Imran Khan’s brows are furrowed and his face appears deadpan. Even the brown eyes, that can turn intensely expressive when he wants them to be, are strangely blank. But when an emotionless Imran cracks a joke there is a polite titter among the audience.
And that is the true sign of his success – when people laugh politely, even eagerly, despite not getting the joke.
Imran, 32, knows this, and there is a naughty glint in his eyes as he glances away from the adoring group. He’s seated in a meeting room after a press conference for his latest film Katti Batti (Fighting/Making up) in Dubai, and there are more than a hundred people – press, film industry professionals, and fans – desperate to meet or just take a selfie with him.
A 16-year-old who is dressed as what can only be described as a Barbie and who has been waiting for over two hours to snap a picture with the hero, squeals, ‘Oh, he’s so cute! Why did he get married?’ Imran’s been married to Avantika Malik for over four years, and the couple have a one-year-old daughter Imara. But teenage girls are not the only ones swooning over the star’s drop-dead gorgeous looks. A matronly-looking woman who was also waiting in line for a picture and autograph admitted that she thought he was: ‘Oh so sweet!’
So, what is it about Imran Khan that makes female hearts thud faster, even when he gives them no reason to?
‘I don’t know,’ Imran shrugs. ‘But really? You think so?’
The rising Bollywood star is not being facetious. He’s all intense concentration, whether he’s addressing a press conference, posing for a photo shoot or with fans. He checks how the selfies have turned out, and when he feels one’s not good enough, offers to take another. ‘Isn’t he really the best!’ whispers another girl to her friend after they get their pictures clicked with him.
More than being conventionally handsome, his face has character. His gaze is direct. It’s difficult to get him to pose smiling. Imran doesn’t deign to answer why it’s so difficult to get him to smile for a picture, but it appears that he doesn’t want to deceive even the camera. Apparently, he is his own worst critic. After every shot, Imran lithely hops over for a critical assessment, and is seemingly never satisfied.
He discusses camera angles and lighting with the photographer. In short, he’s cooperation personified. That is, if he is convinced about the project in the first place. If he isn’t, he just won’t do it.
‘It takes a lot to convince me,’ he agrees. ‘But if you can, then I am your man.’
It’s a trait very similar to that of his maternal uncle, superstar Aamir Khan, whose nickname in the film industry is ‘Mr Perfect’.
Has Aamir been an influence?
Far from it. ‘Aamir and I have very different approaches,’ he says. ‘Even the reasons why we work are quite different. He’s absolutely consumed by his work; he lives and breathes it… the craft of making movies is paramount for him.
‘For me it’s something that I enjoy very much but it’s always been about my personal satisfaction. I place at least as much importance on my personal life – my wife, my daughter Imara, my friends – because that’s what sustains me, nourishes me. I place great value on it.’ That he is truly professional is clear when we sit down for the interview in a room in Hyatt Regency, Dubai, away from the crowds thronging outside . ‘Let’s pull the chairs closer,’ he suggests. ‘You need to record this, right?’
It’s more than mere solicitousness. He wants to give everything his best shot, whether it is an interview or a film. If something does turn out bad, it will not be due to his failing.
This kind of commitment is surprising in an untrained actor. Imran is ‘self-taught’; he has been formally trained only in writing, cinematography and direction at New York Film Academy, Los Angeles.
Coming as he does from a Bollywood background (‘I don’t like the word Bollywood,’ he says) – his late grandfather Nasir Hussain was a hugely successful film-maker, uncle Mansoor Khan is a director (Qayamat se Qayamat Tak), while Aamir is a superstar – and with his looks, it seems odd Imran didn’t give acting a try much earlier. After all he had already faced the cameras, playing a young Aamir Khan in Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak (From Doom to Doom) in 1988 and Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar (Winner Takes it All) in 1992.
It perhaps had to do with Imran’s lack of exposure to the film industry when growing up. Born in Wisconsin, USA, to Nuzhat Khan (director Mansoor Khan’s sister, and a psychologist) and Anil Pal (a software engineer), he moved to Mumbai with his mother after his parents’ divorce when he was a year and a half. Then followed a succession of schools – Bombay Scottish (Mumbai), two schools in Ooty, a hill station in south India, and even a nature-based gurukul in the Nilgiri mountains.
‘The school was about three hours away from any kind of inhabitation. We had kerosene lamps instead of electricity. We got water from streams, grew vegetables, farmed our food. We mopped the floors and washed utensils and clothes,’ he says. It served to ground him, he admits.
From there he went to the other extreme – in Fremont high school in Sunnyvale, California – when he moved in with his father at the age of 16 to get to know him better. Life was difficult as he was always the new kid in school. ‘It was really tough,’ he once said. ‘I didn’t grow up being considered cool or dating a lot of girls. I was into science and books and not into sports. I was always the odd one out at parties, sitting in the corner, knowing barely two or three people in the gathering.’
