Who Said Heroines Need to be Pretty Young Things?
Growing up as a Bollywood film addict, Farah Khan has known no other life. With brother Sajid Khan and cousins Farhan and Zoya Akhtar for company, her childhood too was spent making amateur films on borrowed cameras. While the boys of the family, Sajid and Farhan, would do drags, “pretending to be Madame Fifi”, Farah and Zoya on the other hand were rather focused. For as long as the director of Main Hoon Na, Om Shanti Om and Tees Maar Khan can remember, she wanted to be a dancer, and, if possible, make a career as one.
“As a young girl, I knew that I was plain-looking and had no delusions about my beauty. In any case, I never wanted to be an actor. That was totally on Farhan and Sajid,” she says, as she does her ‘hair and make-up’, Bollywood shorthand for stars getting all spruced up before a shot. Today, a very reluctant Farah has been persuaded to play the lead role—her first—in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s sister Bela Segal’s Shirin Farhad Ki Toh Nikal Padi, a comedy on Parsi manners.
“Imagine, at 47, I am being launched,” she squeaks, breaking into uncontrollable laughter, much to the chagrin of her hair and make-up artist, who maintains a straight face, but seeing everyone in splits, lightens up. A female set hand drops in to chat with Farah. They gossip for a while before Farah goes back to the point she was trying to make earlier, “Yaar, I will be in the debut category for best female actress next year with Karan Johar’s heroine, who I am sure will be a 19-year-old hot chick or something.”
Famously outspoken and a lover of all things Seventies, Farah Khan talks about her kind of cinema, the so-called Greek and French-inspired intellectual directors she can’t stand and her much-discussed feuds and friendships:
Q When did you realise there was an actor in you?
A I have done guest appearances (Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, Jaane Kahan Se Aayi Hai) and television shows (Indian Idol, Just Dance) before, but there I was playing myself, being myself. Actually, when I was first offered Shirin Farhad Ki Toh Nikal Padi, I thought it was a joke, that they were pulling my leg and maybe just wanted me to come and choreograph a song for free. That’s why they were resorting to such tactics. Who in their right mind would come and tell me that I am to play a heroine’s part? They said the film is with Boman [Irani] and they also said that if I won’t do it, they couldn’t think of anyone else. I started laughing. I said, “Ab toh pukka they are pulling a fast one on me.” Until that point, acting never crossed my mind. I remember telling Sanjay after reading the script that he would need a very good actor for this role.
Q What was the experience like? Did you discover anything new about yourself?
A (Laughs) Yeah—that I am a pretty good actor. Everyone who has watched the film has said that I am a natural. But then, that’s for other people to say. I think what I really discovered while being in an actor’s shoes is that when they grumble, behave temperamentally and have frequent mood swings, they don’t do so out of choice. When you are in that position, you realise you are doing the same things. At a certain level, they are justified in behaving the way they do. There is always that pressure to perform, which I am sure gets to them every now and then.
Q What are the pitfalls of being an actor?
A That you have no control over anything and you are literally at the mercy of other people. There is only that much you can do. What is the shot going to be like, how is the cameraman going to light up, how is the scene going to be edited—these things are completely out of an actor’s hands. When I was in front of the camera, I was only concerned with my lines. At most, I would look after my own costume and my hair and make-up, but beyond a point I couldn’t do anything. As a director, I am used to micro-managing everything.
Q Did you sometimes have to fight off the urge to direct a particular scene? Was there anything you thought could have been shot differently?
A In the beginning, the first two or three days, you want to kind of take over and give your suggestions, because that comes naturally. But after a point, it becomes too stressful. I realised it’s Bela who is directing, and if I start interfering in other people’s work then I am not only going to make the director unhappy, but also other people who are contributing on the set. So, I should just concentrate on myself. If we didn’t like a scene, we would call Bela and tell her to try it another way, to improvise a bit. There are a lot of things which I have improvised on; even in the trailer, some of those one-liners have been created by us actors—and it’s good, you know, for a film. I like it when my actors do that in my movies also. It takes the movie somewhere else. Sometimes, directors and writers are so stuck that they can’t see that they can do a particular scene some other way. But after a point, I stopped. I even refused to choreograph. I said I can’t. Once I wear heels, put on fake nails and mascara in my eyes, I can’t function as a technician. [For that], I need to be like this— in my comfort zone, wearing chappals and loose pants and being totally free.
Q Was it easy playing a Parsi, given your mother is one?
A I have grown up with the Parsi side of my family. My aunts are Parsi and they are great fun, totally mad, completely uninhibited, but honest. There are, in fact, many sequences that Sanjay has taken from stories of my family that I used to tell him, especially about my grandmother. She was one of those eccentric Parsis.
Q Talking about mothers, you are a mother of three.
A (Laughs) Yes, you never know when you become one. You know, everything happens late to me. I got married [to filmmaker Shirish Kunder] at 40 and had children at 43. I made my first film (Main Hoon Na) so late, when I actually could have made it earlier. But for me, everything has worked out pretty well. I am a late bloomer.
Q Whether you are making films or babies, you are always in the news.
