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From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 5, Issue 28, Dated July 19, 2008
CULTURE & SOCIETY  
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Dark Horse, White Knight

His arrival was dream-crafted by his uncle but Imran Khan, Bollywood’s new love, knows where he’s going, says NISHA SUSAN

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Photo: Vijay Pandey

THE FEVERISH speculation around a young person poised for stardom in Bollywood is one that only people who follow racehorses would understand: the endless studying of form, of bloodlines, of gossip from the stable. There’s no telling which odds-on favourite will stumble, or which robust survivor of indifference will astonish on a Friday evening. And somewhere in the center, almost obscured by the harsh light and gathering crowds, is the one who must run.

Imran Khan, star of Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na, the freshest romantic comedy we have seen in years, will never have a week like this again. In a week, he has gone from complete anonymity to Aamir Khan’s nephew to someone whose girlfriend’s romantic history is being read about across the country. On the streets in Mumbai one evening, an autograph-hunter magically multiplied into an alarming mob. A woman threw herself at him begging him to marry her. And all this before Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na actually hit the theatres, all this only because of his astonishing good looks. Once audiences sampled Jaane Tu’s soufflé-like charm, there was no holding back the enamoured hordes. And somewhere in the centre is a 25-year-old who rarely speaks a superfluous, thoughtless word.

Aamir Khan, actor, virtuoso producer and Imran’s uncle, understands our fascination for tracing family trees. Orchestrating the promotion of Jaane Tu, he ensured we saw enough to create longing in our voyeuristic hearts. Faded photos of Aamir cutting a young Imran’s hair, Aamir teasing an older Imran on Salman Khan’s game show, uncle and nephew taking quizzes about each other, uncle interviewing nephew. Neat, muscular bodies and intelligent, boyish faces, side by side in every frame. Here was a story that we could all love.

But the truth is that the litany of dynasty has never resounded around Imran’s family in the way that it does overpoweringly around say, the Kapoors. Nasir Hussain, Imran’s grandfather and Aamir’s uncle, was an unusual man. While thoroughly enjoying making his merry romances, in the words of his son Mansoor Khan, “he was not dying to take the khandaan forward”. Mansoor, director of Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak, the film that turned Aamir into a household name, and Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar, has a special place in history. But he turned his amiable back on Bollywood years ago to run an organic farm in Coonoor, Tamil Nadu. However, when Aamir asked whether he would be co-producer for Jaane Tu, love and loyalty brought him promptly to Mumbai for a short while.

Right now, the family is laughing at themselves for not having seen this coming. They remember having to buy tickets to watch a spoof of The Three Little Pigs staged grandly in Imran’s bedroom. They got used to seeing Imran working with video cameras, to his making films even before he hit his teens. The star stuck on his bedroom door, a la movie star dressing rooms, was just Imran’s turn for deadpan irony. But here he is, with three movies he picked himself: one hit, Sanjay Gadhvi’s Kidnap in post-production and Soham Shah’s Luck about to start.

IMRAN HAS been circling the decision to act for years but Abbas Tyrewala’s script swung the vote. “Abbas’ script is much more innocent than what young people today are like but I still identified with it. Especially Jai’s relationship with his mother,” says Imran. In Jaane Tu, Savitri (Ratna Pathak Shah) took her son Jai away from her husband’s village so that he did not acquire the brutish hypermasculinity of his brawl-loving Rajput cousins. Imran’s mother Nuzhat was barely 23 when he was born but was determined to bring him up into a man whom women respected. And for that she took him away from Mumbai and its lures.

Imran first went to Bombay Scottish School, Nuzhat’s alma matre. When he was still in kindergarten, Nuzhat found out that Imran was being beaten by teachers. Her struggles with the school administration led to nothing. “By the time I was in Class IV, I had a stammer, all kinds of nervous tics. I was close to flunking,” says Imran. Nuzhat finally hit upon Blue Mountain School in Coonoor. Within a semester, Imran was topping the class, doing particularly well in Math.

