So despite being detained at the airport, Shah Rukh Khan made it to Yale to deliver his speech, and what a speech it was. He spoke of success, failure and creativity – I just wish I could have been there to see it in person! Since most of us weren’t, here’s the video and transcript of his speech; I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!
PS. funambulist = a tightrope walker, yes I had to Google it!
Good evening everyone, I’d like to thank you all for giving me the opportunity to be here. I also want to thank Isha for following up with the most disorganised and incommunicative person in the world in order to fix today’s meeting with all of you. Thanks I really am honoured and extremely happy to be here.
I have memories of being in Yale five years ago. It was December and so damn cold that while professing love to my leading lady and singing a Bollywood ditty, which went something like this – Kabhie Alvida Na Kehna – my mouth froze itself to death. I say death because as I inched closer to kiss her, mouthing the words Kabhi Alvida Na… my mouth and jaw just got locked.
So I am hoping my second outing to your wonderful university turns out differently because it would be highly embarrassing if I said “good evening Yaleites” or “Yalers” or whatever you guys are called, and got stuck at…yaaaaa….that wouldn’t make for much of a speech.
I was told not to dwell too much on my movies when I speak to you, I am to give you an inspirational talk- tell you stuff you can think about when you leave this room.
That worries me, it gives me performance anxiety. Here you are, 1500 of you, hoping to hear words of wisdom from this sexy, desirable man, who couldn’t kiss a girl, last time he was in Yale because it was too cold. But I’m not that guy, I mean, I’m sexy and desirable for sure but I’m not about to leave you anymore inspired than when you walked in here.
I read this lame joke on Google the other day (yes I pick everything up from Google, even the script of my next movie and I’m not ashamed of it – you can pick me up on Google too if you like!).
Anyway, the joke went like this – a dying man, gasping for breath, desperately gestured to the priest by his side for a piece of paper. With great effort, he then wrote a few words on it, handed it to the priest and passed away. The priest kept the paper in his pocket and forgot all about it until the final service. Here he suddenly recalled the dead man’s last scribble. Unfolding the paper, he told the funereal congregation that he was about to read great words of inspiration to them. The piece of paper had these words on it – “You are standing on my oxygen tube…fool.”
So I am not going to be the priest tonight. Instead, I will tell you simple experiences of my life’s journey with simpler words, which may not leave you inspired, but will help you survive this life. And if you can do that – happiness, creativity and success will follow on its own – or maybe not but you will have to live this life nevertheless. Only I hope my words will give you enough insight so that you can tell the world, “hey guys you are standing on my oxygen tube…move over and let me breathe.”
Journeys can be defined by age and time or even by destinations, as most often they are. But I feel it is hard for me to tell the story of my life in those terms because the concept of time has always eluded me. The day my father died seemed longer than my entire childhood.
The day I felt my first success seemed fleeting, hour-long, not long enough perhaps. I wondered where it went. Even the cycle of time confounds me. I work the dark until sunrise on most days and fall asleep as the world awakens to light. My friends call me an owl, I like to think of myself as a bat…Batman…the prince of darkness.
Age is not my forte either, I still cannot fix my own – am I 45 or 15? If I could, would I be romancing girls one third my age, who normally would call me “uncle”.
I had so much fun collecting the action figures of my last film (called RA.One) that none of the critical reviews tanking it mattered to me.
As for my destination, I don’t think I ever knew one. I walk, I run, in the direction of my dreams. Things change along the way, people change, I change, the world changes, even my dreams change. I don’t have a place to arrive, I just keep doing what I know how to do the best that I can do it. I’ll probably end up a deluded geriatric in a wheelchair wearing a cape and tights, imagining my own flight out of this world, but of course with a young girl in my arms.
So I’ll tell you the story of me but I’ll tell it in my own way. In the language of my perceptions, in the things I think matter beyond fame and success and the dyeing of my hair. I have understood that the measure of my life lies in the expanse of my heart’s experience and nothing else matters, if you take anything out of it, good, otherwise I can put on music and dance to my last big hit song, have a drink and try and practice my kissing in the cold of Yale one more time.
