It’s a warm and sultry Sunday, and Bollywood star Emraan Hashmi is busy shuttling between his vanity van and a small green room in a suburban studio in Mumbai, India. Inside the studio, cameras and lights are being prepared for a photo shoot for a men’s magazine. The actor, whose movie Azhar, a biopic on the former captain of the Indian cricket team Mohammad Azharuddin, which releases today, is trying out various sets of clothes.
Calm, collected and with a charming demeanour, the Gangster star poses with elan, giving the photographer what he wants.
Going by his style quotient and preferred choice of clothes in Mumbai’s weather, posing in a three-piece formal suit must have been tough for him.
‘I must confess I prefer clothes that are comfortable – shirts and jeans, for instance,’ he says. ‘For Mumbai, T-shirts and jeans are what I like unless it is a formal event or if we are in December. I’m not picky, but suits are not my choice of clothes. And definitely not in this weather.’
The star may not be picky about his attire, but he is clearly focused on his career. ‘I’m extremely ambitious,’ says the 37-year-old.
‘My career graph is very important to me.’ And it has been a long journey to success. Starting off from behind the camera – as an assistant director for the 2002 hit film Raaz – Emraan quickly shifted to acting the following year, debuting as the lead actor in the crime thriller Footpath.
Although the film failed to make an impact at the box office, Emraan bounced back into the fray with the 2004 hit Murder, before cementing his place in the industry with the critically acclaimed Gangster in 2006.
Above: With The Dirty Picture co-stars Vidya Balan and Tusshar Kapoor; Below: A still from Gangster.
The solid run continued with a string of commercially successful films such as Jannat (2008), Raaz: The Mystery Continues (2009), and the major hit, The Dirty Picture (2011) opposite contemporary powerhouse Vidya Balan who portrayed Silk Smitha. He also starred in Murder 2, which became one of 2011’s highest-grossing films and won him two best actor awards – not surprising since Emraan’s performances began to be noticed along the way. Two other films, Once Upon a Time in Mumbaai (2010) and political thriller Shanghai (2012), earned him two best supporting actor nominations at a prestigious awards function in India.
For Emraan and his wife Parveen their son Ayaan is a rock star.
I was very reluctant to get into acting in the first place,’ says Emraan, who’s married to Parveen Shahani and has a six-year-old son Ayaan.
‘I still am a reluctant actor and look at acting as only a profession.
‘Yes, I’m passionate about films, but I guess it’s different for me compared to a person who wants to become an actor right from his childhood, loves Hindi films, is passionate about dance, fights, horse riding, and so on.
‘I never wanted to become an actor, it just happened. If any other job offer had come to me at that time, I’d have taken it, tried to make the most of it. And been successful at that.’
Emraan adds ‘I’m also not typical actor material’.
Although he hails from a family with ties to Bollywood – his father, Anwar, was also an actor and he’s related to Alia Bhatt – he reveals that he finds himself an outsider.
‘I don’t have the same kind of influence as other actors here do. I listen to very different kinds of music, watch very different kinds of films... I’m not much of a party person and you would not see me at film parties. I don’t go for award ceremonies either.’
Emraan may not mingle much with his Bollywood colleagues and clubbing may be a strict no-no for him, but the actor shares a close bond with his childhood friends.
‘I go out with friends on Sundays for a movie or to lunch or dinner to someone’s house,’ he says. ‘We travel to places like Bali and Goa.
‘I stopped clubbing five years ago. The last time I went to a club, I was like, “Oh my gosh, this is for 13-year-olds! It’s not a place for me”.’
Recently, the star hasn’t been a favourite at the box office, suffering professional setbacks when his four latest films – Raja Natwarlal, Ungli, Mr X and Hamari Adhuri Kahaani – tanked. He admits that a sense of fear came over him. ‘The turning point with regard to my career happened a couple of years ago when I thought, “What if I don’t succeed at this?”’ he says.
‘It scared me. I’d gone too deep into this profession to turn back and do something else. So I decided to give it everything. It’s the fear of not doing anything that drives me.’
To make matters worse, Ayaan was diagnosed with cancer in 2014, taking a toll on his personal life. ‘It was very painful,’ he says. ‘But my view is to take life one day at a time.
‘Over the years and after overcoming several challenges, what I’ve learned is to not think too much about things. Don’t get swayed by success or failure, keep moving, keep running. That’s my motto.’
Was he upset with failure?
‘No,’ he says. ‘I’ve realised that failing is not the end of the road. In fact, I teach my son to not be disheartened by failure. We all strive for success but there is nothing wrong with failure. Most successful people have had the highest rates of failure. It makes you stronger. You may fail time and again, but the problem happens when you don’t come out of it and try something new and keep moving. Failures are those who stop and don’t keep trying. Keep moving and that makes you successful.’
