There's something familiar about the barefoot figure with shoulder-length hair and full beard, wearing tatty jeans and a loose linen shirt, padding across Aamir Khan's minimalist Bombay apartment. Only when he curls his legs onto a chair and waits expectantly for the questions to begin does it become clear that this is not one of Khan's friends but rather the latest incarnation of India's most respected and versatile young actor himself. Gone is Aamir Khan, the hipster in a tight-fitting silk suit, outrageous tie and boyish close-crop whom millions watched stride the red carpet outside a score of premieres. In his place, meet Aamir Khan, Jesus Christ Superstar. In a few weeks, Khan will star opposite Aishwarya Rai as the rebel leader Mangal Pandey in The Rising, Ketan Mehta's $10 million epic about the 1857 Indian mutiny against British rule. But despite Pandey's pivotal place in Indian history, says Khan from beneath his straggly growth, no one knows what he looked like. "So I thought if I grew everything, then the makeup and hair people would have a full palate to make him look however they wanted."
Spending months to prepare for a character might be routine for a method actor in the West. But in Bollywood the idea that any actor would take even a weekend offlet alone four months to read history books and grow a beardis verging on the revolutionary.
Khan, however, is just that. After a stereotypical start in Indian filma breakthrough smash-hit song-and-dance romance in 1988 followed by eight forgettable musical extravaganzas in three yearsKhan broke ranks and, as he says, "began to swim upstream." He became the first Indian star in memory to pick and choose roles by artistic merit. By carefully mixing commercial hits with experimental releases, Khan built a name as both a bankable star and a credible actor. His simultaneous conquest and transformation of Bollywood was cemented with the 2001 releases of Dil Chahta Hai (Do Your Thing), a groundbreaking portrait of middle-class Bombay, and Lagaan (Land Tax), about Indian villagers struggling against 19th century colonialismwhich earned India's third-ever Oscar nomination.
By the time he steps onto Ketan Mehta's set, Khan, now 38, will not have appeared before a movie camera for more than three years. It is a measure of how highly he is regarded that a hiatus that would have snuffed out lesser stars has only bolstered Khan's reputation for Stanley Kubrick-like discernment. "For a star of Aamir's size to have chosen to work the way he did, when he did, created huge waves," says Mehta. "He is responsible for bringing realism, passion and joy back to Indian film."
Although his fame has grown increasingly global, Khan says he has no intention of leaving Bombay's bright lights for more earnest Western environs. He tells a story of taking Lagaan to Los Angeles in 2001 and meeting a Dreamworks executive who liked to watch Bollywood movies with his children and who pleaded with Khan to stay on in Bombay and produce more "wonderful, innocent films." The executive need not have worried, says Khan. "I'm very happy doing Indian films and working with the musical form we have," he says. "When it's done right, it's like opera. It can be truly great." Indeed, the idea of taking part in a film with prospects he judges as anything less, he adds, "is something I just can't do." It's been Khan's personal code for a decade. And, as the rest of Bollywood is finally realizing, it's also a mantra that distinguishes mere movies from art.