With his impeccable pedigree, Saif Ali Khan had everything going for him when he started out ten years ago, even success. But it didn’t last too long. Saif claims he knows why. He messed it up. Everyone around him was more professional than he was. While everyone else was working he was ‘chilling out’. And he’s paid the price in failure. Things are on the mend now, he says, though he still has to look for work. He is older, wiser and father of two children. Dil Chahta Hai represents a remade Saif. And its success, he hopes, is a sign of better days to come.

Life happened to Saif Ali Khan while he was busy making other plans. He got films on a platter while he was planning his next party. He got thrown out of his debut film while he was planning his film career.

He got married to Amrita Singh (at the age of twenty-one) while he was planning his next move. His plans backfired but films happened. 

After being chucked from his debut film Bekhudi with Kajol no less, he signed Aashiq Awara (1993) with Mamta Kulkarni! The film did decent business at the box office.

Yeh Dillagi (1994) did better and brought him what he calls his “flashy Mitsubishi movie star Pajero”.

Life was a party and Saif was the life of the party. Till a spate of flops spoiled things for ever. While contemporaries like Shah Rukh Khan and Aamir Khan and even Salman Khan were able to sustain their popularity, the box office was not ringing any more for Saif. He was no longer a Saif…., oops a safe proposition.

That’s when Saif Ali Khan stopped planning and started believing in fate.

 “Acting, I have realized is just like life. The director is God and the writer is the creator. And we actors are mere mortals who struggle to change our destiny without realizing that the script..Our life…Has already been written. Whatever will be, will be. So, if you are sensible you don’t through grief. What’s the use of planning?” Saif concedes.

  

He’s sitting at his plush Lokhandwala bungalow (wife Amrita Singh’s to be precise) sporting colourful pyjamas, a body-hugging Tee and an endearing smile.

He reminds me of Sameer Mulchandani in Dil Chahta Hai.  Clueless and always looking for the right answers. “Hey, I’m just like him,” Saif shoots back. “Sameer Mulchandani in Dil Chahta Hai is me in a good mood. He’s someone who is not in control of his own life. He’s just muddling along through life just like me. I’m being honest. I can pretend to be in control like others do. But hell, why pretend?” Point.

“When I joined films, I loved the idea of being this cool dude movie star. All that mattered was stardom. Striking poses. Seeking attention. I was like this big drama king, man. ..”  A pause and he announces “And then, I grew up. I realized that I didn’t want to be part of the rat race. I didn’t want to compete with anybody. I mean, I couldn’t benefit from someone else’s failure. And nobody could benefit from mine. So why bother? Why not just do your bit and chill. I think it’s important to draw a line somewhere between stardom and reality.

“It wasn’t as if realization struck me just like that, one fine day. It was a gradual process. I guess the birth of my daughter Sara had a lot to do with the change in me. I started taking more responsibility for my actions. My daughter is growing up. I’m answerable to her. Then there’s my son Ibrahim. It’s easier to take decisions when you know you are responsible for someone.

And then, I grew up. I realized that I didn’t want to be part of the rat race. I didn’t want to compete with anybody. I mean, I couldn’t benefit from someone else’s failure. And nobody could benefit from mine. So why bother?

“It took me a helluva time to realize that my entire approach to work was so goddamn shallow. “ It’s confession time for the thirty-one year old actor. He is thinking hard, furiously puffing away on his Malboro. “I was an inane actor. I’ve done the shittiest of films. I’m not proud of that. I used to walk into sets and wonder, what the f…. I was doing there? But I deserved what I got. I only had myself to blame for the mess I had landed myself in. I was trying to be too cool.”

And today? “I’m just trying to be me.”

That’s the new Saif for you. Honest and contrite. 

