India's biggest celebrity and Bollywood's King Khan comes up with a part spiel and a part candid confession on almost everything under the sun, some of which we haven't heard before. Read on
After waiting for five hours, Dinesh Krishnan our Director Photography finally got to direct an hour long shoot with Shah Rukh Khan. That done, Khan settled down for a three hour long conversation with Forbes India that went on until midnight during which he bared his heart out on Bollywood, business, his idols, how he came to be and how to raise children. Edited excerpts:
Becoming India’s Biggest Showman
To be really honest, I don’t know how all of this has happened. Whenever you say give me a spiel, I give you a spiel. When you ask me to be honest, I don’t know how it all happened. I do a lot of things. This business has given me the opportunity to meet some of the biggest world leaders. I am personal friends with some of them. And the only ability I have learnt is to say I don’t know and I want to pass that on to my son.
Equating Failure with Poverty
I come from Delhi. In Delhi, there’s a word called kudki which means ghar se bahar nikaal diya gaya. I lost my father when I was 15. I lost my mother. I had a sister who was not well. I equated failure to be poverty. I have come from there. I am scared of poverty. I have succeeded because I am scared of failure, which for me is poverty.
I believe in dignity of labour also. I am very, very clear that there is nothing undignified because today I am being interviewed by Forbes. Where I came from, I had no money to eat. I was a kudki. I come from a very realistic place. My parents died in debt. I remember, during the promotions of Kabhi Haan Kabhi Na in Gurgaon, someone from the audience yelled at me saying that my mother owes him five lakhs. My mother was no more then. Here I was, being a star, and I was being told she owed somebody Rs 5 lakh. I don’t want that to happen to my son.
I have a Padmashri, I have possibly the equivalents of Padmashris from five other countries. I have so many awards. But I am still scared for me or my son 40 years from now. That’s why I don’t want to ever take a loan.
I came here to be a lakhpati. It used to be a very big thing those days for a poor guy from Delhi. And now I’m like, oh shit, being a lakhpati was very easy. I just want to give a good education to my kids and tell them listen, we don’t owe anybody any money.
Hobnobbing with India Inc
Mukeshbhai [Mukesh Ambani] and I spend a lot of time talking. He asks me about the movie business and what I think about business. I think he believes that I have a vision of where I want to take cinema to. How does a man believe he can do so many things when there are so many hurdles? In today’s times, when wings are not given for a man’s dreams to fly, how much more difficult must it have been during Dhirubhai’s [Ambani] time?
Whenever I get a chance, I go and spend time with RK Krishnakumar of Tata Sons. I like how these people talk. How they think. Just look at what they’ve built. I go and sit down with Mr Kamath [KV Kamath] and talk of ICICI. I see good, simple, normal people. But the vision is so outstanding and the business acumen in brilliant. They think it out. I get very inspired by that.
They [Ambanis, Birlas, Tatas] understand that I have an interest in business that is beyond profits. When I met them, they were also at a stage in life when they were looking at business like that. My father was a businessman; my mother was a business lady, and they were losing at their businesses. But I remember the gusto with which they did it. The reason was not to buy a big house. And I realized that if the essence of earning money is right, business is great.
Influence of Steve Jobs and Warren Buffet
I read Steve Jobs’ biography and learnt that I should bring some kind of value to the businesses I am associated with; it should touch people and make them feel for that moment and lead to the betterment of somebody. It could be emotional betterment through a Chamak Challo or the ease of use through an iPod. That is something I have always followed. The objective of a business ought to be that the end user is happy and the businessman is thrilled.
I do a lot of speeches on success and it comes from Warren Buffet. There was a famous story in a book I was once reading. Someone asked Warren Buffet, you invest in companies and you always succeed. How is that? He said, you know, I make the right decision. So they ask, how do you make the right decision? He says experience. How do you get experience? By repeatedly making the wrong decisions, he says. So just go for it, and if it’s gone wrong, it’s gone wrong. There’s never been a concerted effort on my part.
SRK: Actor or Entrepreneur?
I’m only an actor. I pray to God that I never become a businessman. What turns me on is working on a line or singing a song or being able to create a moment in front of the camera. It does not turn me on cracking a deal.
