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Khalid Mohamed charts Saif Ali Khan’s evolution, personal and professional.



Saif Ali Khan in Omkara(2006)


Once, on a weekday evening, a sulky roly-poly kid who kept interrupting his mother on her terrace flat on the tony Carmichael Road of Bombay, had to be carted away by his nanny.

 

He must have been nine or ten years old, and quite a handful, protesting at megawatt volume. “Mom, I want to listen to what you’re telling this chap,” he howled, casting me a bitter medicinal look.

Sharmila Tagore darted a dagger look at him, and off he was trundled off by a nanny into the innards of the apartment. Dad Pataudi ambled by, and commented, “I’ll handle him,” poured himself a Scotch on the rocks from the trolley bar, leaving us to complete a cover story interview for Filmfare, on the eve of the release of director Bhimsain’s Dooriyan (1979), pairing La Tagore with Uttam Kumar about a married couple on the verge of separation.

 

La Tagore whom I was goggle-eyed about ever since watching Apur Sansar (1959), Devi (1960) and also in uber-glam roles of the Shakti Samata-helmed Kashmir ki Kali (1964), Sawan ki Ghata (an odd favourite of mine, 1966) and Evening in Paris (1967), was distracted by her son’s yells and wails.

 

“Uff, he brings the house down when he’s moody,”the mum apologised. “Do you mind if we continue with our chat tomorrow over tea at the Sea Lounge (at the Taj)?” If she  had asked me to plunge into the sea at the moment, I would have faster than a scuba diver.

 

So that’s the backstory of my starter dekko at Saif Ali Khan monikered Saifu. Couldn’t ever imagine that there would be a day when I’d be chasing him for cover stories and what-read-you.

 

Chase is right, because on one occasion at the Oberoi Hotel of  deep-in-winter New Delhi, I was cooling my heels at its coffee shop for two hours. Gratifyingly, I’d been kept company by the sarod maestro Amjad Ali Khan. Whooshing in suddenly from his suite, “Sorry, sorry, sorry, I overslept, forgive me”, he suavely called the waiter to place the tab of our espressos on his account.

 

That’s the Saif Ali Khan, at 53 today, with a score of approximately 75 films, who must have turned over a hundred new leaves of impeccable manners.

 

A two-hour-delay mattered not. After all, he’s a way more articulate conversationalist, well-read and with diverse interests (including playing the rock guitar) than most of his peers.

 

He had done his number on the media now and then (no more, phew), hiding his first marriage to Amrita Singh, and with quicksilver ease admitting to the secret shaadi. Those days of breaking into brawls at high-end restaurants – like at the sushi specialty Wasabi – at the Taj, and even threatening journalists with dire consequences for publishing offensive remarks, are done.

 

In all, a father of four, that boy on  Carmichael Road and today in a Bandra high-rise, has matured. In the process, the distinctive-looking actor has asserted his credentials as high-calibre actor given a role of some spleen and substance.

 

Erm, did he deserve the Best Actor National Award for the Yash Chopra produced Hum Tum (2004)? Everyone but the award jury was quite divided on that.

 

Once the prime go-to choice actor for roles of the rhapsodic romantic hero -- like Shashi Kapoor before him – today he’s sensible enough to act his age,  both on and off the screen.

 

He's now seemingly relaxed, a doting father to the paparazzi’s delight, Taimur, and the relatively protected Jeh -- as well as to the 28-year-old Sara Ali Khan and  22-year-old Ibrahim Ali, from his  marriage to Amrita Singh.

 

Thankfully, he’s one of the very few prime actors who hasn’t been seen or heard speaking in favour of any political party during the general elections, or before and after. No comments is the most effective comment.

 

Debuting in the utterly formulaic  duds Paramapara and Aashik Awara (both 1993), he’s gone on to try out quirky and out-of-the-box projects like the Othello spin-off Omkara (2006), the zombie flick Goa Goa Gone, (2013)the whimsical take on a man who’s diagnosed as terminally ill in Kalaakandi, (2018) and Baazaar(2018),an account ‘inspired’ by Oliver Stone’s Wall Street . None of them made big-time whoopee on the cash ledgers though.

