By Kavita Chhibber
He has been in the limelight since his teenage years as a VJ and a model, before making his acting debut as the shy masseur in Deepa Mehta’s 1947 Earth, but what is perhaps most appealing about Rahul Khanna is his spontaneous child-like laughter, and how lightly he seems to carry fame on his shoulders.
Initially reticent he comes across as very down to earth. While father Vinod and kid brother Akshaye are heating up the celluloid in Bollywood, Rahul is lighting up screens abroad with a Hollywood film, The Emperor’s Club and Deepa Mehta’s frothy fun film Bollywood Hollywood that has been shot in Canada and is doing brisk business both there and in the United States.
He is also a published writer and modestly admits to doodling when asked if it’s indeed true that he is a gifted cartoonist. In this exclusive interview with Kavita Chhibber Rahul talks about his journey through life and in the world of acting.
You studied at the Lee Strasburg School of method acting. How was the experience?
I loved the independence and being responsible for myself. I was in an acting school with committed actors and the whole thing was taken very seriously whereas in every day life it is not. I think acting is still looked down upon as a frivolous activity and not a real job or a serious profession. So just to be in an environment where it was taken seriously, treated with so much respect and given so much weight was really exciting, but of course there is also this danger of getting carried away and taking yourself too seriously especially when you are in this exclusive method acting school.
I think I did take the whole process very seriously, but looking back I see it in a more balanced perspective. I studied filmmaking and video as well, because I wanted to get into "what goes on behind the scenes" stuff at the same time. I wouldn’t call myself a method actor though I have studied the method. I think acting can never be taught. It’s a natural talent and you can only learn how to utilize that talent well.
Let’s talk about 1947 Earth your debut film. Was it a tough film to do? You walked away with the Filmfare award for the most promising debut.
I think most of the scenes were difficult. It was winter in Delhi; it was a period film depicting the year 1947 in Lahore. Delhi is not a city that is equipped for film shoots like Bombay is and during the crowd scenes actual riots broke out on the sets and things just got out of hand and it really felt like we were living history all over again. It was my first film and I was so happy and excited to be there. The crew was chosen from the best people in the world and the script was so beautiful.
What I really appreciate about Deepa is her sense of visuals and aesthetics. All her films look really good. She is also very detail oriented to the extent where she would say that I have a smell associated with the character and a color associated with the character. It gives you such a strong foundation to work on. I did a lot of homework as well. I had read up on the partition, my character was a masseur, so I had taken a massage lesson. I had cut myself off from the modern world; I was not watching television or reading newspapers. I was kind of just trying to totally immerse myself into that period.
The lovemaking scene was talked about a lot, but I was surprised by the grace and fluidity with which you used your hands, the little touches. It was very appealing both visually and aesthetically. How much did you improvise?
Most of it was choreographed and everything was rehearsed and if you noticed it was all done in one shot except for one edit, so it was all done in real time. It did cross my mind that this is a man who uses his hands and works with his hands and since I was conscious of it there was some improvisation, though I am surprised how you picked up on that.
The first time I saw 1947, I walked out and called my agent and said I really don’t like the film, and seriously think I am never going to act again. I’m so awful in it; I couldn’t believe the film turned out this way. When I saw it a second time I slowly started making peace with it and eventually I now think it’s a really good film and I am happy to have been a part of it. I think I put pressure on myself by being far too judgmental and trying to meet my own expectations, which are very unrealistic most of the time and I absolutely hate watching myself on screen.
So were you ready to make a fun and frothy film like Bollywood Hollywood with Deepa after the intensity of Earth?
Absolutely and it couldn’t have happened at a better time. I was really looking forward to doing something fun and light. Deepa was a totally different person as well; it was like working with a totally different director. She was much more relaxed. The emphasis was on having fun and every one was having a good time while in1947 Earth even though it was a wonderful experience it was not a fun shoot because it was physically and emotionally very demanding, the conditions were much harder and that permeates into everyone’s mood.
So was it different acting in the Hollywood films like in 3 A.M. and The Emperor’s Club?
Ultimately it’s not that different. They may have better facilities, but basic filmmaking concept was the same. And Bollywood too has become more professional and things work on schedule. I had a very small part in 3 A.M. But I really enjoyed working with Sarita Chaudhary, who I think is a wonderful actress and with whom I had wanted to work for a while. The Emperor’s Club was great fun. I have been a great admirer of Michael Hoffman, the director and had wanted to work with him for many years. He took a lot of time to discuss each role and what I remember most about the film was that we spent a lot of time laughing even after the shooting got over, cracking jokes.
It’s amazing what an education it is working with each director. You learn so much more about yourself, the art, the profession and I don’t think it ever stops and even in a small role you come away with something. I have worked with directors who know exactly what they want and that is the only thing they will allow you to do and I have worked with directors who are open to suggestions. I think it can work well both ways as long as the director is strong in his convictions and is trustworthy.
Faroukh Shaikh said you can cheat in television, and theatre but not in films where everything is magnified.
You can cheat in films as well, but in theatre there is no second take. I find theatre much more challenging. It’s tough to compare, but I absolutely love theater. I have done only one play, but it was the best experience of my life. And I also really love films.
In an unpredictable profession where stars are made and fall every Friday what keeps you going?
I don’t think it is anything that you can define. You can’t explain love, it just happens, you just know you are in it and there is nothing you can do about it and I think that is how it feels in this business.
How difficult is it for you not to give in to the temptation and jump on the bandwagon and cash in by signing a ton of films. You seem to be very picky?
I would love to be working much more than I am working, but I also need to really feel a connection with a project before I can commit to it. Working on a film in some ways is like being in a marriage. You don’t see yourself being married to someone who you may have any doubts about your love for; to be trapped in an awful marriage is horrible. Similarly my fear of being trapped in a film I feel no connection with is much greater than my fear of not working.
I am open to all kinds of roles in every different genre as long as it’s a role that excites me and has a director that I respect. I am open to all kinds of cinema and I would love to experiment and try out different things and there is some wonderful work coming out of the Indian commercial cinema today. I am really excited about the new filmmakers who are emerging and taking greater chances and doing different and interesting things.
More than even the directors the brightest patch is the new writer because the film industry and the public is starving for new and original work and it’s really the time of the writer. I think over all, it is an exciting time for Indian cinema.
In life’s journey what are the moments that stand out that have made you the man you are today. How have you changed?
Well nothing momentous comes to mind, but I think even the most trivial things you go through in life contribute to your growth as a person. I think I’m more focused and realistic although I feel I have lost that youthful enthusiasm and exuberance, that bright eyed, bushy tail quality I had. I guess it’s all a part of growing up and you start seeing people and the world for what it really is. I think it’s a little bit of that ignorance and innocence that you have, that is taken away. You just learn to be more worldly wise in dealing with people and conducting yourself.
So is it as cutthroat an industry as it is alleged to be?
Absolutely, but then which industry isn’t?
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