On the surface, Hrithik Roshan’s road to superstardom has been enviably easy. Pedigree, looks, talent, luck: It was hardly fair for one man to have it all. But dig just a little deeper and his story metamorphoses from a straight-up ‘to the manor born’ tale into a struggle that could have ended differently, badly.
The destination may be the rarefied top rung of the Bollywood hierarchy but the actor’s journey has been fraught with challenges. Some even back-breaking.
A schoolboy struggling to complete a sentence because of his stammer is now known for his acting skills; a youth suffering from terrible health issues is a fitness icon; a self-admitted “bad dancer”—a claim that’s hard to digest—has moves that are hard to match.
Yes, Hrithik Roshan has been tested. But yes, he also, eventually, got it all.
Fourteen years ago, Roshan became Bollywood’s heartthrob with Kaho Naa… Pyaar Hai. Nothing has changed since. Younger, fitter actors throng the box office on Fridays but no one has managed to diminish the unique pull he has on audiences—both male and female.
“I don’t know what makes it work. But when I choose my scripts, I look at them as a platform to inspire people through the strength and courage of the characters I play,” Roshan tells Forbes India. “My idea is to be able to create an experience for the audience because that is your real wealth, not money or fame. I choose films which can bring a smile on people’s faces.”
And he is in no hurry. He hit the theatres with Bang Bang! almost a year after the success of Krrish 3 in November 2013. While Bang Bang! didn’t win much love from critics, the box office, as ever, did not let him down.
“Today, they label me a superstar, but as an eight-year-old, I did not imagine that I would be where I am today,” he says. “No amount of failure could take my spirit away. I welcome the struggle and fear.” He should know: He has accepted challenges head-on and overcome the biggest obstacles, the latest being the clot in his brain for which he underwent surgery in July.
Those who have known the 40-year-old closely are not surprised by his ability to fight the odds. “Junoon [passion]. He has that in excess,” says his childhood friend and actor Uday Chopra. “It is that madness that keeps him going. His single-mindedness has made him what he is,” says Chopra, who co-starred with Roshan in Dhoom:2.
But focus and hard work had been his calling cards even before he attained superstardom. And that explains why the actor chose the “most difficult role” for his first film.
His father Rakesh Roshan’s decision to cast him in Kaho Naa… Pyaar Hai came as a surprise to him. The script was being discussed at home when Roshan Senior suggested his son’s name for the lead role. The son walked off seething. “Why didn’t you tell me about it before? I am not ready yet. I need to prepare myself,” he told his father.
Director Roshan agreed to give him six months. “He was very skinny then, but he worked on his physique and built bulging biceps for the characters [it was a double role] he was essaying. The doctors had advised him against it because he had a severe back problem but Hrithik defied everything and portrayed both the roles so differently,” says Roshan.
In fact, the back problem his father refers to almost prevented Roshan Junior from becoming an actor. At the age of 21, he was diagnosed with the “back of a 50-year-old man” that would neither allow him to dance nor perform stunts. Heartbroken, he had locked himself in his room and stayed disconsolate for months. The dream seemed to be over.
But he had not accounted for his own fortitude.
About a year later, in the midst of July rains, he went to Juhu beach one day. As he stood there wondering about his future, the downpour drenched him, and his eyes turned moist. He decided to take a chance against the doctors of the world who had warned him from lifting “even a pin”. As if enacting a scene from a film, he removed his blazer and started jogging on the beach, taking calculated steps on the wet stretch. As his confidence grew, he ran faster. “There was no pain. The doctors were wrong,” he told himself. And that was the day he decided to become an actor. “That was the turning point of my life,” Roshan says, his eyes emphasising the significance of that moment.
Having won critical acclaim and mass appreciation for his performances in Koi… Mil Gaya, Guzaarish and Jodhaa Akbar, he remains one of the most-sought after actors today. Zoya Akhtar, who directed him in Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, says, “Hrithik has got both emotional and physical intelligence, and can display a range of varying emotions and movements almost at a whim. He does not take his talent for granted or ever wing it on the sets.”
Ameesha Patel, the actor’s first co-star in Kaho Naa… Pyar Hai, concurs. “He does not take his stardom, looks or dance for granted. Humility is his strongest asset. He will work with the same dedication with every director just as he would in his home production. Hrithik is a perfectionist like Aamir [Khan],” says Patel.
The perfectionist in him was evident during his photo shoot for Forbes India. Decked in a grey suit, his hair styled to the last wave, he would often go up to the laptop to check if the pictures reflected his true persona. Even a strand of hair out of place would have to be rectified immediately. A nod from the stylists was never enough. “Get the light a bit down,” he would occasionally say, and pose like a man who knows his craft.