 

Followed a stock of variable quality –the revenge drama Laal Kaptaan (2019), the horror comedy Bhoot Police (2019) the blockbuster period biopic Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior (2020), the London–located laugh-raiser Jawaani Jaaneman(2020)produced by him – Bubbly aur Bunty (2021), Vikram Vedha(2022) and Adipurush  (2023) which saw him tapping his versatility which at the very least, isn’t laboured. He can be rustic and he can be urbane.

 

In addition, he is one of the first Bollywood A-listers who ventured into the OTT space with the two seasons of the Netflix series Sacred Games, (2018-2019)in which he portrayed an upright cop under tight-screw pressure to nab a serial killer. Followed Amazon Prime Video’s somewhat toothless political drama series Tandav (2020).

 

Over to the Nawab of Pataudi Jr, in his own words.

 

 

On picking roles:

 

I don’t have an either/or answer for that. It’s the script, the graph of my role, the director’s calibre and my fee which can vary. I wouldn’t charge the money I usually do, if the project is a purposeful one. Professionally, this may sound arrogant but I don’t follow market dictates. As far as I can help it, I’ve kept my head on my shoulders, never interfered with the director and have always strived for quality rather than quantity.

 

At this point of my life and career, I hope to do a honest day’s work and lead my life to the brim. I haven’t made any friends in the industry. I didn’t come here to make friends. Neither has anyone gone out of his way to become a friend. Anyway, familiarity breeds contempt.

 

On co-actors:

 

As a co-actor Ajay Devgn gives you space. Salman Khan has that  Big Brother  type of protective personality, he’s all heart. As for Shah Rukh Khan, we’ve done some really terrific work together.

 

After Kal Ho Na Ho, (2003),my first solo hit Hum Tum (2004) happened.  Frankly, I used to be quite flighty, Shah Rukh inspired me to become a responsible, saleable actor. I understood what it means to be irreplaceable, involved. For Kal Ho Na Ho, a shot had to be completed before we were thrown out of a railway station in the U.S. Shah Rukh suggested that there was another way of doing the shot quickly..and we completed the shoot, saving the production team stacks of cash.

 

When I was a rank newcomer, Kamal Sadanah was one of my closest buddies. But you know how it is. With time, we have drifted apart. Quite ironically I was  thrown out of my debut film Bekhudi (1992)by Rahul Rawail, I’d show up late on the sets and forget my dialogue.  Kamal who had also been considered for the part was back in.

 

I guess your 4 a.m. friends are the ones you’ve made in school, like Salim Siddiqui who lives in London. My friends need to be part-time psychiatrists, who understand the working of my mind like I need to understand theirs.

 

On any no-nos, like the gay-themed Dostana (2008)?

 

None at all. If Shah Rukh and I had been teamed in Dostana, we would have even kissed each other on the lips for sure. Those guys (Abhishek Bachchan-John Abraham) chickened out, didn’t they? We wouldn’t have been afraid of looking gay or acting gay. It’s no big deal, one’s sexual orientation has been recognised legally as a personal choice. It would have been a blast doing Dostana.

 


Saif Ali Khan with Shah Rukh Khan in Kal Ho Na Ho (2003)


On ruffling the film industry’s feathers, as a co-host at an award function with Shah Rukh Khan:

 

Look, I was just speaking the lines written for me at the event. I wasn’t settling any scores. Quite a few film industry people did get upset. Right, so that kind of humour on an award stage doesn’t go down well. I’ve resolved never to get into that  zone again.

 

On bad vibes with Akshay Kumar, his co-actor in half a dozen films, notably Main Khiladi To Anari (1994), Yeh Dillagi (1994) and Tashan (2008).

 

Ha! I don’t know whether I ever enjoyed acting with him. In any case  he’s a one-man show now, I believe at times he even writes his own dialogue.

 

On staying at Gulzar’s Pali Hill house, Boskyana, initially at the insistence of his mother, while trying to join show business:

 

Gulzar saab was one responsible parent. He’d make sure Bosky wasn’t there when I was around. Anyway, I’d come back home at 7 a.m., find him playing the sitar and feel awfully guilty. And look at me now, Bebo (Kareena Kapoor) says I’ve become an old fogey, cleaning up, rearranging my books and music. I guess, I’ve become quite house-proud like Amrita used to be.

