Shah Rukh Khan’s latest film, Raees, arrives in cinemas tomorrow, more than six months after its original July 2016 release date.
Its journey to the screen was troubled, involving postponements, legal challenges and even an outright ban, following the Uri bombings in Kashmir, due to the presence of Pakistani actress Mahira Khan in the cast.
At last, audiences can see what all the fuss was about. Khan, who was in Dubai on Saturday to promote the film, says they can look forward to seeing him in a slightly different role than usual.
“I normally do very urban roles – an urban cool kind of guy, I guess it’s just the way I am,” he says. “So this is something a little different.”
Raees is set in provincial Gujurat, with much of the action taking place in Ahmedabad’s notorious slums. The relocation was not too difficult, however.
“With a director like Rahul [Dholakia] and some great fellow actors, it’s easy,” he says. “As an actor, when you get chance to do something with a little variance, it’s fine for me. I don’t design films for myself.”
The 51-year-old plays the titular Raees, a gangster involved in drugs, bootlegging and all manner of nefarious activities. It is not the first time he has played a character with less than perfect morals, but is he worried that playing such an outright villain might alienate his famously adoring fan base?
“There is always a question when you play a morally wrong character,” he says. “But I think all writing, whether film or journalism or poetry, is a reflection of society. It’s our duty as entertainers and writers to bring that to the fore.
“My friends do sometimes say to me, ‘You should just play the good guy’ – but I need to wake up in the morning and feel excited about what I’m going to do that day. Otherwise it just becomes a job, and I need to keep my creative juices flowing by playing a range of characters. Sometimes it’ll be a nice, socially responsible good person, or it can go to the badness of Raees – and it’s very enriching as an artist to do that.”
Khan cites a proverb to explain his approach to his career.
“There’s an old Hindu saying, and I’ll translate it for you,” he says. “‘Do one for the money, one for the heart’ – and this one is definitely for the heart.
“God has been kind and given me an audience that seems to love me whatever work I do. I’m grateful for that, and it also encourages me further to keep trying new and different roles.”
The actor also points out that despite his criminal tendencies, at heart Raees is basically good.
“We should all be a little bit like the character of Raees,” he says. “He looks after his people. There is a dignity in the way he takes responsibility for his actions, whatever the retribution or the punishment may be. I would like everyone to be a bit more like that.”
It has been a difficult couple of years for Bollywood, with some surprise, high-profile box-office flops – Khan’s own Fan included.
He seems to think the industry could help itself to stay relevant in a rapidly changing world by taking note of his desire to try new things and different roles.
“The world is shrinking for Indian films, thanks to wonderful distributors, the diaspora in countries such as the UK and the UAE, and of course the digital world,” he says. “Indian films will have to change their focus, the language of the screenplay and script writing, and make it appealing to the world.
“We still have a very niche way of making films: we have three acts, mostly musicals. I think that part needs to change and, as that changes, I think the subject matter, acting capability, scriptwriting capability, producing capability, directing capability – all of that is there already in India, we just need to think about the way we portray ourselves in terms of the language of the screenplay and story.”
Khan also hopes Bollywood will tackle more socially important subject matter.
“Inshallah, soon Indian films will start looking at issues such as female empowerment and other personal and social issues. Some do already but it is a global world now and we need to recognise that and change the [cinematic] language of Indian films if we want to remain successful.”
• Raees is in cinemas from tomorrow