Turn On Your Star Light

Secret of Stardom Shah Rukh Khan

So here’s what I experienced last night:

Travelling by private jet. Check.
Police escort and bouncers. Check.
Being chauffeured in a Rolls Royce Phantom. Check.
Partying with people considered legends. Check.
Twelve thousand screaming fans. Check.

Not many of us experience the superstar life, let alone all in one evening, but I did when I travelled from Mumbai to Chennai along with actor Shah Rukh Khan to receive the Chevalier Sivaji Ganesan award last night. It was a grand event being televised for an estimated global audience of ten million viewers. Shah Rukh was being flown 1300 kms just for a few hours. And as I waited in the whisper-quiet lounge of the Corporate Aviation terminal for Shah Rukh, who was late as usual, I marveled at what a big deal it all was going to be.

But when I look back, what moved me finally were the quiet, almost unnoticed things that Shah Rukh did along the way. The little jokes he shared with the security officers at the private airport. Like the macho security guard whose nametag read “R Meena”. Shah Rukh checked with him about his name again, and asked him where he was from, and said with a grin, “Don’t mind, sir, but in my film, the heroine is called Meena.” As Shah Rukh gave him a brotherly half-hug, the man glowed at the attention not many billionaires gave him.

On the plane, a super mid-sized Challenger 605, he remembered to ask the pilot if the pictures they had taken the last time had turned out well. And reminded the flight attendant to please get more of the little candy sweets he had fallen in love with. As we entered, the cabin was still being fumigated and clouds of surreal smoky mist floated across our knees. When the flight attendant began to apologize profusely, he stopped her, “No, I don’t mind – except that I start feeling that I am doing a love song.”

When we landed, there was a stunning black Rolls Royce Phantom waiting for us. Sitting inside, Shah Rukh was amused to discover that the Rolls Royce had a mute button for the car stereo embedded on the back seat window. With the wide-eyed glee of a child, he pressed it again and again. And we spoke about the joy he gets from the quiet charity he does as he gets older and his plans to spend more time with it. We spoke about prayers and bringing up our children to remember their parents for what they contributed to the planet.

When our car pulled up at the stadium gate, he was still in his travelling clothes – frayed jeans, t-shirt, sneakers and unkempt hair – and was unhappy by the security phalanx pushing away all photographers and cameras till he changed into his formal suit backstage. “This is how I look,” he said with a smile. “What’s wrong if they photograph me?”

A quick change in the van later, he emerged wearing a cravat and a bow-tie and a jet black suit and slicked back hair, looking every inch a superstar. The crowd roared as he walked in and he waved back and sat on his front-row round table. When I pointed out to him an A-list director sitting a few round tables back with his family, Shah Rukh got up and walked into the crowd to him and hugged him. The director sent me an SMS a few seconds later: Wow, I can’t believe Shah Rukh Khan hugged me.

What I will remember about the evening was his willingness to do things far beyond what was expected of him. That is a lesson worth learning: how to give love so totally to others, that their love rushes back to us, as if to fill the space created. How to stop calculating, conserving, protecting and simply become an open-hearted blessing to every person you meet for a little while. To give with the utter confidence that the Universe invariably returns the same goodness. Or even better, to give like one to whom the Universe has already given too much goodness.

At the stadium, on the hottest evening of May, with the temperature above 40 degrees centigrade, it was so hot that within a few minutes Shah Rukh looked like he had been drenched in a thunder shower. But his smile didn’t fade. Neither did the spring in his step when the awards segment and speeches by others continued for some twenty-odd minutes. He danced with little children on stage asking them to please cover for his bad dancing. He joked, complimented, thanked, bowed and won hearts of the twelve thousand fans.

What I loved was that little moment that happened when, after he received the award, we were on our way back to the vanity van. A young girl was leaning against a wall with her back to us, talking on her phone. Shah Rukh mischievously tapped her on the shoulder and walked past without looking back. When she half-turned and saw who had just tapped her, the phone almost fell out of her hand.

This is not to say that Shah Rukh has been a paragon of virtue all his life, or even all evening. He was distracted, snappish, and even grumpy at times – but when he turned on his heart-light, he was a joy to behold. I knew that some of the generous promises he made would not be met. Some of the humility was public necessity. But in that moment, what mattered was that even that came from a space of wanting to give joy.

As the midnight rolled into the next day, the tiredness slowly began to tell in the way his eyes strained and lines deepened. But he somehow didn’t allow it to crystallize into a ‘no’ to the universe. Though he was under medication for a severe back spasm and due for surgery in a few weeks, he stayed till four am – till their pilot called to remind them they were running out of landing clearance time. At the after party, he posed for pictures with every fan who requested for it – other South Indian actors and directors, screaming girls from the awards show crew, glowing wives of executives, young starlets, reporters, police officials, random fans… Finally, even the photographer who was taking the pictures requested for a keepsake picture.

When it was all done, I dropped him to the airport. It was amusing to see the bleary-eyed terminal come alive with heads turned and voices whispered: “Is it…? Really…?!!” From the glass frontage I could see Shah Rukh, dead-tired and eyes squinting with sleep, beginning yet another series of greetings as he walked with his team to his aircraft. After a few hours of sleep, he would be up for his shoot in another city. Beginning yet another day of the superstar life.

As I drove back from the airport alone, the Rolls Royce felt large and roomy and… empty. The secret to the superstar life, I learnt, is not in the $2m car or the $22m jet, it is in giving superstar-sized doses of love. It’s in turning on your heart-light. And the quantum of joy we give others is what is reflected back to us, whether we are businessmen, politicians, healers, social workers or actors. And giving joy to those around us is something we all can do right where we are. Whether we are stars or not, we can all turn on our star-light.

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RIP Yash Chopra

These days, the Indian film Industry seems to remind me every few weeks about the impermanence and urgency of Life. Yesterday, I attended the chautha (fourth day funeral rites) of an old film industry colleague, and this evening we got the shocking news that 80-year-old Yash Chopra – perhaps the greatest director-producer in Indian cinema – expired. Ironically, he expired a few weeks before the release of his swansong ‘Jab Tak Hain Jaan’ which means: “as long as life continues…”

Quite unlike his legendary stature, he was known as a laughing, life-loving man, fond of good food and good humor. So here’s my way of putting a marker for the end of an era for Bollywood.