But every business I have started is because I wanted to take things to what I am not getting at this point in time. When I joined the film industry I was living with Vivek Vaswani in his house. He told me, if you are going to get into a business, change it. Don’t sit outside on the periphery and just talk about it. So be the change you want to be. And that’s what excites me.
I like to get more into the creativity of film making which is writing. That is the starting point. I want to graduate inwards. I will get it wrong more often than I get it right. But the idea is that I do it for the creative part of it, for the excellence and tech creativity of it.
I have never done it because of money. I’m all right losing money but I live to the purpose of the business which is to give happiness.
Everything Sustains Eventually
In the long run, everything is sustainable. It’s a strange thing that I’m saying. But I don’t think short term. I have this belief. It could be because I’ve had repeated failures in the past. And then I have taken high-end risks and succeeded in them. Like everyone told me my career was over when Baazigar released. My best well wishers told me my career is over, you can’t be a hero again after you’ve killed a woman. But it paid off. In the long run, everything is sustainable, if you stick to it.
I have a VFX company that has been around for 12 years now. And see my numbers. It started with three people. Today at any given point in time, we have 320 people working on different films. We don’t make great money on it. In fact, last year, we lost money on it. But the ideology is that in the long run, we are going to make the greatest VFX scenes ever made.
Longer Gestation Period
In fact, most of my businesses have a longer gestation period compared to most regular businesses. If it doesn’t work, we’ll close it down. I’ve closed down a dot com company; I’ve closed down a television company, an advertising company. I’ve had huge failures as well. After Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani, I almost had to sell my office. But I have realized if you stick long enough, it will grow. You need that gestation period.
We’ve never had any business tanking because of my belief. So my belief is if it ain’t broke, I ain’t fixin’ it. What I shut down was not because they were losing money, but because I thought the creative part was not working for me. I don’t like saying it. But I was ahead of my time.
Passion Runs Business
You got to have passion. You got to be like Walt Disney as a businessman. I think Azim Premji is like that. Ratan Tata is like that. They are fantastic people. I am too small to comment on their business acumen. But I know the reason why they are doing business. I know that Nano was brought out with a very good thought. Will it work, will it not work, I don’t know. But the reason it was created for, was very clear. The reason you are creating business is not business, but passion and it is personal.
I have some very good business friends who can give me a 1000 crore or 10,000 crore if I want it. You come with your business plan and strategy, I’ll do the creative part with passion; and we can be partners. But that’s hardly the case.
Your Businesses Should Excite You
If the business doesn’t excite you personally, and you will notice this, most of the people who succeed, they do in businesses that excites them. Then the option of other businesses opens up. It’s almost like a caravan forming around you.
Somebody told me to start a Formula One team. I am not interested in cars and Formula One. It’s too noisy. I know Bernie Ecclestone. I just don’t understand it. If it was exciting, I would have gone ahead and done it. It is a rich man’s sport and I am not interested in it.
Diversify but Get the Core Right
Everything else follows. Film production is related to my core. It’s in the same business as I’m in. VFX is only going to enhance them. Action, production and VFX are at my core. These are the things I like. I even draw the sets sometimes. I write my fight scenes. These are extensions.
I really like kids. Business wise too, I feel the biggest gap India has is in the sector of children. Our entertainment, with due respect to Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network, gives no opportunities to them. Sports are also related to that. Because sports allow kids to come in, it becomes entertaining and commercially viable. It makes great business sense to keep the young happy.
Entertainment, Entertainment, Entertainment
The bottomline is that all of these are entertainment. And that’s my business. I’ve been the entertainer of the year for 20 years. VFX is entertainment. Film production is entertainment. Cricket is entertainment. And television is entertainment. So if you really look at it, it’s under the masthead of entertainment. So I am not that diversified [as you think].
Sports is Passion
I remember when we were doing Chak de India we went out to rent the Jawaharlal Nehru stadium to practise. We couldn’t get the National Stadium all the time. The officials told me it was booked for weddings. And they asked me why are you making a movie on hockey? I told them what are you doing? This stadium is meant for sports in this country. So, as a person, who has come to a position of choice, who is doing well, who wants the best for his kids, and I have a passion for sports, in fact my life’s dream is to make a stadium.
People keep telling me why did you get into IPL? But how stupid is it? In a country with 1 billion people, only 11 kids can go on playing cricket for the next five years. Just think about it. What are the chances of your child or my child making it to a cricket team?
