This week sees the release of the film Dilwale, which reunites one of Bollywood’s most enduring couples, Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol. It is their first film together in five years and many industry insiders predict that it could be the first Bollywood film to break the elusive 100 crore rupee ($15 million) mark in its opening weekend.
The couple are considered Bollywood royalty with more than 10 films together over the last two decades. However, Dilwale, has a particular significance, as this year saw the 20th anniversary of the release of Dilwale Dulhanya Le Jayenge (The Big Hearted will take away the Bride), which originally catapulted the pair into superstardom.
Dilwale Dulhanya Le Jayenge or 'DDLJ', as it is affectionately known to fans, became the longest-running film in the history of Indian cinema and the third longest running film in the world, completing a mammoth 1009 weeks at the Maratha Mandir cinema in Mumbai in February.
Although Dilwale is not strictly a sequel to DDLJ in the conventional sense, and the plot has been kept strictly under wraps thus far to avoid the comparison, it is certainly expected to play on the affection of audiences for the 1995 film.
It has been directed by Rohit Shetty, whose previous films include Chennai Express, (also starring Khan), which became the third highest grossing Bollywood film ever in the UK box office, so expectations for the film are high.
When I arrived for the interview, Khan, who recently turned 50, was having a much-needed break from a whirlwind press tour across the world to spend time with his family. Just as I walk in, the actor is dancing to a song from Dilwale with his two-year-old son. A strikingly attractive woman, who I soon realise is his co-star, Kajol, is sitting on the sofa clapping and whooping encouragement and it feels like I have stumbled into a Bollywood film. It is a surreal moment as it is precisely these kinds of scenes which have made the kind of money that proved that the world’s most prolific film industry was no longer content with being a poor cousin to Hollywood. It is a rare, unguarded moment (particularly for the notoriously private Kajol) and reveals the comfort and mutual respect between the two stars which has made them one of Bollywood’s most well-loved couples for over 20 years. In fact it was Khan who was behind the decision to cast Kajol in the lead role of Dilwale.
"When I first looked at the script two years ago, it appealed to me because it was a good, woman-focused story line, so I suggested to Rohit that we try and get Kajol to come back and be involved,” said Khan. “With all the celebrations around the 1000 week milestone and the 20th anniversary of DDLJ, it seemed to be the right film.” said Khan. “I’ve worked with Rohit before and his films have a great mix of humour and action and somewhere he puts in a love story, so it has all the elements of a good Bollywood movie.
“It was a very interesting love story for Kajol and I and it’s been many years since both of us have been in a completely commercial film. It explores family and it's quite angsty. It’s a combination of everything that Bollywood is known for, but has depth to it as well. My whole job in life has been to make people smile and have a good time, but when I say good time, that doesn't mean a flippant time, but to give people something to take back home apart from an empty pack of popcorn.”
In a notoriously fickle industry, Khan has remained the number one actor in Bollywood for over two decades and has managed to combine the commercial popularity of Will Smith with the critical acclaim of Robert De Niro. If you want to stick with the Star Wars analogy, for Bollywood fans, he is like Luke Skywalker, but with the charisma and dress sense of Darth Vader.
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He has won a record eight Filmfare awards (the Indian equivalent of the Oscars) for best actor and was recently presented with an honorary doctorate from the University of Edinburgh for his contribution to film and philanthropic work
Khan's phenomenal success has been a mixture of timing, bold career choices and talent. The 80’s is considered by most people to be a low point for Bollywood films, when the industry was dominated by crass, Stallone-inspired, action flicks, which resembled sketches from Goodness, Gracious Me, but without the irony and women were mainly there for the wet sari scenes.
However, in the 90’s, the sub-continent witnessed the emergence of a burgeoning middle class, and a new, younger demographic who were heavily influenced by Western culture. For the first time, women were becoming financially independent and were drawn to the clean cut, boy band looks of a new generation of actors and films which featured stronger women roles. This new generation was to become Khan’s future fan base.
