Man Of Soul And Style
If Rahul Khanna was dressed in bespoke coat tails and a cummerbund and transported in a time machine to a Gatsbyian-style party in the ’20s, where glittering women in shimmering sheath dresses and feather boas stepped out of their Bugattis, men in tuxedos swilled gin rickeys and did the shimmy…he would fit right in.
The son of actor-politician, Vinod Khanna, and ex-model and one of the founders of CRY, Gitanjali Taleyarkhan, this man’s interior landscape has all the charm, style and grace of a bygone era. You wouldn’t guess it though if you saw him, as I did, at the patio of the Taj Wellington Mews. He looked the epitome of modernity, dressed in sleek fitted black gym clothes, his discreet black leather I-Pad and I-Phone on the coffee table and his quiet tan Louis Vuitton workout bag with its (almost) invisible logos beside him.
Then Mr Khanna opens his mouth and you are automatically transported to a world that could have been created by Agatha Christie or P G Wodehouse. With all the mannerisms, genteelness, chivalry and breeding of on Oxbridge gentleman, Khanna is a hark-back to those affable products of the elite establishments we call prep schools. He chivalrously orders my cappuccino, pulls out my chair with a quiet dignity and with perfect manners, politely waits to start speaking till my coffee reaches me.
He says he likes things with a reference to the past, things that are vintage or retro and loves wandering around his mother’s friend’s giant godown of genuine antiques. So, it is hardly surprising then, that he loves to dress up with all the panache and flair of past eras. The drape and formality of a tuxedo or an achkan is often his first choice for formal events and he even carries his grandfather’s pocket watch in his jacket’s breast pocket.
Not big on accessories, Khanna admits, however, that he has a penchant for bespoke shoes. “If a shoemaker can make an attractive last, it is a great indication of his aesthetic,” he says, citing the British Mr. Hare as his current favourite. However, he is careful to reiterate that he is not obsessive about labels or brands and likes to mix high street brands like Zara, H&M with couture and occasionally throw in the designers he has discovered from all over the world. He hates flaunting brand signage (finds it loud and ostentatious) and has mastered the art of removing insignia and logos even from his sunglasses.
He’s surprisingly secretive about where he buys things from and will let even his cousins and closest friends assume rather than disclose where his clothes or shoes are from. “I bought a pair of shoes from Zara on sale and they looked so good that my cousin was convinced they were by Ferragamo. He went looking for the pair in every store that retailed Ferragamo, but I didn’t tell him where I actually found it. There is so much uniformity these days in style and fashion that when I find something unique, I like to protect it,” he says, the first sign of impishness in his eyes.
Khanna however, unlike most of his ilk, is not a hoarder. “I like to see everything I have and tend to de-clutter a lot by constantly giving things away. My mom and brother (actor, Akshaye Khanna) are a lot like me. I have a small wardrobe and often get reactions like, ‘Is this it?’ when friends or cousins see the size of my closet,” he says.
His one great closet weakness is the ubiquitous plain, soft grey T-shirt. He just cannot stop buying dozens of them. Just like his J. Crew jeans that he has multiple pairs of. Not one to experiment too much, Khanna knows what he likes, what works well on his body and resolutely sticks to it. His entire wardrobe is monochromatic with blacks, navys, greys and whites dominating it. “I’m totally experimental in front of a camera or for a fashion shoot, but my personal style is very simple, classic and practical,” he says. He hates shopping because he abhors the actual process of going into a shop, braving the crowds, trying on things and so finds great solace in quietly browsing and shopping online from the sanity of his own space.
Khanna likes no-fuss, clean lines whether it is for the cut of a shirt or the shape of the dustbin in his room. He poker-facedly admits he can spend months looking online for even a small thing rather than have an object that he is not completely in love with. “I’m very, very particular about things and very specific in my tastes. It took me a couple of years to find the right bulletin board to hang above my desk and months to find the right push bin that I was okay with looking at every day,” he says seriously. Because he can be manic about clutter, he has very little furniture in his room and, as strange as it sounds, prefers to look at blank walls rather than art.
Khanna has always been part nomad, part seeker. He has lived for long periods in Asia, New York and India, often floating between the continents to work in Mira Nair’s 1947 Earth, do some off-Broadway theatre (East is East), fly in to endorse brands like Toyota, Johnnie Walker Blue Label, Tommy Hilfiger and Kiehl’s. “I’m wherever I need to be. There’s nothing I like more than working,” he says as a simple explanation. He studied method acting at Lee Strasberg in New York and then got hired by MTV as one of their earliest VJs in Asia…a period he describes as a creative explosion. “Insane amount of travel, exposure to wonderful food, learning about production and graphics, getting to hang backstage with my music idols, getting autographs from the Backstreet Boys for my star-struck young cousins, it was an incredible time,” he says, visibly lighting up at the memory. Khanna will soon be seen in the Indian version of 24 and Sabal Singh Shekhawat’s Fireflies, which he lauds for its simple, lyrical screenplay and outstanding production design.
For someone who describes himself as a shy, introverted, awkward and ‘bracified’ adolescent, it is hard to imagine how he would be comfortable, not to mention seamless, in front of a camera facing millions of people. “Recording for MTV used to be in a dark room with four people; that wasn’t difficult for me,” he says, by way of explanation. He still is quiet and restrained and considering his illustrious father, is surprisingly low-key, preferring to stay below the radar. There is no clamour for attention about him…not in the way he dresses, speaks; even his acting is measured and understated – which could explain why his career path never led to mainstream Hindi cinema. He seems too refined, intellectual and dignified to gyrate perversely around a tree or even against a skimpily-clad heroine. In an industry where men need to be chest-thumping, testosterone-driven testaments of manhood to be cast as a hero, his measured, pared-down acting has prevented him from rising to the demi-God status his stud-like father enjoyed.
He seems surprised when I tell him this and states he’s an actor and would love to do all kinds of work. But when I ask him if there are Hindi movies he loves, he admits he’s seen just a few, even of his father’s films, citing Amar Akbar Anthony as his favourite.
Because his parents separated when he was very young, his brother and he were completely cut off from the world of films. He has barely gone to any of his father’s sets as a child and living in South Mumbai further alienated them from that world. He says, “The only person I saw regularly at the club from the industry was Karan Johar. I see myself as an outsider with insider access.”
Once you meet him, you finally understand why such a good-looking, refined man hasn’t blazed his way into the league of star sons…he’s just not like any of them. And he’s totally at peace about it. There is no perceivable angst at his career…in fact, he radiates the Zen-like calm that comes from deep inner contentment. He attributes this to his daily yoga, which he will do even if he’s travelling. What’s more, it’s refreshing to meet an Indian actor who is uncomplicated and not full of himself. And, in true keeping with his old-world charm, he gallantly insists (despite my protests) on walking me to my car after the interview….
A true gentleman to the very end.