However, I look at it in its eventual analysis, my life has centred around my creativity. I have assimilated the world through creative expression and in return the world has experienced me. I have grown to understand that on one hand the world will always uphold creativity as the most honest feeling possible.
On the other hand, the portents of fame (the glitz, the glamour, the wealth) that arise from this very recognition of creativity will always be questioned. Why do we do that? Because sometimes it allows us to feel better than the creator and sometimes, it fills a void within us that comes about by being in awe of his creation. Either way, it enables us to quantify his engagement with the world around him.
I am an actor; my life is a testament to this duality.
George Burns said that “acting is all about honesty”. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made. He couldn’t have defined it better. Honest and fake, yes that’s what I feel as a creative person all the time.
Let me tell you my schizophrenia.
Creative expression comes from the deepest experience of the artist himself. A good artist cannot be separate from his creation. Good art is honest art. A man may be an artist, a writer, a sculptor, an actor or a totem pole carver. Whatever he is, if what he creates is true to himself, it becomes a vivid testimonial to human creativity. If it lacks honesty, its entire premise is a waste.
At the same time, and quite paradoxically, a man becomes distinct from his creation from the moment it is placed in the public domain. It no longer even belongs to him. So it comes from your gut and it is put out there for others to accept it or throw it in the gutter.
Many a nights, I have gone back home after receiving an award – pumped up and all happy – just to read that what I really deserved was the Golden Banana for Worst Actor Of The Year. I become heartbroken, angry and completely convinced that bananas and critics, both should have their skins peeled and fed to the monkeys.
I momentarily lose my ability to give and close up. And here’s where the trick is – when you are in this place of despair, where the world is staring you down into yourself – there’s only one thing you can do to survive – hang on to who you are inside. The world will be unkind to you, it will not be able to see you. You must learn at such times, to be able to see yourself.
Life as a creative person is like being on a tight rope. I begin to lose myself, in my own melodrama. It’s frustrating that I find myself living up to other people’s interpretation of what I ought to be. And when faced with dissent, I start losing my love affair with my audience. It becomes a tight balance act, to keep doing what I do best and not be bothered by the reactions of people I do it for, in the first place.
I dance harder and cartwheel longer and pirouette on my rope – stretched, taut, beneath my feet.
And I try not to slip, I can slide but never fall off. All this while, I have a smile on my face and signing autographs. All I am is a funambulist trying to balance my action and exterior reaction to my naked show of who I am inside.
I start to feel like a street artist, who feels his audience is just a bunch of pausing passers-by’s applauding out of a mixture of curiosity, pity or even disregard. Yet, when I am playing this real life illusion out, more often than not, my honest self is sitting in the audience, applauding my performance while laughing heartily at my own stupidity.
So my friends, learn to laugh at yourselves too. Never become cynical about yourself and your life. Becoming cynical about your life is the single most destructive thing you can do to it.
For you have to remember – creativity is your gift to the world. It was never meant to be barter for anything, not even appreciation. You have to dig deep, I do it while drinking vodka after vodka – listening to self-pitying, loser songs – you should find a less destructive way. However you do it, but you have to believe that you create only because this is the biggest gift you have to give to your world. Maybe that’s why we even say “God is a creator”.
It’s not about the cars or houses, it never was, those are peripherals. They never come about because of your talent or your creative outpourings. They come out of a business that people around you do. Those people are in the business of barter – not you. Yours is the business of giving and learning. Your work of art may never be complete in your lifetime. Your fulfilment will always lie in your creative expression not in its products.
So look beyond the brickbats, the critics and know within you that you always have a choice between barter and creation. Life as a creator will always be a tight rope.
