Getting Reel with Saif Ali Khan – he talks about his movies
Vishal Bhardwaj has the talent to create a world of his own, give his characters fascinating quirks and draw you out as a performer. His upcoming film, Rangoon, took me to the jungles of Arunachal Pradesh, into huts where you lived out of a sleeping bag. It gave me a chance to wear the stiff-as-cardboard shirts from my Winchester college days in England and the Trilby hats I usually get to dust out only when Kareena and I are at Gstaad during New Year’s. It also gave me a chance to research cufflinks and ties, inhabit the world of Hollywood’s ’40s heroes like Fred Astaire, Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn, and my grandfather Iftikhar Ali Khan
I loved this journey into the past and my only regret is that I forgot the white gloves lying in my wardrobe which would have looked so good with the black dinner jackets. Rustom Billimoria is an action hero-turned-studio boss. The physicality of the role was a challenge because Rusi’s lost his right hand while doing a stunt and this meant I had to do everything left handed, even a sword fight. That wasn’t too difficult actually since I’ve had some practise playing cricket left-handed.
A couple of days into the first schedule, Vishal who’d asked me to bulk up for the role given the guy’s action background, felt I should cut down a bit. I told him it was too late, besides I’ve seen guys in the gym working out with one hand so it was okay. During our earlier film, Omkara, Vishal was less busy. This time, he had his hands full and I had to prep up more though he still contributed to my performance. And the artistic integrity I found on the sets of Omkara I discovered again only in Rangoon. That, I’d say, is the magic of Vishal Bhardwaj!
This film was made a decade ago. It was a heady time with my films finally doing well after years. I was sitting in the Rambagh Palace in Jaipur when Vishal called, wanting to meet. He offered me Othello. That took me by surprise because only the previous day, my mother (Sharmila Tagore) had told me I should do Shakespeare, in particular Othello. Vishal wanted me to play Iago not Othello, perhaps the only Shakespearean villain who talks more than the hero. His Othello, Ajay Devgn, is a secure, selfless actor who makes it easy for his co-stars, a quality I really admire about him.
Langda Tyagi was tough to play. He was a simple, uneducated guy whose body language, attitude and even his UP dialect was different from Saif Ali Khan’s. I used to be more anglicised then and remember practising my lines while going for a run in the forest while vacationing in Switzerland or Italy. By the time I went on the set, I was 100 per cent prepped up and the first shot was okayed in one take. An impressed Vishal started calling me Khansaab and everybody around, even those who thought Saif Ali Khan was an idiot from commercial cinema, started calling me Khansaab too. Vishal is part of my coming-ofage journey as an actor and nothing is more out-of-the-box than Omkara which despite the strong competition, helped me sweep all the awards.
LOVE AAJ KAL (2009)
Imtiaz Ali had come to me with Rockstar. I didn’t connect with it but I liked him and before Jab We Met released, we’d decided he’d direct Illuminati Films’ first production. Love Aaj Kal was an under-rated film. It beautifully juxtaposed a love story of the past to bring out the complications in modern-day relationships which have lost their simplicity. I enacted the sardar well, but if I were to play the other guy today, I’d not make him a re-run of Hum Tum or Salaam Namaste. I’d play him like a Dilliwala, more believable, interesting and complicated. The film was supposed to end with the modern guy losing the girl (Deepika Padukone) to Rahul Khanna’s character. By the time he realises he loves her, she is married and pregnant. I begged Imtiaz for a happy ending and he relented.
BEING CYRUS (2005)
I was all excited about doing an English film in my cool anglicised accent till Homi (director Homi Adajania) said, “No, no, you have to sound Indian.” Still, this thriller with a twist shot in Homi’s family home that was architecturally similar to Bombay Gym was fun. Homi’s cool assistants, Danish Aslam and Kapil Sharma, who looked down upon Bollywood then are now independent mainstream directors. Maybe films have changed or maybe they have. The film had an incredible cast of Naseeruddin Shah, Dimple Kapadia and Boman Irani. I really liked Boman, we were talking all day about photography and video games, till Homi told me he’d been bitching about me behind my back. I was really upset for two days till Boman asked me what was wrong. When I did, he said, “Oh God, you don’t know Homi, he was lying, trying to make trouble.” In retrospect that was really funny!
Vidhu Vinod Chopra met me outside a Juhu five-star and wondered why I didn’t want to work with him. He cribbed I never dropped by to meet him or returned his calls. He pointed out that if I was fed up of doing second leads, I should tell filmmakers I didn’t want to do them and would rather sit at home. “Don’t take any crap, come and see me,” he urged, as we were parting. The next day, I went across and he offered me Parineeta and I repeated his advice to me. His director, Pradeep Sarkar, wanted me for Shekhar while Vinod wanted another actor who’d been through some failures recently, so there was more pain in his eyes.
