Sanjay Khan on playing Tipu Sultan, undergoing 73 surgeries and his autobiography
Telecasted on DD National, the show portrayed the life of Tipu, one of the few South Indian kings who had fought against British colonialism. Tipu Sultan is considered as big as B.R.Chopra’s magnum opus Mahabharata.
Khan made his debut in the 1964 Rajshri film Dosti, and is the brother of late actor Feroze Khan. He has four children with his wife Zarine- eldest daughter Farah Khan Ali is married to DJ Aqeel, second daughter Simone Arora is married to Ajay Arora and they own D’decor, youngest daughter Sussanne Khan (previously married to Hrithik Roshan) and son Zayed Khan who is married to Mallika Parekh.
The press and public had heralded him as the most handsome actor on the Indian screen and his price ranged up to a level which was just below Dilip Kumar.
But on February 8, 1989 a major fire broke out at the Premier Studios, Mysore where The Sword of Tipu Sultan was being shot, and unavailability of firefighting apparatus and ignorance of fire safety standards ultimately led to 52 crew members losing their lives. Khan himself underwent 73 surgeries for the 65% third degree burns he endured. After spending 13 months in hospital, he returned to finish the series.
The 78-year old actor and director recently released his autobiography titled The Best Mistakes of My Life published by Penguin. He takes us back in time as we talk about cinema, his brother Feroze Khan and life so far.
What’s the reason behind the title of your book?
The best mistakes are some of the most extraordinary events of my life. Some decisions I took, some I refused. But to know about them, you shall have to read the book. These are discussed in the 18th chapter, and just like any good movie, that’s where the climax lies.
A lot of us remember you by Tipu Sultan, which was shot on extensive budgets and with elaborate sets. What was the reason you chose his character?
Tipu Sultan was a classic which I cannot forget because there were so many circumstances I had to bear. The cost of the first episode in those days, almost 30 years ago was Rs 80 lacs. As a producer I have always been overtaken by the actor and writer in me, so I punished the producer by not sticking to the budgets. My ultimate aim was to bring a good show, I have succeeded most of the time, sometimes I failed.
I picked up a book called The Sword of Tipu Sultan by Bhagwan Gidwani. I was really impressed me and I contacted Gidwani, who was very happy that we would be making it into a film. Originally that was the plan. But we were constrained due to the rampant piracy those days, and then I looked at the length of the script and said why not make it into a TV series.
An incident which no one can forget is the fire that took place on sets, claiming 52 lives, and with you suffering 65% (3rd degree) burns and underwent 73 surgeries. How did you survive that trauma?
The show was one of my most ambitious productions. We had elaborate sets and detailed costumes which were historically accurate.
Perhaps that fateful day, I am not sure, either by the hand of man or the will of god, my set was engulfed in an inferno. Fifty two members from my crew lost their lives. I still remember with a lot of anguish rushing into save them as I was engulfed with the fire and smoke and sustained 65% third degree burns and spent eight months in Jaslok Hospital and another five months in Georgetown University Hospital.
People talk of burning a finger and not being able to bear its pain. My whole body was burnt. I was sleeping on a plastic sheet for months with pus and blood in it. The pain, the endless pain, the ultimate pain would make me pass out. And then I would wake up again to fight another day.
What was your relationship with your brother Feroze Khan?
Feroze Khan was one of those lovely human beings. He was very generous. I remember in his teens he had made himself a shark-skin jacket to wear for New Year’s Eve. We had all gone to a restaurant near Infantry Road. There was a beggar sitting on the road, he was shivering and his sight was pathetic. I looked at him and said, ‘How can we go in and eat when this guy is like this?’
Feroze took off his jacket and put it around the beggar. The beggar had an unbelievable look in his eyes; he didn’t know what to say. Then we put some money in his hand and walked away. I’ve written a lot about Feroze in the book, it’s been a fascinating journey.