When Saif Ali Khan did Sacred Games, the lovely Katrina Kaif is rumoured to have asked Khan’s manager, “Oh, is Saif doing TV now?” Netflix isn’t exactly TV, but we get what Ms Kaif meant. After all, in Bollywood, to deviate from the bada purdah means your career has come to a standstill. Or you were getting paid a buttload of money. But Khan went ahead and portrayed the role of Sartaj Singh with such perfection and elan that now, for a Bollywood star to feature in a Netflix original is an honour. The web space is currently dominated by the Karan Johars and the Janhvi Kapoors of the world, but let’s not forget that Khan did it first.
“I got super excited when I heard that Netflix was coming to town and was going to make an original series. How cool is that? It would put you on a global platform. Also, Netflix spends money and something about the way Vikramaditya Motwane and Anurag (Kashyap) were talking about this product was fantastic. I mean, it’s so cool to play Sartaj the way it was presented by Vikram, particularly,” he tells me when I ask him about Sacred Games and Sartaj Singh. “Netflix is a very intelligent environment and the quality of the cinema is top class. Maybe I was aware of what Netflix as a company is doing, and how they are changing the content that is being produced and how they are challenging the thought that the big screen is where the big entertainment is and that the smaller screen is somehow something less. I think I just saw that,” he adds. This proves that compared to his contemporaries, Khan is more aware about what’s happening in the West, and that helps him get on faster.
Sometimes, however, it doesn’t pay off. Take Laal Kaptaan or Kaalakandi, for instance. Both films had interesting storylines and meaty characters that allowed Khan to really bite in till the juice ran down his chiselled chin. But neither did the films’ makings do Khan’s talents any justice, nor did the audience show enough enthusiasm. Kaalakandi and especially, Laal Kaptaan, sank without a trace. “I’ve been very lucky if we look at the roles I’ve been offered. Of course, the gold is when you’re offered something really juicy but also commercial like a Tanhaji. It’s fantastic if that can happen. Sometimes, there are films that don’t work at the box office but are so satisfying to do, like Kaalakandi. A lot of films that I have done, especially in the last few years, have given me creative satisfaction,” he says.
With Bunty Aur Babli 2, Bhoot Police (“It’s one of the best scripts I’ve ever come across,” he says) and Dilli, he is quite satisfied professionally. I ask him about his learning curve over the years. From playing a cool dude in a live-in relationship in Salaam Namaste, where he pranced around in tiny boxers, to playing an older cool dude/dad with a pregnant daughter, how far does he think he has come? Apart from prancing around in tiny boxers, obviously. He’s still doing that. “Times have changed and we’ve all grown at the same time, including film-makers. There are a lot of people in the industry who’re really enthusiastic about international cinema and keep us abreast. I don’t know how to define my learning curve, but as we go along, we improve. I’m constantly trying to learn. It’s a fascinating profession and I’m only still scratching the surface. There’s so much further to go and so much to do as we develop as a storytelling nation,” he says. Modesty is so sexy, I think.
“So much has changed and there’s more diversity now. It depends on how mature the audience is. Whether it’s a father’s role or a villain’s role or even a conman tantrik, there are some fun parts being offered to me at the moment,” he adds. About research and developing a character, Khan credits the director and the script. There are many ways of coming at the same idea, he says, but there’s a cross between your own instinct and the technique of developing the character. For him, once the look and the costume have been developed, that’s when it really comes together. That’s when he starts working on the dialect and rereading the script. “It’s amazing how many clues you can get out of a piece of writing. Sometimes, you get more clues than what the writer may have even intended. It’s our job to build the psychology behind the lines,” he says.
He loves period films because they give you a lot of scope to develop the character. He shares an anecdote about how a director once told him to speak slowly because people back in the day weren’t in a rush. Khan likes experimenting with his characters for no other reason apart from the fact that they give him a serotonin rush. They make him feel like an actor and if the experience isn’t cinematic, it bores him. He talks elatedly about Tanhaji and Bhoot Police, that are as commercial as they are entertaining. He likes historical dramas because of the drama, the costumes, the horses and the action. It’s a turn on for him. He loves doing comedy and would love to do more of that. It’s like music for him — it doesn’t matter what genre it is — he’s got quite an eclectic and wide taste.
