The big story
Gauri Khan may be better known as the wife of King of Bollywood Shah Rukh Khan, but she has now carved a name for herself in the world of interior design, bagging prestigious projects in Dubai and India. She tells Shiva Kumar Thekkepat why, despite plenty
Not content with just being Mrs Shah Rukh, Gauri Khan has become The Queen of design.
Gauri Khan is petite and languid-eyed. But the 1.65m tall wife of the reigning King of Bollywood Shah Rukh Khan can make the men in black – the three huge burly security guards who are protecting her – go weak at the knees with just an arch of her well-shaped eyebrow.
The trio are positioned at various points in the lobby of Madinat Jumeirah’s Al Qasr Hotel in Dubai to screen anybody who attempts to access their suite. And just in case somebody does manage to slip through their ring in the lobby, there are a couple more of them on the suite floor ready to stop and question potential intruders.
When she wants a dress pressed, Gauri asks one of the men stationed outside her suite door to call someone to do it, and the formidable-looking man jumps with alacrity to set the wheels in motion. The 43-year-old, it is obvious, is a no-nonsense person, and it shows in the way she reacts when she hears that Shah Rukh almost missed his flight from Mumbai to Dubai – both of them travelled separately due to the star’s hectic work schedule.
“I wouldn’t have been surprised at all,” she says, when Los Angeles-based architect Tony Ashai – who’s designing Royal Estates, a Dh2.3-billion realestate development for which Gauri has designed the interiors – gives her the details over the phone. “The
‘Shah Rukh and I are total opposites. I’m extremely diciplined and very particular about time’
number of times we’ve missed flights, I’ve lost count!”
There’s an underlying steel in her soft mellifluous voice as she narrates some of her famous husband’s peccadillos. “I am an extremely disciplined person,” Gauri says, trademark smile in place. “In fact, Shah Rukh and I are totally opposite. I am very particular about time, dates and appointments. If people don’t show up on time, it drives me
crazy. Whether it’s food, or even going to the gym, I lead a very disciplined, routine life.
“I have three success mantras that I follow – discipline, organisation and hard work. Discipline makes you a better person and the reason that I am able to succeed at work is because of my organised schedule.”
Her discipline is a result of a strict upbringing by an Indian Army colonel father and housewife mother. In fact, legend has it that when a besotted Shah Rukh followed her from Delhi to Mumbai, where she was visiting during her college vacation, and declared his love for her on the streets, singing and dancing like the typical Bollywood hero he was destined to become, Gauri was hardly amused. And unlike a Bollywood heroine, she did not fall into his arms at the end of the song. It took a lot of serious convincing on Shah Rukh’s part before she agreed to consider his proposal and say ‘yes’.
‘I have three success mantras that I follow – discipline, organisation and hard work.’
In fact she’s also reluctant to give undue credit to Shah Rukh for her professional rise as an interior designer for the rich and famous in 2012. “His appreciation [of what I do] is the only way he has influenced me professionally,” she says.
However, her friends were more than encouraging. “A lot of people loved [the decor of my home]. Sussanne Khan [Bollywood heartthrob Hrithik Roshan’s estranged wife], was the first person to visit, and she just loved it,” says Gauri. Sussanne was also willing to put her money on Gauri’s talent. “She was opening her store, The Charcoal Project, in Mumbai in 2012, so I joined her. I still work with her on some projects, and some of my collections are at her store.” However, she’s quick to admit that Shah Rukh has always been her backbone. Before zeroing in on interior design, Gauri produced some of his films – including the blockbuster Chennai Express, Main
Hoon Na and Om Shanti Om – has modelled intermittently, and tried her hand at hosting a television show on MTV India, all of this along with bringing up their three children, Aryan, 16, Suhana, 14, and AbRam, one.
“I started off collecting things for my personal space, when we were building our dream house, called Mannat (which means ‘blessing’ in
Hindi), in Mumbai a decade ago. He’s always told me I have the talent to pick just the right piece [of art or furniture] to complement the space.
“For many years, I’ve been trying to arrive at, to really understand what I love, what I am passionate about and then stick to that. That’s why it took me so long to get into a space that I enjoy and am passionate about. It’s interiors and that’s why I’m here today.”
So, what really defines her? Gauri refuses to play the game. “Me as a person? That’s so boring!” she exclaims. “What should I say? Nothing, really!” She laughs, half-embarrassed.