No wonder, you cheer louder for him in a darkened auditorium showing Dil Chahta Hai. He steals the show with his spiffy one-liners in Farhan Akhtar’s film. His phone has been ringing nonstop since the release. His voice mail is loaded with ‘Saifu, you rock!’ messages. And Saif is loving every minute of it! “It was a party shooting for the film. Every morning we would walk into the sets and crack up over our haircuts. I used to be like, ‘Man, Aamir you look so funny.’ And then look into the mirror and go, ‘Jesus, even I look funny.’

It was a great trip working with Farhan. He’s on the same wavelength as me. Actually what I’m trying to say is we are both brilliant.(Laughs)  Knowing Farhan, he must have watched a hundred Hindi movies and made a list of what not to do. Maybe he saw some of my films too!”

Farhan did. And approached him for Dil Chahta Hai. Not many know that the character Sameer Mulchandani was written with the actor in mind. Says Farhan, “Saif was definitely my first choice. I knew I had to cast him because Sameer Mulchandani was him. He has this amazing flair for comedy. Also, he’s very spontaneous on screen.”

Saif agrees. “My greatest strength is my spontaneity. I don’t want to be a rehearsed actor. It’s not me. When Farhan offered me DCH, I liked the script. I mean, there was this brilliant guy who had written this brilliant script and he wanted me to act in it. What more could I ask for?  It’s nice when people write for you. I guess, Farhan had a pretty good idea of what I was all about. We weren’t exactly friendly then. We knew each other. We became friends during the making of Dil Chahta Hai.”

“Life feels good after DCH. It feels good to be appreciated. Mom was proud of me when she saw the film. The first time she saw it, she was chewing her nails. She was hoping I wouldn’t goof up. But she loved my work so much that she actually wrote Farhan a letter. Even dad thought I was cool.” What about wife Amrita?  “You know, Amrita used to say, ‘Saif, you can either be all genius or full of shit.  But how can you be both?  Now after Dil Chahta Hai, she says I’m all genius!” He chortles with glee.

Don’t know about the genius part but director E Niwas (Love Ke Liye Kuch Bhi Karega) thinks Saif has more than what it takes. “In fact, I would say, Saif is a very underrated actor. There is so much more potential in him waiting to be tapped. The guy is too good, only he doesn’t realize it, yet. All he needs is a couple of good films.”

Saif tells me that he has signed some good projects. “Finally, I’m doing good work. I’ve got some interesting films directed by the likes of Ram Gopal Varma and JP Dutta. I’m grateful for what I’ve got. Sometimes I even wonder how I lasted for so long after all that I have done. I mean. I’m thankful that people are still signing me. I am thankful that they take me seriously. Earlier they never did. Heck, why should they take me seriously when I didn’t take myself seriously!”

Earlier, I used to feel Amitabh Bachchan was the best and all the other actors were idiots. It was foolish of me to feel like that but it was true. Bachchan was that big, man! Today, you can’t say the same for any of the other actors we have. Where do you see actors like him? Nobody is that larger than life today.

Raveena Tandon, his co-star in many of his early films observes, “ Saif was like this li’l British brat let loose among us poor Indians. He had this attitude and this really cool accent. When he would be on the sets, the unit was in a constant state of shock. A culture shock!” Saif smiles knowingly. “Yeah, my idea was just to have a good time. I was not bothered about anything else. On the sets, I was this major brat. Not an offensive one, mind you. I do admit, I was a culture shock for people.  Not just on the sets. I was like that from the time I first came down to India. Here I was this brat from the best of schools (Locker’s Park and Winchester College) in London. (I used to come down to India for my vacations. And vacation meant party time. But everybody was like, ‘Omigosh, look at him drinking at parties!’ What else was I supposed to do? It was my well-deserved break. Obviously, I wanted to have a blast. I mean at twenty you don’t want to be boring.

Around that time, Anand Mahendroo met me at some party and offered me a film. But that project fell through. Then came Rahul Rawail’s offer. I didn’t do that film. Lousy things happened to me on that front which I don’t want to get into. Other offers poured in and I signed my first film Umesh Mehra’s Aashiq Awara.”

