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Hrithik Roshan: Into the calm

The actor's professional success has often been offset by personal setbacks and injury. But Hrithik Roshan has found a way to stay unfazed: By focusing on family, films and fitness

Published: Feb 11, 2017

Starting out as a newswire journalist covering beats as diverse as business, politics, entertainment, crime, civic affairs, cricket and defence, I was keen to pursue a career in print or broadcast journalism. But the emerging world of multimedia storytelling promised a fascinating future, and I changed my focus to digital media more than a decade ago. Before Forbes India, I have worked for organisations such as ANI, Money Control, Arabian Business, Yahoo India and VFS Global. I hold master's degrees in Communication Studies (University of Pune, India) and Journalism (University of Westminster, London, UK).

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Image: Errikos Andreou. Make-up: Vijay Palande. Hair: Aalim Hakim. Styling: Lakshmi Lehr and Sukriti Grover.


Celebrity fitness trainer Mustafa Ahmed is used to clients requesting him to help them build a ripped body, like Brad Pitt’s, for instance. So when he started training Hrithik Roshan a year ago, he was taken aback by the actor’s fitness inspiration: Himself.

‘That is what we have to beat. There’s nobody else I need to look better than,” Hrithik told him pointing at his own photograph from when he was in prime physical shape.

“Not that he is arrogant, not that he thinks he has the best physique; he just wants to beat his own best,” Ahmed says, smiling. “Once he was on the parallel bars, doing a bar dip… he was down to his ninth or tenth repetition and remained stuck there. I screamed, ‘C’mon, HR, rise!’ I don’t know what happened to him, but he did four more reps after that.”

This ability to rebound—by digging deeper when the going gets tough—has stood Hrithik in good stead: At the gym and everywhere else. It is also the reason why his stature is no longer determined by box office results. Consider that the 43-year-old actor’s last and only outing in 2016, Mohenjo Daro, failed to win over audiences and critics alike. But even that couldn’t shake him from his place at No 10 on the 2016 Forbes India Celebrity 100 List.

The expectation now is that Hrithik will inevitably rise like a phoenix. By that logic, his January release Kaabil will be the beneficiary—in fact, by the time you read this, the verdict should have started coming in. The buzz has been positive. The trailer featuring him as a blind man taking on the might of evil has piqued interest, crossing 6 million views in just 24 hours of its release on Facebook.

There are no pre-release nerves evident, though, when ForbesLife India meets Hrithik. I am at his apartment in Juhu on a pleasant December morning. The living room is bright and spacious, decorated with tastefully collected art work and curios. There is a wall dedicated to photographs of Hrithik’s sons. On one side, closer to the balcony that overlooks the Arabian Sea, is a lounge area with a grey sofa. As I settle down there, and admire the giant chess set on the centre table, I notice an oddly-placed ergonomic chair adjacent to the sofa, with a rolled-up towel for lower back support. For Hrithik, I realise.

The actor, just back from the gym, walks into the lounge area from his bedroom, and makes himself comfortable on that chair. A handshake, a coffee offer, and exchange-of-pleasantries later, you realise this about Hrithik (besides the hazel green eyes, of course): He has the ability to put you instantly at ease. In her best-selling work, The Charisma Myth: How Anyone Can Master the Art and Science of Personal Magnetism, author Olivia Fox Cabane identifies three major components to charisma: Presence, power, and warmth. Hrithik scores high on all three.

He speaks slowly, as if measuring every word for its worth. He looks at you directly into the eyes, probably ensuring he is clearly understood. And there is the smile that won’t leave his face over the next hour.

He appears visibly lean in his light salmon pink T-shirt and track pants. “Yeah, dropped five kilos,” Hrithik says. That is the excess weight he had put on for Kaabil in which, yet again, he plays a physically challenged character. In Koi... Mil Gaya (2003) and Guzaarish (2010), he had played a cognitively disabled and a quadriplegic character, respectively.