After a pause, she continues: “I don’t want to talk about myself, it sounds too much like praising myself. Sometimes these kind of statements can be misquoted. Other magazines may pick it up, and the ‘I, I, I…’ may sound too much in your face. That’s why I don’t like to give interviews. What would I say? ‘I am very creative, I am a great mother, I am this, I am that…’ I’d rather skip it. Let the world talk about my work.”
So, what took her so long – she married Shah Rukh in 1991 aged 20 – to get started on her career? “I got married very young, and children followed soon after,” she says. “I’ve tried my hand at everything... trying to whittle down the right profession for myself. I tried my hand at clothes, I’ve modelled… but nothing really worked for me. I didn’t really enjoy it and maybe I was not really good enough. It could be both. I was also not so focused then. This [interior decoration] came very
‘Idon’t want to talk about myself, so I don’t like to give interviews. Let the world talk about my work’
naturally to me and it all worked out really well.”
In fact, she surprised herself when she finally found what she was really good at. “I didn’t always have the entrepreneurial spirit in me,” she says. “It is the sum total of my experiences that took me to where I am now, it took me time to understand myself, my passion, my capabilities. The only reason I took so long to open the store is that I didn’t want to start something with a bang when I was not sure whether it was my calling and if I would be able to fulfil and make a mark. That is very important to me.”
She has also said that she did not have to face any confidence issues. “I am a very confident person,” she said in an interview with an Indian newspaper. “It’s just that I get disinterested in things. But I think as you grow older, you learn. Now, I’m sure of my intentions. I have no regrets. I think everything comes and goes in time. So, you are never late for anything in life.”
Years ago, Gauri hinted that she was not in awe of her husband’s stardom, or of Bollywood. “I’m comfortable in my own skin and surroundings. I don’t think I get overshadowed by my husband or his personality. I have a stronger personality than Shah Rukh. He is an entity on his own and I don’t consider him a superstar when I’m with him in the house. He’s justmy husband and I respect him as that.”
While confidence may not have been an issue, finding her feet in the shadow of her superstar husband has not been easy for Gauri. Especially since Shah Rukh himself self-confessedly has no business sense. But she has been quick to learn the art of manoeuvring in the quicksand of Bollywood, where a single mistake can put paid to a career. She proved to be quite the businesswoman, co-founding the production company Red Chillies Entertainments and producing some of her husband’s films. And after associating with Sussanne Khan, Gauri also established her own interior design store, called The Design Cell, in Mumbai earlier this year.
“We are expanding now, doing many projects,” she says. “In Dubai we’ve tied up with a local company, The First Ferry, a design and
architecture firm at The Oberoi, for which I was here in June this year. They have a lot of interior decor projects in Dubai that I will be working on. I am doing something in Pune as well, which I signed on for recently. I am also doing quite a few private residences in New Delhi and in Mumbai.”
But what’s close to her heart is The Design Cell. “I want you to mention that, it’s most important!” she insists charmingly. “Because it’s a new store, and I want people to be aware of what I am doing. It’s a concept store, not only furniture but also a lot of accessories, lighting ideas… it’s like a showcase, a calling card, so to say. It’s not a store you just walk in and start buying things up. It’s not a huge space. It’s a very tiny space, but you can create beauty in the tiniest spaces possible. Large isn’t necessarily beautiful. That’s the whole concept behind the store.”
Gauri obviously can’t stop talking about her new venture. “It’s not only for the privileged,” she says. “The concept of my store started off with Bombay [she prefers referring to it by its old name rather than Mumbai as it is now known] where most people stay in flats, unlike in, say, places like New Delhi, where they can stay in houses, even farmhouses. So, the furniture is basically for people who live in small houses. Everything’s on a smaller scale. And affordable.”
What she forgets to mention is affordable in her lexicon may also require quite deep pockets.
As the interview ends, Gauri turns again to the men in black, because she’s hungry after the flight from Mumbai. The tough-looking man is perplexed for a minute. It’s obviously not an order that’s common in his line of work. Then he brightens up and calls his colleagues at the lobby on his walkie-talkie to order a lunch for ‘Madam’. As I pass him, he eyes me stonily. They, unlike their employer, have not learnt to smile sweetly while doing their job.
Gauri has produced several of her husband’s films, including the huge hit Chennai Express
Shah Rukh with Gauri, son Aryan, daughter Suhana and sister Shehnaz during an Eid lunch at their lavish mansion, Mannat
Gauri says her new venture Design Cell is not just for the privileged