Friday 1 June 2012

Aamir Khan: A rude awakening


Aamir Khan bucked Bollywood's sense of propriety with his latest project, writes P.Ramakrishnan.

You know you're entering uncharted territory for the usually squeaky clean Bollywood when a film opens with a stool sample and a bag of cocaine getting mixed up.

Elsewhere, in the newly released Delhi Belly (out in Hong Kong now), you'll find excessive profanity, both blatant and subtle sexual innuendo, and scatological humour that's only for the brave of heart (and stomach). The expletives and alleged corruptive influence of one of the songs on the soundtrack was discussed by India's Congress party in parliament. And dialogue in a brothel was deemed so offensive the movie was banned in Nepal (but finally released after the offending scene was cut).

Delhi Belly has no beauty queens dancing around trees. And its three male leads, the bearded, the corpulent and the afro-coiffed (then tonsured!) , have never modelled before - quite an achievement for an industry that pays obeisance only the photogenic. The film was a huge hit when it was released in India last year. The Hollywood Reporter called it a "sexy, filthy and thoroughly entertaining comedy" that "marks a welcome shift in contemporary Indian cinema". And the man responsible for this shift was its producer: Aamir Khan.

What made Khan back the film? "The script. I thought it was funny. That's the simple reason," he says. "The script was written by Akshat Verma. He came from Los Angeles and had been chasing me for months. I get scripts all the time and I was completely busy working on another film. He ended up giving the script to my maid when I was away."

The script landed on his desk on top of a pile of 50 to 60 other scripts. "My wife Kiran [Rao, also a writer/ director] read it," Khan says. "I was in another room, and I kept hearing her giggle, then laugh out loud. Then she was holding her stomach laughing and she fell off the sofa. She finished reading the entire thing in 90 minutes. I had to grab it from her. When I finished the last page, I knew we had to make the film."

However, by then, Verma had left India, presumably having given up. The day he landed in the US, he got the call from Khan and flew back to Mumbai within 24 hours. "The film could not have been made without the conviction of Aamir Khan," says Verma.

Khan, 47, has been one of India' leading actors for the past 24 years. But in Delhi Belly, he relegated himself to the role of producer and appears only briefly at the end of the film. Unrecognisable as a 1980s throwback disco king, Khan's spoof of a Bollywood hero is ironic, as he's very much the Bollywood archetype.

"I wanted to act as as one of the characters in the film - but it would have required me to put on a lot of weight and grow a beard. It would have taken too much effort to lose the weight, as I had other films on hand," says Khan, who opted for the cameo role instead. "My kids were very embarrassed when they say my get-up. But I explained to them that back in the day, the heroes of Hindi films looked like that."

The expletive-laden Delhi Belly is certainly a change for a man who's made an Oscar-nominated film (Lagaan), movies with social messages and family entertainment.

"I have made entertaining, family films in the past and movies with messages, but this isn't one of them. We applied for an adult-certificate before the film was released and we got it," Khans says.

"I know I have a great responsibility towards my fans, I respect them a lot, but had to warn them about this film... but the reaction from my fans so far has been great."

When the film was being promoted, Khan went on practically every television channel in India to say, "If you're easily offended, please don't watch this film. If you want a clean romance, please don't watch it. If you're expecting a family entertainment, please don't watch it. If vulgar language offends your sensibilities, please don't watch it," and so on.

Of course, this reverse psychology worked so well the masses turned out in force and made Delhi Belly a box-office smash.

But for the millions who have seen Khan's previous film 3 Idiots - a runway success in Hong Kong and the mainland, Delhi Belly will come as a culture shock. 3 Idiots holds the record for the most successful Indian film of all time and the fact that Khan was able to get Delhi Belly made, highlights his acumen as a producer.

"I was prepared for a percentage of the audience not to like the film," he says. "It's a very irreverent films, but with lots of humour. I knew it would work when I saw the audience laughing the same way as when I first read it, and at the same points. When I sit in the cinema, I just want to be entertained."

And despite the acclaim he has received during his long career, Khan says this is not what motivates him. "I don't crave a single award, not one," he says. "My award comes in the darkened theatre when I hear the response of the audience. When they laugh in the right times, cry at the others, and clap and whistle. That's my award. Trophies are meaningless."

Delhi Belly is showing now in UA Cinemas in Hong Kong.

27th May 2012
ramakrishnanp @ hotmail. com

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