Saif Ali Khan: My father was stylish, but my granddad was impeccably dressed

Saif Ali Khan has been catching up with his grandfather this last one year. And that’s odd because he has never met him. Iftikhar Ali Khan Pataudi died in 1952 while playing a game of polo when Saif’s father Mansur Ali Khan (Tiger) Pataudi was just 11.

Flipping through an album of old but well preserved photographs from the 1940s, he tells us that the decade is a favourite with him for its fashion. “I am quite conversant in men’s fashion right from the Roman times. But the ’40s happen to be my absolute favourite. It was a truly elegant time,” says the actor, apologising for not being able to allow us to take the album out of the vanity van parked at Rajkamal Studio where he is shooting 9-to-9 for Chef. “Amma would kill me,” he says, imagining actress-mother Sharmila Tagore’s wrath.

The album holds memories of the 8th Nawab of Pataudi, the only Test cricketer to have played for both India and England. Saif calls him a “classic gentleman cricketer”. “He wore a suit with a cravat even as the opposition captain tossed the coin in a cable knit cricket jumper. My father was stylish, but my grandfather was always impeccably dressed, whether on the cricket field or on a polo ground.”

A mix of aristocracy and his time in England (he studied at Balliol College, Oxford) may have had something to do with it.

A pocket watch that Iftikhar carried, and was passed down to Saif, makes it to a scene in the upcoming period war drama, Rangoon. It’s one of many fashion references that Saif credits ‘Pat’ for, as Iftikhar was fondly called. In the love triangle set against World War II, bang in the middle of the Imphal and Kohima battles, Saif plays the deliciously refined but brooding Rusi Billimoria, a former action hero-turned-silent picture producer obsessively in love with Julia (Kangana Ranaut).

Much of the character’s overarching style seems drawn from the way Iftikhar carried himself. “Dolly aunty (Ahluwalia, the film’s costume designer) and I wanted to keep the character as true to the times as we could,” he says.

Able to use physical disguise and tweak his demeanour to appear younger, milder, or more menacing, like he did as Omkara’s Langda Tyagi, Saif decided that this time the inspiration for the fiery, and only slightly sinister Rusi would come from Darth Vader. “There’s something about a bad guy dressed in frightening formal grace,” he adds flashing his brand of saucy smile.

Coming handy would be the jaunty, pencil moustache adding devilish allure. Then, the dinner jacket with wide pointed lapels accentuated with sharp shoulders, complete with a pocket square, red flower pin, and fitted high-waist breeches teamed with knee-high boots. And finally, the heirloom — Iftikhar’s pocket watch. “It’s the first time I was opinionated on a film set,” he recalls, “otherwise I do what I am told.”

Next the actor speaks in detail about how best to achieve the full impact of a tuxedo. “You have to keep an eye out for essentials, like the peaked lapel, the stiff-wing collar shirt, the pocket square… Do it well or don’t do it at all, just like anything else in life.”

The chance to be in the 1940s and live the vintage life was coupled by another joy, that of working again with Vishal Bharadwaj after Omkara.

“It was such fun to work with him again. His vision is artistic yet commercial. It makes me feel like a complete actor. When I told Amma that I was doing Rangoon, she was happy it was a Vishal Bharadwaj movie. ‘You are doing a sensible thing for a change’, she said,” he laughs.

‘Saif’s album was inspiration’
“It’s the toughest movie of my career. I had to dress not only the lead actors but Indian and Japanese armies too. There was no brief, apart from the fact that the movie was set in the 1940s. On his part, Saif came with creative inputs. He opened up his wardrobe and family album, which inspired a lot of ideas for close to 30 looks. For instance, he was particular about how the breeches had to be worn high-waist, without pockets bulging. My references were Gilbert Roland, Gregory Peck and Clark Gable.”

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