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Aamir Khan on His Fans, Jafar Panahi and the Mahabharata

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2011-02-24-IMG_0182.jpg The first time I met Indian cinema Superstar Aamir Khan was in NYC, this past July, while he was on a press tour to promote Peepli [Live], an Aamir Khan Productions film. I've since had a few interactions with Mr. Khan and, in the process, have grown very fond of his down to earth manner as well as his no-holds barred answers.

At that first meeting, when I got up, ready to pack up my recording device after the interview and bid Khan adieu, he insisted "no please, have a seat. I would like to ask you a couple of questions. Do you have the time?" Of course I did, for the greatest star in the firmament of Indian cinema! And so for the next fifteen minutes, Khan unassumingly asked about my background, my love for Arab cinema and my passion for India.

This time, we catch up over the phone, from Berlin where Khan has been on the jury of the 61st Berlinale. It's the day after the Golden Bear has been bestowed upon the Iranian Nader and Simin, A Separation which he describes as "a very moving film." He talks about how the jury chose it "this decision was unanimous and it is a film that touched all of us on a lot of levels. I think it was a clear favorite for each of us individually." He describes the film further by saying "it is a very human story, it has great characters, great moments, it is complex. It's about common people and each one of them is a hero and each one of them is flawed."

When I ask him about the frigid weather in Berlin, he does not complain about himself and wife Kiran Rao feeling cold in their elegant red carpet outfits, rather he talks of his fans "it broke my heart to see them waiting in the cold. I'm so touched! It was heartbreaking for me to see them, so cold outside, standing outside my hotel. I felt so bad to see them waiting for hours, some having traveled from different parts of Germany to meet me and they would wait for me at the red carpets." While it was mentioned in the media that Khan's beard had allowed him for some anonymity while in Berlin, he laughs and quickly clears that up by saying "my fans in Germany kept me really busy and I was happy with that!"

Also on the Jury at this year's Berlinale was the very famously absent Jafar Panahi, the brilliant filmmaker who has been sentenced to six years in jail in his native Iran, while also being blocked from making films, speaking to the media or traveling outside the country for the next twenty. A chair was left vacant amidst the jurors in honor of Panahi whom Khan describes as "a very fine human being, someone who is gentle, very dignified and a very intelligent filmmaker." He continues "I've been on a jury with him earlier in Locarno in 2002 and found him to be a great ambassador for his own country and culture. He is a very proud Iranian and represents his culture with a lot of dignity. It's ironical that the administration there does not allow him to do that."

When I indicate that he also represents the very best of his own India to the world, he answers with an overwhelmed "wow..." I continue that undeniably he is changing the landscape of Indian cinema with films like Anusha Rizvi's Peepli [Live] and Rao's Dhobi Ghat -- which incidentally was picked up for distribution in Germany by Rapid Eye Movies during Berlinale and could see a release "possibly in April... I would also say the sooner the better, my fans here are really looking forward to it" confirms Khan.

He continues, indulging my previous statement without an ounce of self-importance "I guess I'm just following my creative instinct and doing what I enjoy doing really. And I think these are films which are very difficult and very, very unusual to make for Indian cinema but that doesn't deter me. Because I actually have a lot of faith in the audience and I think that the Indian audience is one which is mature and is looking for interesting stuff."

Khan's dream project remains a film version of the Mahabharata which he admits "scares me because the scale of the material is so vast and so deep that it would take me twenty years to do. If I were to commit to it in my head, it would take twenty years of my life, and all my fans would kill me... They want me to make more than one film a year and here I would be taking twenty for just one!"

But his fans need not worry for now, as there are already two films in Khan's future, one the immediate, yet untitled project by Reema Kagti -- a longtime collaborator -- which Khan says "starts shooting in less than a week, on the first of March. Reema's film is with Kareena [Kapoor] and Rani [Mukherjee]. It's a suspense drama and a very exciting script [by Kagti and Zoya Akhtar] so I'm looking forward to be working on that." And Dhoom 3 -- where Khan plays a villain again after his turn as the charismatically bad Rehan in Fanaa -- is in the cards as well but not until "January of next year so we are roughly a year away from shooting".

Was the Berlinale a source of inspiration for Khan? He leaves me with these famous last words, for now "It has been a most enriching experience watching all these films, interacting with people from different parts of the world and with my fellow jury members who are really fine, well spoken and clear thinking people. I think that the experience in itself, because it's been so nice and enriching, will affect me and my thinking in different ways which I may not even be aware of now".