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Verve People
June 17, 2013

The Pioneer

Text by Annie Zaidi. Illustration by Kunal Kundu.

His willingness to try what others will not is a source of his influence and power rather than the fact of being a successful actor-producer. Aamir Khan, listed by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world, is a game-changer, says Annie Zaidi

So it’s official. Aamir Khan is a very influential man. Time magazine has named him as one of the 100 most influential people in the world.

Whether or not the Time list means anything, it is worthwhile putting Khan’s inclusion in context. Influence does not come down from the heavens (unless you’re the crown prince in a monarchy and have survived a fratricidal family). So how did Khan make it to an international list that features Presidents of powerful nations? Is he actually more influential than our own Prime Minister?

Obviously, the list is not about wealth. Money buys a lot – it can even buy cultural influence – but in India, it is often said that the average Collector in the smallest district has more power than a very rich person in a large city. This is because power or ‘influence’ comes from many sources, including pop culture.

This is reflected in the Time list’s categories. One is ‘Titans’. The average pop culture-influenced person may recognise Jay Z, but it also includes Ted Sarandon, chief content officer at Netflix, and Sam Yangan, matchmaker at Occupied. ‘Leaders’ includes Barack Obama, Kim Jung Un, Xi Jinxing and the Pope Francis. Among ‘Artists’, writer Hilary Mantel features alongside filmmaker Steven Spielberg and comedian Jimmy Fallon.

Aamir Khan features among ‘Pioneers’, along with lawyer Vrinda Grover, Afghani entrepreneur Roya Mahboob and Brazilian jurist Jaoquim Barbosa. Not a global ‘Icon’; not necessarily a ‘Leader’. A pioneer!

His willingness to try what others will not – this is the source of his influence and power rather than the fact of being a successful actor-producer. After all, he works in an industry where one man’s success is hitched to the very hard work and ingenuity of hundreds of people. Yet, he’s considered a game-changer and obviously knows a thing or two about marketing.

The actor was born into a ‘film family’ in 1965. His father Tahir Hussain was a producer and uncle Nasir Hussain, a writer-director. It is true that his first successful film outing, Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak, was largely a family affair and is therefore called a ‘launch pad’. But his first film was what Bollywood derisively calls ‘arty’ – the Ketan Mehta-directed Holi – and was followed by another dark film called Raakh, which won him critical acclaim.

He did some forgettable romantic-masala movies, like the unimaginatively named Love Love Love, in the early 1990s. But after 2000, he rarely did more than a film a year, slowly developing a reputation for doing good work. His films may not always work – The Rising: Ballad of Mangal Pandey was a letdown – but they are rarely that awful thing: ‘formula’.

In Bollywood, an actor being picky about scripts is unusual. Besides, the notion of actors needing time off to rejuvenate their main acting organ – the brain – is foreign to commercial Hindi cinema. Khan took nearly four years off, after delivering consistently good performances, especially in Earth, Rangeela and Dil Chahta Hai. On the movie website IMDb, he has 44 acting credits (two of them as a child actor). His contemporaries have not been so selective. Although born in the same year and starting their careers at the same time, Salman Khan has totted up 90 acting credits while Shah Rukh Khan has 82. The difference is one which allows Aamir Khan to be a better actor, offering us more than the kind of stardom that’s dismissed any Friday.

His ability to say ‘no’, to forego several crores of rupees, lends Aamir Khan a certain power. And he uses it well. For instance, he reportedly turned down Madame Tussaud’s offer to be made into a wax statue. He also refuses to accept most film awards in India barring the National Awards. And he does so on professional-moral grounds because he believes that they aren’t fair. Insiders at film magazines will admit, off the record, that awards might be offered to whoever is most accessible – in short, a ‘star’ who is willing to make the awards ceremony a ‘show’ that will be sold to TRP-driven television channels. Honouring talent no longer has much to do with it.

Influence – whether it is derived from wealth or political authority or individual talent – is only useful if one has the will to use it. Powerful people are those who are willing to do something with it. Khan himself has been quoted in an interview saying, “If I can’t… contribute to the industry then I am actually powerless. I would like to use my power by working with new directors, giving new actors to the industry and making experimental films.”

Khan tried to deliver on this promise. He not only produced good films like Lagaan, Peepli Live, Delhi Belly and Dhobi Ghat, he made it a point of marketing and promoting each one in a way that kept them profitable. This has created the impression that whatever he touches is gold. Once he decides to back a script, he will help it realise its full potential.

His pickiness about scripts and emphasis on talent is also backed by a certain amount of integrity. A cautious risk-taker, he invests money and time in a project, but he also trusts the audience’s intelligence and a filmmaker’s instincts. This allows him to create cultural capital, which is a valuable quality in artistic (and political) circles.

His ability to take a moral position manifests itself outside of the film industry as well. In 2006, while promoting Fanaa, he stood (or rather, sat down) with a group of activists protesting the Narmada Dam. This sparked off a ‘controversy’ with the Gujarat government demanding an apology and Khan refusing to offer one. Political workers burnt his effigies and Fanaa wasn’t screened in movie halls in the state. But Khan stuck to his guns. He said in an interview, “Let BJP do their karam. I will do my karam…. People are losing their homes…. I don’t think Rs 5 to 7 crores will matter when it comes to their lives and livelihood.”

Clearly, Khan wants to be seen as a conscientious, intelligent and aware citizen. Occasionally, his work choices reflect this. Taare Zameen Par, which he directed, was focused on dyslexia and the unreasonable pressures children face. 3 Idiots was about a stifling academic system. Peepli Live was about the media response to farmer suicides. For his efforts, he was awarded the Padma Bhushan, India’s third highest civilian honour, in 2010 (he’d already got a Padma Shri in 2003).

Khan is also a UNICEF ambassador for promoting child nutrition. But most significant has been his first major TV outing, Satyamev Jayate. The talk show combined elements of documentary and music to address some of the most pressing issues confronting India, such as female foeticide, honour killings and child sexual abuse. While it premiered with the Star network, it is noteworthy that Khan, as producer, also wanted the show on the national broadcaster Doordarshan, which is free and accessible to many more millions of households across the country. It sent out a subtle message that money doesn’t – and shouldn’t – drive all production decisions.

It was this show that actually caught Time magazine’s attention first. Aamir Khan was on the cover of the Asia edition in September 2012, along with this question: ‘He is breaking the Bollywood mould by tackling India’s social evils. Can an actor change a nation?’

Can he? In Hindi, there is a proverb: ‘Akela chana bhaad nahin phodta’. (A lone chick-pea can’t bust the oven.) But at least, Khan seems to be trying!

Annie Zaidi is the author of Love Stories # 1 to 14, and the co-author of The Bad Boy’s Guide to the Good Indian Girl. She also writes poetry and scripts. Her plays Jaal and So Many Socks opened in Mumbai in 2012.

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