Shah Rukh Khan, the humble king
IT WAS wholly unexpected that the man who styles himself as King Khan and the Baadshah (Emperor) of Bollywood would turn out to be one of the most self-effacing and down-to-earth celebrities I've met.
Yet, there he was, Shah Rukh Khan in the flesh, apologising for taking a phone call during our interview and promising to stay back to make up for it.
Often dubbed one of the biggest movie stars in the world, 48-year-old Shah Rukh's global fanbase numbers reach well into the hundreds of millions. Besides acting, he produces, hosts television programmes and co-owns an Indian cricket team.
Best known for reinventing the role of the romantic hero in Bollywood, the dimpled actor is the heartthrob of a whole generation of moviegoers, creating iconic lover-boy roles that any Bollywood fan would recognise.
He is the leading man in some of Hindi cinema's biggest hits, including Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, Devdas and Kal Ho Naa Ho - making him one of the most successful Indian film stars of all time.
Yet, Shah Rukh has a diverse portfolio of roles, having dabbled in genres as varied as comedy, thrillers and period pieces, and has to his name a selection of critically acclaimed films that have gathered much praise for his acting, such as Dil Se, Swades, Chak De! India, and My Name Is Khan.
Asked if there was a specific kind of character he'd like to play, Shah Rukh says he prefers to let the process happen on its own.
"I used to think I had to plan it, and that if I got a certain kind of role, then I should essay it in a certain way, but there's a huge change from the script to what happens on celluloid. So I've realised, after working for 25 years, that it's nicer to let it remain organic."
People, he adds, always come first.
"When deciding on my next role, I always look at working with people I enjoy first, rather than the script. So, sometimes, I end up doing a film where the script may not be the main appeal, but the people are, and I enjoy that."
With three confirmed projects in the pipeline over the next two years, Shah Rukh certainly has plenty to keep him busy. Following masala comedy Chennai Express last year, this year will see the release of Happy New Year, a multi-star production directed by his long-time friend, Farah Khan.
Following that is Fan - with up-and-coming director Maneesh Sharma - which supposedly casts Shah Rukh in the role of a die-hard fan.
Shah Rukh shares that he finds it more challenging to take on broad, larger-than-life characters, compared to more complex, introspective ones.
Roles like those in Chak De! India (where he plays a disgraced former sportsman) and My Name Is Khan (a character with Asperger's Syndrome), he points out, are closer to reality and therefore can be put together by observing and being inspired by people in real life.
"Those in-your-face, populist roles, however, like in Chennai Express, are very difficult to do, because there's no base for it, you're creating it from zero.
"It's a free-flowing thing you do, and you don't know what shape it will take; it may turn out awful or fantastic, but you can't revisit it once it's done."
As to whether his stardom affects the kinds of roles he takes, Shah Rukh is remarkably nonchalant.
"I think these discussions are from the periphery. People assume I don't take acting seriously because I don't talk too seriously about it.
"But I'm from theatre, I'm a very serious actor. I just don't want you to know my seriousness, I want you to simply enjoy.
"It's like your mother's cooking, you never know what she puts into it, you just eat it and say: 'Wow!' I take acting with a great amount of piety, I'm religious about it. To me, acting is what I was made for."