajol and I have always dished out kind of good, entertaining cinema, it’s hard to say no to a friend who makes wonderful films with me and who is responsible for my career.”
Shah Rukh is ready to take on another creative challenge next month, when he begins shooting for Anubhav Sinha’s superhero thriller “Ra.One” in Mumbai. Contrary to past reports, the film will no longer be shot in Miami, since the city’s budget to help subsidize foreign film shoots has dried up.
“My kids have grown up watching my films and over the last four years, they’ve said, ‘Papa, why don’t you do a cool role?’” he told India-West..
“They feel a superhero is cool, a fighting kind of guy who flies and jumps. I think it’s only fair. I’m 44, before I break more bones, and injure myself further, I should quickly give it a shot and play a superhero. I’ll try and make a different film and make a statement with it in terms of the technology that India has to offer.
“Unfortunately, we may not shoot it in Miami; it’s too expensive to shoot in America. I may shift the film to London, which has subsidies for us, around June or July, but I plan to start off in India in March.”
For now, Khan will just sit back and watch as America, and the rest of the world, gets their first look at “Khan.”
“Karan has given me a great opportunity to do something as an actor which perhaps I could only dream of — hopefully, taking away the trappings of stardom from the characters that I normally otherwise play,” Khan told India-West.
“It’s not true in the case of ‘Khan.’ Maybe the other audiences will see Rizvan just as a character, and say, ‘Oh, this guy has done a good job.’
“They might get shocked when they see some of my older films,” he said, laughing. “‘Oh, he can do that too?’”