While it made him more independent, Imran admits that changing so many schools also turned him into a bit of a loner. ‘I don’t socialise much and I like to be alone sometimes,’ he says. 'I need that time alone so I can reset, recharge, rejuvenate and then get back to work.' So it makes sense that an acting career was furthest from his mind. But he was interested in films, so he enrolled in film school. Part of the reason he came back to India was to make films. But when he saw how films were made in Mumbai, he was unsure if he could fit in. ‘It was overwhelming to be on the sets, there were over a hundred people who were doing their own thing, and the director is expected to control it all!’ he says. ‘I didn’t feel I could do that.’
Acting still wasn’t an option. ‘I never thought of myself as being a very good-looking guy and figured there was no place for me in the Hindi film industry,’ he says. Acting was an accident, according to him. When script writer Abbas Tyrewala conceived his directorial debut Jaane Tu…Ya Jaane Na (2008), Imran happened to read the script by chance and when he showed an interest, Abbas offered him the lead role. It took Imran some time to be convinced that he could do it.
But once he decided he went all out, even persuading uncle Aamir Khan to produce the film when the original producer Jhamu Sugandh ran into financial difficulties. It took them two years to complete the movie, but it was such a monster hit, that today all the early struggles appear worth it, says Imran. The film made him an overnight star. He was only 25, but he handled the adulation pretty well, mostly due to the sobering influence of Avantika, with whom he’s been going out since the age of 19.
The first few films that followed – Kidnap and Luck – were action thrillers that didn’t quite hit the mark. ‘They were films I signed even while I was working on my first film, and at that point there was no choice,’ he says. ‘I had to take what I was offered.’
But they also served to teach him what he could and could not do on screen. ‘I learnt that acting is like an internal switch I can turn on and off,’ he says. To prove the point, he switches off the star Imran and lopes across the hotel lobby – where 50 fans are waiting eagerly to meet him – to use the restroom, and manages to get there and back before anyone notices him. Imran considers this his secret weapon as far as acting is concerned. Generally, a Bollywood star would never be able to mingle with the crowds to observe people. ‘I can walk across a room and no one will ever realise that I am there,’ he says.
This ability and confidence he attributes to his relationship with his wife Avantika. ‘Since I met her I have learned a lot about myself and become a more balanced person,’ he once said. ‘I was 19 when I started seeing Avantika, at a point where I couldn’t express my thoughts and feelings. I’m still not very good at that but have become more comfortable with my own emotions.’
While the relationship has made him more open, Imran can also be very blunt.
Speaking about why he does so few films, Imran says, ‘Katti Batti was one of the few films I actually enjoyed getting up and going to work on. Yes, there have been films I have dreaded going to work on. The thing is we never know how a film is going to fare at the box office. It may or may not do well. What I’ve come to realise is that the time I spend making the film – time away from my wife and kid where I get back after she has gone to sleep – should be worth it. At the very least I want to be happy with the work I’ve done and say that I’ve enjoyed the time making the film, that it’s not been time wasted. Yes, there are some films I’ve not enjoyed doing. I look back at them and ask was it all worth it? No.’
Money is apparently not the criteria. ‘It really comes down to personal satisfaction, not the pay cheque,’ he says. ‘There have been films where I have received fantastic pay cheque, but the work… it’s not been worth it. That’s when I realised that I should not work for just financial security. Today I am financially sound, so the reason I do work is because I like working, so the pay cheque is a distinct second.’
And what about his first love, direction?
‘Kangana Ranaut (his co-star in Katti Batti) and I were discussing this – getting back to directing, which I initially trained for – because she’s also passionate about this,’ he says. ‘The funny thing is that when I was 21 and had just graduated from film school I had endless confidence in myself, in my abilities. I thought I’d make my film and show these guys how to make films.
‘Once I had been on the sets acting for a few years and made a few films, I found that my self-confidence was going down. It is a lot harder than I thought. With each passing film I’m beginning to feel that it’s tougher and tougher, to the point that now I don’t think I am ready to make one. I do have a burning desire to make movies, but I would like to act for a few more years before I direct.’
So while he sifts through the many scripts sent to him for something interesting, Imran has other things that are at least as interesting as films. He is a ‘concerned citizen’ who doesn’t think twice before filing public interest litigations on social issues, and a Peta activist, appearing in a number of promotional films for the organisation. In 2013, Khan, along with his wife and mother, purchased a four-acre land to build an animal shelter staffed with vets to look after rescued animals until they are adopted.
So is Imran Bollywood’s New Age hero? ‘If you mean by that I work not for fame, then yes,’ he says. ‘There is a tendency… people crave fame, they crave success. For me, it’s always been about movies. I am a movie geek. I love to watch movies, talk movies and make movies. For me, that’s been the only driving force. It’s not stardom, it’s not fame or even success. You can say it’s success by my definition, not by popular definition. It’s always been about personal happiness.’