The son of a 1970s Bollywood matinee idol turned politician, Rahul may have made his father Vinod Khanna’s industry his own, but has surely chosen to shape his own career rather differently. Rahul, with almost the same number of films to his credit as the years he spent in the industry, has made his own mark on the silver screen over the course of his decade-long journey.
In a sharp contrast to what one would imagine to be the fate of a Bollywood scion, Rahul and his brother Akshaye “didn’t grow up in the limelight at all”. He explains, “My dad was a huge star but our parents made a conscious decision to keep us quite removed from that world and his work was always something he left at the door when he came home.” Also, “the additional geographical disconnect of living in south Bombay” and not the north where most of the film industry is based, also came into play.
Rahul’s parents split when both he and his brother were quite young and the two lived with their mother, so other than “occasional visits” to his father’s film sets, they didn’t really have access to the film world. “Perhaps those few visits to my dad’s sets planted a seed in my subconscious,” he explains. Clearly, that seed has now bloomed.
Despite being relatively detached from the film trade; Rahul’s career choice was simple. “I’ve always been quite creative and knew I wanted to be in a creative field. Since film is one of the most creative mediums out there, I guess it was a natural choice,” he says.
Rahul went on attend the prestigious Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute followed by the School of Visual Arts, both in New York. With regard to his field of work, Rahul feels lineage and talent are important but “knowledge is power”. “Lineage perhaps gives you a predisposition to a craft and training helps you understand and hone it,” he says.
Unlike most star children, Rahul’s on-screen career began as a video jockey for MTV Asia. “My years with MTV were blissfully fun. I got to travel constantly, interact with huge international stars and work with some very creative people,” he explains. “Hosting TV shows is all about addressing the camera, whereas acting in films is all about pretending the camera doesn’t exist. I always knew I eventually wanted to do films,” adds Rahul, who upon being offered Deepa Mehta’s Earth, knew it was time to move on.
“My first shot for Earth will always be the most memorable. It was at dawn at the ruins of Tughlaqabad Fort in Delhi and I had to kiss Nandita Das,” recalls Rahul wistfully. Dancing on a Toronto rooftop with Lisa Ray is apparently a close second.
Adjudged Filmfare’s best male debutant for his role in the second part of Mehta’s Elements Trilogy; Rahul’s performances are almost evenly divided between diaspora, Hollywood and main stream Bollywood cinema.
Following the success of Earth, Rahul went on to work with Deepa Mehta on a second film, Bollywood Hollywood, playing the protagonist opposite Lisa Ray. Also released the same year as his second outing, was Rahul’s first Hollywood venture, 3 AM, directed by Lee Davis. Rahul’s body of work also includes, Micheal Hoffman’s The Emperor’s Club, mainstream Bollywood films Elaan, Raqeeb and Dil Kabaddi and special appearances in Tahaan, Love Aaj Kal and Wake up Sid.
Having dabbled in television, theatre, film and stage, Rahul believes though “very different from each other”, each one of his avatars are “extremely satisfying, creatively, in their own way.” Film, which he describes as “magical”, however, will always be the medium that’s closest to his heart.
Of all the roles he has essayed thus far, in Rahul’s view his most challenging one was that of Tariq, a brash, womanising half-Pakistani, half-British young man in the New York stage production of the hit West-End theatrical adaptation of East is East.
“My character was a chain-smoker. I am allergic to cigarettes so I had to use special herbal cigarettes and take lots of anti-histamines,” recalls Rahul who for the role, trained under a dialect coach to “perform in a Mancunian accent”.
“Many of the scenes took place in a Fish and Chip shop which had real potato chippers and deep fryers so we were constantly cutting or scalding ourselves during the show. It was a physically exhausting run of eight shows a week for 11 weeks but it was one of the best experiences of my life. I learned so much and made so many good friends,” he adds.
A few hundred followers short of 100,000, Twitter to Rahul is “a great way of connecting with the world. The way I choose to tweet is definitely an extension of how I generally communicate. My worst Twitter nightmare is realising too late that I’ve posted a tweet with an incorrect spelling or a missing apostrophe,” he says.
Rahul’s twitter bio enlists him as a ‘Boutique Bollywood Actor’; a term that he says “was born out of necessity”. “When I meet new people and they learn I’m an actor in the Indian film industry they always go, ‘Oh, so you must do 5-10 films a year.’ It’s often tedious trying to explain the esoteric space I occupy in such a prolific industry. I had been hearing the term ‘boutique’ used to describe everything from hotels to investment companies that were more niche and realised it was also quite apt for me. I decided to try using it and found it always got my point across plus got a good laugh” he explains.
A firm believer and advocate of ethical treatment towards animals, Rahul is one of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) India’s celebrity ambassadors. “I’ve always loved animals and am only too happy to lend support to any organisation that works with them,” he explains.
The face of PETA, India’s campaign, ‘Beaten, Shackled, Abused — Elephants Do Not Belong in Zoos’, Rahul believes that “these majestic animals belong in the wild”. Speaking up for elephants living in captivity, he adds, “Zoos cannot provide for the complex needs of the animals that they hold captive. A more respectful way to observe these animals is through the fascinating wildlife programs available to everyone on TV.”
More recently, Rahul, on behalf of PETA, wrote to Jayanthi Natarajan, India’s Minister of State for Environment and Forests, urging her to ban the sale and use of manjha (kite-string coated with powdered glass), which is known to maim or kill countless birds.
“Something this dangerous should be considered a deadly weapon and must be outlawed without delay,” wrote Khanna. “Please, won’t you prevent more senseless suffering and deaths by banning glass-coated manjha throughout India?”
Despite an evident fondness for his ‘canine nieces’ (his brother Akshaye’s dogs), avid dog lover Rahul doesn’t have any pets of his own. “There’s nothing I would love more than having my own dog, but my lifestyle doesn’t allow it. I am constantly traveling and am away from home, sometimes for months at a time so it wouldn’t be fair to the dog.”
Luckily, Rahul has “the next best thing, which is access to other people’s dogs.” Most of his family have dogs whom he sees regularly. “In fact, my brother’s dogs come over for almost daily visits,” says Rahul who believes “having a dog (or dogs) in your life is one of life’s greatest pleasures.”
Whenever Rahul does get a dog, he says it will be one that is adopted; either from the street or from a shelter. “There’s no point buying a dog from a breeder when there are so many needy strays,” he adds
Rahul lives life off the beaten track and away from the rat race. Having shaped his career on his own terms, he enjoys the flexibility of moving between his many roles with relative ease and also finds the time to pursue what he believes in and enjoys.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, September 4th, 2011.