Exclusive| The Imran Khan interview: From his depression, to comeback after 10 years, to ladylove Lekha Washington

His apartment is almost empty. We spot a leather chair that needs repairing. There are his daughter, Imara’s toys at one corner. He pulls out two floor cushions and we start off. Actor Imran Khan has just returned from South Mumbai from his “analysis”, he says. We curiously ask what’s that, and he simplifies it: therapy. “I have four sessions a week,” he says. How does one go from being the chocolate boy in films such as Jaane Tu… Ya Jaane Na (2008), Mere Brother Ki Dulhan (2011)… to seeking therapy? Excerpts from a chat over coffee:

Actor Imran Khan in an exclusive chat with HT City.

Your comeback is hot property Imran. How does this love by fans feel, nine years after you stopped working in films?

Truth be told, it is a little surprising. When I was actively working, I had PRs, managers, and then in addition to that, you also had to come on social media. When I sought to get away from all that, I dropped all of these things. My intention was to not be present in the public domain. After spending 10 years trying to be invisible, for people to have that curiosity is somewhat counterintuitive. Almost all brands have approached me in the last year for endorsements. I turned down everyone. I don’t want people to say ‘he’s back for the money’.

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From deciding to become an actor, to wanting to be invisible- how did this transition happen?

It was kind of a growing realization that the more of what I was engaging in… all of the things which one is told that if you do, you will have a successful career, your value will grow, you will be happy. I realized that actually they were not tied in for me.

Imran Khan's acting career began with the 2008 hit Jaane Tu... Ya Jaane Na.
Imran Khan’s acting career began with the 2008 hit Jaane Tu… Ya Jaane Na.

Weren’t you fascinated with stardom because you saw it very closely via your family?

It’s quite the opposite. I’ve never had any interest or value for it. It is such a ridiculous ephemeral thing. I’ll tell you the first taste of fame that I got. I shot for my first film without it releasing. Then I shot for my second film Kidnap also without it having a release. Then I started shooting Luck. So by the time Jaane Tu.. released, I was halfway into the filming of Luck. So at that point, I was dubbing for Kidnap. The studio was pure vegetarian. At some point I had ordered non vegetarian food and they would not let me eat inside the studio. They gave me a plastic chair, put it outside where the cars are parked and I ate there. I had got accustomed to it. I spent a couple of weeks doing that, until the trailer of Jaane Tu… released and suddenly it was on television. I walk in and everyone in the studio is saying ‘Sir that’s you‘ I’m like it’s the same guy who’s been coming here for three weeks. I go in, I do my dub, and then, lunch break. I step out and there is a row of these guys standing there with a tray of mutton biryani, plates, spoons, forks. They say ‘sir, why don’t you sit in the air conditioned lounge’. Sir? Now when these guys have spent three weeks making you sit on a plastic chair outside and then the next day they say sir, sir, sir, how much value do you give to this sudden outpouring of love and affection where they are falling over themselves? Do I take it seriously?

That’s certainly enjoyable though, being treated with respect in your 20s…

I grew up in a family that was making films but not enamoured with the glitz. The way that my uncle Aamir Khan and my uncle Mansoor, my granddad, approached the work was this is our craft. This is not something we do to seek glory. The drug of celebrity is ultimately not nourishing you in any way. It’s not a real thing. I’ve had a fair bit of time to live with the thing and to really deconstruct the notion of celebrity. It is ridiculous, the fact that we pay great attention to people who we don’t actually know, we have strong feelings and opinions about people who we don’t actually know of. People don’t treat you like you’re a normal human being with pluses and minuses. You are either the greatest or the worst.

Jaane Tu… became a big hit. You were the next big thing, compared with Ranbir Kapoor. Were you actively a part of the fame game?