And I thought, “Oh God, from when did failures become a prerequisite to getting good roles?” Well, I did get the role because Pradeep Sarkar insisted. When Vinod saw Vidya (Balan) and me together, he quipped that he’d have to give one of us a nose job. I was like, “Oh God, this guy is nuts!” Parineeta was the first time I played a responsible lead in a kind of arty movie where I wasn’t the urban Hum Tum or Dil Chahta Hai yuppie. This guy was more Bengali, with depth. I evolved as an actor by putting myself in a casting very different from the one I had imagined.
My mother, Sharmila Tagore, is a Bengali but the only advice she ever gave me is to treat the camera as a girl I respect and want to impress. No need to be loud as graceful women don’t like that, just keep it subtle and she’ll notice you. That’s good advice not always taken.
EK HASINA THI (2004)
It came at a time when Ram Gopal Varma who had good ideas teamed up with this guy who had made the 45-minute docufiction on the serial killer, Raman Raghav. Sriram Raghavan is a clever director and this dark, deadly and sexy character brought out a different facet to my personality. There’s one amazing scene where the guy, Karan, and girl Sarika (Urmila matondkar) are flirting over Maggie noodles and playing a game during which she asks him if he loves her. He says “no” and then they make out. Karan Singh Rathod was a cool, noir villain and I’m happy I could carry him off.
HUM TUM (2004)
Kunal Kohli had earlier offered this role to Hrithik (Roshan) with whom he had worked in Mujhse Dosti Karoge and also Vivek Oberoi whose Saathiya had just released before coming to me. The media was talking about how I’d done some good second leads but hadn’t carried a film on my shoulders yet. I was mentally ready when Aditya Chopra came to me. He’d heard really good things about my performance in Kal Ho Na Ho on whose sets I was seriously learning how to act in commercial cinema and take on the responsibilities of the main lead by closely observing Shah Rukh Khan.
Adi told me categorically that Hum Tum was a light-hearted film, with a non-cliched, conversational vibe, in the space of When Harry Met Sally, and he wanted a multiplex hero. I reinvented myself for it. During the song “Chak De” when I saw the 8-10 year-old schoolgirls dancing with Rani (Mukerji) and me looking down at their feet to ensure they stayed on the mark, I was sure then that the film, boosted by their professionalism and positivity, would work. I was in London when I got a call from Padam Kumar telling me I’d bagged the National Award for Best Actor. Sudhir Mishra, the head of the jury that year, said I merited the honour for “ease of performance”.
KAL HO NA HO (2003)
Karan Johar had offered me a small part in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai which I wasnt comfortable doing’, probably because I didn’t want to expose myself to the blazing talent of Shah Rukh Khan believing I wouldn’t be able to handle it. Then he offered me Kal Ho Na Ho which he was producing, my biggest film till then. Karan was on a high after Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham and the film was being shot in New York. There was a sequence for which Karan told me to imitate Shah Rukh. I thought he meant I didn’t know how to act and should copy him. I was really upset and didn’t talk to him for a day till he asked me why I was sulking.
When I explained, Karan was convinced I was one of the most insecure actors he’d worked with. His dad, Yash Johar, was shocked to see me eating hot dogs through the shoot. It was fun keeping pace with SRK. I learnt a lot from him. I remember a shoot at Grand Central station. There were some intricate camera set-ups involved and time was running out. Shah Rukh just took control, directing the trolley assistants and actors, proving to be an invaluable asset to the unit rather than just a superstar. Kal Ho Na Ho was about making a Gujarati hero look cool. Karan was at the top of his game and the role suited me at that age.
Rohit Patel wasn’t the epitome of masculinity, Shah Rukh’s Aman was more manly while Rohit was more of a friend. The challenge was making the walkie talkie scenes on the streets look natural. One such scene was taken on the first day shoot in Toronto. Preity and I had long, fast dialogues and one of us would get it wrong. Karan and the director, Nikkhil Advani, were getting worked up as time was short. Finally, when we seemed to be getting it right, my new and personal Rolex watch broke and fell off my wrist on the crowded street behind us. I kept walking till Nikkhil finally yelled, “Cut”, before I ran back, looking for my watch. Luckily, I found it. I think that makes it clear what kind of an actor I was… Anything for a shot. The watch was not even in the frame when it broke!
DIL CHAHTA HAI (2001)
Farhan Akhtar just bogeyed into my house with this role. The language he spoke and his approach to filmmaking was so different from other producers that I was insecure about the set-up till I learnt that Aamir Khan was associated with it. Farhan still teases me about that. There was something endearing and disarming about my character Sameer but between Aamir’s super-stardom and Akshaye Khanna’s histrionics, I was sure it would turn out to be an unimportant part.
To my surprise, Sameer was one of the most popular characters in the film. And to think I almost didn’t do it! I’d got a couple of offers from other makers when Aamir sat me down in his car and asked about them. I told him one was Arjun Sablok’s Na Tum Jaano Na Ho and the other was a RGV film. He looked astounded and told me the mounting of Dil Chahta Hai would be double that of both these films put together. He urged me to take it on. I shrugged and said, “Okay, I’ll do it!”