“If you were to make a Hindi film about my childhood, people would walk out of the theatre midway cursing ‘yeh kya exaggerated sob story banaya hai? (what an exaggerated sob story is this?)’,” says the ever candid Farah Khan. The 49-year-old choreographer-turned-filmmaker’s sense of humour is legendary in Bollywood circles. She has that unique trait of being able to laugh at her own struggles and shrug it off as if it were all “just another funny story”. Having born into the industry, Khan saw the ugly side of it quite early in her life, when her father Kamran Khan (yesteryear producer-director) suffered a downfall in his career. In a typical Bollywood style “rags to riches” story, her life changed drastically, her parents separated and Khan, along with her brother, grew up in small rented rooms in the city. She found an outlet to her worries in dance and was quite a name in the dancing circuit of 80’s Bombay.
Khan literally stumbled into choreography while assisting Mansoor Khan in the 1992 sleeper hit Jo Jeeta Wahi Sikander. Her first outing Pehla Nasha, which was a whiff of fresh air in those times of rigid and tacky music videos, still remains a benchmark in Bollywood romantic songs. Twelve years later, she went on to make her first film Main Hoon Na, starring friend and superstar Shahrukh Khan. Since then, there has been really no looking back. Today, Khan, mother of seven-year-old triplets, is undoubtedly the most successful woman director in the industry. With her latest film Happy New Year’s release around the corner, in which she reunites with her muse Shahrukh Khan after 7 years during which the two had a brief fallout, Khan is more than happy these days.
However, on her way to our meeting, Khan has to rush back home as her daughters are not keeping well. Apologizing for having called off the meeting, Khan makes sure that she speaks to THE WEEK on the phone about her new project, her relationship with Shahrukh Khan and being a woman in the industry.
Farah, Happy New Year is based on the World Dance Championship. But very few people know that you have actually taken part in such a competition in your 20s. Tell us about it.
(Laughs) Yes, yes. But let me correct you here, Happy New Year is not a dance film. It is a mixed genre film, it is a a mix of the heist and musical genres. Now coming to the World Dance Championship (WDC). Yes, my partner Hemu Sinha and I were in fact the first Indians to reach the WDC finals in 1986. It was held in London and it was really a big deal then. There were dancers from 32 countries participating and I think we were the worst. (Laughs) But we still won something over there. It was called the friendship award or something, because all the teams had voted for us as the friendliest team. I remember we were given a questionnaire to fill at that time and they had asked us what our dreams were and all. I had written that I wanted to become a filmmaker.
That’s great! So did the idea of Happy New Year take birth over there in some sense?
Not really. I wouldn’t say so, because I was just 20 or 21 at that time. The idea of HNY came much later, but I have used my experience at the WDC in the film. Of course, in the film, it is shown as a much bigger competition held at a huge scale. I loved dance and I knew that I always wanted to make a dance film. But what was the fun in making a film about people who could dance really well? So I thought of this twist that the world’s worst dancers going for a dance competition. And that was the first idea of HNY. The film, as it is today, took shape only about 2 years ago. We cracked the heist track and got this script ready only then.
You are not a trained dancer, then what was it that, in your opinion, has helped you survive so long in this competitive industry?
True, I wasn’t trained. At the risk of sounding immodest, I would say that I brought in a new kind of sensibility to the industry. I can’t remember any part of my childhood when I haven’t dancing. Whenever there used to be guests at home, I used to stand on top of a table and do some Helen dance. When I was 16 or 17 was when I saw Micheal Jackson’s Thriller on the TV in my neighbour’s house and that was what you can call my life-altering movement. It was like Buddha got enlightenment. I just got obsessed with it. And in the 80s, the dancing scene was pretty happening in Bombay. There was break dance and all everywhere. So that was like my training ground. Now, I am sending my children for ballet classes and living my dream through them.
If you were to look back, what are the highest points in your choreography career?
The highest point would be Bombay Dreams. It was really like a dream come true. I was in West End and Broadway and I got nominated for a Tony Award, it was all happening so soon. Another high point would be choreographing Shakira in 2005 for the MTV Awards. But all this happened because of the song Chaiyya Chaiyya. That was like global my calling card. But now I would like to make an announcement that I have officially retired from choreography. I will not do anybody else’s songs now, not for friends, not for family, am done with it.
After two consecutive hits, you had to face a huge failure in Tees Mar Khan. What was the biggest learning you took back from it?
On a personal level, the biggest learning was that the people in this industry are very fickle. I have always gone out of my way for people whom I thought were my friends, I have worked without charging a single paise for many of them. But after Tees Maar Khan flopped, I saw the real faces of many in Bollywood. I understood who my real friends were. And although we were having a problem then, Shahrukh was one of them, who wished nothing but good things for me. Now I know that I have a family whom I love and a few friends opposed to the 500 people I thought I was close to earlier.
On a professional level, I learnt to never be in a hurry to make a film. Tees Maar Khan was a genuinely funny script and maybe it didn’t do well because people expected a different movie from me. So that is the reason why I took enough time to write HNY.
Even during the time of Main Hoon Na, you have in interviews said that many people in the industry are trying to bring you down because you are a woman. Do you still feel so?
