I first meet Farah Khan while she’s taping a reality show at Yash Raj Studios. She studies me for barely a second before launching into a rapid-fire monologue about the rain, her kids, my (lack of) kids, her refusal to WhatsApp – “I set it up and promptly had a dozen aspiring actors send me naked pictures, so I logged off for good” – and her new film Happy New Year. She even finds a way to dart a few friendly jibes at her co-judge on the show, Anu Malik, in between.
Later, when we meet again at her apartment, I have been deafened by squeals of excitement from legions of Farah-philes at the studio. It’s easy to see why. Khan has a no-nonsense approach but still retains her casual warmth. She has energy, makes wisecracks non-stop and gives you the feeling (so rare from a celebrity) that you are not just a temporary cog in the wheel of her dazzling life.
Though smack in the middle of the media blitzkrieg for the film, she looks fresh and relaxed, never once losing eye contact or interest.
Calling the shots
Happy New Year is aiming to be a big fat Diwali blockbuster. It’s a multi-starrer, a heist, a musical, and an appropriately gargantuan reunion vehicle for the director and Shah Rukh Khan, best friends who fell out two years ago after SRK slapped Khan’s husband Shirish Kunder.
The project has brought her four new male actors to boss around – Abhishek Bachchan, Sonu Sood, Boman Irani and Vivaan Shah. Bachchan, she says, “has given me more trouble in the film than my three children have ever given me in real life.”
The film’s gruelling shoot has also drained the last vestiges of her original Bollywood avatar, the dance master. “I’m officially retiring from choreography after this,” she says. For the climax song of the film (which features surprise performances), she asked her protégée Geeta Kapoor to choreograph the “massive affair”, though she shot it herself.
It may just be the sign of a new Farah Khan – one who’s finally learnt to chill. Those who’ve worked with Khan have come away awed by her ability to multitask and to stay on top of every complicated shot. “She may think she’s calm, but she’s a missile,” says Boman Irani, her co-star on Shirin Farhad Ki Toh Nikal Padi (2012) and her upcoming film.
He recalls how she’d come to the sets with a little piece of paper carrying a shot breakdown so well conceived, only a natural storyteller could do it. Mayur Puri, the lyricist and dialogue writer, says he was warned that she was a bully and tyrant when he first agreed to work with her on Om Shanti Om (2007). “But she’s nothing like that,” he says. “She does, however, have a low tolerance for stupidity, because she is very clear in her mind herself.”
The Farah you know
That clarity shines through her work and somehow co-exists with her famously crazy side. Even her tweets (she has 1.5 million followers) are hilarious – she happily gripes about traffic jams and a bout of conjunctivitis in addition to how SRK’s body is “just insane right now” during the last shoots for the film. “Meet me after a few drinks; I’m hilarious,” she says. “You’ll be the one drinking, though!”
During Happy New Year’s closing party, she admits, she had one too many. “Let’s just say there were several torn shirts.” Not just her cast, but fellow filmmakers were roped in to join the madness. “I got Anurag (Kashyap) to do a cameo in the film. Let me tell you, he’s up to no good.”
Choreographer Terence Lewis (he was co-judge with Khan and Shilpa Shetty on Nach Baliye 5) says that there’s a strong heart and mind under all that bonhomie. “Farah is a riot; sharp, honest and witty,” he says. “At the same time, she can be the Mommy on set. She’s fed us delicious home-cooked yakhni pulao. As a choreographer, Farah’s understanding of the camera is her biggest strength.”
Happy new her
Khan’s story, she says herself, is a riches-to-rags one. Born into a filmi family – her father was the B-grade film producer and director Kamran Khan, her aunts are Daisy and Honey Irani – didn’t mean a life of privilege. She was barely six when her father’s film Aisa Bhi Hota Hai bombed spectacularly in 1971, taking with it the Khans’ savings and assets.
She was 13 when her father’s drinking forced her mother to move out with her and her brother, Sajid. They’ve sold jewellery to make ends meet, lived out of a storeroom and rented out their home for card games just so there’d be money at the end of the day.