In a way, Roshan’s films have been a vehicle for him to get over his trepidations. He says he has always done movies that have helped him create another version of himself. For instance, apart from its script, he chose Jodhaa Akbar because he never saw himself as a “guy who could stand in front of 10,000 people and address them”. He had to become that character to be able to do that. Similarly, before Dhoom:2, being sexy was alien to him. “I was that shy, nice guy. I did not know what being sexy meant. Or I thought I knew what it meant, but obviously I did not. Dhoom:2 helped me create that side of myself,” he admits sheepishly over his cappuccino.
Koi… Mil Gaya and Guzaarish, too, pushed him out of his comfort zone. But those were easy roles to play, shares the actor. “Those roles have been my easiest because if you are passionate about something, it is not hard work anymore,” he says.
Roshan Senior believes that no other actor could have played the role of Rohit in Koi… Mil Gaya. “To play a child alongside children and act naturally like they do is very difficult,” he says. Ten days before the shoot, his son locked himself up in a hotel room to get into character; he changed his appearance to look like a differently-abled child. One day he walked into his father’s room with hair parted, and said: “I am Rohit now.” When director Roshan saw him, he was convinced that the character would click. He recalls how he had once discouraged his father-in-law, J Om Prakash, to cast him as a child actor in Bhagwaan Dada. “Because he stuttered a lot,” he recalls. “But the first shot Hrithik gave stunned me. He was a different Duggu [his pet name] in front of the camera.”
As a director, Roshan Sr is used to his son requesting another take because he “adds something more to it every time”. But with other directors, the actor is willing to follow instructions. Says Akhtar, “He prepares a solid base and then experiments based on the cues. He’s not one of those actors who, if he has rehearsed in one way, can only do it that way. He can change the flow in the middle of a scene.”
In Guzaarish, where Roshan played a paraplegic demanding mercy-killing, he followed his instincts. “I just said what I wanted to say on camera and Mr [Sanjay Leela] Bhansali allowed it. Which is why, if you see the film, the dialogues shift from Hindi to English,” he says.
It has helped that Roshan is relentless in his pursuit of excellence and will take himself to breaking point to get the desired result, says Chopra. “Everyone knows when Hrithik is working on something, he will take his time, whether it means taking months for dubbing or weeks to perfect his dance moves. He will give everything enough time just to get it right.”
In that process, his contemporaries may land a few plum roles, but Roshan has no regrets. “You can always call the shots in your life. You have to be responsible for the choices that you make. If a movie flops, I learn from it,” he says.
His answers tend to have a philosophical overtone, but his friends say that is not a mask. “He is a philosopher at heart and is trying to find the answers to life,” says Chopra.
Ironically, one such question he had to face concerned his dancing. “I am a bad dancer,” says Roshan. Farah Khan, he says, had fired him during the making of Kaho Naa… Pyar Hai and told him to watch Ameesha Patel dance. “There’s a party tonight, go and dance with them,” she had told him. Patel admits that the incident took place, but says Roshan is “lying” about being a bad dancer. “He came fully prepared for his first movie. It’s just that he is very shy while I am the more outgoing type,” she says.
The actor then began practising his moves in sleep and that’s how he trains even today. “I visualise and fire the nerves, and co-ordinate them till I can feel myself doing that dance. My eyes are shut. If I don’t feel it, that means I haven’t got it. I need to practise more,” he says.
Concentrating on intricate steps while performing on stage is even tougher as the beats get drowned by the shrieks of the audience. So, he learnt to listen to the music and shut off the noise. “Dance taught me timing and team work. It also taught me to be in harmony with others and listen to people,” says Roshan, adding that he enjoys dancing more now because there is no pressure of being judged.
Though the actor says he is unfazed by the constant scrutiny, a recent tweet indicated that he isn’t impervious.
A defamatory piece of news about his former wife, Sussanne, prompted him to vent his frustration on the microblogging site. “If u people knew hw much [sic] false news is printed, d papers wud actually stop selling. I am disgusted today,” he tweeted.
Roshan, however, admits to enjoying the attention from his fans as much as any other star does. Hysteria excites me, says the tall, light-eyed actor, even though there have been cases of people throwing themselves at him.
Prashant Sippy, his friend since they were 12, remembers the euphoria around the actor after his super-successful debut. “We went to the Taj Hotel [in Mumbai] where the Indian cricket team was staying as well. People had gathered in the lobby to see the players, but when we arrived for dinner, they pushed us aside and mobbed Hrithik,” he says.
Roshan, though, isn’t complaining. “The label of being a superstar has been lovingly bestowed upon me by the people. I am not going to use it as an excuse to complain. It is something that I am going to respect and use to empower other people,” he says.
And his friends know that there is little danger of him getting carried away. Sippy recalls Roshan refusing a Maruti Esteem gifted by his father when he was 21. “He said he hadn’t earned it and he doesn’t want to be his father’s son. He wanted to make it on his own,” he says. And father Roshan shares that he has to sometimes remind his son that he is a superstar.
“Sometimes I tell him, ‘You are going out… dress up well, comb your hair’. And he’s not bothered,” he says.
