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Long waits and short interviews -- often with rehearsed-sounding answers and interrupted by public relations executives -- are the norm when interviewing a big Bollywood hero who is promoting his film. Which is why I was surprised when I entered to interview Saif Ali Khan after a four-hour wait.
Wearing a grey kurta over a white pair of trousers and Armani sunglasses and biting into a cheese bagel, the actor was stretched out on a couch in true Nawaab style. He seemed tired but a broad smile indicated he was ready for another round of questions.
Five minutes into the interview, it was evident that this would be different.
Saif, who once famously said he preferred not to be easily accessible (more on that later), was ready to share.
Sometimes sitting up, sometimes relaxing on the couch, he spoke without mincing words or diplomatic evasions. He even stopped the PR executive from interrupting the conversation, which is a rarity for stars.
What began as a brief chat about Bullett Raja, which releases November 29, freewheeled into a long conversation about the dilemmas of being an actor and a star, why he doesn’t take the title of Nawaab too seriously, how things have changed after marrying Kareena, and even his retirement plans.
In an interview earlier this month, your wife (actress Kareena Kapoor) mentioned that the two of you don’t watch Hindi films. For a person who doesn’t watch Hindi films, was it difficult to place yourself in a character like Raja Mishra in Bullett Raja?
The first thing that I had to do was to understand the body language of the character when the script was narrated to me. In the next stage, there were various factors which helped me get into my character -- I think we got the costumes right as somehow it defined how flamboyant the character would be; the hair and the stubble and the makeup also helped.
The only thing that was tricky was getting the body language correct, but looking back it doesn’t look tricky. Body language doesn’t lie.
How difficult was it for you to identify with your character? At the risk of sounding clichéd, it seems that romantic characters come more naturally to you.
There is a lot of action in Bullett Raja and while shooting I had a similar feeling -- that I should do a love story and it would be easier and so much fun. At the same time I told myself that I’d have to learn three pages of romantic dialogues and make it sound natural, which is tough too.
When I am doing a romantic film my body language is already correct. I can be myself. Everything is natural, whereas everything that I want to do instinctively in Bullett Raja is wrong because the body language is completely rural.
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Director Tigmanshu Dhulia has always refrained from working with stars, but for this he felt there was a need to have a superstar like you. Did you ever ask, ‘Why me?’
If the film doesn’t do well, I will be in trouble (laughs).
I am excited I am a superstar, (but) I don’t think I am a superstar, I think I am just an actor.
A superstar is Rajesh Khanna; no he is actually a super duper star. A superstar is someone who has super success. I don’t think I have super success; I would like to be super successful. I am realistic in saying this that I am successful and doing okay for myself. I think Amitabh Bachchan is a superstar.
Dhulia also said that Bullett Raja was an ode to 1970s cinema.
I love Tigmanshu’s attitude.
In an interview, he mentioned that I am like Amitabh Bachchan and Sonakshi Sinha is like Rekha, and that he is trying to change the face of commercial cinema. It’s really nice what he is saying and I wish him luck (smiles), but frankly I don’t think we can change cinema. I think we can add certain new elements to cinema and function within it.
What he meant by his statement was that the definition of commercial cinema is changing. A film like Barfi, which is not a commercial film, made Rs 100 crore.
Bullett Raja is the most commercial film Tigmanshu has ever made.
Did the producer instinct in you come forward when you decided to do the film, as this genre has a sure shot success rate?
I don’t know if it is a sure shot success. My production house might not produce a film like Bullett Raja so the thought never came across my mind. Also I believe actors and producers should think in the same way and that is to make an interesting film.
These days people expect every film to earn Rs 100 crore at the box office.
I don’t think Bullett Raja will, and I don’t think every film can make Rs 100 crore.
Tigmanshu doesn’t make Rs 100-crore films. It’s not a potboiler, masala film. I hope it does well, but we’ll be happy with whatever it makes. I hope it recovers everybody’s money and also entertains the audience.
At the same time, I would also love to be a part of a film that makes Rs 200 crore.
In an interview with Anupama Chopra, you said that you’re not ‘angrez’ (responding to a question about coming across as Westernized). Yet, that’s exactly the kind of image you have. Has it restricted the kind of roles you’ve got?
