Calm, content and happy. Those three words can best describe Saif Ali Khan’s current state of mind. You can feel it the moment you enter the actor and producer’s office-study [in Bandra, Mumbai]. Comfortably clad in a white kurta-pyjama, Saif reveals that he always wears the traditional outfit when at home. “Unlike jeans, which feel constricted, a kurta-pyjama gives you freedom. But there’s a danger of putting on weight, as you keep loosening the waistband string without realising if you’ve gained weight (laughs),” he says, while talking about life, career, daughter Sara Ali Khan and Rangoon.
You’ve mostly kept away from the limelight after Phantom (2015)...
Not really. I had a movie last year, and whether a film works or not is out of our control. But we can control the kind of films we do. I am going to be very selective from now on. I took some time to decide what kind of films I want to work in and how I want to be seen. The choices I came up with are Rangoon, Kaalakandi, and Chef. I think that’s a nice mix of movies, and people will understand my choices.
Your last few films didn’t do very well. Was that a setback?
It’s not great, but it’s not earth-shattering, as these things happen. Today, I’d like to be more cinematic, forward-looking and brave in my choices. You feel terrible when films don’t do well, but that encourages you to work harder and think, ‘Is it because nobody likes me, or am I a bad actor?’ I think there is enough evidence to the contrary, so it must be the choices. I’ve never had a consistent career anyway, but when things are looking down, it’s important to know how to get back up. Also, if it goes well all the time, I might start taking things for granted. But I will focus more and work harder if it’s ‘not so well’ (smiles).
You have also completed 23 years in the industry...
Time flies and things change. And cinema dates so fast; at least some of it does. I was watching some old Hollywood movies — like the Batman movie from the ’90s — and they look weird now. But my thoughts are open and modern, and I don’t feel dated. So this is my time and I should be making good films and working hard. I am in my 40s, which is a great age, as I know what the past was, have a sense of history, and also have a sense of the present.
At this stage of your career, do you feel insecure when your films don’t work?
Insecurity comes from not knowing what you’re doing. Confidence has to come from within and knowing who you are. I am not insecure, because that’s a terrible thing. It’s okay for new and young people to feel like that. Insecurity doesn’t lead to anything positive. Confidence doesn’t come from box-office success; it’s a result of you knowing your job or being proud of the kind of person you are. As for competition, the idea is to be unique in the film industry. So, you can compete when it comes to the numbers, but you can’t benefit from anyone’s failure. You’ll only be responsible for your success. What makes you interesting is your individuality, so you should compete only with yourself.
After Omkara, you are back with Vishal Bhardwaj in Rangoon…
Vishal gave me Omkara (2006), which is still the high point of my career. These great roles are rare, but there are interesting offers in today’s times, as different kinds of films are being made. Vishal offered me this part [in Rangoon] after Omkara, so he has wanted to make this film for a long time. It’s a strong part, and he creates such a wonderful atmosphere and a great world for you to work in. I want to be a part of his cinema because it makes me feel like an interesting actor.
You are going to become a father again. Excited?
Yes, very. And like I said, this age is great — you are relaxed and settled in your life, so you can share happily. I think it’s also a great expression of my relationship with Kareena. To have a child now completes us. There is something about a baby that is kind of half of mine and half of hers, so, it’s a nice feeling.
Sara is also going to make her Bollywood debut soon.
I am very excited. I have a wonderful relationship with her, wherein I am like a guide, a friend and a philosopher. But we discuss lots of things. We went on a holiday to Italy, and spoke about art, life, and recently, about films as well. I’ve given her so much advice. I said, ‘Write them down and treat them like the Ten Commandments. It’s everything I have learnt. And your mother (Amrita Singh) also taught me so much when I first came to Mumbai’.
Watch Ole Ole - Yeh Dillagi I Saif Ali Khan
Give us a sneak peek into your Ten Commandments.
First, you must listen rather than talk. Everybody talks here, but silence is very interesting in Bollywood. Decide what kind of an actor you want to be and work hard. That’s the first thing. It’s a very creative and a wonderful job. I bless Sara for what she has learnt. She has wanted to do this since she was two years old, but I asked her to finish college first. In fact, she has done theatre in the US as well. She wants to enjoy the acting and not treat it as a superficial, glamourous profession. She has all my blessings and support. Sara and I have an interesting age gap — it’s not so big, so we can share a lot of things. So, the lines are blurred between father and brother anyway. I can’t be too strict with her, because I feel hypocritical. We have long chats and I enjoy them (smiles).
Watch Main Khiladi Tu Anari I Akshay Kumar, Saif Ali Khan
Are you going to be a protective father?
Sara doesn’t need me to be protective, but if she does, I will be. I am concerned and protective about her, but she can look after herself, and it’s not such a scary place. The world outside is scarier. We are still good and decent people in Bollywood, and there is still some class and grace. Tameez hai sabko yahaan (People are polite). Everyone knows everyone else. We might be a bit naughty, but we’re not bad (smiles). There’s a lot of s*** out there in the outside world.