Senior Roshan’s concerns appear misplaced given that his son’s ‘Greek God’ looks are the envy of many. But the 40-year-old superstar, the philosopher in him omnipresent, quickly corrects us, saying there is more to a person’s appearance than just the eyes, nose or cheekbones. “There are thousands of good-looking faces, but they will never be attractive. Your looks are a manifestation of what’s going on inside you. The world will look at you, the way you look at the world. I look at it as a very beautiful place, full of opportunities,” he says.
While good looks are a plus, age will eventually catch up. There are only so many brands that one can endorse for only so many years. Does a star, then, leverage his looks to build something bigger than himself? The answer, for Roshan, lies in his new clothing line, HRX.
Just as sports apparel brands Nike, Adidas and Puma use their association with athletes to attract consumers, HRX is banking on Roshan’s connection with physical fitness. He is both the owner (along with entertainment management company Exceed Entertainment and brand management agency Wild East Group) and the brand ambassador of HRX.
Since it launched in November 2013, HRX has sold casual wear, active wear and women’s wear worth close to Rs 30 crore through exclusive retail partner Myntra. For now, Myntra, India’s leading online fashion retailer and now a part of Flipkart, manufactures the HRX-branded products, but that might change. The actor reckons that HRX will form a large part of his long-term legacy. And he’s also clear that it isn’t akin to David Beckham-branded underpants or Maria Sharapova’s candy business.
“HRX is not me. It is a symbol that I look up [to]. It’s a set of values,” says Roshan. “I have a vision of building this massive worldwide community around fitness and transformation,” he says. And his image as a fitness freak surely aids his vision.
HRX has invested in a Bangalore-based wearable tech firm, a deal it will soon announce, and is set to become the kit sponsors for Pune City FC, the actor’s team in the Indian Super League (ISL). “I feel very aware of the impact that sports has on our generation... and the impact of ISL in our country is going to be humongous,” says Roshan.
HRX has also sponsored the MTB Himalaya Challenge, an annual mountain bike race, where it provided gear to the riders. It backs the Indian paralympic team as well.
“In Hrithik’s mind, he wants HRX to inspire and motivate people,” says Afsar Zaidi, founder and managing director of Exceed Entertainment, and someone who has known the actor for close to a decade. “The brand needs to be inspirational enough for you to go to the gym.” He claims that HRX grossed Rs 57 lakh on Flipkart’s Big Billion Day sale on October 6.
The real question: Can HRX transcend actor Hrithik Roshan and become India’s Nike?
It’s been a promising first year for the brand that is still in the soft launch phase. “[HRX] Sales (and subsequent marketing spends) have exceeded initial estimates by four times,” says Gautam Kotamraju, chief creative officer at Myntra. “It’s not just Hrithik fans buying HRX products… there are regular customers too. Fifty percent are repeat customers,” he says.
Roshan’s consistent brand appeal helps in this regard. “Hrithik’s versatility has allowed him to maintain his brand appeal in spite of his changing image. He used to be the tall, fair, handsome boy next door… now he’s seen as fastidious —someone who puts effort into everything he does and is conscious of his body and appearance,” says brand consultant Harish Bijoor.
And for celebrities who have built equity in the public domain, channelling it into free marketing for a venture they own is a no-brainer. Fellow Bollywood actor Salman Khan was the first to do it at any real scale, albeit in a slightly different way. Khan’s clothing brand Being Human (an extension of his charitable foundation of the same name), set up in 2007, posted revenues of Rs 145 crore in 2013-14, according to The Economic Times. Unlike HRX, though, Being Human has over 100 physical points of sale across India.
While Being Human’s vehicle is social good, HRX’s is personal development through sports, fitness and exercise. Is putting on an HRX shirt going to get a customer to push their boundaries and live a healthier life any more than a pair of Puma sneakers will get its wearer to go for a run?
Says Roshan, “When somebody wears HRX, they should feel unstoppable, invincible.” He continues, “While it may look like a business right now, the reasons behind it are much larger. I want to be a part of the $20 billion self-development movement that exists worldwide by providing self-help with education. HRX’s digital IP is being worked upon, along with ground-level rollouts in schools, colleges and universities.”
At this stage, it’s unclear how HRX will compete with the world’s leading sports apparel brands. But one thing is certain: If Roshan can bring the same focussed approach to HRX that he does to his films and his personal health, the brand has the potential to succeed just as much as he has.
The actor’s manager Zaidi recounts the shooting of an HRX TV commercial. It was a 22-hour marathon that involved Roshan doing pull-ups and other gym exercises. “He kept saying ‘We’re doing it for HRX’,” says Zaidi and adds, “Ek baar pakad liya toh chhodega nahin [Once he holds on to it, he won’t leave it].”
After all, that is the first rule of meeting challenges. And Hrithik Roshan knows a thing or two about that.
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(This story appears in the 26 December, 2014 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)