I’m breaking my own rule because Hrithik is still in his career, things could still happen in his life, so it is a bit early for a 101 post. But he also has had such a fascinating unexpected life so far, I feel like he deserves a post. Or two posts, because there is SO MUCH.
Usual Disclaimer: I don’t know these people, I have no special knowledge, this is just how it looks to me based on publicly available sources.
Looked at from one side, Hrithik has had a blessed life. He was born with stunning natural looks, and stunning natural dancing ability. His father produced and directed his launch movie, he became an over night hit. He married his childhood sweetheart and had two perfect sons. Everything is simple and wonderful and perfect.
But looked at another way, all of those gifts are there just to try to balance out his curses. Stunningly handsome face to make up for his deformed hand. Stunningly graceful body to make up for the speech impediment that still tortures him. Two perfect sons to make up for his broken marriage. Over night success so that he can support his family as it struggles through tragedy after tragedy.
I was thinking recently about how the meaning of “film family” has changed since Hrithik started, and I think it is kind of like when a neighborhood is gentrifying. There are the old folks who have been there forever, who bought when prices were low and have benefited from the rise. And there are the new folks who come in and pay enormous prices and resent the old folks who have been there forever. But see, when the old folks bought, it wasn’t such a desirable neighborhood. It was their hard work and commitment that made it so nice. And of course the people who are like them now, the ones who have no money but are willing to work, are now priced out of the area.
Hrithik comes from a film family, yes. But not one that lived life large and easily, one that struggled and struggled until just a few years back when the industry changed and suddenly went from a ghetto to a desirable area. His grandfather, Roshan, was one of the first Hindi film musicians. He came from an area of Punjab that is now in Pakistan. He was trained on the “esraj”, a classical Indian instrument. He went from working for All India Radio as their in house musician to taking his chances in the new Indian film industry.
Roshan came to Bombay and found steady work in the industry. Not prestigious or profitable work, but steady. He played music, he composed songs, he composed scores, whatever was available to make some money. And then he died at age 50. Leaving behind 3 sons and a daughter, the oldest of whom was just turned 18.
Rakesh Roshan was the oldest. His family needed money, so he went out and asked for a job where he could find one, among his father’s friends in the film industry. He started as an “assistant director” which is a fancy name for the entry level person on set. After 3 years of that, he got his first acting role. Not a very fancy role, one of those “second lead” kind of parts.
The “second lead” was Rakesh’s specialty. Now, that would come with fame and perks and a “cool” factor. Back then, it came with a living wage which was barely enough to keep his large family going. In 1974, his 19 year old younger brother Rajesh was able to make a contribution when his songs were picked for a movie. Rajesh had inherited their father’s musical talent, and had a strong supporter in his brother Rakesh who was able to help him make the most of it. Rajesh became one of the popular composers in film music in the 70s and 80s. Today that would mean album deals and concert tours, back then it meant long hours in stuffy studios for little pay.
Rakesh married a woman from a similar background, Pinky. Her father was a producer/director, J. Om Prakash, one of the people who took pity on Rakesh and hired him. J. Om Prakash was a successful producer, meaning he had a hit film about every 3 years. Back then “hit films” didn’t make nearly as much raw money as they do now, even adjusted for inflation. And 3 years was a long time to keep that money stretched out and taking care of the family. Pinky wasn’t poor by any means, her family was probably doing much better than Rakesh’s orphaned household, but she still wasn’t rich at the level that a producer’s household would be now, or even at the level a top film star’s household was then.
In India, there is a bit of a taboo against “live-in son-in-laws”. It is expected that the wife will bond with her husband’s family, see them as her own, but the relationship between husband and wife’s family will not be quite as close. Looking at the Roshan’s, from a very far distance, it seems as though Rakesh went against the taboo and adopted his father-in-law as his model in life even more than his own father. That makes sense to me, Rakesh was young when his own father died, and his natural talents sent him more towards directing and producing like his father-in-law than his father’s passion for music. And so Rakesh went from being a struggling small time actor to being a struggling small time director and producer.
