Saif Ali Khan: I wrote a note changing Taimur’s name, but it read so awful, that I dropped it

Saif Ali Khan might still change his son’s name if he gets into trouble in school, or not. In a chat with Delhi Times, he talks about that dilemma, his idea of a ‘Muslim’ and what it means in the west, and Langda Tyagi’s return to his ‘Omkara’ director.

How is it for Langda Tyagi to work with ‘Omkara’s’ director again in ‘Rangoon’?

My fingers are crossed. It is a beautiful looking film and he has again given me a very interesting role. I was hooked from the point when he narrated it to me… He has narrated a couple of movies in the past, where, without offending him, I said that I am not fully getting this, which is why probably we haven’t worked together for so many years. Now that we have, I was also very conscious that the last thing that we did was probably the most special role of my career.

Is it easier to play somebody who is living the high life, like your ‘Rangoon character?

It’s easier because there are props like cigars…

No, as in between the two roles you have played for Vishal Bhardwaj, in ‘Omkara’ and in ‘Rangoon’. They are two social extremes, very different ends… in that sense.

I think both require a portrayal, you know. They both require a body language and they are different. Rusi Bilimoria requires grace. And that’s also theatrical. It’s a body language, it’s a graceful performance. Because of the English exposure that I have cultivated in myself over the years, because I have concentrated on it saying dehati nahin lagna chahiye, you have to look a little international, in that sense it’s easier. And it’s exactly as energetic as a Langda Tyagi who is a more basic animal. Whatever came to me naturally as Saif would be wrong for Langda Tyagi. My eyes would move too much or I would do this (hand gestures) while he is more like that… And someone as basic as that just looks at you and talks, he doesn’t roll his eyes or… I don’t know how they think. Luckily, there is a monitor and you can see and you can feel that this is not working. Having said that, I was just revisiting parts of ‘Omkara’ just after joining this film. In ‘Beedi Jalai Le’, where Vivek Oberoi, who I think is a trained dancer, is playing to his strength which is an extension to that Company character, you know, and doing a tapori dance with Bipasha. And if you see, what I have done in that song – it’s really, really impressive. Not just the makeup and hair, but the way Langda Tyagi is dancing is like some sinister village maniac (laughs).

How has Vishal’s feedback to you changed as compared to coming from that phase?

He directed me with more care, then. Because maybe I didn’t need so much now, for Rusi, while for Langda he was like – thoda aise chalo, thoda aise bolo… I would put that yellow thing on my teeth and I did my homework for him by learning the language. He was happy with that and secondly, I had cut my hair for the film. I had quite nice long hair and I was fond of it. When I shaved it, he was very touched. And he helped me a lot. And in this film also. Actually, honestly, he is the only director who has really directed performance for me in a while.

I mean people have said, ‘Slow it down, speed it up, make it calmer and don’t do it like that. But he is like – ‘laugh and say the line’, ‘take a totally opposite approach’, ‘say it, whisper it’. It really helps. I think this was a big movie and I felt I should do as much homework on my own as possible. I think I have some maturity also now, where the actor kind of like doesn’t expect to be hand held and the director expects you to do it properly and he can just get on with making the movie.

Vishal is very musical. I asked him quite a silly question. In the climax, he has cut some violent sequence to some beautiful music and I asked, who’s done the music for the movie? He looked at me and said, ‘Me, of course!’ So I said, ‘Oh okay, I didn’t know that, I thought you might have taken somebody else also’. So he said, ‘No, I have become a director to picturise my music.’

Are you still getting questions about the nomenclature of Pataudi junior?

Yes, even today. My daughter told me, why don’t you say that you have not named him after Timur Lang, say that’s Timur and this is Taimur. I said it still sounds similar. She says just say they have same roots. The name is nice and it sounds good and it means something nice but it is not named after that guy. Well, yes, the name is the same, but the name also predates the person called Timur Lang. Incidentally, Timur Lang’s son was Shah Rukh, who is the guy who supposedly said we should actually plunder India. A lot of fighting was done by his sons, but nobody has a problem with the name Shah Rukh (laughs).

So you’re settled, sorted on this topic now?

I think. Also, a part of me has realised that if a select few are happy with you, universal acceptance is not required because this kind of populist approval means something scary. I would rather have a handful of people whose opinion I respect, agree with me, that’s enough. I don’t want universal approval if it’s going to require me to pretend.

Anything you do anywhere ends up on the net, it’s all over, anything you say. Why do it yourself? Let’s go back to get other people do it for you and do what you want. Hopefully, as priests interpret scriptures, a good journalist can omit some crap you said and kind of guide your conversation into the right way. I prefer the old way, uncensored is a bit dangerous for someone like me (laughs).

You know, actually – I haven’t told anyone this – I thought for a second about changing his name. For a couple of weeks. And Kareena was a little against it and she said, ‘People respect you for your opinion and you can’t’… So I said, yeah, but it’s not about people. I don’t want him to get unpopular. And I still might, maybe when he’s one or two, I might change his name in a while, it’s still sinking in, what to do. Someone in my PR agreed with me, and we drafted a small letter. And when I read it, it was so pathetic, that I cancelled the idea. Because it was really like, uhh, ‘I’m sorry’, and ‘I didn’t want to offend’ and ‘I’m an idiot’ (laughs), and you know, I’ve given in to pressure. It just sounded awful. However you write it, it just wasn’t sounding right. It was like I didn’t realise where I live or what I’m doing. So I did think about it. I thought about it, but it was for the wrong reason.

