Decoding Brad Pitt's Encounter With Shah Rukh Khan

The difference between the two kinds of moviemaking is rarely expressed in such sharp relief as the chat Brad Pitt and Shah Rukh Khan had in a Mumbai hotel on Wednesday. Organised by Netflix ahead of the worldwide release of War Machine - produced by Pitt's production company, Plan B productions - the event was kept impressively under wraps

Satyajit Ray once published a book on cinema called Our Films, Their Films. The difference between the two kinds of moviemaking is rarely expressed in such sharp relief as the chat Brad Pitt and Shah Rukh Khan had in a Mumbai hotel on Wednesday. Organised by Netflix ahead of the worldwide release of War Machine - produced by Pitt's production company, Plan B productions - the event was kept impressively under wraps, with less than twenty journalists invited to watch these two global superstars collide.

The air was heavy with hype - Rahul meets Tyler Durden, Raj Malhotra meets Rusty Ryan, Coach Kabir Khan meets Lt Aldo Raine - the kind of unreasonable hype that could not be doused by polite conversation. And this was not, alas, a dramatic or particularly insightful conversation. Shah Rukh Khan, one of our sharpest and most articulate actors, was in disappointing form, lackadaisical and unenthused, giving needlessly long answers. Pitt may well have been on a charm offensive, but we'll never know since all that means is flashing that lazy, easy smile.

The afternoon was somewhat reminiscent of a particularly lovely event back in 2013, where Amitabh Bachchan interviewed Steven Spielberg with a ballroomful of enraptured filmmakers in attendance. That was memorable because Bachchan, who had really done his research, could inquisitively prod the prolific Spielberg about his films, his hopes and his processes, finally opening the floor up to the rest of us and making for a truly special experience.

Wednesday's event, with Khan and Pitt being quizzed by moderator Rajeev Masand - possibly compelled to ask questions that would apply to both actors, without treading on either ego - felt a lot more static. Yet even this limited interaction proved to be a telling one. It told us how seriously Pitt is taking his role as a producer compared to that of an actor, how movies by Terrence Malick share some of the same DNA as those by Abbas-Mustan, and how severely Shah Rukh Khan may be misunderstanding Netflix.

He also, it appears, might be getting wary of song and dance routines. Khan complained about them frequently. "You can't really get into character if you have to get out of it and dance every twenty minutes. It's not a musical, it's not been laid out like that, it's not All That Jazz," said Khan. "It's just a song and dance. I'm sorry to say I don't know how to dance in character." When Pitt said he could never do Bollywood because he can't sing, Khan gave his line of the evening: "Neither can I. I'm Milli Vanilli", he laughed, referring to the infamous German pop duo who lipsynced their way to the top of the charts. Does this distaste indicate that Shah Rukh, as one of the most influential people in Hindi cinema, will start producing films that won't require him to dance?

Khan singled out 12 Monkeys as the film that made him a Brad Pitt fan, also mentioning The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button and Burn After Reading. "Those took a lot of work," admitted Pitt. "Especially 12 Monkeys. A lot of insanity. Locking myself into a room for a couple of weeks to see how crazy it'd get. But it's just... it's what we do. I wouldn't say any films were more difficult than the others. It's just part of the process, part of the craft." Asked inevitably about Fight Club, Pitt grinned wide. "That was just fun! [It was] irreverent and it's a great piece of writing and had a dear friend of mine, David Fincher, directing, and Edward Norton [acting]... No, we mainly just laughed while making that film. Much like this one, actually."

The new film, War Machine, out on your Netflix screen this Friday, is directed by David Michod - an Australian director who made the thrilling gangster drama Animal Kingdom and dystopic film The Rovers - who joined the actors on stage for a while. It is a war satire based on a non-fiction book doubling up as a dysfunctional workplace comedy, and if that seems like a lot of labels, it is. Pitt, who plays a gung-ho Army general out to "win" Afghanistan does so like a Ken doll version of Captain America, and while his performance is amusing and a few scenes rather strong, the doesn't wholly pull it off, making for a disjointed and overlong watch. Still, as Michod says, it is the kind of unlikely, absurdly ambitious film the Hollywood studio system won't normally get behind.