“I didn’t start acting because I considered it an easy way out.” He’s quick to point out. “I had other options too, you know. And no, I’m not talking about cricket. Though I loved playing cricket. I still play a good game. But I don’t think I ever had the temperament or the talent to play for the country. I mean, I was nowhere next to dad (Pataudi). Acting was a different story. When the thought of acting was introduced to me, I said why not? Believe me, I’m still here because acting is the only thing that hasn’t bored me. I didn’t go to college because I was bored with studies.” He tells me.

It is hard to imagine the articulate actor as someone who doesn’t have a college degree. Sonali Bendre, his co-star in Love Ke Liye Kuch Bhi Karega finds this shocking. “When Saif told me, he didn’t go to college, it took me some time to get over the shock. He’s one of the most intelligent and well-read actors I have worked with. He can talk about everything under the sun. He knows it all, be it anything and everything from American history to Leonardo Da Vinci’s paintings.” “Yeah, I do,” Saif beams. “But I’m an actor first and foremost. Acting is the only thing that has sustained my interest for so long. So here I am.”

He is mouthing pages and pages of dialogues at Filmalaya Studios when I meet him next. He’s shooting for Pantaloon’s first film project Na Tum Jaano Na Hum…gulp…a Hrithik Roshan starrer. As giddy headed girls queue up for Hrithik’s autographs, Saif grins, “This guy is a superstar!”

And didn’t it rankle his Leonine ego to share the spotlight with a sensation like Roshan?

“Look, I have never experienced the kind of success Hrithik has. It’s not easy to be a big star. It’s a gift to be able to enthrall millions. I’m fully aware of the fact that much greater actors than me have sat in this make-up van. I have a long way to go. And I’m okay about that.  I don’t have an ego issue about it. There’s no denying that Hrithik today is one of the best and I want to work with the best. Because…..(long pause) …. I’m very good. Competition (of course) is inevitable. But I believe in healthy competition. I have worked with Akshay (Kumar) when he was a big star. And we did fine. It’s how you look at things.”

“My philosophy in this department is simple. Every actor is unique. Everyone has their own place in the sun. Earlier, I used to feel Amitabh Bachchan was the best and all the other actors were idiots. It was foolish of me to feel like that but it was true. Bachchan was that big, man! Today, you can’t say the same for any of the other actors we have. Where do you see actors like him? Nobody is that larger than life today. Everyone has their own share of success and failure.

“So all this talk doesn’t bug me. Believe it or not, I’m not Sara’s (his daughter) favourite actor. She loves Salman Khan. But it doesn’t bother me. We were never brought up like that. I always thought of my father as an amazing cricketer. But he never taught us to hero worship him. He always told us that Sunil Gavaskar was a better batsman than him. So it’s cool if Sara likes Salman.

“When I was a kid, I would rarely watch mom’s films. When I was growing up everyone in the family was into cricket. As a kid, I didn’t see too many of my mom’s films. I remember I saw this one film and I burst out crying. It was too emotional a film and I got all hassled and I never saw it again. I started seeing her films much later in life.

I started discussing films with her only after I became an actor. Sometimes, when I’m confused about a film, I ask mom for advice.” The chote nawab admits.

“Chote Nawab?” He sighs at that one. “On one hand I’m the chote nawab and on the other, I’m basically just another guy who has to ask for work. I have a family to look after. It’s not as if I’m rich enough to say I don’t need work. I can’t afford to be that selective. Though I’m happy with what I’m getting. I’m in an interesting position and I would like to use it well. 

Definitely, I would like more but then to be honest, I’ve got exactly what I deserve. Ninety per cent of the people here are more professional than me. No, I’m not being hard on myself. I am owning up. I feel I’m okay as an actor. I am better than what I was but I can still do better. I’m working towards it. I’m getting there slowly.”

After Dil Chahta Hai, things could be different. Only if he doesn’t fall back into his old ways.

This story was first published in the October 2001 issue

Image courtesy: Ashima Narain