He’s a survivor on level with our superstars, and Saif Ali Khan is gung-ho about not being one of them after 25 years in the field since his debut in Parampara.
Beginning at the top with director Yash Chopra and then working with his banner repeatedly and also doing films with big names like Venus, Tips, filmmakers Abbas-Mustan, David Dhawan, Sooraj R Barjatya, Karan Johar, Mahesh Bhatt and more — Saif Ali Khan has also been a successful producer with films like Love Aaj Kal, Cocktail, and the now-cult Go Goa Gone.
Takes a risk or two
As an actor, he has always experimented and never played safe after his initial hits and successes like Aashik Aawara, Yeh Dillagi, Main Khiladi Tu Anari, Biwi No1, Hum Tum, Salaam Namaste and the successful films in the Race franchise. Among his standout turns were Being Cyrus, Ek Hasina Thi, Omkara, Go Goa Gone and the recent Sacred Games. For that, Saif has paid the price of not being considered in the same power league as many other safer players.
“I am cool about that in my head,” he says. “I have worked hard and I deserve the stardom that people have given me. But for me, my instinct is important. I am an actor, so I cannot remain in the safe zone. I must entertain people, but I must be willing to take risks to the point that is right and not in excess. What works or does not is never in your hands, and occasionally I do get a lot of credit. I cannot be dependent on that, or on hits and flops, so I have to just go up there and work, and I know I do bring a lot to my movies as I know my job.”
He considers Baazaar, which has just released, as one of the ‘’loveliest” roles ever offered. “ Nikkhil Advani (co-producer) offered me this part in what he said was a stock market thriller, so I told him that I don’t understand most of the stock market stuff, though I have watched a lot of Hollywood films on it. And Nikkhil said that the film was not about stock but about money — and how the rich, a rich man’s wife, a young guy, his girlfriend and others viewed it. The whole Dalal Street-Gujarati-angadiya (couriers of hawala) ambience which is so strong in Mumbai and the business community was interesting.”
Saif adds that it was also a well-written role. “Since it is a movie, they dramatised and mythologised it,” he explains. “My original character was a coarse, pan masala-chewing fat and nasty guy. Then we discussed a smart Race-like dude and rejected the idea. And finally, we settled for this cool but not classy guy, with a bit of white in his hair. He has complexes about Harvard graduates and old business families. It was something juicy to perform. You see, ever since Taimur, I want to be with him as much as I can, so it takes a really good scene to make me want to get out of the house.”
At heart, therefore, Saif talks almost like any mother, so is he okay with playing a ruthless antagonist yet again after some films in the past? “The morality of a character does not matter to me. What you do as an actor should be exciting, like this guy with the aggressive, cruel streak. Yes, people do tend to offer me a lot of grey roles, and I find them interesting. Of course, playing a nice and good guy is also interesting, and the difference is that people love the nice guy more. The energy is different, and if the camera supports you, as a nice guy you don’t have to do much. Like the general reaction to my Sacred Games role was, ‘Hey! Poor chap.’ But I think there should be a balance between these two kinds of characters for me.” And, how much does he himself invest in stocks? “I do have some nice, blue-chip investments,” he replies. “I don’t like any risks and do not want quick money. I want to be safe and invest in solid businesses for stable returns. The correct rate of interest is advisable. I am happy to work hard and invest more rather than try and be too clever.”
Is the film inspired by Western films on stock markets and investments? “Look, people will jump to conclusions,” says Saif. “Most of us dress up in Western clothes, but we are Indians, right? Drugs, corruption, a system out of control — we are not yet on the level of Wall Street as shown in their movies. In Baazaar, it is simply about how far will you go to cross the line, and whether you are prepared to lose something or someone for your dreams. And do you remain the same person after that? And once you reach where you want, is it all worth it?”
Because this film is not a biopic, he adds, he also talked to various businessmen and investors and observed and assimilated their vibe and body language. “We are looking at the 1980s, which was a celebration of excess. We are also dealing with a scam based on reality.”
Prefers to move on
Saif has had a bad phase now for over five years, with his last hit being Race 2 in early 2013. Does this spate of flops rankle, especially of any film in which either his performance or the movie itself deserved better?
“Nothing rankles anymore,” he says coolly. “Yes, I thought Chef was a pretty good film. But now I can’t afford to get too upset or too emotional. My opinion does not matter. Look, I don’t want to be the biggest or the greatest star. I am happy Sacred Games gave me an international platform, which is a huge thing. The only thing is that a film must make money for its investors so that more films can be made.”
Saif is not a lover of nostalgia or the past. He is not even interested when we mention, in the context of his debut-making co-star Rohan Mehra, that Saif’s mother Sharmila Tagore and Rohan’s father Vinod Mehra had co-starred 44 years ago in a film named Shaandaar. “I don’t get excited by statistics and numbers!” he declares. “10 years of Hum Tum or 20 years of movie X does not interest me. Yes, I do revisit, but not purposely, old clips sent by fans. Like someone sent me an interview of dad in which I saw mom, my sister Soha and myself and a bit of Salaam Namaste.”
He grins and adds, “All I thought of was, ‘Wow! How young I looked then.’”
Saif, who is again playing an antagonist in Ajay Devgn’s Taanaaji: The Unsung Hero (he is in its getup when we meet), is, however, pleased that he has lasted so long and intends to work “like Amitabh Bachchan does even today”. As he puts it, “If I look after myself, look good and don’t feel outdated, why not? I feel that I will only get better with time. My mind is very international and I am in sync with today.”