Rakesh starred in a movie for J. Om Prakash in 1972 and some time shortly after married J. Om’s daughter Pinky. Sunaina, their daughter, was born that same year. Hrithik was born in 1974, when Rakesh was 25. The fact that I don’t know when Sunaina was born or when Rakesh and Pinky were married is another pointer to how different things were back then. Hrithik was not raised as a “star kid” the way they are now, he had no media attention focused on him, no fabulous wealth, did not rub elbows with the rich and famous. His father and grandfather and uncle worked hard at tedious time intensive jobs that paid enough for a comfortable middle-class life but no more, and those jobs happened to be in film instead of banking or engineering. Hrithik went to a good upper middle class school in the Bombay suburbs, graduated, and started working in the family business. Actually, he had been in the “family business” since he was 6 years old. When he was visiting his grandfather on a film set, he started dancing to the music playing and his grandpa got his cameraman to record it without Hrithik realizing and threw those 8 seconds of film into the final movie. That was his film debut.
The same year, he had an actual role (uncredited) playing the younger version of the hero in a movie his father produced. He was in 4 movies before he turned 12, in the final one playing a leading role (tragic dying boy). At 13, he got his first credit as “assistant director”. He assisted on 4 more movies before he was 23, essentially he spent his school holidays in the family business. He wanted to be an actor, but his parents weren’t so sure. He already was having medical issues, diagnosed with scoliosis which made it painful to move. And acting was an uncertain life, they wanted him to have a college degree first. He bowed to their wishes, went to a good local college, but at 23, he got serious about making himself into a star. He had his father’s good looks, but more so. He had the Roshan family musical gifts, but in dance instead of composing. And he had literally grown up on film sets. He had everything he needed to be a star, almost.
Hrithik as a teenager was thin and gawky, his height too tall for his frame. He still struggled with his stammer from childhood. He was gifted, but he wasn’t ready. So for 2 years, he got ready. Lifted weights and turned his skinny awkward body into a masterpiece, got the cool dude hair cut, learned the cool dude way of talking, transformed himself into a STAR. And meanwhile his father was getting ready to, running here and there and digging up funding for his dream script and dream film with his son as the star, himself directing, and Rakesh doing the music.
Hrithik was sustained through all this by his girlfriend, Sussanne Khan. Sussanne came from a family like his, or maybe slightly better. The head of her Film Family was Feroz Khan, a big star in the 80s and producer of a few all time hits. Feroz was her uncle, her father was Sanjay Khan, also an actor and producer although less successful. He was also infamous for his affair and subsequent battery of actress Zeenat Aman in the 1980s. There was another scandal when Sussanne’s cousin Fardeen (a somewhat promising young actor) was arrested for drugs in the 2000s. This is a family that is slightly higher profile than the Roshan’s, and slightly more involved in the glamour and social life of the industry. But they still weren’t a top family, Sussanne grew up without the media chasing her, had a normal childhood in a normal middle-class home. Well, with her father having an affair, but that happens in normal middle-class homes too.
Sussanne’s background is a bit unusual. On her father’s side, her grandfather was Afghani and her grandmother Iranian (not Parsi, more recent than that). They are twice minorities, Muslim and ethnically a minority as well. But then, the Roshans came from what is now Pakistan, they are refugees and minorities in their own way too.
Hrithik says that he first saw and fell in love with Sussanne at a traffic light. Just as is shown in Kaho Na Pyar Hai, his first movie. He was on a bike and she was in a car and he saw her and fell in love. Later, he saw her at a party (a film industry party with the kids invited) and went up and talked to her, and that is when they officially became friends and, at some point, started dating. He was Punjabi Hindu, she was Afghani and Iranian Muslim, but it didn’t matter because they were both film kids and that was the most important bond of all. They dated as teenagers and through his years preparing for his launch and finally, just as his film released and he became a star, they married.
It’s an odd pattern if you look at it in terms of being a film star. Why would you get married just when you hit it big as a romantic lead, just when you run the risk of losing all your adoring fans? But it makes sense if you look at it like any other kid joining the family business. He struggled and worked and learned, and his girlfriend patiently waited, and finally when he had some kind of success, it was time to get married.
