Call Aamir Khan a perfectionist, and he’ll lightheartedly brush off the label, preferring to describe himself as simply “passionate” instead. Terminology aside, a mere glance at his 28-year career is ample proof that for Khan, going the extra mile is practically the equivalent of slacking off—the 51-year-old actor, producer, and director usually travels another 10 for good measure.
He did it in 1998’s “Ghulam,” when he turned down a body double or special effects in favor of sprinting towards an oncoming train for a stunt, avoiding it by a mere second and gambling his life for the sake of realism.
In 1999, when a script about 19th century villagers protesting British land tax with a game of cricket was dismissed by every financier in Bollywood, Khan took on his first producing role alongside his acting credit to make the film. Three years of grueling production later, “Lagaan” became the third Indian movie in history to be nominated for an Academy Award.
In 2012, while it seemed like every other Indian actor was anchoring frothy reality TV series and game shows, Khan opted to spotlight mental health initiatives, dowries, and domestic violence as the host of “Satyamev Jayate,” a program centered on creating discourse around India’s social issues.
And most recently, his inimitable dedication has been captured in a video (above) of his jaw-dropping physical transformation for his upcoming film “Dangal,” the true story of former wrestler Mahavir Singh Phogat, who trained his daughters, Geeta and Babita Phogat, to become world-class competitors despite the long-standing bias against girls in the state of Haryana and within the sport.
The mini-featurette, chronicling Khan’s journey as he grew to a hefty 213 pounds to play present-day Phogat, then chiseled 55 of them off to portray the wrestler at his prime, has veritably broken the Indian internet, spawning both awe—and even some skepticism—at his stunning metamorphosis.
But as the digital world loses its collective mind over just how he did it, Khan maintains that although the physical demands may have been the most challenging aspect of the role, they were just a fraction of its appeal. Instead, Khan credited Disney India and the film’s writer-director, Nitesh Tiwari, for encouraging the actor to dig into the story.
“It’s moving, heartwarming, and even very funny,” Khan told IndieWire, “which I wasn’t expecting for an autobiographical tale of this nature.”
Incidentally, he had done much of his homework on Phogat and his daughters long before “Dangal” was developed, when they were featured on an episode of “Satyamev Jayate.”
Khan spent a long time reviewing interviews with his subjects. “I knew their personalities, how they spoke, and what they had been through long before this film came to me,” he said. “Once I decided to do it, I was prepared—as I am with all my roles—to fulfil whatever requirements it came with.” In this case, that meant gaining and subsequently losing the bulk, training as a wrestler under Commonwealth Games medalist Kripa Shankar Patel Bishnoi, and nailing the idiosyncrasies of the Haryanvi dialect.
No stranger to essaying real-life characters (2005’s “Mangal Pandey: The Rising” saw him in the title role as the leader of India’s 17th century rebellion against the British rule, and he portrayed freedom fighter Chandra Shekhar Azad in 2006’s “Rang De Basanti”), Khan was aware early on that becoming Phogat amounted to more than just an imitation game. But it was only after signing “Dangal,” and a face-to-face encounter with the real life counterpart to his on-screen avatar, that he fully appreciated the symbolic weight of his undertaking.
“Here is a man who once envisioned that his unfulfilled wrestling ambitions would be fulfilled by his future son, but had four daughters instead,” Khan said. “He faced immense pressure from his family to keep trying for a boy… And yet, not only was he content with his daughters, he also broke all social norms by believing in them, investing in them, and raising them to be wrestlers in their own right rather than merely bringing them up to marry them off.”
The Phogats are all the more extraordinary seeing as they hail from rural Haryana, which ranks near the bottom among Indian states when it comes to female feticide and literacy rates.
“Mahavir’s attitude towards his daughters is especially remarkable to me given his background,” Khan said. “It reflects the possibilities that can arise when one steps outside gender boundaries created by society and is allowed to realize their potential. It’s an incredibly empowering story.” With “Dangal,” Khan is hopeful for his portrayal of Phogat’s mindset to stimulate off-screen shifts in perspective.
It’s not an improbable prospect; this is hardly the first time Khan has used his cinema as a platform for raising awareness. His 2007 directorial debut, “Taare Zameen Par,” sought to destigmatize children with dyslexia and learning disabilities. “3 Idiots,” his 2009 collaboration with filmmaker Rajkumar Hirani, called out the Indian education system’s unrelenting preoccupation with competition and rote learning, while 2014’s “PK”—also directed by Hirani—gently questioned the nation’s mindless fixation on icon worship and superstitions.
Careful to avoid a pedantic or preachy note, Khan’s approach—a combination of good-natured satire and plenty of sensitivity—has made his often controversial undertakings more palatable to an easily-excited audience, earning him a reputation for being one of the Bollywood’s more dependable voices of reason and pillars of quality, intelligent film.
So even as his headline-grabbing “Fat to Fit” video, as its been titled, may inspire new fitness regimes among audiences around the world, Khan has fingers crossed that “Dangal”’s release this week spawns an evolution that’s more than simply skin-deep.
“This film is our team’s contribution towards celebrating female empowerment in a patriarchal country,” Khan said. “As an actor, the best way I can hope to promote greater social understanding is through my work. If I can communicate with people and touch their hearts through “Dangal,” perhaps, eventually I can help change their minds.”
Dangal opens in select U.S theaters on December 21, and in India on December 23.