 

On the separation from Amrita Singh after a 13-year-long marriage:

 

It’s simply this, our marriage didn’t  work out. Still, I look at the past with tremendous respect.  I’ve always talked to Sara on the phone constantly. Ibrahim is an entirely different personality.I’d like to time manage better, be with them much more. I hope they understand. It doesn’t make sense to be with them on outdoor shoots, it can be a nightmare..like years ago Sara and Ibrahim were in London during the shoot of Love Aaj Kal  (2009) and then the maid ran away! Of course, they’ve grown up now, and can look after themselves.

 

On the process of maturing:

 

The last 10-12 years have taught me a lot. No more late nights, no more clubbing, no more tequila shots. I’d rather be at home, sipping a cup of coffee. Or at most I’d rather be by the fireside at an English pub, nursing a single malt. I must have been a terrific guy in my previous life. This boy at Winchester College, in Hampshire, who was to join Oxford to study law, and maybe work for a bank, became a movie actor.

 

It’s been my mother’s ‘pull’ finally.  I must have inherited her acting genes. Instead of  hiding behind grey suits, I’d rather be dancing in  Hawaii! And to think, there was a time when we weren’t even allowed to watch television. The domestic helps in our Delhi house got a TV and VCR years before we did. No kidding.

 

On the Kareena Kapoor (aka Bebo) influence:

 

She keeps me occupied for sure. She’s been a shot in the arm, a good influence. I was overwhelmed by the maternal side of Kareena when I was in hospital once. She was with me through it all. I tend to fall in love as if I was hit by a ton of bricks and then I’m cautious. I have to be sure. What Bebo and I have together is very, very special, she has re-invented me. From a hysterical guy I’ve become a housemaker. And she knows what I’m all about, like say I’d rather play the guitar to chill, than strum away at a piano.

 


Saif Ali Khan with Kareena Kapoor Khan, Taimur & Jeh.


On his heart scare:

 

See, I was smoking like a chimney. A clot had formed in my artery. I was treated, recuperated and told by the doctors that I have the heart of a 20-year-old athlete. The  villain of the piece was bhel puri. I’d had an excessive amount which had led to gastroenteritis. That was a sign to me, be kind to yourself. It’s not as if I’ve turned to a diet of toast and jam though but I wouldn’t eat red meat every day.

 

On the concept of love:

 

That’s asking! I’ve fallen in love thrice, I think. Marriage was a major relationship, then there was another lady…please let’s not go there…and Bebo, love has never been like this before and never will be.

 

On his mother’s Satyajit Ray films:

 

I’ve seen them rather belatedly I’m afraid. They’re world classics. She was magnificent in Apur Sansar, Devi, Aranyer Din Rhatri (1970)and Nayak (1966) especially. By the way, as a kid, I’d go mad seeing her smoking a bidi in Mausam (1975).I’d get depressed to see Mom go through so many travails in Amar Prem(1972).I was more steeped into the Pataudi tradition of cricket.

 

On Dad:

 

I used to be petrified of Dad. He was Tiger Pataudi, captain of the Indian cricket team at the age of 21. With time,  he mellowed, became witty, a Prince among friends. Clearly my outlook towards life has been shaped by Dad. So it all adds up, in fact it would be wonderful if my son, Ibrahim also becomes an actor.

 

On craving for certain kind of roles:

 

 I’d like to do a gritty action movie..or maybe a ghost story like Madhumati (1958)  or a supernatural thriller like  What Lies Underneath (2000).Maybe even a comedy of the sort I once did, Love ke Liye Kuch Bhi Karega (2001) as long as it has me charged about rushing off to the shoot every morning. I did long to do a James Bond-style movie which I did with Sriram Raghavan, Agent Vinod (2012), but it misfired, a disaster if ever there was one.

 

On the films which gave him the most creative satisfaction:

 

I’ve been happiest with Hum Tum, Ek Haseena Thi (2004),Omkara (2005), Parineeta (2005) and Tanhaji.

 

On the feedback to his performances he cherishes most:

 

Quite often Mom’s. Occasionally, she’s very generous and even says  fondly that I’m a better actor than her.

 

 

 















Khalid Mohamed is a Mumbai based film critic, screenwriter, prodcuer & film director.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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