It's Aamir Khan's birthday. The actor's 52 today. Does he look his age? Or feel it? I don't think so. Though in Dangal, his Christmas 2016 release, in which he plays the paunchy and grizzled wrestler Mahavir Singh Phogat and father of four, Aamir appeared old. Much older than 52.
Two Christmases earlier, for PK in 2014, where he was an alien lost on earth, Aamir looked positively fresh-faced and young. He also had a lean and ripped look in that film that I know was the envy of many younger actors in Bollywood.
All of us are stuck in our heads at a particular age. And that age depends on your personality. I'm stuck at 18. And I'll be 18 till I die! Aamir Khan
Did it break his heart to put on oodles of weight for Dangal? Not at all, because Aamir has always used his body as a tool in his films. Remember that awe-inspiring, street-fighter's body of Ghajini in Christmas 2008? Aamir told me it took 13 months of painful workouts and strict dieting to sculpt that look. And he wanted it for just one small bare body scene of raw action in the film. I don't think age matters to him. Or he thinks about it too much.
"But the way I look is important," Aamir once told me. "For any character it begins with how I feel in the head. What makes that character tick? I get into the mind of the character. From that flows how the body will look. It just shows what man can make of himself once the mind is conditioned to accept the pain and punishment of sustained, rigorous physical training. I'm motivated by the film, otherwise I'm lazy. When I'm not working I feel the need to unwind, to spend time with my family, and play with the kids, to read, sleep, chill... and not do anything. Everybody has their own priorities. I won't say I'm not bothered with how the rest of the industry works — that would be too harsh. But, it doesn't interest me who's No. 1, who's making how much money, I'm more concerned with what makes me happy."
With the kind of dedication he puts into getting in character, it must be painful being Aamir Khan. Nothing about his work is ordinary because the superhuman effort is to ensure that his audience is entertained by the character—not the actor. May be that's why he undertakes only one film every two years. "I could do more, in my lifetime I could do 500 films, but when I'm doing a film all my energies are into it," he revealed. "I'm consumed by great scripts. And once I get working on them, everything around me fades into soft focus, including my family. I become less sensitive, my bandwidth gets limited, I can't say I like being this way... but, yes, that's the way I work. At that point, I don't enjoy taking on anything else. I'm not a factory or a huge production system. I'm... kya bolta hai... a handloom product. A one-machine, one-person, one-shirt kind of actor. I'm not a large-scale outfit producing a million shirts."
"I'm... kya bolta hai... a handloom product. A one-machine, one-person, one-shirt kind of actor. I'm not a large-scale outfit producing a million shirts." Aamir Khan
I have a strange friendship with him. We've wined and dined at home and in gourmet restaurants many times, we've discussed food and books (Enid Blyton, which he and I read even as adults), smoked cigarettes and cigars. I've attended parties at his house, listened to the Argentine Grammy, Oscar and Golden Globe Awards-winning musician and film composer-producer Gustavo Sanataolla sing and play the guitar and piano on one occasion there. I've watched films with Aamir, worked out with him in the gym, and on one Makar Sankranti even flown kites from his terrace. For one birthday, Aamir invited me to join him for a Zubin Mehta concert with the Viennese Philharmonic Orchestra and virtuoso Chinese pianist Lang Lang. I declined, but met him out for dinner later. He was making 3 Idiots then and needed to keep his weight down. So he had got onto the General Motors Weight Loss Diet. We talked about his age. "I'm asked often if I feel my age," Aamir admitted. "No, I really don't. All of us are stuck in our heads at a particular age. And that age depends on your personality. I'm stuck at 18. And I'll be 18 till I die! Age is a number. What matters is how old or young you feel."
There must be few men who would bring in their birthday with a raw salad and black coffee with no sugar. But Aamir Khan was doing it...
That year a poll had declared him as Bollywood's No. 1 actor, producer and director. Over the clinking of wine glasses and the clatter of cutlery in the restaurant we were at, I asked Aamir, "Are you the most powerful man in the industry?" He replied, "Power's got nothing to do with fame and wealth. I'm happy to be in a position where I have the freedom and strength to do the kind of work I enjoy doing. My thrill lies in breaking barriers, in doing unusual stuff, I lead with my heart. If I like a story, I do it. Yes, I take risks, but I'm not calculating — that's how I've always been. I work with newcomers, I like experimental filmmakers, my power — yes, you can say that, lies in bringing about change. I have no long-term dreams. When I pick up a story, I want to achieve it to its full potential. I live for the moment and in the moment I'm in. What excites me is what I'm doing now." That I could believe. It was midnight. And he had politely declined a chocolate cake with flickering candles that the restaurant produced. I thought there must be few men who would bring in their birthday with a raw salad and black coffee with no sugar. But Aamir Khan was doing it that night. And he was enjoying it and asking for seconds!