“I always get very fascinated by an edgy weakness to super strength,” says Hrithik. “It is something that we see in nature and in ourselves. So I love characters which are not just strong, but also have a human vulnerability of some kind. It could be a handicap, it could be a failure; it could be some problem or issue that makes him very real. All the characters that I have enjoyed playing have this balance.”

His empathy perhaps stems from his own physical, emotional and professional setbacks.

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Image: Subi Samuel

It is well-known how Hrithik overcame his stammer by reading Hindi and English newspapers aloud; how he started gaining physical strength by carrying books; and how he honed his dancing skills through relentless practice. In recent years, injuries and surgeries have become an almost melancholic leitmotif in his acting career. He damaged a ligament and shoulder while shooting for Mohenjo Daro, suffered a head injury during Bang Bang! (2014), cut his hand during Krrish 3 (2013), and hurt his back during Agneepath (2012).

There was a time when the actor struggled with even the most basic movements. “It used to take him between 15 and 20 seconds just to get off the floor and stand up because he would have to roll down on his shoulders, like in a dog pose. Then one foot would come forward, then he would hold on to something and then he would get up because his knee and back would hurt, and his shoulder would give him problems,” Ahmed says.

Ashutosh Gowariker, who directed Hrithik in the successful opus Jodhaa Akbar (2008), recalls how there was a doctor on set “almost every second day to give him physiotherapy” while working on Mohenjo Daro. “Also, he was going through his personal problems [following his separation from wife Sussanne] that had kind of unnerved him for some time. But he never cancelled the shoot or said, ‘Let’s push the film ahead’. I think that also comes from being a producer’s son.”

While on pedigree, he is also the grandson of two distinguished Hindi film industry legends—music director Roshanlal Nagrath (popularly known as Roshan, from whom Hrithik derives his last name) on the paternal side, and producer J Om Prakash on his maternal side.

But his lineage didn’t soften his training. At 19, he started out by assisting his father, Rakesh Roshan, on films like King Uncle (1993), Karan Arjun (1995), Koyla (1997) and Karobar: The Business of Love (2000).

Rakesh Roshan, in fact, put his son through the grind, shaping his work ethic by letting him experience the life of a film industry outsider. “He used to share the room with all the other assistants and always be with them. He used to travel with them. Not by plane, but by train,” the producer-director tells ForbesLife India at his office in Andheri. “Even in the mornings when we were shooting in Mumbai, we would have breakfast at the same table, but I never used to take him in my car.”

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Hrithik says he has learnt the power of focus and the fact that less, at times, is more from his father, filmmaker Rakesh Roshan

Hrithik values these lessons from his father; most of all, the power of focus and that less, at times, is more. “From my father, I take something very simple: That you don’t have to do a lot in life. You can be doing one thing but do it so well that it counts as much as ten things. And that’s what I have followed in my life. I have done some 18 films in 16 years. If you compare that with my contemporaries or my seniors, it is a joke,” he says. Consider that, since 2000 (the year Hrithik made his dream debut in his father’s home production Kaho Naa... Pyaar Hai), Shah Rukh Khan has acted (in a leading role) in 30-plus films, Salman Khan in 40-plus and Akshay Kumar in close to 70. “But by the blessings of God, my name is still taken along with some of the most successful names.”

Although Kaho Naa… Pyaar Hai took Bollywood by storm, and the subsequent Fiza (2000) and Mission Kashmir (2000) also garnered appreciation, five out of his next six films bombed at the box office in the three years after his debut. Critics wrote him off, and fans were confused. But in 2003, Hrithik worked his jaadoo (meaning magic in English, and also the name of the extraterrestrial he befriended in the movie) on the masses with the charming sci-fi fantasy Koi…Mil Gaya. Since then it has been a steady and consistent performance at the box office, with seven of his last ten films becoming super hits. Commercial success apart, they also earned him critical praise for pulling off diverse performances that required serious preparation and, often, courage: Think Lakshya (2004), Krrish (2006), Dhoom:2 (2006), Jodhaa Akbar, Guzaarish, Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (2011) and Agneepath. Amid all this, his life-size wax figure was installed at London’s Madame Tussauds wax museum in 2011, a definitive recognition of his worldwide appeal.

