Rahul Khanna

“People say I’m so choosy, but it’s often the case of not having many choices” – Rahul Khanna

Hailing from the illustrious Khanna family, Rahul Khanna has pretty much done it all. His journey to stardom began on television. As a popular VJ on MTV he gained an immense fan following, especially the ladies who found his cute smile irresistible. He then bid adieu to the idiot box and found his way into films, debuting alongside Aamir Khan and Nandita Das in the internationally proclaimed Earth. Since then, there has been no looking back. Whether it was Bollywood or Hollywood, Rahul has experimented in both worlds of acting and additionally, some theater too. Friendly, charming and oh so cute, it was such fun chatting with Rahul Khanna who took out time from his busy schedule to chat with Roshni Magazine. The actor talks about MTV, Bollywood, Hollywood and West-End plays as well as clarifying myths about his choosiness in selecting films. This is one not to be missed—Rahul Khanna unplugged and at his charismatic self.

You went from becoming of India’s most popular VJ’s to an actor who is rather choosy about his films. Was moving to films a conscious decision?
It was always my ultimate destination to begin with. The fact that I was working for MTV just sort of happened and was a pleasant detour. So my focus was to always end up in films and this was just something that happened and as I said was a small detour. It was fun but never something I planned.

So why did you choose Earth as film to debut in?
It sounds horribly lofty to say that I “chose” it like there were five-hundred people breaking down my door and I chose this one. The opportunity came around and I would have been foolish to say no to it because it was a wonderful project, it was an incredible director. I couldn’t have asked for a better introduction into the film world. And it’s a project that till today possibly holds the most special place in my heart in terms of films I’ve done. It’s like your first love! I mean your first film is always very special and especially a film as special as Earth because it was a wonderful experience.

And then you won the best debut award for the film!
Yeah I did! (Laughs)

Expected or not expected?
No, not expected at all! I didn’t see it as a mainstream Bollywood film so I didn’t it would be in consideration at a function like Filmfare which is all about mainstream Bollywood films.

But you really were incredible in the film. It was filled with greats like Aamir Khan and Nandita Das and you really held your own. I just saw it again for the nth time a week and a half ago.
You did! I haven’t seen it in eight years. But it is a wonderful film. And I think all credit goes to the director. People really responded to my role and honestly I had very little to do with it. It was all Deepa Mehta. She really managed to get something out of me, which I actually did not have. I was very green.

Deepa Mehta and yourself seem to have struck a good chord after Earth. She then repeated you for Bollywood Hollywood. How was it the second time round, considering the genre was totally different this time round?
Yeah she did repeat me. It was very different on many levels; the genres were different, we were both at different places in our lives, in our careers. Earth was a period film so it was very difficult. We shot in the winter in Delhi with lots of extras because a lot more work goes into a period film. Bollywood Hollywood was a frothy romance shot in Toronto. So the whole vibe was so different. Earth was a very difficult film to shoot; Bollywood Hollywood was an easy film, it was like being on vacation.

You’ve worked in both Bollywood and Hollywood films. What some major differences and if any, similarities?
Well, the most obvious one is the organization. The preparation that goes into a Hollywood film has more emphasis on efficiency and scheduling. Everything is meticulously planned, and worked out. Everything is very professional, you have unions to deal with and that’s great. In India everything relies on personal relationships which are much more important than say scheduling or a union. Everyone works on a more informal basis but yet stuff gets done! So it’s completely inefficient.

So which one do you prefer then?
It depends from project to project; it really does. I think what is most important is the people you’re working with and the passion everyone has for that particular project.

What was the experience of working with Kevin Kline in The Emperor’s Club and with Danny Glover in 3AM? 3AM went on to be received superbly at the Sundance Film Festival.
Yeah but 3AM was a minuscule part—it really was. I didn’t have any scenes with Danny Glover. All my work was with Sarita Choudhury, I was playing her brother. It was a really tiny part so I had no interaction with any people. It was fine and over in a blink of an eye. The Emperors Club on the other hand was great fun! I was very intimidated going into it because it was Kevin Kline and Michael Hoffman, the director, whose work I had seen and loved. I had seen Soapdish which is possibly one of my favorite films till today. So I thought, “My God! How am I going just be in the same room as these people?” All I remember from The Emperors Club was laughing a lot! It was all boys; Kevin Kline and four of us, we were all male actors. So it was standing around telling dirty jokes and leaching at all the hot extras (laughs). So it was great fun.

East is East is one of my favorite films and you enacted the part of the bratty Tariq Khan on stage. Your performance was loved by critics all over. Did you expect the accolades you received from the play?
You know I didn’t want to do the play. My manager had called me up and told me that they were casting for the play and I should really be seen and considered for it. I was skeptical about doing a play because it sounds like it’s really tedious and tiresome. The play is very different from the film, it much darker than the film. But she said it’s a fantastic director and the theatre company is fantastic so I just went in for it to keep her happy really. I actually wanted another part—the part of the older brother because I thought it was a more substantial part. But they offered me the role of Tariq who is the foul-mouthed, womanizing, playboy. He’s a total brat and I just couldn’t see myself in the part. But I took it and I remember, I was in India doing a photo shoot for Vogue Magazine and I had to fly back early from the shoot while everyone was taking a day off and relaxing in Rajasthan in a luxurious seven-star hotel, and I had to rush back to the rehearsal for this low-budget play. I was bitching the whole way, saying “I can imagine my manager is making me do this!” However, it turned out to be possibly the most fulfilling professional experience of my life. It was just incredible. The director Scott Elliott is just one of the finest directors I’ve ever worked with. I learnt more from doing the play than I ever learned in acting school. It was such fun! It was the most fun I’ve had on a job in my life! And yeah, eventually half-way through the play I realized that this was a special piece and it was going to be liked by a lot of people.