Do not try to feed your stomach with creativity; it is food for your soul, not your stomach. Do not be afraid to defy conventions. Do not be afraid to destroy systems that kill art and your souls. Do not be afraid to be hungry. Do not be afraid to walk alone if necessary. Because on a tightrope we all walk alone. Remember, if you are a creator you are a funambulist and not very many people know that word, let alone be it.
Just as my life has centred around creativity, like every fellow human being’s, it has also centred around the wish to find happiness. Your age is the age when we most confuse happiness with gratification so I will say quite plainly: if you are smart, if you want to survive life’s relentless onslaught of challenges, you will sooner or later understand that the things that made you happy ten years ago will end up being the ones that make you happy when you hit the geriatric superhero stage. Kids, start collecting your action figures, now!
I have everything I could have aspired for at your age, I have success, I have fame, I have wealth and I have three play stations – one for the house – one for shootings and one just because I can have it. But none of these have any consequence to my happiness, the only thing that does is the love of my children.
You don’t have children (I hope), but you have parents, you have people you love and nothing in this world of everything, means more than that. Happiness, in other words, lies in the things you will never be able to count.
To me, it is no more than cuddling up to my kids and watching I Carly or The Family Guy. Well most of the time anyway, the other day my son and I stumbled upon the Kamasutra on the net and I can tell you that experience was not very happy. He’s 14 and he knew more about it than I did.
I want you to understand this business of happiness well because I know at one level, all parents are the actually the same. Some look sterner, some are less fun, some are embarrassingly weird but for each parent the bottom and the top line of their lives is this – you kids are their greatest source of happiness.
Parents want nothing in return, just that you respect that feeling, that’s all.
Take my own children. I believe that girls really are from planet Venus – my girl comes from a place of gentleness, caring, love, intelligence and all things beautiful. My boy comes from ‘I am too good to be your kid’ planet. Guys are obnoxious. I am not being sexist but that’s the truth.
I was in London shooting and missing my kids. Being from the boring school of people, who send writings to their kids in the hope of making them better human beings, I sent my daughter this verse from a poem by E E Cummings:
I do not know what it is about you that closes and opens,
only something in me understands
The voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses,
nobody, not even the rain,has such small hands
I instantly received this text message in return, “I love it papa. It is beautiful. I am going to write it in my secret diary with the secret lock and keep it in my secret hiding place, under the Katy Perry and Lady Gaga poster. I love you and miss you. I am too excited, watching The Hunger Games tonight.”
Feeling bad that I hadn’t texted something meaningful to my darling son I sent him something I had read too. “How are you my son,” I wrote. “I miss you. Do you know, a boy is someone that a mother loves the most. Little girls hate him. He is truth with dirt on its face, beauty with a cut on its finger, wisdom with smell in its hair and hope of the future with a frog in its pocket. I love you.”
He replied back with one letter of the alphabet. One measly “Y” to my emotional fatherly outpourings. That and an emoticon. I wanted to fly to Mumbai and hang him upside down till he looked liked a silly red faced emoticon himself. But I didn’t, instead I just smiled.
Both replies made me feel love for my kids. Whatever they do, as long as they are happy it makes me happy.
So I speak to you as a parent of two very weird kids. Whatever you do, whichever mistake you make, however you react to them, your parents are your best friends.
They might be boring, silly or stern at times. Maybe some of you are embarrassed of yours, I know my kids are of me, but if ever any of you are in trouble of any kind – the best friends you can always trust to watch your backs are your parents. They will always come good.
I lost my parents very early in my life and I miss them dearly. So, all of you who still have yours don’t listen to them, fool them if you must, a bit of lying is also welcome, but make sure you cherish what you have because when you don’t have them. Like me, you really miss someone to be rude to – someone to you can take for granted, someone to say and do whatever you wish with. You miss the comfort of being loved unconditionally. I call parents unconditional and forgiving punching bags, who feel happiest when they get bashed up by their kids.
If you want to survive life, it’s best to begin to respect the gift of love right now.