I never considered competition. How do you actually measure this? And the idea that if I make a really good film and it is very successful, then somebody else loses- until their next film comes. So then their film earns more, suddenly my film is now less? So now should we delete all of those old films and any film that has earned less than 300 crores? A great example is my uncle’s film Andaz Apna Apna, a box office bomb. But it has built a cult status over the years. The film was a flop with a capital f, and nobody remembers that. Today we all love it.

Imran Khan's second film Kidnap was a dud at the box office.
Imran Khan’s second film Kidnap was a dud at the box office.

Kidnap was your first failure after the debut high. Did that trigger you?

I was never convinced about how Kidnap was going. I felt out of sync with it. I worked with first time filmmakers in many films. And over there, I think we were kind of in sync. But in Kidnap, Sanjay Gadhvi was an accomplished filmmaker from another school and generation of storytellers. The way that he would direct me was highly restricting. He didn’t have actors on set. He would have two ADs, one portraying me, one portraying Minissha Lamba. He would have them play out the scene and he would block the entire thing with the camera and record it on video. Then we would both come in and he would show it to us and we had to do it exactly like that. Finally, when I watched the film, I was not very thrilled. The way that we had worked on Jaane Tu was more organic. That was closer to my type. Abbas at 31 was the oldest guy on set. Everyone else was 23-24. So we were doing something that was real and organic to us. That was the disconnect in Kidnap. That is the disconnect that I felt in a lot of the films.

Do you look back at these decisions as regrets?

No. I would try to choose things that resonated with me somewhere. I loved Break Ke Baad. It did not do well commercially, was labelled a flop. I was like, ‘oh man, I like this film’ So that kind of spoiled the taste for me.

What was the point when you felt the disillusionment. Was it the failure of films or just the vibe of the industry?

The industry is the industry. See, box office ups and downs every actor in history has had… how the critics rate your work- again, every actor in history has engaged with that. That is just standard. And as an individual, you have to kind of find your equilibrium, what is it you’re seeking. And the notion that there is only one thing to want. You must become Shah Rukh Khan or Amitabh Bachchan, anything else you’re a loser. Really? Can we not make a wide assortment of films of all kinds of all genres, across all budgets, appealing to different audiences?

But you did have a big house, a fancy sports car, you lived the conventional star life like everyone. How were you any different?

Being 26-27 and having bucket loads of money thrown at you is exciting. It is intoxicating. and there is that initial flush of, I’m not only financially independent, they’re paying me at a scale that is way disproportionate to anything that makes sense. So there is a certain excitement that comes with that. At least in my case, I quickly said there’s only so much interest that I have, I’m not okay with it. I have enough shoes. Now, how many more shoes would I buy? I don’t wear them. Like how many different shoes every day? They are taking up space. You start to kind of say, ok, you know, I’m not really excited by it.

Why did you quit films? Because of Katti Batti flopping?

No, it was not a specific thing. It was a gradual realization… I’m doing all of those things in which you sign an endorsement, do appearances, this brand thing. I’m earning more money, but I’m not interested by it. I’m not I’m not feeling like whatever feeling you’re supposed to get, if I’ve earned this much money in a year. I said until I read or hear a film I want to do for free, I won’t do a film. And I did, I directed a short film in 2018, Mars: Keep Walking, which was a labour of absolute love.

So you just started telling people you have quit acting, and left your projects?

I was attached to a few films then. I backed out of a couple of films at that point. I was in extended talks on a film which I believe, ended up being called Thar (the Netflix film starring Anil Kapoor). I was in an early stage of development on that film. And Harsh Varrdhan played that role. I started pulling back. I never issued a press statement either saying on this day I retired. These are also years that I was very actively dealing with depression.

When did you get diagnosed?