When the school’s charismatic principal left to start a radical school, Nuzhat was one of the handful of parents who believed in him. For the next five years, Imran and a bunch of other children lived in a jungle outside Geddai, a village close to Ooty. They lived without electricity or running water. Nuzhat says, “I used to go visit him every semester. He was a real Mowgli, long hair, barefoot, running around in shorts.” “My father thought Nuzhat was mad,” laughs Mansoor. “Then he saw that Imran was growing up spirited. He was not afraid of the dark the way we were. The kids dug their own swimming pool. They used to swim in it and they knew there were snakes in it. They would just catch them.” It was an upbringing that made Imran highly independent and sensitive to other people’s needs. But what purpose would it serve in Bollywood?

At 16, he joined his father Anil Pal in Fremont, California. Pal has a Ph.D in computer science and until recently, held a senior position in Yahoo. (Imran’s parents were divorced when he was less than two, but they have stayed very close. Pal and even his 85 year-old British mother came to Jaane Tu’s launch). Imran’s teachers in the US are said to have briefly had Berkeley and Stanford dreams for him, because of his staggeringly high IQ. But Imran says his chequered career in schools in India made him turn away from academics. People close to him say, “If you compare Imran to kids who have gone through the academic grind, it is amazing how well-informed he is about all sorts of things. His bedside table always has a pile of books, everything from graphic novels to history to cinema.” He went to film school to become a director. Imran makes fun of the films he made in film school in the US as “cliches full of static shots of cigarette smoke.”

Back in Mumbai, Abbas Tyrewala and Imran took a shine to each other. His announcement that he was playing Jai in Tyrewala’s Jaane Tu startled the family. When Jaane Tu’s first producer the late Jhamu Sughand backed out, Aamir stepped in with his eagle-eye. But the family continued to worry.

Imran’s mother, Nuzhat, and her cousin Aamir are closer than most siblings. She had seen Aamir’s meteoric rise after QSQT up close and worried whether Imran was ready for the crushing heartaches of the business. Imran is reputed to combine Aamir’s self-control with Mansoor’s over-scrupulousness. To this mix he brings his own intense desire for privacy. His girlfriend of six years, Avantika Malik, is his closest confidante; his mother and he have a close relationship; his beloved younger cousin Zain is president of his fan club in Coonoor, but Imran keeps his own counsel. It speaks well for the family’s respect for individuality that when Aamir first heard of Imran’s intentions, his first piece of advice was to tell Imran to travel across the country. “Ride the bus, walk around and enjoy your last few days of anonymity,” he said. Mansoor is still troubled by calls from people who imagine he is waiting to return to Bollywood. The journey that Aamir suggested never happened and is unlikely to ever happen now.

Of greater concern was what the family perceived as a cultural dissonance between Imran and the industry. Imran’s working knowledge of Hindi could have been built on. But other gaps were perhaps not so easily bridged. His favourite director is Joe Carnahan, best known for his cynical, highly stylised tough-guy movies, Narc and Smokin’ Aces. Mansoor says candidly, “There are a lot of corny situations in Hindi films and I really wondered whether this fellow would manage. He is not even someone who has a natural taste for dancing.” Compare him to Ranbir Kapoor, who unabashedly hammed, grinned and dropped his towel endlessly last year for Saawariya. But under the skeptical eyes of his family, Imran displayed a satisfactory learning curve. The slight stiffness in the early scenes only made Jai’s reluctant knight-errantry excellent counterfoil to Genelia D’Souza’s effervescent Aditi.

As launches go, Jaane Tu was one particularly well-suited for a hardworking novice, author-backed roles not being thick on the ground. Imran’s family says they are glad he is uncomfortable with his fame. He, hopefully, will acquire his family’s ludicrously sound judgement about cinema. It would be a rare Bollywood filmmaker who does not want this dark horse to bring his anachronistic allure to the screen.

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 5, Issue 28, Dated July 19, 2008

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