So it’s no wonder that Khan seems impervious to the public’s reactions to her choices as an adult. “I tend to make light of situations, whether it’s marrying a younger man, directing a blockbuster, or deciding to go the IVF route to have a baby,” she says.
Making light of Tees Maar Khan (2010), that blot on her otherwise illustrious career, may have been harder. “People didn’t like the film; it’s as simple as that,” she says. The slump after the film bombed – the feeling of being “thrashed, trolled and seeing all the people who you thought loved you, celebrating your failure” – lasted for precisely 15 days.
Khan recalls being invited to an award ceremony to pick up a trophy for choreographing Munni Badnaam Hui when all she wanted to do was crawl into bed. “It’s one of the toughest things you do. You put on your lipstick, blow dry your hair, go out and say **** you,” Khan says. “It’s very difficult to learn about life from success. But if you can handle failure, you’ll make it through. People can’t do it; I’ve seen it happen with my dad. But that sort of jolt should force you to look back. You’re stupid if you don’t learn from your mistakes.”
Khan’s mistake translated into an 18-month sabbatical to write Happy New Year which she’s calling the best script she’s written.
Living the dream
Khan grew up wanting to be a director, her detour into choreography happened only by chance. She was assisting director Mansoor Khan on the 1992 film Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar when the film’s dance master, Saroj Khan, failed to show up for a song’s shoot one day. A stranded Mansoor Khan asked his assistant to fill in and Farah Khan did. In a time where pre-set steps were the order of the day, she gave Pehla Nasha a dreamy, slow-motion quality, becoming at once a breath of fresh air for 1990s Bollywood.
Khan is not a dancer herself (though a gloriously camp song alongside Javed Jaffrey in 1987’s Saat Saal Baad indicates otherwise). But she has choreographed Shakira and Kylie Minogue in addition to Bollywood’s best.
Her successful run outshines that of her actor-host brother Sajid and her director husband. The industry and media tend to see Sajid as somewhat pompous – a criticism that she says hurts her more than barbs directed at herself.
Lewis has worked with both the Khan siblings. “They share that acerbic wit and a baffling knowledge of film trivia,” he says. “However, while judging, Farah uses her filter, editing her words so her criticism isn’t as hard hitting as Sajid’s.”
Her husband’s inability to find his feet in Bollywood has hit her hard too. Khan says, “He’s a genuine artist and his time will come. I think he needs to work with people he gets along with; lesser stars, but people who care about the movie and are on his wavelength. He’s not the sort to make an effort to create a rapport where none exists.”
Detractors have delighted in writing off the unlikely couple (he’s younger, she continues to be better known) ever since they got married a decade ago, and have advertised their opinion on social media. “I had no idea they paid people to sit down at a laptop and trash others; if I knew earlier, I’d have done it myself!” Khan says.
But the couple seems content with quiet dinners and going out with their triplets. Clearly there are no regrets on Khan’s part. “I’m very happy that I got married to the right person at the right time,” she says. “At the end of the day, we’re in an industry that’s full of negativity. If you don’t have a strong and secure family, you can become mental here!”
Khan’s strength clearly comes from her family. Puri, who’s also working with her on the new film, has seen family change her. “She’s now much calmer and sober,” he says. “When I met her again for Happy New Year, she’d written out the script on one of those lined green-paper foolscap notebooks. Then her daughter tore some up by mistake, so she wrote it again! She's passionate about her relationships; it’s either all or nothing.
Directing a film like this is akin to doing the work of 20 people on the sets. But she was equally concerned about what went into her kids’ lunchboxes and what we should be doing for the next birthday party.”
As I leave, I compliment Farah on her very chic supersized home. She points to a carpet covering one little corner of the cavernous living room: “Sajid and I grew up in a house that size,” she says. “Sometimes I wake up at night and just sit here, looking at this huge apartment, wondering how it all happened.” Perhaps that’s a film in itself.