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If my film doesn't work, I get zero: Aamir Khan explains his business model

At the fifth Indian Screenwriters Conference, the superstar explains how he chooses a script and why he does not like to have scripts written with him in mind.

Aamir Khan at the Indian Screenwriters Conference. Photo: Shutterbugs Images

Suparna Thombare

The fifth Indian Screenwriters Conference kicked off in Mumbai today with actress Shabana Azmi, writer-lyricist Javed Akhtar, journalist Vinod Dua, producer Siddharth Roy Kapur, and writer-director Akshat Verma, among others, in attendance.

The chief guest at the event convened by screenwriter Anjum Rajabali was Aamir Khan, who spoke about the importance of scripts and about the business of cinema.

Aamir Khan spoke extensively about his process — from the selection of the script, which he called his foundation, to ensuring the success of the film at the box office. Over the past two decades, the actor has honed the knack of unfailingly picking up interesting subjects that go on to become commercial successes too.

“When Raju [filmmaker Rajkumar Hirani] worked on PK (2014) or 3 Idiots (2009), Ashutosh [Gowariker] wrote Lagaan (2001), Amol Gupte wrote Taare Zameen Par (2007), it started from one person’s mind and that thought itself is beautiful," said Khan, who has written screenplays for films like Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak (1988), Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar (1992) and Hum Hain Rahi Pyar Ke (1993), the last one with Robin Bhatt.

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"Then there was organic growth that happened and I strongly believe in that," he continued. "Till date I have done very few films that have been written for me. Never said that you are the producer, I am the actor, or you are the director and I am the actor, and now you write a good story for me. It has happened a couple of times under pressure though, where I couldn’t say no. One of them was with my father [the late producer Tahir Hussain]. But I strongly believe the process has to be organic.”

Apart from his ability to unerringly choose the right script, Khan revealed the secret of why none of his films has lost money in the past decade and a half. And it stems from his sense of responsibility as a star.

“When I choose a film, no producer, financier or distributor questions my choice," he said. "For example, in Taare Zameen Par, there is a boy at the centre, he has dyslexia. Nobody asked me who will come to see this kid’s story. They don’t question me because they trust me. If they are putting their trust in me, how can I let them down?

“It is my responsibility. When Jhamu Sugandh produced Lagaan, the responsibility was mine. Lagaan was one of the most expensive films of its time. As Javed [Akhtar] saheb pointed out to us in great detail, it was breaking a lot of norms of mainstream Indian cinema. All the people who put their money on it, whether it is the producer, the exhibitors, the financiers, the distributors, the sub-distributors… down the line everyone should earn money. Only then is it profitable.”

Delving deeper into the subject, Khan said a film does not have to earn Rs100 crore or Rs300 crore at the box office to be a success. Success begins by fixing the right budget for the right subject, he said.

Citing an example, he said, "Talaash made Rs95 crore. People generally think the film was unsuccessful. Actually, we got an overflow.

Explaining how that happened, Khan said, "I loved the script. I had assessed that it is not a Rs300 crore type of film. But I wanted to do it. It was about how to come to terms with loss. It was a unique thought for me and it excited me.

"I knew it is not a very mainstream idea for a commercial film, but I wanted to do it. So what we did, me, Farhan [Akhtar] and Ritesh [Sidhwani], producers of the film, we decided that the film should not go beyond a certain cost. My prediction when we were planning the film was that this will not go above Rs70 crore. It made Rs95 crore!

"So I am not interested in the ultimate number. I am interested in three things — I want to make the film that I want to make, the audiences for whom I have made the film should be happy with it, and the people who have invested their money should not face losses.

"If a film achieves all these, then the film is successful for me. Every film cannot do Rs100 crore. As creative people we should not restrict ourselves. If all of us sitting in this room decide to make only Rs300 crore films, then which films will we make?"

Coming back to Taare Zameen Par, Khan said the film had a box-office collection of Rs80 crore nett and was the second highest grosser of 2007. "It was a superhit for me," he said. "People loved the film and the kind of impact it had on people’s hearts and minds... it is one of my most successful films, I feel."

The success of his films also stems from the business model Khan has adopted from the early 2000s. The superstar does not charge a penny upfront. Instead, he charges a percentage of the profits. And that has made him the only star whose films have not lost money in the past 10 years.

The actor-producer explained in detail how it works when Shabana Azmi, who was seated in the audience, got up to question it. “You are often quoted as the person who started this trend," she said. "Stars have now started taking 80% of the cost of the film. With the star taking away 80%, how are we going to make a successful film in 20%?”

“I don’t know if I am to blame for that," Khan responded. "I have heard of situations where actors are charging a high upfront fee. When you charge an upfront fee you are loading the project. Then on top of that you are again charging a percentage of profits. I can tell you the model I work on.

"Let’s say a film’s budget is Rs100 crore, including cast and crew [fees], production and post-production. When the film is released, at that point I get no money. As it starts earning money, it goes towards the P&A [promotions and advertising] cost and then the Rs100 crore that the producer has invested goes back to him.

"Now everyone has got their fees and the producers have got their money back. Then I go into percentage of profit. If, god forbid, the film doesn’t work, then the producer may lose some Rs5-10 crore, but I get zero.

"I certainly take a higher cut in the profit, but I am risking my time and energy on that. I think the producers are happy with that.”

In the end, Khan said his habit of questioning everything at every stage of the filmmaking process was probably why he has been the most consistent actor. 

"How am I doing it? On some level it is coincidence [that all my films have worked]," he said. "Also, I ask a lot of questions. My biggest strength, I feel, is that I ask a lot of questions. Whether it is at the script stage, prep or shooting stage, I ask a lot of questions and then we try to find the answers.

"You should not fear, have the courage to ask the questions and then search for the answers," he said. "I am someone who doesn’t give up at any level and I am constantly searching, even after the film’s release sometimes." Quite apt, given the theme for this year's conference: where the mind is without fear.