If I feel that he’s going to get in trouble in school, I might change it still. It’s a bit late now though. Or not. I don’t know.

You wouldn’t want him to be known as the boy who was originally called Taimur, would you? Even if you now call him Akbar, he’ll have to carry this with him anyway. Why make him be apologetic about this forever –

Taimur’s going to be stuck to him anyway, isn’t it?

I guess. Yes. Exactly. Now it’s there.

Tim, that’s what he’s called (laughs). Tim Khan. Tim Pataudi. Timmy, Tim… What’s your name? Taimur if it comes in… He’s quite a fiery guy though, I must say. I hope he doesn’t already understand that it’s a strong name. He makes his feelings felt very strongly. Yells, not cries. Stop doing what you’re doing and he’s fine (laughs).

That’s not how you would have been described when you were a kid?

I was quite a difficult kid, I believe. As a young kid, I think I spent a lot of time on my own. My parents were quite busy, and I thought my ayah had given me birthday presents! It was really sad… I remember I said, ‘Amma, see what Margaret gave me for my birthday’. And my mother’s like, ‘I have given you that!’ I thought the maid was my mother, I think, for a while.

Did you read up more on Timur Lang after the national outrage?

I had already read up on him. I came across Timur while doing an Art History paper, you know. I was studying Humayun’s Tomb. And they say the reason the Kremlin and Humayun’s Tomb and Taj Mahal have similar domes is because of Timur. It’s because he sacked a mosque in Damascus, it was a wooden dome, and he had an artist copy it down. He was a great patron of the arts, apart from what he obviously was – this hardcore, tall, deadly warrior. But I thought it was kind of cool when I was growing up.

How does Trump make you feel?

I think America was angry, and they did the one thing they could do, which is vote. And they must have felt good for a few days but then have themselves been panicking that what have we done (laughs), I think.

As a Muslim, I don’t know… I think they just wanted a change. I don’t think we can think of America as just New York and LA, I think there’s all those people who don’t have jobs, Middle America… And he’s promised them that we’ll make it happen again, our country and all this kind of stuff… Whether Islamophobia helps – I mean, the Nazis were against the Jews to develop a national identity against a shadow of themselves, which is the Jew. The Christian has done that historically with the Muslim. That’s been done since the first Crusade, right? And it unified Europe, the first time it happened. Pope Gregory said to the Knights, let’s stop fighting with each other and fight them, and liberate the Holy Land.

Though there’s no such thing as ‘The Muslim’, you just create this thing, people are individuals.

Yeah, the homogenised, across-the-globe standard definition of the Muslim…

Yeah, ‘The Muslim’, what does that mean?

Between, say the backlash over the nomenclature of your son, and, the way say, America talks today, do you occasionally begin to get a stronger identity of religion, in reverse?

I don’t know. But if you don’t stand for something then you’re nobody, in the sense that, somewhere I feel instinctively a sense of sticking to my own culture and trying to be an ambassador for Islam. Like even in Gstaad, there were some French guys at the bar, and one of them says, ‘you’re a Muslim’ and I say, yes, and he says, ‘don’t tell anyone’. I said, what? (laughs). But then he says, ‘but you’re a cool guy’. I don’t know how to argue with him. And I’m like, okay fine. But he comes from Paris and he’s a bit worked up about the whole thing. He was joking, smiling, ‘shh don’t tell anyone’ (laughs). I was like okay, wow. I’m feeling like a Jew in Germany or something, I don’t know… Because you always think that these things don’t apply to you.

Europe has been worked up for some time over many things, hasn’t it?

Terrorism is a horrible thing, you know. I knew Abbis Rizvi (who was killed in the Istanbul nightclub terror attack on New Year’s day). The chances of it happening to someone you actually know – I was friends with him. He was a really good friend of Kamal Saldana’s, who I was pals with.

I just grew up in a Muslim house, I always thought it’s an amazing religion, with calligraphy and music and art. Architecture, calligraphy, all that has gone out. It’s just seen as something political… You know, the misconceptions in this world because of lack of education, lack of exposure are stunning. The concept of a Nawab is like oh, debauchery. They don’t understand that these guys were, like abba and my grandfather to me were like icons of good behaviour and dignity and control. But the tendency is to vilify and to make them into these naach-gana watching, the mujra and gajra type, which is ridiculous.

Well, the Awadh nawabs…

They led to a bit of that, yeah. Some of it is deserved, for sure. But stereotypes are dangerous. I think a lot of people would discuss and know more about Islam now. And it’s always been in the west, since the Crusades, it’s been the shadow of the western person. It’s everything they fear about themselves, they project it into an imaginary person called ‘The Muslim’. And now some people have lived up to the stereotype. But I think the more it’s discussed, the more people will be aware, hopefully, that not everybody is like that.

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