Yes. Early on in my career the ‘angrez’ image of mine was a hindrance. We all have our comfort zones and we all have a conditioning in the manner we communicate. In my case there was a lot of Western influence because of my upbringing. But now the Eastern in me has taken over.
I am scared but at the same time tempted to say that I was brought up as an Eastern prince. It may sound arrogant, but I don’t mean it in an arrogant way. I am just an Indian who has been educated abroad. I am rooted in India. I recently started praying more and I find it very peaceful. My manager got me a silk janamaz (prayer mat).
How did you pray earlier?
I never prayed religiously. It was just in my thoughts that I would remember god. Praying was never a ritual.
What brought about this change?
I was shooting in Lucknow for Bullett Raja and I had a fixed schedule. I would reach my hotel room by 6 pm. I was reading a lot and I read something about prayers and it just happened. It was my grandmother who taught me how to pray when I was a kid.
You do like to spend a lot of time in the West, especially in London.
No, that’s not true. I love India and I love to live in Mumbai. It’s got a lot of character and is a very charming city and I don’t think I can live anywhere else.
Except for Mumbai, I don’t like any city beyond a point. It’s ridiculous that being one of the richest cities we have poor infrastructure and yes the weather gets worse during summers.
At the same time, I love spending time outside India because things are much cleaner and organised and anonymous…
I am happy to say that I am not a confused desi (laughs).
When you look back what do you think you did wrong?
I can’t really tell you what went wrong. But yes, you are right that things have changed in the last few years. I think it happened quite recently and it just a function of growing up and being more mature. I am much more comfortable with my job and the challenges it possesses.
I am happy to say that I managed to play the character of Raja Mishra in Bullett Raja. It’s a tough character... I have done so many different characters in the past few years that I enjoy feeling a little versatile.
Do you introspect?
No. Why would I do that?
(Pauses to think) No, actually I do think about it a little bit. When I started my career, I was like a small kid who was confused, unfocused and not very good at acting. I had no idea what I wanted to do. I don’t think I was born for acting. I had to learn the craft. I have to practice my dialogues, and get to know the various characters that I portray on screen. And not just acting, I have to maintain my physique by going to the gym regularly and following a proper diet. If I work hard, I am very good. I have to really work hard...
I was trying (earlier too), but it was a different world. Today I feel I am in control of the kind of work that I want to do. I think I have earned the respect. I have become a better actor with time.
The fact that a director like Tigmanshu Dhulia offers me a gangster’s role is something great for me. Also I understand the kind of films that are being made today.
Look at the rise of urban cinema. There are so many different kinds of characters that I was offered post Hum Tum. It was a niche film when it released. Today a similar film is a considered mainstream cinema. The whole multiplex culture was really good.
I think my performance in Happy Ending (his upcoming film) is better than Hum Tum, or in Bullett Raja is better than Race.
In one of your interviews you mentioned that you don’t want to be easily accessible….
(Interrupts) I know it sounded a little arrogant, but let me rephrase it.
I love and respect my fans tremendously. I only feel awkward saying fans; I would rather say audience, as we are all people. I think about them with the highest regard, because every time I am giving a shot, I think that people are going to pay to watch me on screen and I would like them to get their money’s worth.
I enjoy meeting them, but I also value my privacy. This is what I meant when I said that I don’t like to be accessible.
The question of accessibility is something else. I feel a movie star or an actor should not be completely accessible. It doesn’t work that way.
Let me give you an example -- if I go to a public gym, on the first day everyone turns around and looks at me like I am a star. It’s not something that I am interested in. After a week they will stop reacting, which suits me fine personally. But that doesn’t suit me professionally. I don’t think I want that image -- ‘Yaar Saif toh apna dost hai, main roz uske saath gym karta hoon (Saif is my buddy, I gym with him everyday). There should be a fine line, which is necessary.
Does you not wanting to be accessible have anything to do with maintaining a mysterious air around you, which superstars are famous for?
I don’t think there is anything called mystery today, at least not with celebrities (laughs). I just feel that if you open a line of communication with the audience, what if they turn around and abuse you or say something?