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The actor’s latest release, Kaabil, sees him play a blind man taking on the might of evil

However, Hrithik says he has never worried about his “image”; instead, he has always prioritised emotions over rationale while choosing his roles. The budget of a film is not a consideration. In fact, he says, “I am completely open to the most whacko or craziest ideas.”

“In choosing a script, there is no manipulation, there is no intelligence at work, there is no analysis. If the script hits your heart, if you’ve had wet eyes, if your hair has stood on end while hearing it, if it has impacted you, you will be able to transfer that impact on to the audience,” he points out, sipping the cappuccino that his domestic help brought in earlier.

So if he gives it all physically and emotionally, then commercial and critical failure of his films would hurt, right? Wrong. “Box office failures have never upset me—ever. The film is already a failure or a success in my head and heart. And the box office has never proven me wrong,” he says. “I have never been disappointed because my expectations have been exactly correlated to how good the film is.”

Rakesh Roshan too points to his son’s equanimity about the success or failure of a film while Gowariker calls him “a loyalist for any film”, asserting that the film-making “process” is important to the actor, rather than the commercial result.

This approach also comes from the actor’s general philosophy: There is no way one can be smug about reaching the top, Hrithik says, “when you know that the journey itself has made you even more humble”. This keeps him objective, to the extent that he sees himself as a “labourer” who works under physically demanding conditions for a major part of the year. “Out of the entire year, how many days do I get to stand on stage and feel like a star? We wake up in the morning at 6.30, travel for two hours in a place like Bhuj, shoot in the hot sun, I’m falling down, I’m always breaking my knees. For 360 days in a year, I am in pain and yet I work out, yet I run. I am with the doctors half the time,” he says with a wry smile. “My life is not what is perceived by people as that of being a star. I get to be a star when I am at the airport or when I am on stage. That’s [only] about 6-7 days of my life that year. Those are the days that I get reminded that I am a star and it’s still not something that I am comfortable with.”

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Another reason for Hrithik’s stoicism is perhaps his ability to see life beyond movies, something he realised in 2013 after his wife Sussanne and he decided to end their 17-year-long relationship. “When you go through a dilemma, that sets off a lot of chaos in your mind; it also teaches you to seek the centreing. And I am a seeker by birth. It’s my nature. I will seek anything and everything that I ever need in my life. And I will find it. Even if it is not there, I will find it,” he says, gently thumping his fist on his other palm.

Hrithik dismisses the “old-school” idea of working harder and harder to chase success that is only elusive. He sees his work only as the means to an end. “I work so that I can live the kind of life that I want to live. And thankfully I have realised that in good time. I am still young. And I can choose how much I want to earn because of how much I want to spend. I am very happy with what I have, which means now I need to enjoy my work and not be stressed to earn more.”

He has little reason to worry. Not only is he the face that launches at least 10 major brands, including Rado, J Hampstead and Mountain Dew, he also owns a stake in the sports and lifestyle brand, HRX, a joint venture between him, etailer Myntra and talent management agency Exceed Entertainment. HRX is expected to hit sales of Rs 300 crore this financial year, up from Rs 100 crore last year.

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Hrithik Roshan’s two sons—Hrehaan (right) and Hridhaan—have inspired him to turn around his life. He plans their holidays in such a way that he also teaches them new things during their travels.

And Hrithik is putting his hard-earned money to nurture the greatest happiness of his life: His children, Hrehaan, 10 and Hridhaan, 8. His world currently revolves around “my two boys”. He is determined to expose his children to some of the best experiences in the world. Among other things, the Roshan kids are learning to play the guitar and piano, and practice gymnastics; they have also mastered a few tricks from a trained magician, says Rakesh Roshan.

The globetrotting trio of father and sons is also popular among fans on social media, as the actor shares photos and videos of their archery sessions and open-air camping.

