By Beth Watkins
In part two of an interview continued from last week, actor Rahul Khanna tells The Wall Street Journal’s India Real Time about studying film in New York while working unglamorous part-time jobs, his multi-cultural, genre-defying career, and his upcoming projects. Edited excerpts:
WSJ: How has your training at the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute affected your acting career?
Mr. Khanna: I’m not sure. It was all very serious and technical and I don’t think I fully understood how to apply that to actually working in a real movie or on the stage. I maintain that there’s no better training for an actor than working on a film set, even if it’s just as an assistant director. I also studied film and video at the School of Visual Arts. It’s my dream to someday direct.
No education is ever wasted. Who knows what you subconsciously retain and use. If nothing else, I was exposed to so many great plays and screenplays (that we would do scenes from) I would otherwise never have read. Plus, I had very international classmates, which was also educational, albeit in a somewhat less than academic sense.
WSJ: What appealed most about relocating to New York City?
Mr. Khanna: It was the early 90s and it was an exciting and formative time. It was my first experience of living on my own, that too outside of India, and I was intoxicated by the city and everything it proffered. At every given opportunity I would be at independent cinema houses, fringe theatres, galleries or music clubs and I made some very interesting friends along the way. Those years really shaped my sensibilities and tastes. I was also on a ridiculously frugal allowance, so I was constantly working part-time jobs to supplement that. I worked in a Tom—as in “Tom and Jerry”—costume at street fairs, as a salesperson in a novelty store, as an office receptionist, conducting test movie screenings and even hosting shows for a local Indian cable station before I got my first “real” job with MTV.
WSJ: Was it refreshing to be in a place where most people probably don’t know who your dad is [actor and politician Vinod Khanna] and have related expectations?
Mr. Khanna: Completely. I have always been a private person and growing up in Bombay was a bit stifling in that way. I remember my brother Akshaye and me being constantly pointed out as my dad’s kids and whispered about, everywhere we went. I don’t mind people approaching or engaging me in a public place but I hate being stared at. I find it so much more intrusive. New York really gave me the space to grow into myself, and I recommend that anyone who has the opportunity should try and live there at some point during their adult life.
WSJ: Weren’t you off filming something in a wild and wooly-looking location a few months ago?
Mr. Khanna: I have just finished shooting a new film called “Fireflies.” It’s directed by Sabal Shekhawat, who is one of India’s top ad film directors, and this is his first feature film. It was shot in Bombay, Bangkok and Sri Lanka. It’s a simple, poignant story about the impact a childhood tragedy has on the lives and relationships of two brothers. It stars Arjun Mathur, Monica Dogra, Shivani Ghai and myself. Apart from that, I am currently negotiating an exciting offer to return to the New York stage, which I really hope works out. Outside of acting, there’s also talk of a men’s clothing line, which I think would be great fun to do as soon as I zero in on the right business partner.
WSJ: Is there anyone in particular you’re dying to work with? What does a Rahul Khanna dream project consist of?
Mr. Khanna: I’m a visual person and, above anything else, I am drawn to filmmakers who push the envelope with a strong visual style. I would absolutely love to have the opportunity to work with the likes of Tarantino, Baz Lurhmann and Peter Greenaway. Closer to home, I really like the work of Mira Nair, Anurag Kashyap and Vishal Bharadwaj. My dream project would be a really gripping story told in a really slick style. I love stylish heist movies and would love to do something along the lines of “To Catch a Thief,” “The Thomas Crown Affair,” “Inside Man” or “Ocean’s Eleven.”
WSJ: You haven’t done many films that could really be classified as straight-up masala. Is that something you’d like to try more of?
Mr. Khanna: You know, I’d absolutely love to but not many people ask me to do those types of films. Still, I’ve worked with some very masala filmmakers: producers Karan Johar (“Wake Up Sid”) and Raj Kanwar (“Raqeeb”) and directors Imtiaz Ali (“Love Aaj Kal”) and Vikram Bhatt (“Elaan”). If I had to choose a fantasy masala project, I’ve always thought that an “Amar Akbar Anthony” remake would be an absolute blast.
WSJ: Are there any roles you’ve done that you’d like to have another crack at?
Mr. Khanna: I would like to do a serious dancing bootcamp and give the “Rang, Rang…” song in “Bollywood/ Hollywood” another whirl. We just had a very brief rehearsal before the shoot, which I sulked and rolled my eyes all the way through. At the time I was all like, “I hate dancing. Why am I being made to do this?” In spite of that, the song went on to become such a huge hit. I would love to go back and give it its due.
WSJ: Your career path has been multi-cultural, as well as cutting across different genres of films. How has working in different languages, countries, and cultures influenced you as an actor? Do the experiences interrelate well or is there too much ‘institutional culture’ to carry much over from Deepa Mehta to Imtiaz Ali?
Mr. Khanna: There are superficial differences. The catering on American productions is pretty spectacular, for one. Everything is very professional and organized and actors are very well protected thanks to the unions. For instance, even though I’ve only done a small amount of work in the U.S., I still get residual (royalty) cheques in the mail whenever one of the projects is sold or screened in a new territory. We don’t have that system in India yet. However, everything in India functions on personal relationships. It’s a warm environment; like working with family. A person’s word and your equation with them have way more value than paper contracts. But ultimately, it’s all about telling a story using a camera. On any set, no matter where, geographically, it boils down to, ‘Roll sound! Camera! Action!’
Beth Watkins has been blogging for more than five years at Beth Loves Bollywood. She is an expert on Bollywood history and lore as well as contemporary movies and actors. You can follow Ms. Watkins on Twitter at @BethLovesBolly.
Original interview: http://blogs.wsj.com/indiarealtime/2012/10/01/bollywood-journal-rahul-khanna-on-life-outside-india/