Images on 70 mm screens embed themselves in our hearts and heads so distinctly that the real men and women behind those images never quite fit.
Emraan Hashmi is no different. It’s impossible to think of him as a doting father, a caring husband, a devoted family man, and now a man easily given to quoting motivational quotes and dire health warnings.
And yet that’s what he is. Or at least that’s how he comes across in The Kiss of Life: How a Superhero and My Son Defeated Cancer, a book he’s co-authored with Bilal Siddiqi. Hell, even his four-year-old son Ayaan, who in January 2014 was diagnosed with second-stage Wilms’ tumour that affects the kidneys, jokes about his father’s reputation as a “serial kisser”.
Hashmi writes that Ayaan, on his way to the hospital to get the tumour — “the size of a tennis ball” — removed, smiled slyly at his water bottle that had a picture of Donald Duck and Daisy Duck gazing at each other fondly, and said, “If Daddy was on the bottle instead of Donald Duck, he would be kissing Daisy Duck.”
The book, in 14 chapters, tells the story of Ayaan’s journey to beat cancer and his father’s journey from a listless commerce student of Sydenham College selling hand and shoulder massagers to turning down his uncle Mahesh Bhatt’s offer to act, from ambling around aimless on film sets to finally giving his first shot for Vikram Bhatt’s 2003 Footpath. One line, 45 takes. Life doesn’t always give retakes. When it does, says Hashmi, it’s a gift. It’s time to grab and kiss life.
To get Ayaan to undergo surgery in Mumbai and then six months of chemotherapy in Canada, to ensure that he took his medicies and ate healthy food everyday instead of pizzas, Hashmi would often telephone him pretending to be Batman. In a low, gruff voice, he’d tell Ayaan what he needed to do to become a superhero — Ayaanman.
It’s a book that breaks your heart and then fixes it back, nice and proper. It tells the story of strength contained in the small frame of a child prancing around the house in a Batman suit, but too weak to run the school race. And yet he ran, fell, got up, fell again, got up and ran till he finished the race. It also tells the story of a star who grew up surrounded with all religions in his Pali Hill house, and his son who, at times, whispers Hindu chants in the ears of his grandfather, a devout Muslim. The Kiss of Life is a story about the heaviness of life and the lightness of being.
Your book, coming at the time it is — after your last few films which were not very successful, and before the release of your film Azhar — did you consider that it might be seen as a publicity seeking…
No. If it had to be a publicity-seeking thing then I’d have said that I’m having a great time in the film industry. These are hard, brutal, honest facts — things that were happening in my life... It was very important to get into that — of where I was, to understand the revelation at the end... Everything seems muted when you are fighting for your son’s life. Career, profession, hits and flops are very small compared to the enormity of the situation.
It does seem like a letter to our fans — “This is what happened in the last two-three years…”
(Deep breath) It gives them an insight into my life that they have not been a part of. I don’t share these things with the media because I’m a very private person, so it was very important to kind of pour my heart out into the book while on this exercise of telling them about my son, about the treatment...
So ya, it was very important, not just for fans but also general public who reads, probably doesn’t watch my movies, cancer patients battling the disease... to understand and take something from this story of hope. And resilience.
In a sense this book marks a second inning in your life, in your career — was it also cathartic?
There definitely is a catharsis through the incident, of how it has changed our family. We are living a very new kind of normal now which every cancer patient, their family goes through… I don’t know about the second inning, but definitely things have evolved since then and changed... You can’t undo a traumatic incident like this — it just makes you stronger...
Ayaan is doing…
He’s doing great. He’s in school. He’s performing well, he’s running races, he’s doing kick-boxing, he’s doing everything that normal kids do.
Why did you invent the superhero, Batman character?
(Says it with exhaustion which would be painfully familiar to parents of fussy children) To make him have food when he was two years old. Because kids don’t have food, there had to be some creative intervention to get him to eat, to drink his milk. He’s extremely fussy and extremely stubborn, so it was very important to find someone he looked up to... All kids love superheroes. They love their parents, but I think they like superheroes slightly more, they want to be like them — there’s a selfish need: “Tell me what to do so that I can be like them”. So that’s why I used to make those calls.
Creating this superhero, the phone calls — was it your need as well, to deal with what he was going through, to stay once-removed and yet believe that you are a superhero, that you can fight it, we will fight it...
Ya, of course. In doing that for our son we also started finding strength from that story for ourselves as parents. Obviously it’s a fictional thing, but you have to believe in these things to overcome. And then you start realising why people invented superheroes — it gets you through all those things.
Has Ayaan shown any signs of being Batman, of fighting crime?
He shows those signs everyday. He walks around the house with a Batsuit on.
What is the Kiss of Life that you refer to in the title?
I’ve used “kiss of life” as a metaphor of some sort — you want to live on and you want to fight this disease, and that is the gift from life... That we had to live on and protect our son, to keep this family alive.
You’ve written about guilt when you had to leave Canada to come to Bombay to shoot — Raja Natwarlal and Mr X. How did you shoot while dealing with this?
It was very tough for the first 15 days or so after I came back. I wanted to go back, be with my family while my son was being treated. But after nights of popping sleeping pills, after two weeks I was... I won’t say it was easier, it was just that I got into the groove of shooting... For my own sanity, for those couple of minutes in front of the camera just forgetting stuff. It was not easy shooting for those three months, but things got a bit more bearable.
