We live in a fear-based industry. That is the motivator, the prime mover, says Saif Ali Khan

At the Express Adda held in Mumbai last week, actor Saif Ali Khan spoke to Deputy Editor Seema Chishti on the changes in Hindi cinema, censorship and being boxed in by identities.

Your mother, Sharmila Tagore, said in an interview that like all non-conformist parents, who want their kids to conform, she wanted her children to settle down but she added that you always preferred the sea to the comfort of the harbour. After your education abroad, you wanted to be an actor.

My dad (Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi) said he can send me to a good school and university and that’s what he did. Sadly, after a while I lost all interest in academics and pursuing anything that would lead to a 9-5 job. When the late Mr BR Chopra visited Delhi and offered me an ad and something to do with movies, for the first time it gave me a sense of purpose. I was also fortunate to come into movies at a time when the audiences were quite forgiving. I had just returned from England, I used to speak Hindi with a little bit of an accent. But people and the press were kind. Even though I loved my profession, I felt no connection with the characters I played in the 90s. But Dil Chahta Hai changed that. For the first time, I wasn’t playing a version of Amitabh Bachchan or Shashi Kapoor but a guy in a t-shirt and shorts. Being a part of such a film was liberating.

What do you think has changed cinema in the recent years?

I remember when we were making Hum Tum, Aditya Chopra said to me this is the market to hit. And since we are on the subject, I’d like to bring up the National Award I won for Hum Tum. People recently criticised the National Award Akshay Kumar won for Rustom and there were some who said that if Saif can win it for Hum Tum, then why not Akshay? I found that a bit offensive. It looks like an easy movie but when we were to shoot it, Aditya Chopra said to me, ‘This movie is different, because the heroine will marry someone else who will die. Then she will want you to kiss her — which hasn’t ever happened before — and you will sleep with her. The heroine will then ask you not to marry her just because you slept with her.’ Now that was progressive. The issues here were not parents but the characters’ own minds. And the film changed cinema, became a precursor to all modern love stories we see today.

You love and know your Shakespeare and one of your favourite parts is Langda Tyagi in Omkara, the desi adaptation of Othello. Now we see anti-Romeo squads everywhere. Do you think Shakespeare would approve?

In Romeo & Juliet, people were trying to decide what couples should be and shouldn’t be. That’s the whole problem even now. Of course he would have objected to that.

What kind of stories do you think should be told in 2017?

English artist and art critic John Ruskin said if you want to tell the story of a country, look at three books — the book of words, the book of deeds and the book of its arts. One without the other is unreliable but if you do look at the arts, in Hindi movies, or even just a part — the villain — you will understand what’s going on. Earlier the villain was the feudal system, then money, followed by parents and later, yourself. In Dangal, however, and rightly so, the villains are mediocrity and backwardness. There are two Indias in a schizophrenic growth at the moment. One has energy and intelligence while the other is the same old villains weighing us down.

From Dil Chahta Hai to now, how much has India changed?

I am 46 now. I’ve spent my years in Pataudi, Bhopal and Bombay, and I see massive changes. Back in my childhood, I’d have nothing to do in Bhopal, I used to play cricket and run around, and the sweeper’s children were my best friends. One day looking at one of them I said I have shoes just like that and a belt just like that. It’s then that I realised they were pinching my clothes. It made me realise the disparity, that the only people around us were those who worked for us. This disparity is worse today. And it’s something that all of us with some money or privilege should address, adopt their kids, send them to school. But in many ways, there are also more opportunities now.

At a time when identities are becoming an issue, do you feel boxed in by your or your wife’s name, or by being a product of an interfaith marriage?

Things are changing, becoming a little more right-wing, and not just in India. On one of my recent travels, I was having a drink and met an Italian filmmaker. We started chatting and he said to me, ‘You are Muslim, don’t tell anyone else’. He lives in Paris, and he’s seen some trouble there. But honestly, I feel it less in my own country than outside.

At such a time, is there something more that art should be doing? We have recently seen Hollywood speak their mind. Do you long for that kind of freedom? Do you see a day when that will happen here?

We all would like to be as honest as possible and we strive towards that. But maybe we are still developing and changing as a country. I don’t think a country should be judged based on what’s happening elsewhere in the world. We have modernised because of TV, fashion and a few other things but our thinking is still a few years behind. Other countries have seen their share of such times, the McCarthy era, for instance, and have come out more mature. Maybe we need to go through it, stir things up, say things, get in trouble and then find a level playing field.

We see a lot of irreverent humour online today because the medium doesn’t subscribe to censor rules.

My mom has been the chief of the Central Board of Film Certification and is very liberal. We’ve had conversations and she was open-minded. Of course, I am against censorship and it’s ridiculous. Recently, a kissing scene in a James Bond film was snipped short and people said they will not watch the movie. We give a film an ‘A’ certificate and then demand cuts. The guidelines don’t make sense. The producer spends money on a film, which is then at someone’s mercy.

What books have you been reading?

I’m reading Karen Armstrong’s A Case For God, which opened my eyes. I was religious growing up. The bathroom was very far away. So my maid said, if you recite this kalma nothing will happen to you. Like a lot of people, I turned to religion out of fear. Then I started thinking: Surely, god cannot be manipulated. And prayer, beyond a certain point, is like being nice to your mother for goodies. Despite the corruption that some have put it through, there’s something about the human spirit that wants to rise and build and be higher rather than lower. That to me is god.

You wrote for the The Indian Express Op-Ed pages in 2015 when there was a huge thing about interfaith marriages. You wrote, “I have prayed in church, and attended mass with Kareena, as she bowed her head in dargahs and prayed in mosques. When they purified our new home, we had a havan, and a Quran reading, and a priest sprinkling holy water. No chances taken.” Is it the same drill now?

My parents taught me: god is one, with many names. The trouble with monotheistic faiths is that you have ownership of that god and have superiority over other people. That defeats the point. There’s beauty in all religions. There’s beauty in submission and the expression of it, the architecture of it. But the minute it’s not about love and it’s not about peace and it’s about anything else, then I don’t know.

It pretty much seems to be about everything else these days.

The whole idea is fraught with danger. Because if you say that you have spiritual value that is more than your value as a person, someone can manipulate that. If you start living too much in the future-— thinking the afterlife is what’s most important — you might be willing to do anything for that. It’s a dangerous proposition and not easy to understand for balanced, normal people. But some people don’t have anything except that spiritual value, which they barter.

How do you feel about the kind of India we will leave behind for our children? Are you happy with the kind of world we live in?

I think we have a schizophrenic growth. There are some things we do really well and there are some things that need to get better. There are some very backward people in this country who aren’t educated. There are some very backward people who are educated. It’s very diverse and it’s always been. It will be difficult for everyone to feel the same way about the same thing. I’ve lived in England and spent a lot of time in Europe and America. But we’re first class citizens of this country because it’s our home, and I’ve never felt more at home or at peace. I think all this talk about intolerance is a little blown up.

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