Kaho Na Pyaar Hai really was a freakish hit. I don’t think I can convey how strange it was if you weren’t there. Well, I mean, I wasn’t there either but I was there a few years later when the reverberations hadn’t yet died down. There had never, EVER, been a hit this big for an actor’s first film. The closest was 30 years earlier when Aradhana released and made Rajesh Khanna a star. But even that wasn’t his first film, that was after being around, having a series of failures, getting his feet wet in the industry. The 3 Khans, each of their first films had been solid hits. But not like this, not this kind of record breaking avalanche. Hrithik went to bed a nice boy, son of a small film family, dreaming of marrying his nice girlfriend someday, and woke up the heartthrob of an entire nation.
It wasn’t just that Kaho Na Pyaar Hai was a good popular movie, it was that the time was ripe for a new kind of star to burst forth. The internet had just started to move, and satellite TV was rapidly growing within India. Wide releases of films were becoming the norm as well. While the Khans had successful movies that grew based on word of mouth, gave dozens and dozens of magazine interviews to try to penetrate into the national consciousness, and slooooooooooooowly grew their fanbase, Hrithik was able to arrive and conquer in days. His film released every where. His songs were on every TV channel. His face was plastered all over the new internet within hours.
This is not a healthy thing. Hrithik handled it remarkably well (a tribute to his upbringing and his own inner strength). He didn’t turn difficult or snobbish, he remained sweet and reasonable and humble and decent. He still wanted to marry his girlfriend, he still wanted to work hard and do well on his next films, accounts from that time describe him as a serious quiet young man who liked to listen to others. But some effects just could not be removed. For instance, his next movies. A striving young actor would normally sign and be working on as many movies as possible so they could make an impact. Hrithik planned the same thing, he had movies already signed and in process before Kaho Na Pyaar Hai released. They were perfectly appropriate roles for a young actor starting out, but they were not appropriate for the overnight Mega-Star he became. Instead of moving from strength to strength, Hrithik ended up struggling through films that were beneath his level and wasting his precious fresh face value on them. He had 8 movies release in 3 years, a pace he wouldn’t bother with for the rest of his career. I suppose a more arrogant star would have dropped some of those commitments in preference for higher profile offers, or just taking time off, but Hrithik did the decent thing and stood by his commitments.
The biggest problem, I think, is that he wasn’t given time to grow, either as an actor or a star. If I look at any actor’s first movie, there are good parts and bad parts to their performance. They are learning, they are growing, give them time and they will get better. Hrithik didn’t have that time. If you look at the performances he handed in for his later films, his 12th, 14th, 16th movies, they are very very good. But those same 12th-14th-16th movies for most actors would be the first ones where they were really noticed and scrutinized. Poor Hrithik had his struggle documented and discussed right from the start, before he was ready.
And then there was his stardom. Hrithik was bullied all through school, he had a serious speech impediment, and a deformity. He is understandably uncomfortable in interviews, slow and careful in what he says. Instead of being able to get acclimated to the spotlight, learn how to present himself in a way where he felt comfortable, he was thrown right in and forced to sink or swim. Again, he did remarkably well, no major scandals, no major faux pas. But he is still not comfortable in interviews, interacting with the media, or interacting with the rest of the film industry, and I wonder if perhaps he had been given time to adjust himself early on, he would now be a happier more confident person.
Success, youth, uncertainty, all of that lead to tragedy. This was 2000, the mob ruled film still. Hrithik was a prime target for extortion, force him to be in your movie and you had a guaranteed hit. The other older stars knew how to handle this, they made nice and did photo ops, but didn’t make any promises. Hrithik was just a baby and suddenly scary men with guns were trying to control him. Luckily, he was also a film kid and his father knew what to do. Rakesh took the heat, he let it be know that Hrithik did not make decisions for himself, Rakesh made the decision. If you were going to threaten someone, it would be him. If you were going to be mad at someone, it would be him. Rakesh turned himself into a human shield in front of his boy. In January 2000, one week after Kaho Na Pyar Hai released and made Hrithik an overnight star, Rakesh was shot in his chest and arm by gang members as retaliation for denying them a cut of the overseas profit of Kaho Na Pyaar Hai. Hrithik went from a nobody, to a star, to an almost orphan, in the course of 8 days.