There is purpose to Hrithik’s holiday planning. “He’s not going just on a holiday. He goes to teach them things. He is going to Courchevel [in France] to ski, so that his children learn skiing. When he went to South Africa, he took them to the jungles. He is taking them on holidays—like sleeping all alone in the desert without any tents at night—and showing that part of the world to them,” Roshan senior says.

Time with his kids is sacrosanct, and Hrithik is uncompromising when it comes to his appointments with them. Everything else can wait. “We really do crazy things. They remind me of how easy it is to live the kind of life you want to live. How easy it is to create fun out of nothing. My two boys—I love travelling with them, I love teaching them and learning from them.”

And his children have inspired him to turn around his life, especially in recent years. “One very basic thought that brings me back every single time is the fact that when I will rise, when I will succeed, I will have so many beautiful things to teach my kids. My kids become a very strong motivating factor. If I am afraid to do something, I just think about them. I’d like to become an example to them and let them see that I am afraid and yet I am going to do it—so that they learn to attack life.”

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Hrithik, on his part, is attacking his demons with a vengeance. One of the first things he told his fitness trainer when he hired him was to make him “pain-free”. Given the actor’s dismal condition, the first few sessions were challenging, with the muscle stretching eating up almost an hour, the actual workout barely lasting 30 minutes.

But Hrithik is getting back with a bang, Ahmed says. He works out for three hours every day over two sessions, has a diet team in place to plan his 4-6 daily meals and aims to push further and do things that are “unbelievable to the eye”.

“He actually trains like an athlete. He takes the risk of pushing through really difficult barriers. At times I tell him to be more careful and he says, ‘No, I think I am feeling it. Let’s go and do it’. He pushes himself to a certain level of pain and then tells me, ‘I think it’s working now. I don’t feel the pain because I pushed through it and it’s gone now. Maybe it was in my head’,” Ahmed says.

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Those who have known Hrithik closely are not surprised by his ability to deliver beyond his threshold.

Rakesh Roshan recalls crowds gathering on the road outside their home just to watch his son perform wheelies and other stunts on his BMX bicycle. He was also “fantastic” at playing Lego, something that requires persistence more than skill. “He challenges everybody,” he says.

Gowariker attributes it to some “inner pumping mechanism”. “I have never seen him lie low or depressed or going through the emotion of ‘nobody loves me; everybody hates me’. He has a certain physicality, spirituality and mind strength,” he says.  

The relief from pain has soothed him like an ice pack. “He is trying to do things that make him happy. He is in a very spiritual zone,” Ahmed says.

Not surprisingly then, I notice books ranging from nature to religion and self-help, when I visit Hrithik’s cabin in the same office as his father’s. The actor also reads the likes of Steve Jobs and Elon Musk (“really gave me a perspective on what it takes to have a dream that is impossible”), writes a daily diary noting his smallest victories, logging the things that made him feel good, and spends some time in quiet contemplation through positive visualisation exercises.

He isn’t even perturbed by the occasional controversy that is so much a part of every celebrity’s life, though he is alert to any physical threats to his family.  

Also, he adds, “The only time that I will actually come forth and give a justification or an explanation is when I feel that my words will help somebody else learn something. Otherwise, I allow people to say exactly what they want. Doesn’t matter.”

He just wants to achieve his own definition of success: To wake up enthusiastically, raring to do whatever is needed to be done that day. Today, he has less tolerance for mediocrity, people who are pleasers, and those who are not passionate about their work.

“My mission in my life is to discover my extreme potential as a human being. How much am I capable of? How much can I take?” he says, with a sense of urgency.

He isn’t taking any detours from his happy place. Ask him about potentially dabbling in different aspects of movie production under his home banner, FilmKraft, and he almost dismisses the notion. “I see myself as an actor right now. I don’t know if I will don any other hat ever. I am hoping my career spans a lifetime. Because I really enjoy what I do.”

The glow on his face is saying the same thing.

(This story appears in the Jan-Feb 2017 issue of ForbesLife India. You can buy our tablet version from Magzter.com. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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