Newsmaker: Aamir Khan, the thinking man’s hero

The Bollywood actor and television host's 'intolerant India' remarks have led to much debate across the world, a nod to the powerful ful that Khan - a known perfectionist - has become.

Aamir Khan courted controversy as his comments about India becoming less tolerant were blown out of context. Kagan McLeod for The National
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Protesters were camped outside his Mumbai house. Black ink was smeared on the posters of his films. On Twitter, people called him a traitor, and his Bollywood colleagues wondered whether he might like to live in a different country.

What had Indian actor Aamir Khan done to court such opprobrium? Merely ponder out loud that, in his view, India was becoming less tolerant, and that there was a growing sense of fear and despondency in the country.

Khan’s remarks at an interview during the Ramnath Goenka awards ceremony on Monday in New Delhi were fascinating for a number of reasons. They were always going to cause headlines – Khan is, after all, one of Bollywood’s most influential personalities. But when he suggested that “the social fabric is not at its best right now ... there is a sense of fear more than there was earlier”, it wasn’t so different from fellow Muslim and Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan’s comments earlier this month that there was growing religious intolerance in India. Indeed, the “disquiet and despondency” Aamir Khan feels about many aspects of ­Indian life should hardly even be news – Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s defeat in Bihar has been put down to a national debate over intolerance, his Bharatiya Janata Party seeming to promote a conservative Hindu social and cultural agenda.

Perhaps it didn’t help that Khan, now 50, is a brand ­ambassador of the Incredible India marketing campaign, and yet revealed that his wife, director and producer Kiran Rao, with whom he has a 3-year-old son, asked him whether they should leave the country he gets paid to promote. “That’s a disastrous and big statement for Kiran to make to me,” he said in a room full of India’s best journalists. He knew full well the impact his words would have.

And whether India as a whole agrees with him or not – and it was interesting that the ­Congress Party spokesperson, Abhishek Singhvi, noted “what Aamir Khan, one of the most respected actors, has said is what the whole world is saying, all of India is saying, all right-minded people are saying” – Khan has certainly stuck to his principles.

It would have been easy for him to wilt in the face of the storm, or snap back at colleagues such as maverick filmmaker Ram Gopal Varma, who tweeted that the actor, being a Muslim superstar in a “Hindu country”, was proof enough of a tolerant nation. But instead, Khan took to Facebook on Wednesday to clarify that though he had no intention of leaving the country, he still believed “we have to protect what this beautiful and unique country of ours really stands for”.

“We have to protect its integrity, diversity, inclusiveness, its many languages, its culture, its history, its tolerance, its love, sensitivity and its emotional strength,” he said.

Wise words, indeed; no right- minded person would argue against those sentiments. But the fact that they were pored over in such detail by both his supporters and detractors was proof of just how important – powerful, even – Khan has become.

Despite having a film producer as a father (Tahir Hussain) and the director Nasir Hussain as an uncle, Khan had always been warned off a career in the industry, not least because his father’s unsuccessful movies had caused the family considerable financial pain. But it was not to be.

Born on March 14, 1965, to ­Tahir and Zeenat, Khan's first film as a child was a cameo ­appearance in his uncle's film Yaadon Ki Baaraat in 1963. It was Nasir who gave Khan his big break, in the Romeo and Juliet-­inspired romantic drama Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak (1988). It wasn't actually expected to be a hit – like Khan, nearly all the cast and crew were making a feature film for the first time. But there was something about Khan's boyish charm that seemed to represent a new generation. It made for box-office gold.

Perhaps some of Khan's much vaunted belief in heart and conviction rather than simply what might make him a celebrity comes from this period. As he admits now, he made mistakes, his path to stardom hardly an obviously upward curve. "I made a string of films that bombed, and was hugely unhappy," he told The Guardian in 2011. "I'd weep every night, until my wife didn't know what to do with me. But I don't regret those choices: I learnt a lot from them."

It's an interesting insight into Khan's mindset that he chooses to focus on the four failures immediately after Qayamat... rather than the popular romantic drama Dil (the highest-grossing Hindi film of 1990), or indeed the box-office hit Dil Hai Ke Manta Nahin (1991). But then, there has always been the sense that Khan is something of a perfectionist – both in terms of how he views his career and his country.

Indeed, Mr Perfectionist became a well-used moniker as Khan began to focus on making just one or two films a year – rare for Bollywood actors. He also expected more from his colleagues. Actress Ameesha Patel tells the story of Khan expecting every actor to be on location in Mangal Pandey whether they were shooting or not. But most of all, his performances were bursting with pent-up passion and, sometimes, aggression – Mr Perfectionist certainly gave everything of himself on set.

The films during the late 1990s weren't always huge successes. But Khan was still nominated for best actor awards, for Ghulam in 1998 and Sarfarosh in 1999. But it was the formation of Aamir Khan Productions in the same year that was the game changer.

Take 2001's Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India. The story of an Indian village that takes on the British Raj in a game of cricket to avoid taxes was thought almost impossible to film, but Khan believed in it enough to make it AKP's debut movie, which he starred in and produced. Not bad for a first effort, particularly when it earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. But looking back now, it's striking how Khan and director Ashutosh Gowariker managed to deftly interweave the colonial experience with social issues, humour and romance. It's also worth noting, in the week that Khan has divided opinion in his home country, his words at the time: "Certainly we were disappointed," Khan said, when the Oscar went elsewhere. "But the thing that really kept us in our spirits was that the entire country was behind us."

And, despite the subsequent four-year absence from filmmaking thanks to this intensely emotional man's personal problems (Khan divorced first wife Reena Dutta in 2002 and married Lagaan assistant director Rao in 2005), his innate confidence that he could tell important stories with charm and wit never disappeared. Patriotic drama Rang De Basanti's mix of love story, social commentary and history was nominated for Best Foreign Film at the Baftas, and Fanaa, a sweeping romantic tragedy, once again wowed viewers.

But it was Khan's 2007 directorial debut, Taare Zameen Par, that really marked him out as a filmmaker with more on his mind than simply breaking box-office records. Khan starred as a teacher who helps a dyslexic child understand that genius doesn't just have to be academic. It was so powerful, it changed Indian government policy about learning disabilities.

No ordinary actor, then, and though the list of record-breaking films has continued to grow – 3 Idiots (2009), Dhoom 3 (2013) and last year's controversial PK – more recently his television work has more accurately reflected Khan's concerns.

His hard-hitting talk show Satyamev Jayate made him the highest-paid host in Indian television history in 2012, but this was no throwaway programme. Instead, it aimed to discuss the issues too often brushed under the carpet in India – rape, domestic violence, honour killings, corruption in politics. "The show," said Khan, "is about meeting the common man of India, connecting with India and its people."

"It's one of the bravest attempts to expose the hollowness of our society," said actress and activist Manisha Koirala earlier this year. The fact he could host that show – and still play an alien in PK – is testament to his versatility. And it's why the storm around his comments this week might be seen as slightly contrived. ­After all, Khan has been covering controversial topics on Satyamev Jayate since 2012. That didn't stop PK from becoming the highest-grossing Bollywood movie of all time – a film that, somewhat controversially, celebrated diversity and tolerance by mocking idol worship.

But then, that’s the bed Khan has made for himself – a man who courts attention with his films as well as his views. Some will say he’s an influential celebrity, so should be more measured in his criticism of the nation. Others will celebrate his belief that he can use such influence to highlight India’s problems. One thing’s for sure, given that he’s now told us he’s not leaving India: we haven’t heard the last from Aamir Khan.