Watch Phantom Official Trailer | Saif Ali Khan
Are you happy with your career, or would you change anything about it, if you could do that?
I don’t think so. I am a sorted person today. When I first entered Bollywood, I was a bit of a misfit and a ‘firangi’ [he studied in the UK]. But I have grown and become a man in this industry. I wouldn’t do anything differently. I have not asked my parents for money since I was 18-years-old. I have reclaimed Pataudi [Palace] from the hotel [company] it was rented to. I’ve educated my children, made money and lead a comfortable life entirely on my own steam. So, I am thrilled and I know how to live my life. I understand what’s important, and have travelled the whole country.
Do you feel the same way when it comes to your career?
I have gotten away with [my film] choices, but still, I have achieved what I have, and I am sensitive towards that. I know I want to repay the faith that some members of the audience still have in me. It has already been a year since Rangoon and Chef worked out. Now, you have to see whether they’re worth it or not, or whether I am worth it or not. I have to prove and show that. We will all know [the results], but I feel I’ve concentrated, have chosen well and have worked hard.
Do you ever look back and feel that maybe you could have been more successful or popular?
It’s a rare thing to be satisfied personally and professionally, and to have a creative job. It doesn’t have to be the highest paying or the number one slot. It’s a great thing to be able to work with Vishal Bhardwaj [film-maker], and shoot for Akshat Verma [screenwriter] and Raja Menon [film writer], and also come home, go out for dinner, travel a bit, and think about life or just read. I think I lead a complete life. I’ve learnt how to do that, so I am very happy. I’d like to work a harder and choose better films. Hopefully, this year will be a good one for these three things.
You clearly function in a different way from other actors…
I am not a philosopher, but I understand a few things about life. I am not greedy, and I am not just trying to make money, or trying to chase my tail. I know what I am doing, to a certain extent. I know there is only so much time. God knows how much, maybe there is no tomorrow, too. I am quite fatalistic that way. Anything can happen. I nearly died eight years ago. Nothing is written in stone. I like the way I live. I have collected art and books, and have spent some money on these things. I have saved some money and wasted some, and if I look back, it has been amazing.
There was a rumour that you and Kareena already had a baby…
There is so much rubbish on social media. I don’t like these reports about us having had the baby in London (UK). What’s wrong with India? I was born in Breach Candy Hospital and we have wonderful doctors and also great support here. I don’t like the idea of [people] wanting to go off to the West all the time, and I don’t do that. But that’s the perception, somehow. That’s a bit annoying but it’s okay.
Have you started feeling like the head of the family?
Yes, in some ways. But I think my mum (Sharmila Tagore) is still a bit of a matriarch. She hasn’t really handed it [the responsibility] over and I don’t want her to because that’s her place. The set-up is kind of democratic. So, Soha [Ali Khan] and Saba [Ali Khan] have their own lives. But in some ways, I do feel like [the head of the family]. It’s not something you want or demand. You want to protect them and if any help is needed, you are always there for them. Even looking after Pataudi Palace comes with the same feeling [of being the head of the family]; at least symbolically. My father and other family members are buried there. Anyone from the family can go and live there, if they want to. But I don’t interfere in anyone’s lives.
What kind of an equation do you have with your mother?
I want to look after her. I want her to always be comfortable. Although she is independent and has her own life, I’d like to.
Kareena has been out and about during her pregnancy as well…
Bebo is very happy and has been sporting. She is a tough and fit person, and has carried this phase off so well. Individuals in India have to create examples so that other people can also benefit from it. For instance, if Rishi Kapoor and Amitabh Bachchan do great roles at this age, it will create space for us [in the future]. Similarly, she is empowering Indian women in various ways. One shouldn’t be scared to live one’s life, to travel, to have a relationship or to just work, if that’s what their priorities are. We are such a fear-based industry, and the fear leads to lack of expression and creativity. You also tend to be regressive when you are scared. You only do tried and tested things. We (Indians) need more confidence and freedom. And Bebo is free in her personal life. I don’t tell her what to do, and I respect her. That shows in the way she leads her life. I wish everyone was like that.
Does your son, Ibrahim, also want to be an actor, or a cricketer, like your father?
He is too young, but it’s good that he likes sports. He is doing his schooling in England now, and is enjoying playing rugby and the concept of playing as part of a team. I feel sports are a great way to build character. Ibrahim is quiet and happy. He is not a demanding guy. He has always been a good-looking guy. I haven’t always been good-looking. In cricket, the competition, especially in India, is tough. So, you have to be beyond gifted. I would suggest that he concentrates on his school and college, and if he wants to try movies later on, why not? He will be privileged and lucky if he gets the opportunity to do that. He is a well-behaved and interesting guy, so I look forward to having advisory chats with him too (smiles).