TUCKED AWAY IN a lane a few hundred metres from Mumbai’s iconic Haji Ali Dargah, you are likely to miss the Royal Willingdon Sports Club if you aren’t aware of it. Founded in 1918 by Lord Willingdon, the then Governor of Bombay, the club is cited as Mumbai’s ‘most exclusive’, with its membership having been shut to outsiders since 1985, and is especially known for its snobbery towards all things Bollywood.
So this club is the last place you would expect to meet an actor for an interview, least of all one who purportedly counts on his allegiance to the Indian film industry. But then again, Rahul Khanna is no ‘Boutique Bollywood actor’, even though his Twitter bio claims so.
Khanna, the son of the legendary 1970s superstar, Vinod Khanna, India’s first de facto sex symbol, and former model Gitanjali Taleyarkhan, could well be the personification of cinema’s popular ‘fish out of water’ trope. Stylish to a fault and impeccably well mannered, the actor has the grace and poise of a gentleman more suited to the era in which the Willingdon Club flourished, than the hasty, unruly world of today.
And so he fits right in when a role demands a certain kind of sophistication, be it that of a rich investment banker with shades of grey in season 1 of Anil Kapoor’s 24, or his most recent, scene-stealing role as a Pakistani spy with a keen eye for American women in the international drama series, The Americans, that has been nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Drama series this year.
Khanna plays Yousaf Rana, an Oxford-educated intelligence officer from Pakistan who is a covert double agent. What started off as a cameo in a single episode turned into a full-fledged character in the following season, complete with graphic sex scenes.
“My friends haven’t stopped tormenting me about that,” he says with a laugh. “From screenshots to WhatsApp group profile pictures, I’ve seen it all. The good thing, acting wise, is that after you spend 16 hours naked in a room full of strangers, there’s nothing you can’t do. It’s no longer an unknown beast.”
The Emmy nomination will give the show a boost and Khanna will, perhaps, benefit from it along the way.
Khanna’s content either way because that’s the kind of person he is. His filmography so far has been measured and unhurried, his anchoring appearances have been select, his press interactions have been few, and there’s painfully little known about his personal life. And then there’s that paradox: for someone who’s self-confessedly reserved, he is a rage on social media, not because he tries to be, but particularly because he doesn’t. His online presence, all effortless wit and old-world charm, has over half a million followers.
It is little wonder then that the 44-year- old Khanna—who looks at least a decade younger—has been rediscovered by a new section of the audience: frenzied millennial girls who have filled the internet with posts declaring that they can’t have enough of his naughty Snapchats (he once posted a picture titled ‘morning wood’ that had him standing in front of wooden logs at dawn) or his tantalising Instagram posts, filled with ‘ovary-busting pictures’, as one listicle put it.
I would be lying to you if I said I don’t love the attention. But now there is this temptation to be a bit creative and little cheeky
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Is he the internet’s new boyfriend? He bursts out laughing, “It’s all a bit of fun, really. You know, I don’t have a publicist, and I’m a classic introvert, so when the social media phenomenon came about, I thought this would be a nice way to connect with people who are interested in me. The idea is that it should be a part of your personality and use it to express yourself. I don’t want to share my opinions or be political, I’m only there for a positive experience. But I never thought anyone’s even paying attention to this.”
When he realised he had his female fans agog, he took the liberty to be even more sassy and suggestive. Today, everyone from Buzzfeed to MissMalini has foisted titles like ‘sex on legs’ on him. “I would be lying to you if I said I don’t love the attention,” he says with a chuckle, “especially since it’s not lascivious, it’s fun and flirty. But now that I know people are watching, there is this temptation to be a bit creative and a little cheeky.”
Not only does Khanna have fun with his accounts publicly, he also replies to anyone who tags him in a post through a direct message. Once when a female fan asked if he would marry her, he replied, ‘Certainly. Is Saturday good for you?’ Not surprisingly, this drove the Twitter world into spasms of glee.
“It was quite bizarre what happened,” Khanna says. “I didn’t understand that. I feel if someone has taken the trouble to tag me or say something nice, it’s only polite for me to reply. I want my profiles to be happy so I started using them in the way I would chat with a friend on SMS or WhatsApp. I just want to be authentic.”
The words ‘happiness’ and ‘joy’ come up often during our conversation. And whichever way you look at Rahul Khanna’s story thus far, you’d see why authenticity is important for him.
As a bespectacled ‘nerdy’ kid with an affinity for pinstriped shirts and khaki pants (“I had a connection with pinstripes that made me feel good about myself”), Khanna grew up with his younger brother, actor Akshaye Khanna, in South Bombay, away from the heart of Bollywood that resided in and around Juhu and Andheri. His parents split up early in his childhood, and with it, most of his connections with the film world were lost.
“It’s strange that we, as kids, were perceived as belonging to that world,” he says. “I sort of equate myself as being an outsider with inside access. All we knew is that our dad was an actor and people knew who he was. So as a kid, there was a time I wanted to be a vet because I love dogs, and another time I wanted to be an artist because I loved cartooning. I knew it would be something creative, but didn’t know it would be films. I ended up here… but I still kind of feel I don’t know which world I belong to.”
