'I have to feel what I do'
For Rahul Khanna, surviving in the industry is an individual choice
Rahul Khanna burst on the international film screen in 1999, in the role of Hassan --- the quiet, sensitive masseur in Deepa Mehta's 1947 -- Earth, who is killed during the communal riots of 1947, because of his liaison with Shanta (Nandita Das), a Hindu nanny with a Parsi family.
For his role, Khanna received critical praise and much admiration from his female fans, already in tune with his screen persona, as an MTV Asia veejay.
That was three years ago. Since then Khanna, 30, has made occasional news offscreen as in the case of his appearances at fashion shows and award functions in Mumbai and in New York. He had brief roles in Dr Jagmohan Mundhra's Bawandar (2000) and in a Showtime cable movie 3 A M (2001), but the two films did not move his acting career.
In fact while he refers to 3 A M to be an interesting experience, Khanna avoids any reference to Bawandar, which made the rounds of several international film festivals. "We don't want to talk about that," Khanna says, with a sheepish grin and quickly changes the subject.
Khanna has two movies opening in the US November 22. First he plays the lead in Mehta's Bollywood/ Hollywood, a light romantic comedy, inspired by the film conventions of the world's two leading movie industries. And then Khanna has a small appearance in a major Hollywood production, The Emperor's Club, which stars Kevin Kline.
Hollywood studios usually avoid simultaneously releasing two films with the same star. A case in point were the recent negotiations between Miramax and Dreamworks to avoid the ultimate Hollywood disaster, releasing two major films starring Leonardo DiCaprio on the same day, Gangs Of New York and Catch Me If You Can.
But Khanna is not a DiCaprio, at least not yet. And in any case his two new films have very different markets. The Emperor's Club is getting a wide mainstream release by Universal Pictures. Bollywood/ Hollywood is only opening in Indian theatres for the time being, while negotiations are on for a US distributor for the film.
In Bollywood/ Hollywood, Khanna plays young Indian-Canadian entrepreneur Rahul Seth, scion of a wealthy Toronto-based family with a fussy mother and grandmother (played by Moushami Chatterjee and the late Dina Pathak) both obsessed with his marriage plans.
The film requires a lot from an actor of Khanna's background, including lip sync songs and dance with his costar Lisa Ray. But throughout the film, whether he is involved in romance, comedy or Bollywood style melodrama, Khanna looks very much at ease, quite like his younger brother, Akshaye Khanna and his father, actor and India's Minister of State for Tourism and Culture Vinod Khanna.
About his experience shooting Bollywood/ Hollywood in Toronto, he says: "When you are working on a fun film, you end up having a great time. This was one of the best experiences of my life. I felt I had come back from a holiday."
"Just working with Moushumi Chatterjee (Ruby Seth/Mummyji), it was impossible to keep a straight face," Khanna adds. "Her comic timing is great. And poor Ranjit Chowdhry (Seth's chauffeur Rocky by day, and by night, a desi drag queen at a Toronto club) hated being in drag, because he would be in the makeup chair for three to four hours. He was miserable and always complaining. And I would laugh at him and make fun of him."
In The Emperor's Club Khanna is Deepak Mehta, the adult incarnation of one of the students at St Benedict's, a prep boys' school in upstate New York, where teenagers are inspired by their professor of Greek and Roman classics, played by Kline. Khanna appears at the end of the film, along with other major actors playing adults roles of teenage St Benedict's students, Patrick Dempsey (Sweet Home Alabama), Joel Gretsch (The Legend Of Bagger Vance) and Steven Culp (Thirteen Days).
Michael Hoffman (One Fine Day, Soapdish), director of The Emperor's Club offered Khanna the role of Deepak Mehta after seing him in Earth. In a rare instance, Khanna was not asked to audition for the role.
Khanna initially turned down the role, thinking it was too small. "My agent called and said, 'Look they really want you,' but I turned it down the second time." Then Khanna received a call from Hoffman himself. "He said 'Mr Khanna, I really think you should do this'," Khanna says, imitating Hoffman's American accent. "So then I was too flattered to say no."
Khanna first came to New York in 1992 to join the Lee Strasburg Theater Institute. A year later, he joined the School of Visual Arts, also located in Manhattan. Two years into SVA, where he had finished the acting programme, he got a chance to audition in New York for MTV Asia.
The job eventually took him to Singapore. But in 1998, he was back in New York looking for acting assignments. His search eventually fetched him a plum role in the off-Broadway production of Ayub Khan-Din's autobiographical play East Is East.
In East Is East, Khanna played Tariq Khan, 21-year old son of an abusive working class Pakistani father and a British mother. The play was eventually made into a hit 1999 film starring Om Puri and Jimi Mistry, who also played Tariq -- Khanna's stage role. "I had never done theatre before and I kept saying, 'Oh God, can I do this?'," Khanna says, adding that his biggest concern was learning to speak in the Manchester accent. "It all worked out well."
What is clear about Khanna are his cautious moves to work his career through the maze of complexities that actors face every day in the US and India. Unlike other South Asian actors in the US, Khanna has avoided playing bit roles of cab drivers and doctors, just so as to pay his bills. "It is a very individual choice," Khanna says. "You have to take either what you get or hold off for better stuff. It depends on the choices you make. With me it is very organic. I have to feel what I have to do."
"It is difficult being an actor because you are dependent on what comes your way unless you are a huge star who can create projects," he adds. "At this point I am just looking for good work, interesting projects and working with directors I admire."
He acknowledges that in the past he was limiting himself to certain kinds of cinema. "But now I realize as an actor you can't be limited," he says. "It is not good. One should try to work on different types of projects."
Initially in his acting career he appeared to have made one decision - that he was not going to act in the routine Bollywood song and dance films. Part of the issue was that he started his career in New York and then was transferred by MTV to Singapore.
"I wasn't around in India and I wasn't making myself available for projects in India," he says. "Plus I wasn't very familiar with the Bollywood business. Although my dad and my brother started their careers in India, it was alien to me."
As a change in strategy, he is now spending more and more time in Mumbai, meeting people and letting the word out that he is available to work in Bollywood.
"I feel I have been blessed and cursed at the same time," he says. "The first film I did was with Deepa Mehta, who brought in state of art crew and a beautiful script and she is a beautiful director. After that to have projects come to you from the Mumbai industry, where they don't even have a script, it was a bit like woooh, a bit of a shock. Like how am I going to adapt to that?"
"But now people in India are approaching movie business in the same way that international directors would. So now I am more open to adapting to that style of working."