So we need to build more platforms. I am not saying this [IPL] is the greatest thing. As things are developing, I feel very sad we don’t have a good football team. Ours is the only developing country that doesn’t have a good football team. From Chile to Uruguay to god-bless-them Nepal, they’re all fantastic. It’s a cheap game.
Origins of KKR
This idea of IPL was there. Lalit Modi was my school mate. He met me one day for dinner and I told him that I wanted to start a football league. He said, what are you doing, why are you getting into football? For the last seven years, I have been working on trying to get a cricket league going in India.
You are an actor, continue acting. Let me handle building the cricket league. Commercially cricket is viable. I said when you’re done call me. I wanted to participate in this and I wanted to be the owner. I didn’t know then that I would own a team. I wanted to be known as the guy who started the league. But it wasn’t logical. So he came and told me that.
I was shooting for Om Shaanti Om. He told me I needed $40 million [for the league]. That sounded like an unattainable amount then. He told me don’t bother, I’ll organize the money, you just come on board. I will get the sponsorship and sell the concept.
Venky [Mysore] has not called me for work for last two years. Since the time he’s come, I’ve done the least amount of work for KKR. He says, please come, have a drink, enjoy the match, be with the kids, you’re the boss. You don’t have to be running around in KKR T-shirts and selling the company. He’s made it easy for me. The first two years I was running around doing all the brand endorsements, wearing the T-shirts.
Kids Entertainment: The Space to Be
I was in Dubai at a mall owned by a friend. I was having dinner and my kids went down to play. After some time my wife asked me to go pick up the kids. When I went, they refused to come. And my kids are cool; they don’t get excited even by Euro Disney. So I went and spent 20 minutes at KidZania there. There are enough things for kids to do. It’s fun; it’s educational.
Today if you take your kids out here, after 8 pm there are no gardens to take them to. There is a paucity of activities for them. So finally, as much as you dislike it, you tell them, okay, watch television. There is no kids’ entertainment. The reason I put my kids in Ambani School is because there are fields to play.
It’s [KidZania] a huge thing. If it is accessible to you, you’d be happy for your kids. The children can play, your wife can shop and you can get your work done. Where are those places in India? This is the youngest economy in the world. Those who are 18 now will be 35. And kids will be happening all the time. I like kids, I like education and I get sports. So I see these as a great spaces to be in.
Getting Over the SRK Tag
My businesses should overcome what people believe, that it will run because SRK is a brand or that he is a great PR person or that he has a pretty face. It has to overcome all of that. It’s been about 10 years now since I have been running this company. But it still hasn’t overcome that.
I know a lot of people who come because of me. But I want people to come there, specifically the people who work there, because it does good VFX. Slowly, film making will also happen like that. So far I haven’t had the guts to do that. But it will happen.
Red Chillies hasn’t shaped up the way I want it to be yet and it has to do with my own shortcoming which is, I am not a good business person at all. Having said all that I have said, I have a great alternate source of income. I can afford to say, I will dance. But like you asked, will this be self-sustainable, and when you get into a brick-and-mortar business like I do, it will have to be different.
Restructuring Red Chillies
I think I can be more organized in the business part. Last six months, I have restructured the entire company. Since we were home-grown, the creative guys were running the business. We moved them from that part of the business and all we need is professionals who can make it sustainable and who should be telling me enough of this mad genius and if you want to blow up 75 cars, they come and tell me make it 55 cars because that’s what is affordable. Then I say, okay let’s make it a smaller film with some other actor. Those decisions are being taken.
By the end March 2014, I have promised myself there should be a huge organisation system in place. It’s okay at a certain level. But now we are scaling up and you are growing, making bigger films, some smaller films that become a sleeper hit. I want to invest back in technology.
You have to put money back. You can’t bring it home. If you don’t do it now, I am going to lose an audience. Red Chillies wants to make a movie for ten years from now. We are not making movies for kids now.
The film business is always going to be like this. If somebody does something and it works, then everybody jumps into it. If one guy makes a Dabangg, then there will be four people who want to do it. So it’s better I have access and the technology and have the best things in the world.
