King Khan opens tomorrow!

Last week, when Shah Rukh Khan launched The Making of Asoka, a book on the film which releases tomorrow, he was in an unusually good mood. Speaking to ASHISH VIRMANI on his forthcoming film, Khan explained the genesis and execution of Asoka whose success or failure, he says, “Will decide whether I ever make a film again.”

Where did the idea for Asoka come from?
It was Santosh Sivan's idea. I remember we were filming Chaiyya Chaiyya for Mani Ratnam's Dil Se and I was perched precariously on the roof of a train. It was probably the most adventurous song of my career singing and dancing on the roof of a moving train. There was this whole troupe to co-ordinate the steps with, my own balance to maintain, the bridges and tunnels on the train's track...And then during a break in the filming, Santosh, who was sitting on the roof of the coach opposite me asked, "Would you like to do Asoka?" I was taken in by the guy's spontaneity. My concern was the train and the dance and here was this guy's own train of thought...asking me if I would like to be part of his dream.

But what made you decide to go ahead and produce the movie?

If you ask me I never really have the reason to do anything because I think reason is the other side of excuse. Both, may not necessarily be right. You do something because you feel like it and feeling is never controlled by reason. Here was Santosh, a genius with a little dementia and there were we, Juhi and I, traditional people who like normal Hindi films. If as friends who have worked together for the past three years, we were to find the right equation of eccentricity and tradition, we would create a different kind of cinema.

So is it a commercial movie or an art film?
It's difficult to say. You bother about the things you can control, you can't say what a film will finally turn out like — whether creative or commercial. Asoka will neither be commercial nor ever be completely art. It will be somewhere in between. Not the Chashme Buddoor or Dil Chahta Hai kind of middle of the road...it will be a confused middle of the road movie that is trying to find its own place.

What was acting in the movie like?
I'm a weak actor when it comes to creating historical characters. One of the fears I had as an actor was, "Would I be able to create a Gandhi like Ben Kingsley or a Ghalib like Naseerbhai?" I was very scared. But whenever I played a shot Santosh would first tell me, "Play it the way Shah Rukh Khan would play it". After I had finished doing that he would say, "Now play it exactly the opposite of what you did," and he would film that. As an actor I knew I could get it right by just playing it technically. But there are also moments when I approach it with the newness, the freshness and felt good about it.

Any other adaptations you had to make for the character?
I had to work on my voice too. I would sort of lean on one side during the dubbing sessions so that my voice comes out a bit strained. We have kept dialogue very quiet and silent. In the whole film, there isn't a single scene where I have raised my voice, except in the climax when I let out one scream. To him it was a scream of victory, for me it was a scream of anguish. I told Santosh that Ashoka should sound anguished. I had to dub it ten times. (Ruefully) People don't understand this but to me it was important that the scream sounded like a scream of anguish.

What made you decide to publish a book on The Making of Asoka?
The idea was mooted by Javed Akhtar. And when I thought about it, I realised that the subject matter lends itself to the book. I'd have liked a book on Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge considering the movie is the longest running Bollywood movie ever but with Asoka it's better late than never.

You went with Asoka to the Venice Film Festival. What was the reaction there like?
It was great. What struck me was the graciousness that everyone showed. I mean, here I was with these international directors and actors who don't understand a word of Hindi and even much after Asoka had been screened, while I was standing with my son Aryaan, they recognised me and were very respectful. It was a nice feeling.

Apparently you were slated to write the epilogue on Sept. 11 from New York, which is what you did...
Yes it was the last piece of work I did for Asoka when the World Trade Centre had disappeared from the Manhattan skyline. I was on my way to promote the film in Toronto and we'd worked out a string of promotional interviews and photo shoots while we were in America and Canada. Everything had been worked out, all details had been taken care of... then the WTC happened ten blocks away from us. Five minutes later the concept of tomorrow ceased to exist for hundreds and thousands of people....not only in New York but also around the world. For both them and in a way for us, promotionally, tomorrow never came.

What did the Dalai Lama think of the film when you showed it to him?
His Holiness saw the visual aspects of the film not the entire film, because it wasn't ready when we showed it to him. It was Jai Mehta's idea to show it to him, since it contained Ashoka's conversion to Buddhism as a focal point of reference. I imagine he liked it. His Holiness went on to give an introduction to the book for which I am grateful.

Does Buddhism have any impact on your life?
Not necessarily. We have depicted the story of a great man, someone on the threshold of being better than most of humanity. I hate to admit it but I'm not like that. I'm far too material.