The thing about depression, anxiety, all of these things is there are shades that exist yet you don’t recognize. Of course, until I had the vocabulary for a lot of it, I do not consider that I had anxiety. It’s only as you start to become a little conscious… when you can’t sleep in the middle of the night and you wake up at 4:30 in the morning- oh, is that anxiety? I didn’t really consider that. It didn’t strike me in a way that it was significant enough for me to pay attention. I guess around late 2016 I started to really get it. I was like, you know what, I’m not feeling okay. It’s like chronic back pain or something over time will go away. You don’t pay attention until one day you stop and say man my back has been hurting. Maybe I should go to a doctor. So it was that kind of a gradual realization. I was not feeling like the guy who I think I am in my head. I realized that while I think of myself as that, actually, I was a very fearful person, I was very anxious.

So you started therapy in 2016. What was it like?

There is a whole process of getting used to the thing, and because it’s not unlike going to the gym. Most people don’t really want to go to the gym. There are many days you’re like ‘oh, I will just skip the gym today, I don’t want to go and lift heavy weights’ It’s really tiring. Same for therapy- because you have to go there and you have to talk when you don’t know what’s wrong. You may not know that the thing is, you have to look at the parts that are scariest, the parts that are most uncomfortable.

A lot was happening in your personal life too then. You were a father, going through separation (from ex wife Avantika), apart from professional setbacks…

Being a father made it easier. It made me resolute that I need to fix my health. I had responsibility as a parent. So I have to be there, be the best father that I can. The thing that you hear on airplanes ‘put your mask on before helping If I am not, well, if I am not the best version of myself, how can I be the best father? So that is one thing that I consider to be a foundation piece for me. I am privileged to be financially secured. I don’t have to pay for things, I don’t have to worry about the roof over my head.

You had disappeared, but rumours and pieces about your marriage and personal life would keep coming out. Were you reading all this?

I approached it with this idea of the separation between the real me and what people say. How much do you engage? And how much do you make that real? We report on Hollywood news also. If one of our Indian publications writes a nasty piece about some Hollywood actor, would that person even read it for sure? So it is written by someone who has never met that person. It will be read by 7000 people who have also never met that person. So I said, you know what, somebody who doesn’t know me speaks about me to a dozen people, who also don’t know me or my world. The idea of somebody speculating something and me saying ‘how can they speculate something that is false?’, then get stressed- I don’t have time for it. You just let those people do their thing because they will do it anyway. What I actually cared about is the people who will come to my face and say Imran, I have a question and directly say. I can look at them and say, ‘do I owe you an answer? Who are you?’ Somebody is saying some shit about me, right? I don’t give a f***. All of that stuff people said about me was coming from somewhere.

What kind of a space are you in mentally right now? Do you feel healthy now?

I feel a sense of strength, clarity that I’ve not felt really since I was you know, in my early twenties. You feel relieved of these strange external burdens that people put on themselves My daughter is about to be 10 years old. We split custody. I have her with me Thursday to Sunday. So we split the week. It’s all settled and sorted. I and Avantika are legally divorced. Papers are signed. It’s been a couple of years now. Again, I just didn’t consider that it was anyone’s business to speak of.

I do all of the stuff for Imara without any nanny. I drive her to school myself in the morning. I pick her up. The limited amount of cooking that I can do, I do for her. I put her to bed. And that also is something that I was very conscious.. rather than going off and trying to act in movies while I’m depressed. I was like, forget that. The most important thing is she should have the memory and the experience that in my childhood, my dad was the one who would drive me to school.

Your relationship with Lekha Washington is hot topic. Tell us something about her, how did it all start?

I understand how the media works. I’m still so bemused by it, like the level of excitement, interest in me. I have consciously tried to shield this part because of the complications of me divorcing and ending my marriage, which is always something that gets everyone… it’s a very goss topic, which then leads to wild speculation. I was trying to shield from that ugliness and then in the aftermath of that, starting a new relationship. The weird threads that get attached to it…I have really tried to shield that part of my life and my relationship from public scrutiny.

Lekha has been a tremendously positive and healthy influence in my life as a person, she is caring, supportive, loving to a fault. She has been very helpful. As I’ve grappled with depression and rebuilding myself, the kind of nurturing and support that I’ve gotten from her, I don’t know that I would have been able to to make this journey without her.

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