There are the Fox's, Sony's, and Disney's here. I always tell them, if you are to pay me Rs 60 crore, can you bring in Rs 60 crore worth of technology, which if I were to go there and work would be Rs.300 crore? Can you allow me access to your studio? If I went to buy it, it would be Rs 200 crore. My partnership with studios is giving me access to the best technology, best VFX guy, etc.
So for my next film, I have script doctors from them, the best people from them. More of these things get popular, I get better. Because I was the first guy to do it. And my margins will be higher. And everybody will come to me to do it. So you have to introduce new tech in business because we have hung on to the old way of doing business for too long.
Marriage of Art and Money
In the film business, this marriage of art and money is a very risky thing. And the business margins are not so high. Whatever people make, it may sound very good from the outside. But a 2,500 crore turnover is nothing. The whole film industry in the South is big or even bigger.
When television started, it was 5500 crore. Today it is worth 16,000-17,000 crore. But the film industry is still there where it used to be at just about 4000-5000 crore. The profit margins are what, just about Rs 300 crore? Out of 400 films, only 10 films do well. It’s a no brainer. And doing well means just break even. You’ll have one Sholay in 20 years; or one DDLJ in 20 years.
Corporatisation Changing the Industry Landscape
Earlier, there was no organized money. Creative people, as much as we would like to believe, we don’t know how to exploit different platforms. Earlier whether it was the music market or the VHS markets, and now the DTH platforms, or the internet, we didn’t know how to do it. Now the corporates are coming in and they know it. They are very clear that they can sell each part.
Corporates are allowing us to market films in places as diverse as Surinam and Italy. That was amiss earlier. And now that they have come, the marriage between the two, that is the creative set of producers and the business side of studios in the last 5-6 years have turned out some good stuff. Another five years and things will grow a lot more.
Showbiz is Personality-Driven
The film business is always going to be personality-driven; it’s not going to be a nameless, faceless business which comes with great management and guys in suits and ties. I am not deriding that. You don’t do power lunches here. You just eat what is there. You do cutting chai and sandwiches and just go on working. So those expenses need not be there in a film business. And they need to be personality-driven. That’s why there’s a Yash Raj or a Dharma or a Walt Disney, you know.
I remember Quentin Tarantino telling me this in Cannes 5-6 years ago; that the star system is what is going to sustain the film industry. And we are genuinely lucky to have a system like that already in place. Where there is no star system, there will be no film industry.
Growth of Non-Indian Films
You can joke about it on the internet but Spiderman in Bhojpuri is a big hit. When Titanic came to India, it made Rs 6 crore business. Inception has done Rs 12 crore only in the South. Look at the businesses. Hollywood used to be a joke. And now Fox is here to release its own film. The Incredibles was made by Fox and I dubbed for them.
Columbia is making films here. Sony is making films here. And they say English is not working here, so why not make it in Hindi? And they have distribution rights to English films here. Fox, they are now the top distributors in India. How did they do it? They first released My Name is Khan and now they are distributing English films in the same circuit. It is to set up the network.
We got one Oscar. We are stupid to believe that Slumdog Millioinaire is an Indian film. It was shot in India. If Filmfare gives an award to Jab Tak Hai Jaan, the Swiss don’t feel happy that their film got an award. They know it was just shot in Switzerland or London. We did not make Gandhi. We should have made Gandhi. And if we don’t look at it, there is foreigner to come and make it. And I am not saying it to sound jingoistic. I am saying it as a businessman.
Tap India’s Youth
We [Indians] are looking at the wrong market. We should be trying to capture our own market. We should have one theatre for 10,000 people. And let’s make cinema to attract this young India that is emerging. But younger people are going to have younger thoughts and younger ideas. So if I don’t give them the best film, they will go. I can see my 15-year old son succumbing to Hollywood.
We need to cater to the youngsters. If we don’t do it, before we know it, we won’t be making 200 films anymore. It will be 150, and then a time will come when we will have just 50 [films] to show and the others will be watching Hollywood films. It is already happening in the urban India. If we make it, it has to be kickass. We have to take cues from the West and that is the long term business thought I have.
James Cameron Creates Experiences
Content you can’t question. But can we even think of making an Avatar? What is Avatar? It is just an experience. James Cameron has not sat down and made a Titanic Part II. When Fox was making the movie, people told him he’s crazy. People said your last film made $600 million. Now you’re making a movie for that budget. It went on to make $1.2 billion in the first week or month or whatever.