It was at this time that Khan began his career in theatre and TV dramas, before moving into film. However, it was his performance in the film Darr (Fear), about a troubled young man who becomes dangerously obsessed with a pretty student which turned him into a star. Despite not getting the girl, he won the hearts of the audiences and introduced Bollywood to the concept of the anti-hero. The film’s success proved that audiences wanted more than the usual ‘boy meets girl and dances round the nearest tree’ formula.
"There are two kinds of actors we see on screen - awe inspiring actors and actors we can identify with and I think that I fall into the secondary category. I've done edgy films and roles, but most of the time, I try to show people themselves or versions of themselves. People see me and think that's the kind of guy who could be my friend or neighbour. They can relate to me and that makes them feel that they too can get the girl or win the fight.” he said.
His success continued with films such as Dil Se (From the Heart), which became the first Bollywood film to enter the UK box office top ten and it was a song sequence from the film, featuring Khan dancing on top of a steam train which Andrew Lloyd Webber credited as the inspiration behind his musical Bombay Dreams.
In an industry which is dependent on the audience’s love of its leading couple, Kajol was to become Elizabeth Taylor to Shah Rukh’s Richard Burton (minus the marital strife). The pair worked together on several films, including Baazigar, a Bollywood remake of ‘A Kiss before Dying’ and 'Karan Arjun', an above average commercial Bollywood film of love, revenge and reincarnation, but it was to be DDLJ which cemented their place in Bollywood history. The film also marked a turning point for the industry as it was the first to target diaspora audiences in the West and to acknowledge for the first time that a significant proportion of their audiences were second and third generation Asians, who had been born outside the Indian-sub-continent. The realistic portrayal of Indian youth (albeit through Bollywood rose tinted glasses) along with the theme of the importance of maintaining your roots captured the cultural zeitgeist of the time.
This was followed by a string of successes, including their last film My Name is Khan, in which Shah Rukh plays a Muslim man with Asperger's Syndrome whose marriage to a Hindu single mother played by Kajol breaks down in the aftermath of 9/11 and he sets to win her back.
It was the growth of the multiplexes which enabled the film to reach this untapped market. With up to 20 screens available at the average multiplex, cinemas in the West could afford to spare one or two screens for a foreign language film and they were finding that even on typically quiet days, Bollywood films were selling out.
“In the west, particularly the UK, you have a huge diaspora community,” said Khan, “We have second and third generation communities who have been born and brought up in the UK, but still have their roots back home. Our movies give audiences hope. Through these fans, western audiences have been introduced to Bollywood and have embraced it. You have the singing and dancing which some western audiences may find unusual but you enjoy it. There is the language difference but cinema is a way for us to share our culture.
“In the UK in particular, the diaspora has been established for a long time. That is why it is important to me that my films should be technologically as good as Hollywood films, so if someone takes their western friends to see a Bollywood film, I don't want them to say it’s not of the same standard as a Hollywood film. They may not like the story or songs or whatever, but it shouldn't be technically inferior.”
However, Dilwale has not been without controversy. Khan recently faced a backlash over comments he made during a TV interview about his concerns about the religious intolerance in India.
"That controversy has nothing to do with the film. Only I have voiced an opinion which some people have interpreted in a certain way and I can't take it back because that is what I stand for,” said the actor, “More than standing for entertainment, more than standing for stardom, I think I stand more strongly as a father, as a husband and as head of the family from a young age because I don't have parents. I can't shirk away from that responsibility but now it is reflecting on the film and there is a danger that we will lose a lot of money and people will get hurt and that is very scary and very sad."
With the way his career is going, the next logical step would be Hollywood. However, Khan has never been one to take the easy option and he is now understood to be focusing his attention instead on another untapped market, the small screen, with an Indian remake of Breaking Bad. Though he isn’t adverse to the idea, it would be on his terms. “I have been offered buddy cop roles and things like that, but I still feel that when Hollywood has taken an international actor, they haven't been given the roles that see beyond their ethnicity or that make them central to the film so they are still quite two dimensional. They don’t really know what to do with them. I do foresee collaborations between Bollywood and Hollywood in the future. India is still an unexplored market for them in my eyes. My dream would be to make a Bollywood film in Hollywood.”
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