How different is theater from TV and cinema? And which is your preference now that you’ve dabbled in all three?
Again I’ll go back to say it really depends on the project. They all are pretty similar, it’s the same craft. It’s a similar situation, be it a film, a play or television. And it really depends on the material, whether it’s something you connect to, whether it’s something you feel passionate about, and most importantly, whether the people you’re working with, have the same energy about it as you do.

Do you miss VJing on MTV at all?
No never! (Laughs) I mean it’s something I look back on very fondly. I had great times, made a lot of wonderful friends, did a lot of travelling, met some incredibly talented musicians and performers—it was all great fun. But after a point, it was just doing the same thing over and over again. I was challenged or stimulated. I was starting to get a little bored and it was time to move on. The short answer is I loved it but it’s not something I miss.

What was the experience of studying at Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute? What was the most valuable lesson you learnt that you could share with aspiring actors?
Hmmm… (thinks). I’m trying to think about what exactly I learnt there! It was also a fun time. You know what’s great about acting school? It teaches you a bit of discipline. And you are also exposed to so much material that you wouldn’t normally get exposed to, plays and movies. Your teacher will set you an assignment to do from X play and you get to read a play you would have never read, ever before. You get to read a lot of plays that are referenced like, Tennessee Williams or Shakespeare—stuff you wouldn’t normally read. Even now that I am a professional actor, when will I ever read Tennessee Williams or when do I pick up a Shakespeare? So it was nice to have that exposure so that now you have a point of reference.

You’ve worked in rather different films; different styles and plots. Which film could you most relate to?
Hmmm…(thinks) Possibly my character in Bollywood Hollywood is the closest to me and I could relate to.

Your films may have not done well at the box-office but have been critically acclaimed: Raqeeb, Tahaan and Dil Kabaddi are just a few. What do you look for when you sign a film?
You know honestly I’m still trying to figure out what I should be looking for. Some people have a knack knowing what will work and what would be good. I don’t! I really rely on a lot of advice from people. At certain points people have told me, “You should be doing this, or that.” And I would sign that film only to later on realize, “Oh God! Why did I sign this!” So I don’t know. I go a lot by gut and instinct. If I read a script, and I like it or if I feel like the director is going to be good. But I’m often wrong so I’m still trying to figure that out.

Do you feel that you have much pressure to succeed because your father and brother are both established actors?
I don’t respond to people’s pressure that they put on me—I just don’t. But I feel like I put a lot of pressure on myself. Often I don’t feel creatively challenged. I want to be doing more stuff. People say I’m so choosy, but it’s often the case of not having that many or that good choices to choose from. So it comes across as being choosy but sometimes what’s offered to me, there’s not a lot that could be right for me. So I’m constantly in search of something. I would like to be doing films back-to-back but I don’t get any films that I am creatively excited by.

Rumor has it, you are considering direction. True or false? IF so, can we get a glimpse into who you plan to sign for the lead roles and what will the film be about?
You know I read something like that but those rumors are completely false in terms of, I have a project and I’m going ahead with it, no. But at some point I would love to direct and I’ve always said that. Definitely something I will do at some point.

How strange! I read the script was ready, the set was ready and you were just finalizing the cast.

Yeah and apparently my Dad was producing it! Yeah, I read all that. No that is completely false, there is no such thing but yes, at some point I would definitely love to direct and the minute I feel there is an opportunity to do that, I will do that.

Will we ever see you in an all out Bollywood film equipped with dancing around trees et al?
Well I’ve done plenty of it! Elaan was full of dancing and as Bollywood as they come, so was Raqeeb. I’m in two mega Bollywood project which is Love Aaj Kal and Wake Up Sid. I mean do people do a lot of dancing around trees anymore? No! (Laughs) But did you see Elaan? Does it get more Bollywood than that?

Tell us about your relationship with PETA and your advocacy for elephants.
I’ve been in-touch with them for a while and they are a charity I support. And they do wonderful work in India. I know there work in the U.S. is slightly more sensationalist but in India they do a lot of really great advocacy and grass root work which is very admirable. Its run by this incredible firecracker of a woman called, Anuradha Sawhney who I have the highest regard for—she’s fantastic. So she approached me for the Elephant advocacy and it’s a no-brainer. I mean I love animals and I’m happy to help in anyway. And it’s really a group I admire very much in India. I don’t know much about their work outside, but in India they are wonderful.

We hear you’re an avid blogger.
No I’m not! I used to but I haven’t updated my blog in a long time and everyone complains about that. I’m not one of those bloggers who writes everyday and says, “Today I did this and so on,” but I really should blog more often.

So what do you get up to in your spare time?
I fight crime! (Laughs) I read, travel, watch movies, go to the gym, do yoga everyday! So I find plenty to keep myself busy.

What advice do you have for any aspiring actors?
Well first I’d like to congratulate them for being aspiring actors because it’s really tough— I know it’s very tough. And I would say try to hold on to the passion you have for it as much as possible because I think that is really what carries you forward. I look at some actors who have been in the business for year and decades, and they have no passion left and they are just doing it as a job. And that is always sad to see. But then you see actors like say…Anil Kapoor who after decades in the business, he so enthusiastic about everything. He just loves his job and that is incredible to see. So I would say hang on to your passion.

~ Roshni M.
(August 2009)

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