“Take Bazaar, for instance. There were so many items in there that made me think ‘oh tomorrow, its going to be that scene’, which is really worth travelling all the way in Mumbai and shooting that shot. It’s not work anymore. In the past few years, I’ve really tried to act better and just generally be as good as I can. I’ve always believed that if you chase good work, everything follows. I’ve been more commercial-minded before and now I’m back to chasing the best parts of what I’ve been offered at this age and at this stage of my career. I’m being a little more discerning as my acting brain has developed. There are places I want to go, or go back to, and there are places I want to go forward to, you know?” Khan says. He loved Gully Boy and Baahubali. During the shoot for the cover, he also speaks very highly of Parasite. According to him, it deserved all the Oscars it received. He believes that a movie like Parasite could easily have been made in India. But we don’t like to show films like that, he says, and I agree.
“I’ve learned that there’s a certain kind of grammar to Hindi movies. Things like Laal Kaptaan are a bit alien to our system. I feel like it could have been more of a superhero kind of movie. The whole film should have been made with magic realism. It was a hell of an attempt, and bloody exhausting — I get tired thinking about it. Tanhaji seems like a cakewalk compared to it. I was already ready for it with the sword-fighting and such. So hard work is never really wasted,” he says. Looking back, he wishes he could do everything again. He agrees that a few films like Omkara, Salaam Namaste and Hum Tum “weren’t bad”, but he also believes that he’s been quite good in films for a while now and hence, thinks that he should go ahead and do something silly. There was a time, he says, when he was in a rush to get through a shot. Now, as he has evolved as an actor, he lets the camera have its way with him. “There was a certain ease with which I played certain parts, but I think there would be more depth if I played them today.” There’s a sort of staidness that comes to A-listers once they’ve shot a few films. It gives them a largerthan-life image, sure, but it impacts their ability to pick films. They often go for films that support and help maintain that image instead of what the script offers. Does Khan agree?
He doesn’t, entirely. He admits that he was never after an image. He can’t blame others for starring in a franchise where they’re playing a super cop but he prefers to not have an image. He is quite aware of where he stands in the global picture. “This decision to consciously stay away from an ‘image’ has helped me evolve as an actor. I’ve never wanted to have an image. I want to do different kinds of stuff and be good at it. They said I couldn’t do action and I did Tanhaji. They said I couldn’t play a cop and I did Sartaj Singh. There are different shades to my career. People have liked me in a romantic and comic kind of roles and I’ve enjoyed that space also,” he candidly explains. He has starred in a blockbuster film and a blockbuster show. Which one does he prefer? It is possible to do both, he says, but there’s a great thrill seeing oneself on the big screen, and he’ll always enjoy that high. He’s platform agnostic, however. I try hard to keep this conversation strictly about the now and future of cinema and the other space, but there’s no way I can skip Taimur Ali Khan. “He’s a bit of an internet sensation. It’s less meaningful than being a genuine star, anyway. He has captured the attention of the masses but that’s worrying, because he is a kid. Sara deserves her success and her stardom because she has worked extremely hard and she is a very sorted person, and so is Ibrahim,” he says.
Then, I bring up Kareena Kapoor Khan. After almost a decade of being married, Saifeena still remains one of the most hotly followed couples of the industry. “I think my wife is just the most wonderful woman I could ever have asked for. The way she has bonded with my friends, the way she has bonded with my family, and the way she is with Taimur and me. The kind of atmosphere she has created and the way she has done it — her priorities are very sorted. She’d rather be in an old cottage by a river and enjoy the atmosphere that I give her. And the older I get, I think that is absolutely the greatest treasure in my life,” he ends the conversation, and signs off.