Actors who have been around for a long time are an interesting breed. It’s fascinating to observe how their filmography evolves, at what age they’re ready to embrace the greys and play father, and whether they grow more reclusive or feel the need to be in the public eye constantly. Importantly, does age teach them restraint in an industry where the USPs are excess and extravagance? To be fair to Saif Ali Khan, he hasn’t really been one for excess. At 47, he’s already completed 25 years in the Hindi film industry and there’s plenty to look back on, but I don’t suppose there’s too much he’d cringe at. The floppy mane he sported back when he made his debut was quite a trend; the thin voice and goofy smile set him apart — in fact, I see them as some of the reasons why film makers cast him in romcoms and comedies, which after all these years are among his biggest hits.
He wasn’t the greatest actor to begin with. A quick internet search tells me he was kicked out of his to-be debut film, Bekhudi, for being *gasp* unprofessional. And from 1993 to 2000, he had occasional success in a selection of films I can best describe as random. In 2001, Dil Chahta Hai came and turned it all around. For five or six years after that, Khan would enjoy the peak of his popularity. Hum Tum and Salaam Namaste would make him the king of romcoms; Omkara would show the world he could really act; Ek Hasina Thi and Being Cyrus would go on the list of his more successful experiments.
Cut to 2018, and the actor has not only a drastically different filmography, he seems to be a whole other person. Over the years — with dark characters, espionage thrillers, a Russian zombie slayer and even a Naga sadhu bounty hunter in an upcoming film — Khan’s choices became a whole lot more interesting, if not consistent. His Nawabi lineage and Winchester education also started reflecting in the way he dressed and spoke. He’s among the most articulate men in show business, and never mind the rare ‘foot, meet mouth’ moment.
We’re sitting in Khan’s vanity van before our shoot begins. Clad in a simple white kurta pyjama, and sipping on his cappuccino between sentences, he tells me about how — despite limited success with his experiments — he’s not going to start playing it safe just so he can experience the conventional definition of ‘success’.
The latest among his offbeat choices is the Netflix adaptation of Vikram Chandra’s novel, Sacred Games, in which he takes on the role of protagonist Sartaj Singh. Khan is wildly excited, not just about the role, but about the fact that he’s working with an international streaming service too.
Chandra, too, seems kicked about the series — and the choice of lead actor. “When I wrote Sacred Games, I did have it at the back of my mind that it would be possible to adapt a book in this genre for the screen. I’m yet to see the full, finished product, but it’s exciting for me,” he tells me over the phone. “The makers have taken some chances that have paid off. There are a few surprises for those who have read the book. You can’t do a literal translation, because the poetry gets lost.”
The Nawab of cool dons a slim-fit woven cotton shirt, single-breasted jacket in silk and wool blend canvas chinos by Emporio Armani
As for his thoughts on Khan stepping into the role of Sartaj, the author is all praise. “I first saw him as Langda Tyagi in Omkara, and I was blown away. I think he’s done a great job of bringing out the strength and vulnerability of a sardar,” Chandra says. “To me, it’s interesting that he’s at a stage in his own life where he can use his own life experiences — like he’s a bit damaged — to bring alive the sincerity of Sartaj, who is a very complex character.”
Khan tells me that he doesn’t look at the online space as a risk. Instead, there are only positives that come to mind. In an hour-long chat, he enumerates them for me and explains why creative satisfaction is his only real priority at the moment — even if it includes lengthy monologues.
Why a streaming service at this stage in your career?
I’ve been offered shows by other studios, and frankly, they haven’t been as exciting. Also, it’s Netflix, and there’s a certain quality involved, which I have experienced myself in terms of the way Sacred Games is being marketed and promoted. It also guarantees great reach — we’re going to release in 190-odd countries.
To my mind, there are four platforms in my field. One is theatre, which I haven’t gotten into for whatever reason, even though I find it interesting. The second is films — it’s a 70mm widescreen experience, and it would be nice if people kept that in mind and shot that way; not everyone does. Then there’s the streaming service, and finally, television. Ideally, if I could choose, I would do films for big screen entertainment, where the canvas is being used properly. I wouldn’t do TV unless I was desperate.
When the producer asked me to
come over and watch the first few
episodes at the office, I asked him to send a copy home instead,
so I could watch it the way I’d
watch any other Netflix show —
get a blanket, some popcorn, dim the lights and hit play
Because of the quality of Indian content?
That’s a little harsh. I would say it’s because of the constraints placed on it. I feel our values don’t match. It’s a sponsor-driven and mass-oriented universe. Yes, some of my films are mass-oriented too, but it’s still possible to make a good film that makes money and caters to a lot of people. I don’t know if you can say the same about TV. Also, the ethics behind it are a little disturbing. It’s quite a manipulative area, with incredible working hours and exploitation of artistes as well as technicians, so I don’t like it.
All said and done, this is a long-term commitment because there’s more than one season. It could well be the most time-consuming project you’ve ever taken up.
