Mix & match

Mix & match

With Saif Ali Khan, now in the 25th year of his career, you can never predict which way he will go next.

His films, successful, unsuccessful or acclaimed, are all about a relentless variety in genre and sensibilities. The Race franchise, Yash Raj confections like Yeh Dillagi, Hum Tum and Salaam Namaste, Kachche Dhaage, Kya Kehna, Parineeta, Being Cyrus, Omkara and Ek Hasina Thi, and even as a producer, Love Aaj Kal, Go Goa Gone, Agent Vinod and Happy Ending, have spanned an entire gamut of cinematic experiences, both for him and us.

Even his last film, Rangoon, in which he played a Parsi in pre-Independence India, showed that Saif could excel in a bad film too. Coming up next is the dark Kaalakaandi and the dramatic but commercial Baazaar, in which he plays a Gujarati businessman.

Recently, he turned into a benevolent father and expert chef in Chef, the T-Series remake of Jon Favreau’s much-acclaimed and popular comedy of the same name, set in California. “The film is more of an adaptation than a remake,” Saif explains affably. “If Jon watches it, he will appreciate what Raja (director Raja Krishna Menon of Airlift fame) and we have done. We have brought in deeper elements. From the promo, the film is a father-son story, but there will be some additional surprises.”

As for the roles mentioned above, he sums it up succinctly. “I look for variety in my roles, dark, commercial, negative, everything,” he says. “I love my work and the space in which I am. I follow my mother’s (Sharmila Tagore) approach — she did a good mix of entertainers, offbeat cinema and Bengali movies.”

Reel to real

After doing Chef, has the definition of food changed in any way for him? “No, I don’t think so,” he replies thoughtfully. “I have always understood the importance of food, but what has happened after this film is that I have begun to respect a chef for his high-pressure job because it is so difficult to cater to so many people. Everyone wants to eat well. And yet, most of us, like my father shown in the film, tend to equate a chef with a halwai!”

He further adds, “I have grown up in a boarding school, so I can eat bad food. But having said that, I think everyone should know how to cook. It’s therapeutic and makes you feel self-sufficient, and it’s beautiful.”

Saif’s prep included learning to chop and cook and be comfortable in the kitchen. “Raja did not want me to look either too thin or too fit,” he says. This film was also a different exercise from the colourful romantic comedy in which he also played a chef, Salaam Namaste (2005).

“My approach is also deeper now, as I understand more about life than 12 years back. Roshan, my character, cooks for his son whenever the boy is upset. That is so much better than the fact that I just try and talk with my children whenever they are angry or unhappy,” Saif explains.

Saif considers this film and his next two movies as satisfying. “I am enjoying my work, for it is a different school with different film-makers. I really enjoy well-written films like these.”

How does he look at the changes within the industry and within him, now that it is 25 years since he started shooting for his debut film, Parampara, directed by Yash Chopra? “It’s a wider angle now, with lots of exciting work happening,” he replies. “There are smaller films being made with good content, the standard of acting is improving, and actors are becoming more natural. The screens are getting smaller, but the ideas are getting bigger, like with Netflix coming in. In pure cinema, as in Hollywood, we will continue to have blockbuster kind of films, the superstars, small films and so on.”

He goes on, “As for me, I think I am getting better, I understand the medium more, and I am more in sync with the elements of a film. Earlier, I used to be a shade edgy or impatient about some things. Things are changing in India, and we are looking forward, not backward. Like we cannot tolerate corruption anymore.”

Taking it in his stride

Saif has not had a hit in over four years (Race 2), so does he regret doing flop films? Ruminatively, he replies, “It depends on how I feel about each film. Yes, I am disappointed when films crash. With films like Rangoon, I loved the approach and my character, so I do not regret doing it. It was a creative experience so I did not mind the film not working. Most of the time, flops happen when films go wrong at some level. I try and learn from that. Films are a director’s medium and he is primarily responsible if things do not work, but everyone gets the flak.”

He adds reasonably, “It’s the films we do that make us. It is our fault for getting involved with the wrong film. However, no one goes out of the way to hurt a film, themselves or the audience.”

Why has Saif stopped producing films? “I think the energy needed for that is different,” he answers. “As a producer, I found myself getting insular, losing contact with film-makers, and thought I should solidify my ground as an actor first. I wanted to refresh my relationship with the industry.”

As a father

Saif was into multiple films earlier but has ended that as well. “I was doing Phantom, Humshakals, Bullett Raja and Happy Ending all together,” he informs. “But now, I think the best way is to shoot a single film in 40 or 60 days, take a break and so on. A good life for me is shooting a film start-to-finish, and then going off to Pataudi, my hometown, or somewhere else, with my wife and family.”

His daughter Sara Ali Khan is now starting out with Kedarnath. Is he as involved in her debut as his mother might have been in his? “I am there for her, and I am very happy that her producers defended her completely when Sara, a very focused and hard-working girl, was wrongly accused of coming late on the sets,” Saif replies. “Sara is constructive and passionate, she is working hard and everyone has nice things to say about her. Actually, the generation gap between us is probably less than that between my mother and me, in terms of film-makers, though my mother did try to help.”

Yash Chopra had worked with Sharmila Tagore in Waqt and Daag. “Yes, he actually did. So, he signed me because I was her son. And we are thus back to the issue of nepotism. Thank you!” he grins.

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