Maybe I am arrogant, and I have never cared. I am not going to seduce people by being nice or pretending to be someone that I am not.
I am a good actor and want to be a nice guy who does correct things, but I have been brought up to not care what people think.
Having said that, I think privacy is important for sanity also. I like things to be peaceful and quiet around me. The only reason I am not on a social medium network because I think it’s too much of a commitment.
I want to act in movies, go home and watch television and enjoy my time with my family, go on a vacation. I don’t want to think about my work all the time.
You said you were not born for acting. If not an actor, what would Saif Ali Khan be?
A professional hunter in Africa!
The place is so beautiful. Sadly in India it’s illegal. Yahan kiya toh seedha andar daal dete hai (‘If you hunt here, you will be put behind bars.’ Saif is also charged in the Salman Khan blackbuck hunting case).
(But) wait, I want to be an actor. I don’t want to be anything else. I (just) don’t want to be a star with all the drama of having three bodyguards, a spot boy and a makeup man around you all the time.
You never had a cavalcade with you...
Yeah, but I think I should also get these bodyguards around me (laughs).
No, I don’t think I would do that. It will probably sound very weird, but I don’t want to be a famous person. I would want to visit Danai bookshop in Bandra (a book store in suburban Mumbai) or go to Bombay Gymkhana (a tony club in South Mumbai) and play tennis or have a coffee. I would like to make friends with people on the basis of who they are and who I am as a normal person. But there is a constant worry that if I do that, someone might just turn up and offer me a script. So I can’t make friends also.
I don’t like to be famous. I’d like to be respected and I think money can do that for you. I don’t think anyone needs to be a star to earn respect.
What are the other things that worry you?
The prospect of catching a terminal illness. A bigger worry is how I will die? It concerns me very much. I don’t know if I will have a natural death. I hope I make enough money to live happily when this thing is over.
I am sure you are earning enough to have a good retirement.
But that’s because I was born into this family. And just one year after my birth, the government decided to abolish the princely system. I was a prince for just one year (laughs).
You have been bestowed with the title of Nawaab. How do you plan to take the legacy forward?
Like this (points at himself lying on a couch).
On a serious note, how do you plan to take it forward?
There is no point being a Nawaab if you are not paid for it. Royalty is paid all over the world. I just want to be a movie star and live in my palace. I don’t want be a Nawaab.
I tried ruling all the workers in my house, they weren’t happy so I have retired (laughs). So, I have become a socialist Nawab.
I don’t believe in the past so much. I have my love for Pataudi (the princely state where his family ruled). I want to do some charity, which we have done already. There is an eye hospital that my father used to run but I don’t like to talk about it.
The whole point of being a Nawaab is to get paid by the government. I don’t want to rule the state. I am not concerned if the water or electricity comes. Imagine how tiring it would be. Let the MLAs, MPs do that, I will just take the palace and watch some movies (laughs).
Kareena recently said you have brought maturity to her life. What are the things that she has added to your life?
She has added discipline to my life. She is a great person, very nice and patient and lovely. We like to watch a lot of British television shows and Hollywood films.
One very interesting thing about her is that she is ready to watch films of different genres. There are times when she comes up to me and tells me she would like to watch a classic Hollywood film.
There were reports that your daughter Sarah was planning to make her debut in films.
Sarah is studying in America and it will take another four years for her to complete her education. Once she gets her education in place, she is free to choose whatever she wants to do. She can live and work anywhere in the world.
If she wants to come back and join films, I will support that decision too. But if she plans to join films, she will have to lose weight.
In my interview with your sister Soha Ali Khan, she said that you have advised her not to marry before 40.
Did I tell her that? I sometimes treat her like my brother rather than my sister. I think men are more sorted at 40.
Don’t you think people get married too young? But you should have children when you are young -- it is a confusing thing. I think you should have children when you are young but you should not be married. It is difficult as you have to be married and have children; you are bound by children; you can’t leave the house. I must have told her to get married when you are ready for it.
I am lucky to have a cool job that allows me to spend time with my wife. I respect all the homemakers; that is amazing. I am looking forward to being homemaker soon.
So you are already planning your retirement?
I want to chill after I turn 50. I would love to travel and do some acting and producing, but everything depends on how much money I have made.