It’s two hours in, and we’re only just seeing signs that this interview might be happening. After greeting almost every TV network in the Gulf, posing with a multitude of starry-eyed women and sitting down to a big bowl of Caesar salad, Shah Rukh Khan finally looks like he might have time to talk. But he just needs to step out for a quick smoke first.
SRK famously runs according to his own schedule. Fellow journalists, hanging around the Dubai International Film Festival and waiting for the moment when he might have time for a five-minute chat, also bemoan the length of time one expects when speaking to Bollywood’s biggest name.
But, finally, when he does settle to tell The National about his latest movie Don 2: The Chase Continues, released in cinemas across the UAE today, SRK displays another hallmark of his off-screen character – amiable self-deprecation.
“It’s very strange – I never thought I’d be working for this many years,” says the 46-year-old actor, who’s so far appeared in more than 75 films and produced 13. “When I first came to Mumbai from Delhi, I was 25 and my parents had just died, so I thought I’d go for one year for a change of scene.
“When I started, most people didn’t think I had the right kind of face.”
That face, Khan continues, has been vital to lending him some distinction in the business. It’s what has allowed him to straddle the divide between being the traditional romantic protagonist of Hindi epics and a career as the industry’s go-to anti-hero.
The evolution of this anti-hero mantle, pioneered by veteran star Amitabh Bachchan, Bollywood’s first “young angry man”, led to a remake of the 1978 Bachchan classic, Don, which kick-started the contemporary Don franchise.
In the initial 2006 remake, Don: The Chase Begins Again, Khan played the titular role – an enigmatic big wheel in the Malaysian wing of an international crime syndicate and the leader of a remarkably attractive group of fellow kingpins (including Priyanka Chopra).
Don is captured by Indian operatives, led by DCP D’Silva (Boman Irani) and Malik (Om Puri), who know that he holds the key to catching Singhania (Rajesh Khattar) at the head of the cartel. A famous singer who just happens to look like Don (also played by Khan) is drafted in to infiltrate the gang and pull things down from the inside. What follows is a torrent of explosions, impromptu musical interludes and scenes of Khan behaving like a more dastardly Bond.
Don 2: The Chase Continues picks up where the first left off. Still at large and with the Malaysian underworld at his feet, Don casts his eyes to European domination and makes Berlin the centre of operations. Irani and Puri return to put a stop to this, with the help of Germany’s security services, and the film makes full use of the city’s architectural collision of new and old.
“Technically speaking, and the precision with which they do stuff in Germany, was fantastic,” says Khan. “But I had this idea that the Germans would not be very forthcoming; I thought they’d be stern. The warmth of the people was a huge surprise.”
It’s no coincidence that the movie has been set in Berlin: Bollywood has gained a surprisingly robust following among Germans in recent years – so much so that fans kept a near-constant vigil outside the crew’s hotel throughout the 60 days of filming, and a German-language dub of the film is being released concurrently.
“I find it very strange that the Germans like my films – but they tell me: ‘We have a button for coffee, a button for driving, but we don’t have a button for crying. That’s what your films do.’”
Director Farhan Akhtar explains how Berlin provided the perfect backdrop for Don 2 after the polished futurism of Kuala Lumpur seen in the first movie: “I think the combination of modern and historical makes Berlin interesting. It’s somewhere that not a lot of Indians are familiar with and haven’t really seen in an Indian film before.
The Don films have gained a substantial following for their stunts, and the latest offering features SRK hurling himself off a 300-foot high building in downtown Berlin. With Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol getting its world premiere in the UAE only a couple of nights earlier, it seemed only right to ask Akhtar what his own movie can bring to the West’s stunt-obsessed action-movie genre. “Don is not a copy of these movies, but if I have to think of my influences, it started with Die Hard, which is still the best action movie,” he says.
“These American movies are very direct in their goal – moving from A to B, and all the action complements the story moving toward that. If there is any similarity, it’s the idea that this movie needs to have this single goal and focus.”
Don 2 was a long time coming, as SRK had to recuperate from a shoulder injury during the filming of a fight scene in Dulha Mil Gaya in 2008. “It felt nice getting back to it,” says the actor. “For the first eight months, everyone was extra careful on set, but I’m glad I pulled it off – 89 per cent of the stunts were done by me.”
In the interim, he played less physically demanding roles such as the lead in My Name Is Khan, portraying a man with Asperger’s syndrome who lives in the US, who goes in search of an audience with George W Bush after September 11 isolates his Muslim family from their increasingly paranoid American community.
Coming from an emotionally demanding role like that to Don – something “over the top”, says Khan – was a much-needed return to play the anti-hero.
“My Name Is Khan was quite intense. I always thought I’d play roles like that later when I had stopped having so much fun being myself,” he says.
But as Anil Kapoor breaks into Hollywood with MI4, and took the lead role in Slumdog Millionaire originally offered to Khan, SRK says he’s not gunning for a similar move. “Unless there was a Hollywood film about a 46-year-old guy who’s brown and an Indian, what would I do? I don’t dance better than John Travolta. I don’t look nicer than Tom Cruise. I don’t aspire to not because I don’t want to, but because I can’t.”
There are, however, rumours of the actor sharing the screen with Leonardo DiCaprio in Paul Schrader’s forthcoming Xtreme City, reportedly to be produced by Martin Scorsese, about Mumbai’s crime underbelly.
“I still have to read it,” says SRK. “It would require six to eight months of preparations and I have two more commitments that I have to complete.”
Keeping up such momentum requires not getting too wrapped up in reviews, he says. “The first 18 years of my career I was very result-orientated, but then you learn that there’s no way that every story you tell is going to be liked by everyone.”
SRK exhales a plume of smoke to the ceiling. “More often than not, that works.”
Don 2: The Chase Continues opens in cinemas today.