An opportunity to go to New York and his interest in the creative arts inspired him to enroll at the School of Visual Arts. Along the way, he also did an acting course at the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute.
“The end game wasn’t to get into Bollywood, it was only to explore the craft,” he says. “I was influenced by the new burgeoning Indian independent cinema coming out of the West. There was this little theatre in New York called The Angelina that would play only independent, foreign films. I saw a film called Masala by a filmmaker called Srinivas Krishna from Canada, and it was spectacular to see English language films about India.”
I feel it is one of my biggest strengths that I don’t fit in anywhere. I’m attracted to people who are odd, who don’t play by the rules
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Although his brother, Akshaye, made his Bollywood debut with Himalay Putra (1997), produced by their father, the older brother just couldn’t relate to the Bollywood of that time. “There were no scripts,” he says. “When people would offer me stuff and I’d ask for a script, it would be inconceivable to them that I didn’t understand the Bollywood way of working, and it was inconceivable to me that they wouldn’t have a script.”
Bollywood did happen a few years later, but it was in the early 90s, when Khanna first burst on to the scene as the Indian face of MTV Asia, even before MTV India was launched. After enjoying adulation and being hailed as a metrosexual Indian youth icon, at a time when leading Bollywood actors were more famous for their chest hair than their acting skills, Khanna became one of the first young leading men to star in crossover Indian cinema with Deepa Mehta’s 1947 Earth (1999) and later in Bollywood/Hollywood (2002).
Khanna’s experience with Mehta along with his off-Broadway stint with “theatre royalty” Scott Elliott’s East is East, made him believe acting was his calling. “They were incredible first acting jobs for me. They set the bar really high in terms of the kind of crew you could work with. I find acting to be an intimate process, so it helped me, as an introvert, to connect. And those environments made me realise that if I could continue to do this, it would be a good thing.”
After his early days as a crossover star, Khanna only did a handful of films over the next decade—not from lack of offers, but because relating to the team behind the film was just as important to him as the scripts he was getting. “I want to work with people I respect and who respect me back, because that’s the only way you can enjoy work and get a good result out of it,” he says. “What’s the point of taking on something when it would seem that you’d be miserable during the process? When I look back at films of mine that haven’t been received well, if I had a good time doing them, and if I’ve made friends, I feel they were worth it.”
He says there have been times he hasn’t been sure of a project but did it because he liked the people. “It was also important for me to prove wrong those who believed that I had some sort of prejudice against Bollywood,” he says. “Whenever I’d meet people, they’d imply that I perhaps felt that I was better than Bollywood, and hence hadn’t done so much of it. To them I would say, ‘How could I have anything against Bollywood if I worked with Raj Kanwar [in Raqeeb, 2007]?”
That would explain some misfires in his early Bollywood career, but when he started taking up character roles in films like Ayan Mukerji’s Wake Up Sid (2009) and Imtiaz Ali’s Love Aaj Kal (2009), he saw another exasperating side of the industry. “After these films, I’d only get offered ‘the other guy’ roles,” he says. “People started telling me how brave I was for doing such a role in these films, but I never knew the rules. Besides, isn’t the whole point of it to have fun?”
AT THE MOMENT, even as he keeps his fingers crossed about the Emmy and hopes to be called back to The Americans, he’s looking at scripts in both countries. He’s got a travel show coming up on NDTV Good Times that will see him on the whisky trail in Scotland, and while there’ve been negotiations for a men’s clothing line, given his style credentials, it’s yet to be worked out.
All of these are an important part of what he calls ‘the pursuit of joy’. “I feel that life is really short and if you are not doing stuff that brings you joy, then you are wasting your time,” he says. What gives him joy on a daily basis? Reading, food, gymming and meeting friends are high on his list. He also has a fondness for antique furniture and collects boarding passes, although he’s not sure why.
“I feel we, as people, have become a little bit less considered. So everything I do or own or like has been considered. So, if you say I have nice manner, it’s because it’s a nice thing to have, it’s nice when someone smiles because of you.”
“It’s a horrible example, I know,” he continues with a laugh, “I’m not saying my way is right, but I see people who have a lot more than I do but nothing brings them happiness.”
His Zen-like attitude seems strange, especially in an industry built on desire, and with a first name that has come to be synonymous with a period of Bollywood that reflected aspiration. But while everyone likes to fit moulds of cliché, Khanna is happy to stand out. “I have always been a round peg in a square hole,” he explains.
“I was uncomfortable about it when I was younger, because there was an emphasis to fit in and be a certain way, but now I feel it is one of my biggest strengths, that I don’t fit in anywhere. So I’m attracted to people who are odd, who don’t play by the rules, and whom other people call weird. I really like those kind of people, and I feel it is a wonderful quality to have—in a world so standardised, to have people who are themselves. I love that.”
That’s perhaps a good way to describe Rahul Khanna: connoisseur of the good life, pursuer of joy, and the internet’s current boyfriend. A gentleman of his own in a standardised world.