This is where Pitt comes in. His company has produced recent Oscar winners Moonlight, The Big Short and 12 Years A Slave, with upcoming Netflix release (and the talk of this year's Cannes Film Festival) Okja coming up. "So many of our films are categorised by opening weekend, and it's really an unfair jury," said Pitt. "Longevity is the true test. Is it still being watched, is it still speaking to people 20 years down the road? And I've seen many good films being dubbed failures that some have been found later in life and some haven't, some go away. And it's interesting to see what removing that aspect does to a film's reputation, in the early days."

It is a fascinating point to ponder, because Netflix is currently arming creators with remarkable power to bring their stories to life. Will the hit/loss conversation actually go out the window and will we, free of a scoreboard, begin to watch - and, indeed, make - films differently?

Khan's take on Netflix is rather odd. "I think Netflix in the next five years will give opportunities to so many directors. Like in India, every household has a singer. I think every household has a filmmaker. We've been making films for so long, I think everybody wants to make a film. And this is just the right time for all of them to come on board, have opportunities with companies like Netflix and say okay I don't need anybody else. Just come and make your film."

I cannot quite fathom exactly why Shah Rukh believes Netflix to be this hybrid between Indian Idol and YouTube, a sort of talent scout giving kids the ability to make films when, in reality, the streaming service is actually empowering filmmakers who have already shown massive promise and won great acclaim. They are giving funds to directors like Martin Scorsese to make epics the traditional studios would pass over in favour of a superhero film or the start to another tentpole franchise. They may be buying new films hot off the Sundance applause, but Netflix is a very discerning backer and doesn't seem to be the place to fund untested talent. (Unless, Mr Khan, you know something we don't about their India plans.)

"One time I was playing an organist, which takes all four limbs," explained Pitt during one of the more animated moments of the conversation. "It was really hard so they decided to shoot my hands and someone else's feet. But I couldn't even get the piano part, so what we did was I [played] the bassline with the left hand, but we had another guy who played the organ whose hand looked close enough, and we cut a hole in the jacket and he slipped it through and we got the shot. It looks great."

This was in Terrence Malick's Tree Of Life, for a shot that lasts less than twenty seconds. Khan, who played an unplugged electric guitar in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, then said Abbas-Mastan did the same thing for him. "In Baadshah, [I did] all those card-tricks exactly the same way. I had a magician from Bangalore putting his hands through my jacket."

'One for them, one for me' is an old Hollywood strategy for actors, justifying their career choices by saying you make one film for the studios, and one for yourself, for your own satisfaction. Not everyone can maintain this, but both Pitt, 53, and Khan, 51, are studio-sized now, and can afford to make only the ones for themselves. As the world shrinks and barriers crumble and we all stream the same movie at the exact same time, it'll be interesting to see what these two icons take on next.

"For me, it depends a lot on who's telling the story," says Pitt about picking films. "It usually starts with the script, a good piece of writing and the decision to go investigate that." He goes on about working with filmmakers he likes and respects, and how it's always good to work with friends. Khan takes this even further: "Yes. Sometimes I don't even want to know the story."

Pitt: How long is the shooting on a Bollywood film?

Khan: About a 120 days for a big film. A simpler film would take about 70 days.

Pitt: It's about the same with us. But there's no dancing. I would never make it in Bollywood because I can't dance.

Khan: We'll make you dance. We make everyone dance.

Pitt: That'd be my first film and my last.

And maybe, just maybe, that is a film we'll get to see. Your move, Netflix.

(Raja Sen is a film critic, columnist and screenwriter. He is currently working on a children's book.)

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