It was playing the role of a man obsessed with a pretty student which turned Bollywood actor Shah Rukh Khan into a superstar. Now two decades on, he is back with Fan:, in which he returns to his roots, playing an obsessive fan whose adoration for a film star turns into dangerous obsession.
Fan is a psychological thriller featuring Khan in a dual role as 25-year-old super-fan Gaurav, who has a lifelong obsession with film star Aryan Khanna. When Gaurav decides to embark on a mission to travel to Mumbai to meet his idol on his birthday, things don't go according to plan and a perceived slight by the star results in his super fan becomes his nemesis.
Unusually, for a genre that is strongly associated with the boy-meets-girl-and-dances-round-the-nearest-tree formula, there are no music sequences apart from the main theme song and there is no female lead, instead, focusing on the dynamic between superstar and fan. The film seems like an usual choice for somebody who normally plays the romantic lead in films like Happy New Year. “We had been discussing the project for a year and we thought it's difficult to make, if not impossible and I think that concept is quite challenging," said Khan. "As an actor, to play a 50-year-old and then to play a 25-year-old in the same film in which they are completely different, rather than a double role like twins or look-a-likes, was exciting.
“Though Aryan is a famous actor, his character in the film was not like me. He is a little more reserved, quiet and less flamboyant, so when I see it, it’s a very schizophrenic sensation. When I played Gaurav, I didn’t actually know exactly how he would look on screen while shooting, as a lot of work still had to be done to perfect his look so if I made a facial expression, I had to look at whether it still holds true with the prosthetics and the special effects. It got so strangely internalised that I felt Gaurav got disassociated with me and when I saw the film, it was like who is this guy?”
Khan underwent a gruelling four hours of makeup and prosthetics to facilitate his transformation into a 25-year-old who strongly resembles his idol, rather than a younger version of himself, and the actor prides himself on pushing the boundaries in terms of technology and special effects. “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.”
While some aspects of the story may stretch the boundaries of plausibility, even by the standards of Bollywood, particularly how Gaurav happens to bear a striking resemblance to his idol - and let's face it, how many celebrity stalkers actually look like Scarlett Johanson? - in an era of Instagram and the Kardashians, it is a timely exploration of the concept of fame, but from the perspective of the fans and looks at the nature of fandom and the personal relationships that fans develop with their idols.
Funnily enough, obsessive fans are all part of the day job for Khan. While waiting outside Madame Tussauds, (where a key scene from the film is shot), to be let in for my interview, I came across some of them. They are a motley crew of die hard fans of different ages and nationalities, and funnily enough, the largest contingency of fans are not Indian, but German. Several of the fans who have been waiting patiently for hours barely suppress a giggle as another group of fans desperately try to convince security that they are a TV crew, even though they have no equipment (apparently they were not the first to try the fake media method that morning). However, their efforts pale in comparison to what some fans have done to get close to their idol. “One fan got into my house, stripped off his clothes and went for a swim in my pool," said Khan. "When the security guards confronted him, he said he just wanted to bath in the same water as Shah Rukh Khan. He didn’t want to meet me or have my autograph, just to bathe in the water.”
In a notoriously fickle industry, Khan has remained the number one actor in Bollywood for over two decades and his popularity shows no sign of waning. His last film, Dilwale, was the first Bollywood film to get to No. 2 in the UK box office, second only to the behemoth that was Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and Fan is expected to repeat that feat.
It is hard to think of a Western equivalent, in the world of film anyway, who commands the adoration which Khan does around the world or has such a wide fan base. The nearest would be Will Smith during his Independence Day era, except Khan has the credibility (and mantelpiece bulging with awards) of a Robert De Niro. Of the 16 Bollywood films which have made more than 10 million dollars overseas, nine have starred Khan. So what does he perceive as the secret to his success? "I think to be honest, it’s because I have a common face," he said. "I've done edgy films and roles, but most of the time, I try to show people themselves or versions of themselves. 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. 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.”
Although these days, Khan is more strongly associated with playing the romantic hero, in his early career, he was more known for his bad guy roles in films like Anjam and Darr. So does he consider Fan as a return to his roots?
“As a matter of fact, we were thinking it should be completely different from Darr because it would be pointless to recreate a film which is a classic in its own right and would be most boring for me as an actor. But of course, because on the face of it, it is a thriller, it is easy to compartmentalise. The difference is that when we made Darr, my role was undoubtedly a bit of a psychotic character, he was a little wrong and a bit unhinged. This guy (Gaurav) is not. He is just a 25-year-old kid who believes this is what he wants to do and he will do it. It is about the innocence of selfless, even obsessive love, but it is not meant to be a guy who is unhinged. There is just one chase scene at the end of the film which was inspired by Darr, which might make people think of it.”
The chase scene in which Khan chases his alter ego on a motorbike, wearing a tuxedo is quite Bondesque. So would he consider putting his hat in the ring and becoming the first ever Indian James? “I think it should be offered to me. I don’t think there should be a choice,” said the star, tongue firmly in cheek. “I would be very disappointed if I am not the next James Bond. It’s my life’s dream to wear a tuxedo and hold a gun in one arm and a lady in the other arm.” And what would he bring to the role? “Romance,” he said, “and songs and dances.”
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