Not really. We shot it pretty fast. There’s no censorship, sponsor constraints etc, so it’s a very free, creative environment. As a film actor, you need opportunities to showcase your talent in depth, and at a slightly different pace. Plus, the quality of writing, filming and cinematography also need distinction. For me, that’s a big reason for wanting to be in this space. As far as the show itself goes, if I was producing it and I sat to think of what I would want to make that would sell globally, it would have to be cops and mafia. There’s a specific poverty and a sort of desperate heroism that lends itself well to an Indian mafia story. So any kind of show that gets into that — sex, violence, betrayal, intrigue, glamour — ticks all the boxes of what you, or at least I, would want to watch.
Saif rocks his dapper best in his ‘sunglasses’ print shirt, navy flecked blazer, tapered jeans and a floral pocket square by Paul Smith and woven embossed velvet dust grey Sloan by Jimmy Choo
Arm chair in honey oak finish by Amberville by Pepper Fry
Is there much of a difference in the way you shoot such projects as well?
I would say it’s a little different from a film shoot. It doesn’t need as much equipment to bring the place alive. A film crew descends upon the location like a small army, and it gets difficult to shoot in small, real places. With the digital medium, you can go guerilla by taking a small camera into a room or not having too many lights. Our DOP, Swapnil Sonawane — who I also shot Bazaar with simultaneously — has really brought Mumbai to life. It’s a crazy, cinematic city, with so many colonies and different-looking areas. It would usually cost millions of dollars to recreate these locations as sets. But that’s how India is — it lends itself well to making things less expensive than people would in other countries. It’s kind of like the foundation of the East India Company.
What was the clincher that got you excited about playing Sartaj?
I like the idea that he’s a sardar cop. There aren’t too many in the Mumbai police. Sartaj is troubled and honest, according to Vikram Chandra, and that’s a good way of describing him. He’s trying to find a way to survive in a fairly corrupt police force. I think he’s divorced, but he doesn’t understand that either. The book says he doesn’t know anyone who is divorced, and that’s very modern and frightening for him. He loves his ex-wife, I think. He’s addicted to some kind of sleeping pill — it was Xanax in the book. So he’s got these problems, and he’s quite highly strung when he’s not on these pills, so that’s interesting too. Also, he’s a smart guy. There’s a detective to him, and I like detectives. He pieces together information quite efficiently. His career is at an all-time low when we see him, so he’s not much of a hero, but there’s an arc where he ends up getting the biggest case of his life, and how his personality and character enable him — rather late in his life — to become a success. That’s what his story is about, and that’s what was exciting for me.
Did you have the liberty to add your own nuances to the portrayal?
I think ultimately you do that with every role you play. You can’t become someone completely. I did have some prep work, including meeting a sardar cop, although he was a little older than I am. Having said that, even if you’re completely following your director’s vision, you’re going to do it like you. It’s almost impossible to become someone else. Rather than you becoming the character, the character becomes you. I’d be really impressed if you can 100 per cent become a character. That’s why Al Pacino is Al Pacino in every movie. Even though they are very different, there’s something about the roles that is him, and that’s what we like. It’s the same with Jack Nicholson.
I also feel that books generally happen in characters’ minds. You have extremely descriptive passages sometimes — like ‘swallows diving impossibly in the yellow twilight…’, or something — which is very difficult to film. If you try to write a screenplay about a book, it’ll end up being different. So there are a few creative liberties in our script as well.
You said earlier that you were happy about how the show is going to be promoted. What did you mean?
It means the makers will spend on hoardings and different media to get your attention, and you’ll get the feeling that something big is happening. I’m not going to go on a reality show to promote it — that just defeats the purpose. I’m not a fan of too much publicity. I’ve tried it and I don’t understand it. I don’t think it works much.
You don’t think it’s important?
I mean, if you ask me what I think of my movie, as an actor, what am I going to say? I’ll say it’s great. But people are not stupid, and they value their money very much, so they’re not going to give you money because they see you dancing on a show and saying that your film is great. It doesn’t make any sense. The only ones really benefitting from the exercise are the makers of the show. The audience will want to see the trailer, poster and witness the buzz, or then they will wait for reviews from those whose opinions they trust.
I feel producers don’t want to spend money on the traditional forms of promotion any more, such as hoardings. But when Netflix released Altered Carbon, they put up so many hoardings everywhere, and it gives you the feeling that they believe in the product.
Saif looks stellar in a black stretch pure cotton shirt, midnight blue linen-wool-silk blend checks jacket, grey pure wool, stain, water and crease resistant IMPECCABLE trousers, a pure silk printed pocket square and rust rose jacquard pure silk tie by Canali
With films, you have box-office collections that serve as a clear yardstick of success. Is there a definitive way to gauge whether your online series is a hit?
For this one, I think Netflix will gauge by how many subscribers they add from this region, so it’s a bit of an experiment. We’re not sure 100 per cent what the market is like. The great thing is Netflix is fairly accessible and is competitively priced. I like that they put their money back into the product — they pay not just actors, but even the crew better than what we get for movies.
Another way to gauge the success of such a show, I guess, would be to feel it for myself. When the producer asked me to come over and watch the first few episodes at the office, I asked him to send a copy home instead, so I could watch it the way I’d watch any other Netflix show — get a blanket, some popcorn, dim the lights and hit play.
