Saif Ali Khan On His Not-So-Safe 30 Years In Cinema
My first memories of Saif Ali Khan are as a pre-teen, watching him dance (or make a sincere attempt at it) to songs like Aadhi Raat Ko (Parampara, 1993), Main Hoon Aashiq Aawara (Aashiq Awara, 1993), and of course, Ole Ole Ole (Yeh Dillagi, 1994). As a young girl, I absolutely adored this good-looking man with a cute smile and bouncy hair.
However, it seems the man himself is not too proud of this initial stint. “My entire upbringing till then was that of almost like an Anglo-Indian, Winchester-educated boy, it was very far removed from Bollywood. Going to the gym and to dance classes didn’t seem important to me. I just wanted a stable job. I knew that I was not cut out for an academic career. The idea of movies appealed to me. But it was when I came to Mumbai, got into films, and started making an absolute mess that I realized that I need to commit to it. I was chucked out for not being serious from my first movie (Bekhudi, with Kajol),” recalls Saif Ali Khan as we sit down for a freewheeling chat. He will eventually call the natural setup of the interview (just outside his vanity van parked inside Mehboob Studio) ‘dangerous’. The moody actor can be that dramatic for the effect. The last time I had met him for an interview, he was hell-bent on doing a cover shoot in his pyjamas, insisting that he is old and happy looking the part. He was then 48.
“Obviously I talk a lot of rubbish, also depending on when you talk to me,” laughs the actor when I mention this. Today, at 52, dressed in his jeans and T-shirt, Khan is looking every bit the rockstar he was while jamming with Parikrama at a pub in Kolkata in 2008.
Getting back into flashback mode, he continues: “Yeh Dillagi was great, Main Khiladi Tu Anari was fun, then there was Kachche Dhaage, but those were few and far between. There were also a lot of bad movies that I did during that phase. But the problem was that at that point, I took up stuff that I thought was cool and fun. I always wanted to be a successful actor, although I wasn’t being fairly responsible at it. But I did keep trying. When I did Parineeta or Omkara, I was quite serious about my acting. I am grateful that people kept giving me opportunities, not that those were always great ones; I have played third and even fourth leads in movies.”
Indeed. It was 2001. I went for Dil Chahta Hai with my college friends, and Khan’s Sameer was the most relatable character to us. Everyone (including staunch Aamir Khan fans like me) fell in love with Sameer. But it was when I watched Ek Hasina Thi and Hum Tum (for which Saif had bagged the National Film Award for Best Actor) in 2004 that I truly started to appreciate him as an actor. Then came Parineeta (2005), Salaam Namaste (2005), Being Cyrus (2006), and of course Omkara (2006). By then I was a cinephile and was blown by his nuanced turn as Langda Tyagi. It seems my coming of age as an audience has somehow coincided with his coming of age as an actor. While watching Kaalakaandi, Sacred Games, and now Vikram Vedha, it is astounding to note his evolution. Who would have thought that the cutesy star kid who got ousted from his very first movie would not only last for three decades, but would also go on to establish himself as one of the industry’s most powerful actors?
At present, while most of the ’90s stars have either faded away or taken a break or are playing jaded versions of themselves, Khan has reinvented himself, and is competing with his own daughter. Sara Ali Khan worked in the 2020 edition of his 2009 film, Love Aaj Kal. In 2018, when Sara made her film debut with Kedarnath, Saif Ali Khan ventured into the OTT space with Sacred Games. If his realistic and stark portrayal of the pot-bellied Mumbai police inspector Sartaj Singh cemented his place in the league of extraordinary actors, with his turn as the tough and dashing supercop in Vikram Vedha, he has reclaimed his tag as a bonafide Bollywood superstar as well.
Even though they inhabit a similar cop universe, Khan makes his Vikram distinctly different from his Sartaj. “Yes, SSP Vikram was again a cop. But it was a hero’s role. They jazzed it up – there was a lovely introduction, good dialogues, back-to-the-camera shots — it was a good mix of commercial cinema as well as good cinema,” he says.
Cinema, especially commercial mass entertainers in India, has been mostly aspirational. But in recent years, the focus of Bollywood movies has shifted to small-town, relatable stories. Is it now the time for a resurgence of the larger-than-life mass heroes, especially to pull the audiences back to the theatres? “I heard it as a theory recently, and I would be happy if it is true. Personally, I love playing larger-than-life characters, and I think films should be larger than life. I think the idea of playing regular people in regular situations might be interesting as actors, but might not be as exciting a thing to see unfold on a big screen. Both should and will coexist. Drishyam 2, despite having a big star in the lead, is an everyman’s story. It is not larger-than-life like an RRR. But it is also doing great. The beauty of this industry is that there are no formulae,” he says.