A What to do? It’s in my kundali (astrological chart). Controversy for me is a very mild term. I am constantly in trouble. It always follows me. Look, I can’t take shit from people. I react the way I do but the only time it gets stressful is when my family gets dragged into it. If it’s only me, I can deal with it.
Q You are referring to the Shirish-Shah Rukh Khan spat?
A Yes, but the problem is when these things get out of hand. Like [the media] dragged one statement I made about Ajay (Devgn) eight years ago on Karan Johar’s show [that he is the most over-rated actor], and they are still carrying on about it. I was really sorry because Ajay has been more than nice about it. He has never questioned me about it, never spoken about it.
Q Do you apologise if you are in the wrong?
A Yes, if I feel if I have done something wrong or if I have opened my big mouth, why not? From my heart I wanted to apologise to Ajay. I don’t think you become a smaller person if you say sorry. But the times when I don’t feel I have done anything wrong, then I can be quite headstrong about it. In Shirish and Shah Rukh’s case, Shah Rukh made the first move.
Q What do you have to say about friendships in this industry?
A Friendship is beautiful, wonderful, but you have to be fair. These were all my friends when they were not famous. Sanjay and I were literally like spot boys on the sets of 1942: A Love Story. We used to be treated like that only—I was a novice choreographer and he was an assistant. We learnt together and we became friends. So, these are people I can take liberties with because I have known them for many years. Like with Mr (Amitabh) Bachchan, I can’t. I am awestruck every time I see him. But not with my friends. There is a certain way we talk to each other. It sometimes gets misconstrued. Like Shah Rukh and I have a sense of humour, though people take it seriously—but we know what we are talking about. Similarly, I have known Salman (Khan) since childhood. People are saying I have suddenly got close to him.
Q But these constant feuds have kept you in the news and have helped you evolve into a brand in one way or another. Don’t you think so?
A No, I don’t think so. I never wanted to be a brand, or wanted to be famous for that matter. I don’t see myself as famous. Sometimes, my being so-called famous helps me jump the queue. I am a housewife; I go to supermarkets and shop for grocery like any housewife. I am very middle-class that way. Sajid and I have gone through a lot in life. I will only say one thing about being ‘a brand’—if it helps me make another movie faster and without any financial problems, then the fame is worth it. But if I just have to sit and sign autographs, I am sorry, such fame is of no help to me.
Q You speak about jumping the queue. Were you ever treated any differently in your profession for being a woman?
A I have been probably treated a little better because I am a woman. I could get away by saying certain things, using language that women may not otherwise use. I could be in-your-face and blunt and nobody would say anything to me. Not that I was taking advantage of my being a woman. I never pitched myself as a helpless figure in this industry. I worked as hard as most men do. I realised this was a competition and I needed to work harder than everyone else. Finally, it’s on the merit of your work, you know. There are a lot of men who don’t do well, but people accept it. The industry is not male-driven anymore. Everything is changing. Attitudes are changing.
Q What’s your take on critics who are frequently hostile to films made by Sajid and you, slamming them as ‘mindless entertainers’?
A Firstly, let me clear one thing, my films are different from Sajid’s. He’s the child of the 1980s and I am more of the 1970s; just that I like to shoot them in a more modern way and I do my songs more innovatively. I have grown up on that kind of cinema and I believe in the kind of cinema I make. Speaking of Sajid, so far I have enjoyed all his movies. You know, when I am watching Heyy Babyy, Housefull or Housefull 2, I instantly recognise the references, I know where it is coming from—films by Manmohan Desai and Prakash Mehra and films like Clerk, etcetera. So, for me, Sajid’s movies are like in-house movies. We made films on borrowed video cameras as kids and if you see those... I mean they are on another level. Sajid has a mad humour. It’s very nice to see that normal people are getting his kind of humour. (Laughs) Thank God for that, because at one point we thought Sajid was going to become a juvenile delinquent. Coming back, you have to appreciate these films as entertainers. We make our films with as much passion as those from the FTII or wherever they come from. Just because you happen to know so much about Polish, French or Greek cinema doesn’t mean you have any more passion for the movies. In fact, the love we have for cinema is greater than most pseudo-intellectuals who just sit and criticise commercial cinema. The only difference is in our tastes, maybe. We have never been to a film school. Our only grounding is going to single screens, sitting on cheap seats and actually imbibing the movies. The movies have made us what we are today. We are self taught.
Q You never wanted to go to a film school?
A I wanted to assist Shekhar Kapur and then Rahul Rawail because I had seen Arjun, and I was like, ‘Wow, what a movie’ and all.
Q Although you grew up together, why is the cinema of Farhan and Zoya Akhtar so different from yours?
A They used to travel abroad, they went to film schools—their upbringing was different. We were always the poor cousins, but I am so happy that today everybody is making the kind of films they believe in. Do you know we have five directors, including Shirish, in our family now? That’s not a small feat. Why don’t you talk about that?
Q Which is your favourite Farhan film?
A Dil Chahta Hai. As an actor, too, he is doing very well. It’s strange how life turns out; he wanted to be an actor first. It just goes to show that you must go wherever your heart leads you.