As children, your first teachers of this acceptance are your parents. If you are unable to accept the love they give you, in whatever form it arrives (even if it is a tight slap across your face), then when you become a parent, you will end up having to learn this lesson somewhat more harshly from teachers you give birth to – and learning Kamasutra from my son is a not a great idea – you would agree.
Incidentally he studies in a school that Isha’s mom runs in India. I have to say – ma’m your syllabus is quite different from the one I had when I was in school.
Whether I like it or not, my life has also been in constant play with what the world calls “Success”.
Success is a wonderful thing, but it tends not to be the sort of experience that we learn from. We enjoy it, perhaps we even deserve it. But we don’t acquire wisdom from it. And maybe that’s why it cannot be passed on either – me being successful does not mean my children will also be. No matter how much ever I teach them what I did in my life and even if they follow it to the letter.
So I feel that talking about how to become successful is a waste of time. Instead, let me tell you very honestly whatever happened to me happened because I have always been terrified of failure. I don’t want as much to succeed as much as I don’t want to fail.
I come from a very normal lower middle class family. I saw a lot of failure. My father was a beautiful man and the most successful failure in the world. My mother also failed to stay with me long enough for her to see me become a movie star. We were quite poor actually and let me tell you, poverty is not an ennobling experience at all. Poverty entails fear and stress and sometimes depression. I watched my parents go through this several times.
At an early age after my parents died, I equated poverty with failure. I just didn’t want to be poor. So when I got a chance to act in films it wasn’t out of any creative desire that I did so. It was purely out of the fear of failure and poverty. Most of the films I signed were discards of better known actors and the producers could not find anyone else to do them. I did them all to make sure that I was working to avoid unemployment. The timing or something was right, and that made them happen. I became a big star, which means sometimes our success is not the direct result of our actions. Success just happens. Really. It is accidental and we take credit for it, I know I have done this even out of embarrassment sometimes.
So I believe the true path to success is through the fear of failure. If you aren’t scared enough of failing, you are unlikely to succeed. It’s not pleasant to fail, it’s tough. All of us experience it. You will too if you haven’t already. Use it to succeed.
Here’s how I have done so:
1. Firstly, its not the absence of failure that makes you a success – it is your response to failure that actually helps to buffer the reverses that you experience. I personally have one response to failure – pragmatism – a recognition and belief that if one approach does not work, then the other will or might.
2. Failure also gives me an incentive to greater exertion – harder work, which invariably leads to later success in most cases.
3. Repeated failure has taught me to stop pretending I am someone else. It has given me the clarity to stick to the things that really matter to me instead of distracting me from my core.
4. Failure also gets you to find, who your real friends are. The true strength of your relationships only gets tested in the face of strong adversity.
5. Overcoming some of my failures has made me discover that I have a strong will and more discipline than I suspected. It has helped me have confidence in my ability to survive.
Failure is an amazing teacher. There is a well-known story of a bank president, who was asked the secret of his success. “Right decisions,” he replied. “How do you get to know how to make right decisions?” came the follow-up question. “Experience,” was the answer. “Well, how do you get experience?” asked his interrogator. “Wrong decisions,” he replied.
You have to know and learn that life is a not just a check list of acquisitions, attainments and fulfilments, your qualifications and CVs don’t really matter. Instead, life is difficult and complicated, and beyond anyone’s control. The humility to know this will help you survive its vicissitudes.
But I don’t want to sound dark. My hope for all of you is that you retain a lifelong love of learning, that you never cease to dream exciting and inspiring dreams, and when you fail, you fail well enough to succeed the next time. Don’t be afraid of being afraid, be afraid of not facing your fears and failures.
In the end I will read out a text message I got today from my kid – “Papa, Chuck Norris has trained his dog to pick up its own poop because Chuck Norris will not take shit from anyone.”
So remember, you are fortunate enough to be a funambulist – who has an amazing set of punching bags – cherish them. And failure is your fiendish friend, keep him close, and don’t take no shit from anybody.
Bless you all and thanks for listening.