Definitely. I still feel so. If it were a man in my place, people forgive him even if he makes a shit movie. But when they see a woman make films that they can’t and be successful at it, they just want to rip you to pieces and bring you down. I think I survived only because my film made money despite all of this. Our nation in itself is fickle, yaar. When Sachin Tendulkar becomes out with no runs, they start blaming him and tearing him apart without thinking of the many runs he has made in the past. Here, once you are successful, it is like you have no right ti fail.
Has being a mother changed the way you approach your films, in terms of your cinematic vision?
Yes, very much. As a filmmaker, I never make any cheesy films. I don’t like the love stories myself. All my films have had some serious undercurrent but they were packaged in a light way. I like to make sure that they have a positive message and not be preachy. As a mother, I have made sure that I will make movies that my kids can watch. I have consciously made some decisions in my films. Like now in no film of mine will you see a gun. I don’t let my children play with guns at home, then why would I make them watch their heroes hold one? I will never glamourise action or violence in my films. When you watch HNY, you will see that most of the action is very organic and is based on martial arts.
The end credits of all your films are quite different with the whole crew getting to face the camera. Is this a conscious decision you had made? And what can we expect in HNY?
In Main Hoon Na, it was a conscious decision and after that everybody liked it so much that we started doing it for every film. But HNY’s will be the funniest. We will have a Worst Dancer Championship and we have given out awards and all also. This time when we started listing out the crew and putting them under different departments we found that there 12 people who belonged to no department at all. (laughs) So we have an unknown department also.
How difficult was it to work with a huge ensemble cast that includes a huge superstar like Shahrukh?
Whoever has worked with Shahrukh will testify to this that he is the best team player while shooting a film. Even in this film, he was the one I had to worry about the least. He was the most accommodating person on the set and he had no problems in waiting for another actor’s shot or giving them cue even when he wasn’t in the shot. In fact, he used to tell me to take special care of Vivaan [Shah] and Sonu [Sood], who were younger and less experienced than the rest. All six of them were so good and I never had any issues on set. There was never any bitching or back biting or competition. Each one has a great role and all of them were more than secure about it. We just had a lot of fun.
Farah, you are a very strong women, yet women in your films are not quite that way. They are still the pretty looking eye candy. Will we see a difference in HNY?
I don’t agree with you at all. Women may look pretty in my films, but they are all very strong characters. Now what’s wrong in looking pretty? None of my heroines have been victims, including Katrina’s character in Tees Maar Khan. Sushmita was a teacher, Deepika was an actor in the 70s who had an extra-marital affair at that time and Katrina wants to become a heroine and she works towards it. They were all women with a strong mind, working towards their own dreams. Even in HNY, Deepika’s character is like the moral core of the film. It is one of the better roles that an actor has played in a commercial film till now.
Now if you ask me why I haven’t made any so-called women-centric films, then I would say there are so many men making them. Vikas Bahl made Queen, Omung Kumar made Mary Kom, Imtiaz Ali made Highway…now why don’t you ask them why they aren’t making male-centric films? All said, the biggest film in this country today, with the biggest starcast is HNY, and it is made by a woman. Now isn’t that enough of women’s empowerment? I think people should be happy that a woman is capable of bringing out films of such a huge scale and be successful at the box-office, too, rather than complaining that there are obstacles and no women-centric films.
You are working with SRK after 7 years now. How was the experience this time around?
Between the two of us, we always joke that this will be our hattrick film. (Laughs) But truly I am so close to Shahrukh that we didn’t even feel like there was a seven-year gap between OSO and HNY. Even when we weren’t talking to each other, we knew we had that connection somewhere. Ours is a friendship that just cannot break off because of some silly fight. And, as for our film, I always feel that when I Shahrukh come together, there is magic onscreen. Who said Shahrukh and Kajol are the evergreen jodi? It is me and him, we are the jodi…(laughs). Apart from being a good friend and a great human being, Shahrukh is the most dedicated actor we have. Look at how at 49, he has worked on his body and got an eight-pack this time! He could have used some special effects, but he wanted to do it the real way, he wanted to go that extra mile. After OSO, he had promised me that he would only take off his shirt in my next film, and he actually kept that promise!
Can we ever expect to see you testing the waters with another genre, other than your usual format of song and dance?
When Kunal Kohli saw OSO, he told me that he feels jealous of me, because in my second film itself, he could make out my signature all over it. He said now people will call everything that follows in this genre “a Farah Khan-kind of film”. I see it as a huge compliment that people have started associating a whole genre to me. I love to pay ode to the films I have loved and there is a sort of irreverent fun that is seen in my films.
But to answer your question, never say never. I don’t know, but I would love to do a racy thriller. I may never do a mushy love story, but if someone has a great story–a thriller–and it excites me enough, then why not!
Now that all work is over on HNY, what are your plans?
I want to take a long long holiday with my kids and family. How much ever you try to deny it, it is difficult to be a working mother. There is a lot of guilt that you are compromising on the time with your kids when you are working. Like today, I got a call from their school that they aren’t well. Because I am not shooting, I could rush to the school and bring them home. But if I am shooting at film city with a large crew, I can’t leave that and go saying my children are not well. So definitely there is a compromise being made and I feel guilty about it. What I can then do is try and balance it and take bigger breaks between my films. That is what I am looking to do now.