On a whole different note, we never really know what’s going to happen when a film or show releases. There are many people involved in the project, and you want it to do well so everyone makes money. All these things aren’t in your control, so the best you can choose is the environment that you enjoy working in and leave the rest to the producers. I’m really lucky, 25 years later, to still be offered these parts. I do worry sometimes. On a bad day, I even think I’m way too old to be doing this. But then I think of the fact that all the other Khans, Akshay (Kumar) are older than me and still at it, so age isn’t an excuse. And I have a good survival instinct. I like things to be sorted.
Was this always the way you thought, or does this come with the fact that you’ve been around a long time, earned your stripes, earned enough money, and most importantly, earned the privilege to be choosy about the projects you take up?
Yes, it’s both. There’s certainly a mental growth involved. Early on, you sort of do what everyone else is doing in an attempt to fit in. After a while, if you’re lucky, you can afford to be individualistic in your feelings. How you’ve been raised and what your academic influences are start coming to the fore. Earlier, they would have been slightly suppressed, because you wanted to get in the door and be slightly successful at what you’re trying to do. After a point, it becomes a question of satisfaction also. Do I want to be living like this? What am I doing all day? How are we filming this, and why are we going through all this drama? Is it just to make money? Nothing wrong with making money, but it’s good to know why you’re there. It keeps your mood sorted.
What’s your current frame of mind? Do you feel like you want to slow down?
I mean, ideally, yes, a little slower. But I’m actually quite happy with the way it is. I have enough time off. I like to balance it like that. Holidays, health, it seems fine. I’d like to carry on like this.
What do you like to do in your free time?
Oh, I can be very busy when I’m free. In the sense that I like to wake up early, go to the gym and do yoga in the morning. These days, my younger son is quite entertaining. The older one is entertaining too, but not for the same reasons. I read — be it a book or a script — have meetings, get a little more exercise in the evening, enjoy a nice drink with some friends, or cook a nice dinner. I like watching detective shows, and I travel a lot too — between the family home in Pataudi, London and around Europe.
I studied in Winchester and still have friends there. It’s a very academic world, and even though I had almost the lowest grade in my school, I guess something stayed with me. The way I look at books is heavily coloured by it.
What kind of books do you like?
I enjoy history. Currently, I’m reading a nice collection of ghost stories. I was recently working with an actor who told me he had been chewing opium on the sets, to kind of stay calm and be focussed. It immediately reminded me of a book by Thomas De Quincy, called Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, which I’m now reading. His descriptions of the feeling are just amazing, so I need to go back to this actor and compare notes. I’m too frightened to take opium on the sets, so for me, it’s really more of an interesting mental connection.
Flaunting his sophisticated best, Saif wears a Baynix R – blue cotton and elastane shirt, Nobis – cotton, and elastane jacket and Delaware – cotton and elastane trousers by HUGO BOSS
Stafford Solid Wood Console Table in Honey Oak Finish by Amberville by Pepper Fry
Do you have a different method of gaining focus on the sets?
Just a few deep breaths, really. But who said I’m focussed? (laughs) I really enjoy acting. I’ve read more about it in the last three years than I ever have before. I like reading a script and breaking it down into how it can become this character, then learning the lines, especially the long ones. To be able to say them is a process I’m enjoying more than never before.
Would you say you’re getting the kind of work you want to do?
Most certainly. I’m playing a Naga sadhu bounty hunter for Navdeep Singh, which requires me to ride horses and do sword fights. I’m playing a Gujarati businessman in Bazaar, which is a really cool role. I hope I’m at a stage in life where if the interesting offers stop, I can take up gardening in Pataudi and chill. I enjoy that as well.
I like reading a script and breaking it down into how it becomes a character, then learning the lines, especially long ones. To be able to say them is a process I’m enjoying more than ever before.
In the recent past, one can argue that your spectrum of roles has been pretty diverse, but not all of it has paid off. Does that faze you at all, or change the way you make your decisions?
It doesn’t change the way, no, but it would be nice if things worked out. The idea is to mix it up. I’ve been doing this too long to feel encouraged or discouraged by failure and success. I have to enjoy the process. I am very lucky because I’m bothered only to a point. It’s not like I’m very Zen either — I’m trying to get there — but ultimately, very little matters. If you have friends, family and a steady job, it’s a bit much to get worked up about these things, right? What interests me is a creative job that I have to prepare for — something I have to transform into.
Is that the advice you give your daughter, who is on the verge of her acting debut?
My main advice to her is, if someone tells her to get her teeth straightened, don’t do that. You don’t want to look like a generic person. Not that there’s anything wrong with her teeth, by the way. But people tell you to make these cosmetic changes. People can look charming if their inner beauty or their personality comes out. That’s what acting is about. Also, I’d like her to choose interestingly and be an artiste. Don’t treat life like a 9-5 job.
PHOTOGRAPHER: ABHEET GIDWANI | ART DIRECTOR: AMIT NAIK | STYLIST: KUSHAL PARMANAND | JUNIOR STYLIST: NEELANGANA VASUDEVA | HAIR: SAGAR RAHURKAR | MAKE UP: NEELESH KOTHAVALE