He could have destroyed himself. He didn’t make the software to make the movie. He made the camera to make that film. Nobody thought about it. Let’s make it, let’s own it, let’s use it, and now everybody uses it. He made an Avatar. Nobody can make another one like that. He made three more. That’s the kind of guts you need.
He made Abyss. He made True Lies. Why doesn’t he just sit on it? He made four parts of Terminator. He wants to make a prequel to Titanic. James Cameron is James Cameron because his every film, each one is bigger, better and faster. They now make an event out of it.
Image, PR and Endorsements
I have an amazingly pretty face. I am a fantastic poster boy, no doubt about it. I started endorsements. From Tata Tea, to Coke, to Pepsi, I endorse everything. My image doesn’t matter. What I become, the work I do is my image. I am not trying to be someone else.
Ek iconic image hota hai. He is a good boy, he is a family man, he is a superstar, and he is an intelligent guy. None of these things, I decided. Whatever my image is, that’s what I am.
When people say I am intelligent, it is because I am educated and I am proud of it. I remember when I came in, a very big producer told me let’s claim you’re uneducated and you came from Jamia Islamia. I said Hat! Padha Likha hoon. Jaan deke padha hoon. Why should it feel good to say that this guy came from the streets of Delhi and became a hero? I make educated decisions, good or bad or ugly.
I keep saying this again and again. I am employee of this image and the image is who I am. I work for this image. But some days, you don’t like your boss. Some days you like to sit down with your boss and say Sir, everything is good about you. But what you said that day is stupid. I don’t work for an image. I have great PR without wanting to be so. I sell films. I sell the goods you want me to. Is it good for my image? Who am I to question a 100 year-old company? You haven’t questioned it, why question me?
It’s [Image] alright. It’s not as good or as bad when they say I am fantastic; truth is I am not as fantastic. When they say I am bad, I am not as bad. It’s all somewhere in the middle. So long as your family knows that. My son and daughter will grow up to know the right things. Are they going to live off the image their father created? That would be stupid. Nobody calls me Ji in my house, nobody calls me Sir. It would be really silly if my wife called me Mr Khan or something like Laakhon logon ki jaan, Shah Rukh Khan. Let’s be realistic.
Good and bad come together. There are 100 other guys who are smoking in the stadium. My wife told me, don’t endorse smoking. So I don’t. I don’t think smoking is good. But it’s there. If I want people to stop smoking, then I'll ban smoking in this country. But you can’t. Because, it is a business and it makes money for the government. Why am I being picked on for promoting it? Everybody buys it. It is one of the most profitable businesses in this country. It’s not illegal.
Know When to Stop
I think somewhere down the line, not only in India, but everywhere, if there’s a good thing; you got to guard it well. You can’t just let it be and get obsessed with making it bigger. I think that is where business gets it wrong. You get into this obsession with making things bigger and bigger. You need to know when to stop. You can’t handle so many businesses.
People must be saying the same thing about me. How many movies has he made? How many more can he make? I want to do a superhero at 45. I want to do an action film. I want to do a period film. I’ve got so many dreams of making so many films. My wife tells me why do you want to do more? I guess businessmen also think like this. But if you have a good thing going, I think you should not look for exponential growth.
Hoarding After Money?
Paisa to har koi kama leta hai. How much more do I need? My children, if they ever ask me for money, I’ll kick their butts. I’ll give them the greatest education the world has to offer. Because now I have the world at my disposal. My parents didn’t have that. I’m giving them more than what my parents gave me. And then I’ll set them free. I have never hoarded money. From the outside it may look like that. This house is by chance. Like a motif for my stardom.
Future of Children
The easiest thing for me to do is to launch my son as an actor. He is good-looking, and has the backing. But I really want him to be a sportsman because it is an important aspect in this country. I would him to be like Ronaldo from Manchester United. That’s a great life. You’re a star son; you should live a great life. Live in Italy somewhere, or Barcelona, have a good time. Go around with some good babes, and get paid for playing.
But I would like my daughter to be an actress. I think she is talented and has a lot of interest and acts very well. I personally feel a lot of my stardom is because of the women who have worked with me and they haven’t got their due. It is my duty to make sure, that I pass on the mantle to my girl because that would make a statement that it is alright to be a girl and an actress and it is cool to be a woman.