According to him, being a star should not be a bad word. “Tom Cruise and Clint Eastwood made their entire illustrious careers playing superstars. There are so many things you can do within that. You can be a star, and maybe you should be a star, but it is important that you are able to drop that image and become the character when the camera starts to roll,” the actor had said in my previous interview with him, pointing out that being a capable actor and being a star need not be mutually exclusive. This was right after the success of Sacred Games, when Bollywood was busy trading its ‘superstars’ for ‘actors’.
“I never had this issue of wanting to be the star. It is always about understanding the character and being what the character demands. Many people have said that it is a good thing that I don’t play the ‘star’ all the time, but for the longest time, I didn’t realize what that meant. I have thought about it, and understood the phenomenon. I have worked with actors who play the ‘star’. But that takes away from the performance.
“As Vikramaditya Motwane had pointed out while we were doing Sacred Games, it is the energy level of the character that is crucial. You have to get the lower notes right first, and then build from there,” he says. But he was not always this assured actor, and he has no qualms admitting it. “There was a time when I had this insecurity that I need to prove myself and be a certain kind of a ‘successful’ actor and do certain kinds of movies, but that is gone now. Now I want to do interesting work, and have fun while at it. The idea is to submit myself to the role and see how far I can take the character without being worried about haircuts and continuity and my image,” he explains.
It’s been 30 years since he made his debut, how does he look back at the Saif Ali Khan of ’90s? “I look back with a certain amount of forgiveness and tolerance for the stuff I did. There were a lot of cigarettes smoked and time wasted as one does in their 20s. But, I seem to be a pleasant enough fellow; and also rather hardworking. I think all of us from that era; we used to work really hard, putting in the blood and sweat,” he chuckles.
This being an excellent opportunity to look back at his chequered career, we ask him to pick 10 characters he has absolutely loved playing on screen.
Udaybhan Singh Rathore (Tanhaji, 2022)
I think that was one of the most difficult and interesting roles I have played. I used to have a slightly conservative idea of how to play a character. But my director, Om Raut, told me that I need to ‘overplay’ it and be much more theatrical and expressive, and that is where the ‘entertainment’ will come. I am not a trained actor, so I didn’t understand immediately what he meant. But then I figured it out on the set that every line, every dialogue, needed to be dramatized. Once you get into that groove, it is quite addictive. I think that’s the creative element of acting, where it becomes fun when it is slightly theatrical and is designed to entertain you. The character was on the page, but also not on the page. There was so much we added, so much we did with it; it was a journey I went on with the director.
SSP Vikram (Vikram Vedha, 2022)
It was a fairly straightforward part, but I needed to look the part. I had already seen the original, so I think I had a much easier job, really. I had to see what I liked and what I didn’t like about how Madhavan played Inspector Vikram in the Tamil version. But I liked everything that he had done, apart from maybe the tone of a couple of scenes. But in retrospect, I think maybe his approach was right. I would actually check Madhavan’s scenes a lot. Madhavan was very nice about it. He came to the set and even gave me some advice on how to approach the character and that made me feel much better. I guess we both bought ourselves into the role; I was not trying to copy it, I was essentially looking if there are any good ideas I can use.
Karan Kapoor (Hum Tum, 2004)
Hum Tum was a good one. I remember thinking that there is no drama in the movie; it is just a series of conversations between these two characters — some silly and some a bit more mature. The trick was to make those conversations interesting, and make them interesting in different ages — the two characters keep meeting at various different phases, and what can be regarded as interesting when they are 20, won’t be interesting when they are interacting as 30-year-olds. It was a difficult task. Much like Richard Linklater’s The Before Trilogy, where we have the characters meeting each other again and again after a gap of few years, the movie was essentially held together by the conversations these two characters have over the years.
Ranvir ‘Ronny’ Singh (Race, 2008)
I am quite fond of Race. It is a very stylish and very Bollywood movie. I think it was time to grow up and play the ‘man’s role’ and to play the strong, slightly morein-control character. I was initially offered the younger brother’s character. It was a great acting part, but the character was not so responsible. I wanted to play the responsible character. Also, I think some of my nicest looking songs are from that movie. It was glamorous and fun. But at the same time, I played a mature and heroic character that was very different from rom-com roles or negative characters. We had a lot of fun shooting it; we had easy hours, beautiful locales, lovely weather, and an amazing bunch of people. It was one of my best outdoor shoots ever.
