This profession takes you to amazing places, some that you never imagined visiting and some that are familiar like Bhopal, my spiritual birthplace,” says Saif Ali Khan, reminiscing about visits to his paternal grandmother’s hometown. Sajid Sultan was the second daughter of Hamidullah Khan, the last Nawab of Bhopal. When her elder sister, Abida Sultan, immigrated to Pakistan after the Partition, the title passed on to her and Sajida was recognised by the government as the Begum of Bhopal in 1961 after her father’s death.
On April 23, 1939, she married Nawab Iftekar Ali Khan, the nawab of Pataudi. Their son, Nawab Mansoor Ali Khan, captained the Indian cricket team from 1962 to 1970. Mansoor’s son, Saif, was born a nawab, but the title was abolished a year after his birth in 1971. He grew up as a commoner and so, points out, is suited to play a scheduled class professor in Prakash Jha’s film on reservation, Aarakshan.
“Prakashji is one filmmaker who has taken up relevant social causes and I’m glad I can contribute to a story that highlights the flaws in our system. Most of the time, I’m inhabiting a world that’s not very different from my own in movies,” admits Saif.
He’s equally awed by co-star Amitabh Bachchan who he got a chance to observe from up close. “I realised that what made Amitji special apart from his genius is his intense hard work. He’s living the role and rehearsing his lines in the gym, in the shower, at breakfast, on the sets and even after he gets into bed,” says Saif. “I work hard too, but I can do with a little more discipline.”
He remembers his mother, Sharmila Tagore, urging him to work on his lines, and admits that getting a hang of the Sankritised Hindi was difficult: “I’d never even heard some of the words before. Both, the language and the body language, were alien, but I’m thankful to Prakashji for taking me into a rural, basic India.”
Saif recalls his dadi with fondness, asserting that she was the most pious lady he’s ever known: “I could see her home from the balcony of my hotel and remembered sitting with her as a child, sometimes sleeping on the terrace on hot summer days.” For the ‘chhote nawab’ as he is still fondly called, it’s been a long journey from the palaces of Pataudi and Bhopal to the cosmopoliton English society where he did his schooling, to Bollywood where he became a star.
Returning to the city where his father, aunt, cousins and he had grown up was nostalgic, but he admits Bhopal has changed since: “I remember the trees and the sunsets, but the landscape and mindscape of the people then was more relaxed. The fields are gone, there are more buildings now, but the love for and from Bhopal remains.”
Being a local boy, did he offer Jha any insights? “On his sets, Prakashji is the real leader,” Saif laughs, and insists that despite the burning issue, he doesn’t think Aarakshan will spark off any controversies. “Prakashji has handled it responsibly. He’s presented both sides of the argument, saying that backward classes need some support. The question is: How much and for how long?” And what’s his take? Saif says, “I wouldn’t like to comment since I don’t think I’m qualified to do so without having studied it better.”