The rise, fall and rise of Saif Ali Khan

Saif Ali Khan’s acting career is something of a sine curve—hits after flops, followed by hits, and then some flops, and so on over the last 25 years. After an underwhelming debut in Parampara in 1992, Khan’s stock rose as the long-haired Vicky in Yeh Dillagi (1994), and as Deepak in Main Khiladi Tu Anari (1994). Critics had almost written him off in the mid-1990s, but he came back with Dil Chahta Hai, Kal Ho Naa Ho and Omkara. The pattern has continued into the 2010s, with an abysmal Humshakals nudging a Go Goa Gone.

At 46, Khan is focusing on scripts, film-makers and craft. Besides playing an egotistical film producer in Vishal Bhardwaj’s Rangoon, Khan has completed two other films—an indie by Akshat Verma, Kalagandi, which he describes as “romantic, funny and a little crazy”, and Chef, directed by Raja Menon. “These are good films with good directors and a good vibe. That’s enough to make one grateful,” he says. Edited excerpts from an interview:

How did your career pick up after two poor years at the box office?

I think there might have been an element of laziness in the last year in terms of choices as well as my approach. So I decided to start over: Wake up early, go to the gym, be fresh and arrive on set fully prepared, knowing my lines backwards. I am very comfortable with age-appropriate roles, like playing father to a nine-year-old in Chef. If you give your best and it still goes wrong, then you can’t feel too miserable about it.

What is your reaction when you look back at your early films, with the long hair and the dance moves?

When I see that long-haired guy, or the one with a glass of wine, I don’t remember what was happening there. That was a bit of a mess and a lot needed to be worked out in my mind. I took a lot for granted. But several things have fallen into place since. My mind has expanded and I find happiness in smaller things, like reading a book or having a chat.

Tell us a bit about the film producer you play in ‘Rangoon’.

I play Rustom Billimoria—a former action hero who lost his hand and had to quit. He now runs the family film studio. He is bad-tempered and highly talented, which is a wonderful mix of contradictions. Vishal is brilliant with dark characters, and we had a great time dressing Rustom and working out his style of doing things.

Recreating Bombay (now Mumbai) in the 1940s was a huge challenge. But the clothes and the cigars and the chance to be super-elegant was so much fun. I got the chance to wear the sort of stuff I have always wanted to. I guess I’m quite old-world in my tastes anyway. And shooting in Arunachal Pradesh was terrific.

Rangoon explores what happens to a relationship when there’s external pressure, like a war going on in the background. It’s a love triangle at the core, but it does not have conventional resolutions.

Was cinema a big part of your life from an early age?

Growing up in Bhopal there was no TV, videos or movies. The family tailor Nanda, an old man, would tell me these Homeric epic stories. And I have always looked for that kind of entertainment. Later, when I was in Delhi, I had a lot of time on my hands and the local video shop was my haunt. So films were a really important escape for me.

I guess it must have been some influence from my mother (Sharmila Tagore), who pointed out artistes to watch: Audrey Hepburn, Bob Hope, Danny Kaye, Julie Andrews. But I fell in love with movies when I discovered Clint Eastwood and the Dollars trilogy. Not that I wanted to become an actor, but I was really connected to the cinematic experience and it became a very important part of my life. I was basically a (Amitabh) Bachchan fan. My father (Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi) was quite opposed to TV, and our dhobi in Delhi had a TV before we did.

My father and I sometimes watched Clint Eastwood movies. It was one of the few things we did together. But we never watched Hindi films at home and didn’t really talk about films either.

How would you assess your life at this juncture?

Forty-six is a good age. There is a sense of history and yet you are young enough to be connected to the present. I have travelled well and Kareena and I are both lucky to have creative jobs. I guess part of me regrets not working hard enough at Winchester College to finish studies at Oxford University.

Anyway, I’m reading more, loving good music, good food, wine, art. I want to play better guitar, but it’s great to understand music even a little bit. I want to improve my French, as it’s good for the brain to try and think in another language. These are things I want to do. But I also want to be part of good, progressive films. Lastly, I want to be healthier, and moderate—not be excessive in general.

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