Sartaj Singh (Sacred Games, 2018-19)
This was a different time. It was Netflix and the whole idea of playing that role was very different, even a bit frustrating for me, initially. Vikram (Vikramaditya Motwane) and I also got into some arguments when my character was repeatedly getting beaten up. I was like what kind of a cop is this who keeps getting bashed up? He insisted that I calm myself down, and that we will be here for a long time (laughs). But he taught me that to play this character, I need to get my energy level much lower, as this guy is not some hero, but a bit of a loser. It took me a while to understand the character, but I really enjoyed the process and playing Sartaj. Prep was all about learning and unlearning. By the time the second season came, I had so much going on in my head about the character that it became one of my best performances
Rileen (Kaalakaandi, 2018)
It was a time that I instinctively realized that I am not a typical Bollywood actor. I am not using it as a derogatory term in any way, what I mean is doing studio movies. I think studio movies, like Race, for instance, have a particular style of acting — a style that you call ‘very Bollywood’ (laughs). It was a nice character to play. I wanted to work with a slightly different bunch of actors, and the writing was also very different — it was part English and had different crosssections of Mumbai interacting with one another. Akshat Verma is a wonderful director. This put me on a path of better acting and out of my comfort zone. When you do something that different you feel fresh; else you are trapped into being a certain kind of personality, a certain kind of actor. It opened my eyes to the different kinds of talent we have and more importantly, to the idea that it needn’t be a big studio film all the time.
Boris (Go Goa Gone, 2013)
Raj and DK are an absolute joy to work with. It was a fun character, and I had a head of orange hair (laughs). I tried to dye it blonde but it became orange. And I thought why not, it looks cool, and I went ahead with it. It looked quite odd off-screen and frightened a few people in my personal life, especially my wife. But it looked alright on screen. And that’s what I want; I should look and be the part I am playing. I don’t want to play Saif Ali Khan on screen. It was a fun movie. We even got extras off the streets of Mauritius, paid them hundred dollars, and made them the zombies. It was a well-written part. But it is all about attitude. Also, what makes such films all the more special is that you take a chance; nobody was willing to make that film.
Cyrus Mistry (Being Cyrus, 2006)/Karan Singh Rathod (Ek Hasina Thi, 2004)
EHT was a Sriram Raghavan film, and was a departure from the kind of roles I was doing. It was one of those bad-boy roles, where you also get to play ‘cool’. I specifically, remember shooting the last scene with all those rats. Apparently, you can’t shoot with the regular brown rats as they are wild; so these were white rats painted as the regular ones. And there were a lot of them. The cavern we were shooting the scene in was also freshly painted with kerosene. So, it was poison gas and rats and me. It was
almost like a scene from Fear Factor (laughs). Also, I loved Being Cyrus. The idea of doing a film in the language you actually think in, was interesting. I think those movies would have done better if released today. I think could have been much better in both, as well.
Shekhar Rai (Parineeta, 2005)
It was a beautiful movie and a very different world. It was a more mature performance. I channeled a bit of my father (Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi) in that role, and it really paid off. It was based on Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s novel; this kind of stuff makes you feel like a respectable actor (laughs). My mom (Sharmila Tagore) absolutely loved the movie; of course, she had read the book multiple times before the movie came to me. She called me to say that she is proud of the kind of work I am doing. That was a good year. It was also the year of Salaam Namaste, so I had a good mix.
Ishwar ‘Langda’ Tyagi (Omkara, 2006)
When I got the offer, it was a chance to finally feel like a real actor. It required me not only to look different but also learn a new language, and putting on that accent, which having grown up in Pataudi I was quite accustomed to. Right before the shoot, I was vacationing in Italy, I had an Italian girlfriend then (chuckles). And I already had an English accent. People were worried if I would be able to pull off such a rustic role. I had a dictaphone and had recorded my dialogues, and I used to listen to it and of course, I read the play thoroughly. That was my prep. You could be the character on screen, but be yourself in real life. It wasn’t method acting at all. It was all about learning the lines.
“But, Omkara was not really Shakespeare. Shakespeare is all about the lines and the soliloquies. I would love to do those lines,” the actor goes on. Maybe you should do a proper play at Prithvi Theatre sometime, I suggest. “Why not? I think that would be interesting. I don’t know if I would be able to pull it off, but it would be lovely if I can,” he chuckles. The actor, who would be next seen playing Lankesh in Om Raut’s Adipurush, has a penchant for playing delightfully delicious dark characters. “I would also love to take up guitar lessons again and do it more seriously, and maybe jam at some bar in Bandra. I would want to do artistic stuff; I would love to do a nice festival movie,” concludes the Renaissance Man.
A gadget you aspire to own?
A gaming computer modular
What is the one thing we will always find on your nightstand?
A book of ghost stories
If you had to pick any one designer to wear for your movie premieres, who would it be?
Anderson & Sheppard
What is your dream car?
Mercedes G5 or Range Rover, Mercedes S Class
If you had to wear one perfume for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Acqua di Parma or Armani Style
Prints or head-to-toe black?
What’s your favorite holiday destination?
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