In retrospect, looking at those films, how they did and your own performances, do you think it would have been better not to do those films?
Can’t do that… you are committed to a film. Eventually I had to come back and finish it off.
I’m asking whether you could have, maybe, postponed, or...
If I go back, I think, I would have done it the same way because otherwise they probably wouldn’t have released, they would have been a mess... I don’t like that.
But they didn’t do well eventually.
Doesn’t really matter. That I wouldn’t know at that time. And, even if it’s not doing well, I don’t see that as a reason not to finish a film. Things at some point don’t turn out the way you planned… Even if films don’t do well, I like to stand by them.
Ya, you’ve written that. I’m asking a slightly different question. That because you were not in the “zone”, or not connected with the characters, and these films coming after what you did in Shanghai, where your performance was outstanding, were a bit…
In any profession there are highs and there are lows. No actor or no career, in no profession do you have a consistent thing. These things also teach you. If you don’t have these bitter moments in life you won’t cherish those great moments.
You’ve written about reconstituting yourself as an actor for Shanghai. Tell me a bit about that because it was a very different performance from your other…
You are as good as the character’s written. There’s nothing an actor can do unless it’s not on paper. And the vision of the director and the space you are playing it in...
It was just the process of getting into the skin of the character that was unlike anything I had played before and the film was unlike anything I had done before. So it was shocking for people to see me do that.
Do you like that vis-a-vis the other sort of films you do...
I like both.
I’m not saying that in any judgemental way…
I like all of them. Different flavours. You have to enjoy everything. You can’t constantly have one flavour, you’ll get sick. So you’ve got to enjoy a burger sometimes, you’ve got to enjoy Indian food, you have to have junk food sometimes. It’s very important to have a variety of tastes in your life. Do a senseless comedy, do a thriller, do a HORROR film. That’s what actors do. They have to get into everything and make it look convincing. Sometimes things go well, sometimes things don’t go well. The only way you can make sure a film is successful is don’t do films. Sit at home.
You’ve written about your very loyal fan-base — single screen-goers — since your first film, Footpath. What do you think attracts them to you?
Irreverential characters. Rebellious by nature. Anti-system. Great songs, kisses, sex in doses. In a country that’s always shied away from that... all these things were a big hit with the masses when I started off. I guess they were hungry to see films like that. There weren’t too many things happening then. Right now a lot of it is happening. Everyone has come into the foray and doing sex and all...
Just like you’ve written, that your films are not hits unless you kiss, no interview with you is complete without discussing kissing and your reputation as, well, “Chumban Devta” — I had not read this gem.
Many other actors kiss, have kissed, have been kissing, now boys are kissing boys as well. But, somehow, yours works more...
Maybe no one kisses as well as I do. Hahaha... Maybe that’s what it is. I guess that’s it.
Tell me more.
I don’t know. Maybe I do something that people see and like. Maybe other people are not kissing that well...
Do you like kissing?
On screen, no. I find it extremely… (it) just becomes, at the end, some gimmick that it was not intended to be, at least from my point of view. It just
becomes very frivolous at the end of it. I have a problem with that (the kiss) becoming the centre of things. I have never seen it as a centre of things. But over here, it just becomes the centre of things.
I don’t know who does it, or what makes it happen, but it just becomes the centre of things. I’d rather that it not be. I’d rather it just be an emotion or a moment in a film that goes by and supports the film. But it doesn’t happen that way... I have gone to cinema halls and people start whistling on a kiss… I’m amused.
You’ve written about this... about Salman Khan and his shirt...
Ya, that’s what I’m saying. That’s what I guess is the case — not just in our country, but everywhere — people like to stereotype things. They need that visual or a tag to go by, to box things up. They like a word associated
to a person. It becomes a gift for you, it also becomes a curse for you.
But for you it’s been a gift, not a curse.
In a way it’s been a gift, in some cases it’s been the biggest curse because when you try to get away from that, then it’s like, “Oh, why is he not doing that?” Like Shanghai. It didn’t do well.
So, you are saying that you may be a better kisser. But Indian men, by and large, are bad kissers. (After stuttering, vigorous hand gestures, trying to ask this in a sophisticated way, I land with a thud) Do you like kissing, in personal life?
Any guy loves kissing in personal life.
But that’s what I’m saying. Indian men mostly don’t.
No, maybe they all do. They just don’t know how to do it... It’s not enjoyable for the woman, I guess. They are enjoying it, but it’s not to satisfy someone else, it’s to satisfy themselves.
Last question. Towards the end of the book you’ve written about the school race that Ayaan runs — he falls, gets up, falls again... finishes last. And then he turns to look at you, smiles and winks.
Throughout the book, while you are telling Ayaan what to do, as Batman, as father, you’ve also drawn a lot of lessons from him. That was the most difficult chapter to write because I didn’t really know how things had changed me. I had been through the incident but you can’t really put a finger on it. And then this race happened and I realised, aaaa, this is what it is. I keep saying that I have not got this sort of wisdom from people I have met.
This incident changed me, and that one race... It’s all about rolling with the punches and to keep moving... Failures are people who don’t get up, winners are people who get up and keep running the race…...