Ayaan’s battle with a rare kidney cancer inspired Emraan to write The Kiss of Life: How A Superhero and My Son Defeated Cancer with author Bilal Siddiqi.
To put his son’s condition behind him, he penned a book, The Kiss of Life: How A Superhero and My Son Defeated Cancer, in collaboration with author Bilal Siddiqi. It talks about his family’s struggle with Ayaan’s cancer treatment.
Born in February 2010, Ayaan was diagnosed with first-stage Wilms’ tumour, a rare form of kidney cancer, in early 2014. The Kiss of Life is about the period in Emraan’s life when his son needed him the most, the time when all his other experiences paled in comparison to the tennis ball-like tumour that nearly eclipsed his son’s left kidney.
Emraan says he’s learnt a lot from Ayaan. ‘He is a rock star; greater than I ever will be,’ he says. ‘He is a very lively kid. He’s been through so much at the age of four, but he has got such energy and vibe. He is charming. He is a happy kid.’
The book became hugely popular and Emraan is happy that ‘people are reading it and not just cancer patients.
‘There is a chapter that talks about reducing the probability of cancer. Another chapter’s dedicated to what you should eat and what you shouldn’t.’
Ayaan’s tryst with the deadly disease made Emraan and his family pay more attention to fitness and dietary habits. ‘I work out five to six times a week,’ he says. ‘I run, I do freehand exercises, which include athletic and endurance workouts. I don’t touch junk food – no colas, no processed sugar. I have organic sugar. I don’t drink milk and love eating fruits.’
Emraan adds that there are some fun elements, too. ‘On the day of Ayaan’s surgery, when we were on the verge of breakdown, a funny incident took place in the hospital. I’ve included it in the book to show there can be humour in a grim scenario in hospital corridors.’
Does Ayaan watch his movies? ‘He is too young to watch movies,’ says Emraan, reflecting on the murder and thriller mysteries he has acted in.
‘I took him to watch Hamari Adhuri Kahaani but when he saw the fire sequence in it, he began to cry thinking something had happened to me in real life. He’s too young and can’t differentiate between films and reality. He knows that I act in films and there is book that’s been written on him. But I don’t know how he processes all of that in his head.’
Would he want Ayaan to enter the film world?
‘I won’t push him to become an actor,’ says the doting dad. ‘But there are influences. He comes on set, he sees me shoot and finds it interesting. He is learning how to dance, kickbox.. He also enjoys sports like cricket.’
That brings us back to Azhar. ‘The most challenging part of the film was training for cricket,’ says Emraan. ‘I was good only at gali [roadside] cricket. Trying to condense and distil 30-odd years of cricketing experience of a legend such as Azharuddin into three months was a huge challenge.’
But that was only the tip of the iceberg. ‘Then there was perfecting the way he walks, his mannerisms, gait... it was tough. ‘There were other things that I had to imbibe too, like the way he eats. Azhar has a very peculiar way of eating with his fork and spoon. We took videos when we would go out for dinner together to record how he eats.’
However, Emraan was surprised that Azharuddin, who is a guarded person and brooding personality, shared quite a bit from his life.
‘I wasn’t expecting that,’ says the actor. ‘I had heard about Azhar – that he doesn’t share too many things – but he opened up a lot and we were quite happy with the kind of stuff we got from him. To make this a personal journey I had to get stories, moments and experiences from him, not just media stories you have read about. I had to spend time with him and get all of this first-hand.’
Emraan was so deeply influenced by Azharuddin’s mannerisms during research that he couldn’t shake it off for a long time.
Emraan adds that shooting for the biopic was very satisfying and fulfilling for him. In fact, so deep did some of the cricketer’s traits and quirks remain embedded in his psyche long after the shoot was over that he found it difficult to come out of the character even after he started shooting for his next film.
‘Some of Azhar’s mannerisms lingered on when I started shooting Raaz 4,’ he says. ‘The way he shakes his head when something goes wrong, the way he walks with one shoulder slightly raised, the way he tilts his head to one side when concentrating... I couldn’t shrug it off at all.
‘My director would keep telling me, “Please get out of Azhar right now”. It took me quite a while to get Azhar out of me.’
Just as we’re winding up our interview, the photographer’s assistant comes over to inform the star that the set is ready for the next shot.
One last question, I tell Emraan. How is it that unlike some stars, he does not feature prominently in the gossip columns of film magazines?
‘Is it disappointing?’ he asks, with a chuckle. ‘Isn’t it a good thing that you don’t hear any controversies about me?’
‘It only means that I’m either not controversial, or,’ with a mischievous glint in his eye and tongue firmly in cheek, ‘I am way too smart!’