The lighting was dim, the flashbulbs were sparse, and there were hardly any signs that two of the world’s most popular stars were scheduled to arrive. Eventually, Shah Rukh Khan and Brad Pitt strolled into a room overlooking the calm Arabian Sea on the 33rd floor of the Trident Hotel in Nariman Point in Mumbai, looking completely at ease in each other’s company.
Pitt was flown to Mumbai by Netflix as part of a global tour to promote his new movie War Machine. The satire has been premiered on the streaming platform, which is at the heart of a debate on the future of moviegoing at the Cannes Film Festival.
At the Mumbai event, which was hosted by Netflix and the Mumbai Film Festival, Pitt declared that Netflix wasn’t detrimental to the prospects of cinema. What about the future of cinema itself? “I don’t pretend to know. But how we view movies will change.”
The 45-minute chat was not restricted to Pitt’s film or the topic of discussion, ‘Cinema in the age of new media.’ The surface similarities between the two stars were immediately apparent. Two years separate Khan (51) and Pitt (53). Both made their debut around the same time (Khan in 1992 with Deewana, and Pitt with Thelma & Louise in 1991). Both are globally recognised representatives of their country’s entertainment industries.
Both actors are also producers, though the similarity ends there. Pitt’s company Plan B Entertainment has produced both crowdpleasers as well as highly regarded arthouse films, such as The Tree of Life, 12 Years a Slave, Moonlight and Okja. Pitt has also produced Australian director David Michod’s War Machine and plays the lead role of Glen McMahon, who is more of a rock star than an US Army general. Based on a non-fiction book by journalist David Hastings, War Machine is an absurdist take on the United States of America’s seemingly never-ending war in Afghanistan. While the film itself takes an arch approach to warfare, McMahon, fresh off a sojourn in Iraq, is completely sold on the idea. The actor portrays the character with his signature comedic inflections of quirks and facial twitches. There is white in his hair and wrinkles on his face. He might win a war, but is likely to lose the battle with Lady Gaga to be on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine.
David Michod was also present at the Mumbai event, but all eyes were on Khan and Pitt. The high-powered duo discussed their long careers in front of the cameras. Their conversation worked best when they began interviewing each other. Both were curious about what stardom was like in each other’s country. They were frequently self-deprecating, as superstars can afford to be, and nodded in understanding to what the other had to say.
When asked if he felt defensive about the cinema he made in the early years of his career, Khan replied, “There are so many people in commercial cinema trying to protect what they feel is the right thing, but it is not always the thing to protect.” His children do not like his films, he added. “If you can be nobody at home, then you can be Brad Pitt outside.”
Khan listed his favourite Brad Pitt films, including 12 Monkeys, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Burn After Reading. “I found you amazing in 12 Monkeys,” Khan said. “You were mind-blowing in that film. That’s when I became a fan of Brad Pitt.”
Pitt, who has previously travelled to India to shoot A Mighty Heart (2007) and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008), was not too familiar with his colleague’s work, but was curious nonetheless, asking how long a typical film shoot lasted and how much time it took to rehearse for a dance performance. Bollywood song and dance emerged as a key theme of the evening.
The globalisation of Hollywood cinema means that American movie stars will deign to appear in Chinese films (such as Matt Damon in The Great Wall). But will Pitt find himself in a Bollywood film? “I can never do a Bollywood film because I can’t dance,” Pitt said, prompting Khan to quip, “Oh, we’ll make you dance.”
Forget dancing – Pitt said that he could not play the church organ properly in Terence Malick’s Tree of Life (2011). A double had to stick his hands through Pitt’s jacket sleeves to get the scene right. “Since we are now opening up…” Khan went on to narrate a similar story about the making of Baadshah (1999), in which a magician performed his card tricks for him using the same technique.
About their respective careers as producers, both felt that fewer original stories were being made and fewer risks were being taken. While Pitt was critical of the studio system, Khan was more diplomatic, saying that it was understandable that A-list producers backed event films since those were the ones that made the money.
Singling out scripting, technology, marketing and professionalism as the weaknesses of Indian cinema, Khan said that there was a genuine chance of Hollywood taking over the country’s box office. He pointed to the success of dubbed versions of Spider-Man and Fast and Furious , and ended with a joke that went back to the theme of the evening: “Singing and dancing has to be a part of Bollywood movies, if only to keep Brad away from our movies.”