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Asian cinema: Bollywood

Bollywood icon Aamir Khan talks Secret Superstar, his Chinese following and being ‘India’s conscience’ in Hong Kong interview

Khan has become a huge star in China following the success of Secret Superstar in the country’s cinemas. But despite suggestions he could prove a key figure in Sino-Indian relations, he says he still just makes films to have a good time

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 April, 2018, 7:00pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 17 April, 2018, 8:21pm

Aamir Khan is one of the best known faces in Bollywood cinema and his socially conscious mega-blockbusters make astronomical profits in both his native India and the growing market in China. But the 53-year-old star of 3 Idiots and Dangal prefers to think that he has only one simple task to handle.

“I feel that my primary responsibility as an entertainer is to entertain people,” he says in an interview in Hong Kong. “When people come to a cinema hall to watch a movie, they want entertainment … If they want a lesson on sociology, they will go to college [instead]. They’ve come to a cinema hall because they want to have a good time.”

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Khan’s latest film Secret Superstar (which opened in Hong Kong on Thursday) is typical of his brand of exuberant entertainment mixed with biting social commentary. It follows a small-town Muslim girl (played by Zaira Wasim) who strives for a singing career in spite of an oppressive father at home.

Although Secret Superstar follows the lead of Khan’s last film, Dangal, in its focus on the subject of female empowerment, the actor-producer says it is a mere coincidence that they arrive so close to each other. “It is not something I had planned, but I came across both these stories at around the same time and I liked both stories,” he says.

For Wasim, who also appeared opposite Khan in Dangal, the experience of making both films have been eye-opening. “They kind of burst my bubble,” she says. “I come from a family where girls and boys are both given equal opportunities; they’re both given the liberty to make their own decisions. I could never comprehend the idea of these two genders being discriminated against each other.

“[But] when I read Secret Superstar’s script, I understood what they’re trying to bring forward is unfortunately the harsh reality of society. It happens in not just India but globally. It kind of inspires me to become a better person.”

I remember when I was a kid, Bruce Lee was very popular in India … I think it’s the creative people … that really bring people from different cultures together
Aamir Khan

That global vision in Khan’s films has recently turned him into box-office royalty in China as well. After the success of Dangal there, Secret Superstar further cemented his place in the Chinese record books when it was released on the mainland in January, becoming the highest grossing Hindi film in Chinese cinema history.

“I think the entire credit of that goes to the Chinese audience, because they have seen my films and they have embraced my work even before I knew that my films were popular in China,” Khan says.

“I believe 3 Idiots was the first film that travelled – here in Hong Kong, Taiwan, China – and became very popular. In fact, 3 Idiots became popular in China, I believe, through pirated websites, because it was not released there [at first]. A lot of young people watched the film and it went wild. So it was something that the Chinese audience picked up on their own.

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“They saw 3 Idiots, wanted to see my other films, and they went online to search for my other films. After that, there were Dhoom 3 and PK. All these films became popular online – before they were even released in theatres … I’m very happy that they like my work so much.”

Khan’s popularity in China has led to suggestions that he could prove a key figure in Sino-Indian relations. While he chuckles at the idea, the actor is appreciative of his role outside cinemas.

“I remember when I was a kid, Bruce Lee was very popular in India – almost every house had a poster of Bruce Lee,” he says. “So I think it’s the creative people – and the world of creative people – that really bring people from different cultures together. Because you get to experience someone else’s country and culture, and then you realise that … human beings are actually pretty similar all across [the world]. They have the same feelings, the same dreams and the same struggles.”

Despite garnering worldwide acclaim for his films, Khan insists that he has never tried to make his stories more universal than they were supposed to be. “I had never thought that I would have a world audience. In India we have such a large audience of our own [that] I had primarily been making films in India.”

He explains that filmmaking for him is a personal pursuit more than anything else, thanks in part to the relative lack of financial pressure he has been under to adapt to the marketplace. “Quite honestly, I can’t even say that I was making films for an Indian audience. Actually, I was making films for myself,” he says with a smile.

“These are stories that affect me. When I’m making them, I don’t know whether they will affect people, and I don’t know whether people will enjoy them. But I know that I enjoy them. That is why I’m doing these films.”

Almost proving a point that he is not on board with the public’s penchant for labelling him “India’s conscience”, Khan stresses that he doesn’t “pick films based on [social] issues”, and cites his next film as evidence.

Thugs of Hindostan is a big action-adventure film. There’s no message in that,” he says. “I’m playing a character who cannot be trusted at all – [so it’s the] very opposite of Dangal … He’s a very slippery character. He has no scruples at all – for money he can sell his mother out. He’s like that.”

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Then Khan reminds us – again – the reason he is in this business. “But [the character] is a very entertaining guy. So it’s a very entertaining kind of a film. No message this time. Just have a good time.”

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