The rise of the ‘Fourth Khan’: 25 years on, Saif Ali Khan finds himself in a Bollywood that is probably tailor-made for him!
The actor opens up about the charm of platform agnostic cinema, insists he be called a 2019 actor instead of a ‘90’s star, and reveals, after many false starts, why he thinks that finally his time has come.Updated: May 05, 2019, 13:22 IST
Saif Ali Khan is not in the mood to wear a suit. The actor wants to shoot in his comfy white kurta-pyjamas instead. “But you will look old in it!” says Jehan, his manager. “I am 48! I am old!” Saif exclaims laughing.
“There are always actors who are ahead of their time, but that’s kind of useless. The kind of cinema that is happening in Bollywood and the kind of roles I am being offered now, it truly feels that may be it is finally my time”
Then he turns to me. “I don’t have a problem with ageing at all. But I would like to avoid being a grumpy old man who is too stuck in his head to appreciate new ideas. If you get trapped in one thought, you start to get old,” he says. “Thankfully, I don’t have that. I think that has a lot to do with my upbringing, my growing up abroad and having two extremely liberal parents who were from the ’60s. My mother is still modern and my father was hyper liberal.”
Saif comes across as a person who is truly enjoying his life right now. “I am excited about my work. I love going to work as much as I love coming back home – I spend time with my family, read books, cook at times... what’s not to love!”
He is currently working on Bhoot Police, Jawani Janeman, and Tanaji, apart from the second season of Netflix’s Sacred Games, and he seems equally excited about each.
“The kind of success I have got just by doing my work properly has been therapeutic. There are always actors who are ahead of their time, but that’s kind of useless. The kind of cinema that is happening in Bollywood and the kind of roles I am being offered now, it truly feels that may be it is finally my time,” he says.
“Today, Bollywood doesn’t revolve around 20-year-old college kids any more. Even at 48, I can play a leading man!”
This optimism is not misplaced although his last four films, Rangoon (2017), Chef (2017), Kaalakaandi (2018) and Bazaar (2019), failed the box office test, and one of his biggest superhits in recent times is Humshakals (2014), a movie he later went on record to term as one of his worst career mistakes.
“I’d like to take that back,” says Saif. “I think I’d call Agent Vinod that mistake. It was too Westernised. It was my film, I produced it, so no one else gets hurt there!” he laughs out loud.
The Khan of all things
Often called the fourth Khan of Bollywood, Saif never really had the career trajectory or the superstardom the top three Khans enjoyed. But he is also associated with some very interesting cult films like Dil Chahta Hai (2001), Ek Hasina Thi (2004), Being Cyrus (2005), Omkara (2006), Love Aaj Kal (2009), Aarakshan (2011), Go Goa Gone (2013), and more recently the deliciously dark Kaalakaandi. And his realistic portrayal of the pot-bellied Mumbai police inspector Sartaj Singh in Sacred Games has catapulted him right into the league of extraordinary actors. He is the first A-list Bollywood actor to do a full-blown web series, but he has never been afraid of new ideas.
“The entertainment world is changing very fast. Money defines how seriously things are taken. Some of these things have big money and big production value. These are cleverly done shows,” he says. “The idea is to be platform agnostic. I like the way Tom Hardy works. I would wish to have a career like him.”
“As far as the Khans go, the most amazing thing about the stars of the ’90s is their longevity”
His career is rooted in the hero-stereotype of the 1990s, but Saif chooses roles with character, even if it means being a supporting actor in an ensemble cast. Today, when Bollywood is slowly trading its ‘superstars’ for ‘actors’, it is not difficult to understand why he is bubbling with excitement. “I am enjoying the work I am doing today more than I ever did before, with the exception of Omkara,” he says. “It is like I have broken down a wall by accident and entered a magical room! I have invested a lot of time in reading up on acting, and I think I now am actually equipped to deliver.”
It is important to Saif to be a capable actor. “I want to be creative without fear or ego,” he says. “There are so many different mediums, so many kinds of roles; you need to understand the requirement of each without getting into a fixed image. I see myself as an actor and not a star.”
This is difficult to believe. Can anyone be immune to the charm of superstar status? “Most successful actors go through a time when everyone is interested in them,” says Saif. “When I was doing those Pepsi ads, etc., I was quite a mainstream sought-after hero. But I found myself running away from it a little bit.”
So how does it feel to be Bollywood’s fourth Khan? He breaks into a hearty laugh: “Human nature has a tendency to box. We are all individuals. It is tempting to compare us since we have a similar surname but the similarity really ends there!
“You can be a star, and may be you should be a star, but it’s important that you are able to drop that image and become the character when the camera starts to roll”
“As far as the other Khans go, the most amazing thing about the stars of the ’90s is their longevity, the ability to still do so many interesting things. And not just the Khans, look at Anil Kapoor! I wonder how it must be to have that kind of stardom! But may be I am more alternate than these guys,” he says thoughtfully.
Though he seems wistful about missing superstardom by a sliver, he knows it can be limiting. “Celebrities are like religion. Nobody wants to see them in any other way. Fortunately or unfortunately, I never had that issue. I don’t know which is better or which one I prefer. It is actually a double-edged sword.
“You can be a star, and may be you should be a star, but it’s important that you are able to drop that image and become the character when the camera starts to roll. Also, I think I am learning about my profession pretty late in the day,” he says.
The late bloomer
He recounts a recent conversation with his mother, Sharmila Tagore. “She said the other day at lunch: ‘When you came to Bombay to join Bollywood, they must have gotten the shock of their lives. They were expecting Tiger Pataudi and Sharmila Tagore’s son. The industry is famous for its love for star kids. And you presented yourself in the worst possible way!’”
“And it is true. I’d had a privileged life, but I have taken my time to learn the craft. For me, becoming an actor was a long process. In fact, I actually thank my profession for helping me develop as a person. I was not one of the most sorted of individuals when I started. I think that is also what my mom meant by that comment,” he says.
Perhaps the fact that his parents were superstars gave him a pragmatic attitude towards stardom. “Sharmila Tagore and Tiger Pataudi never took themselves too seriously as stars,” he says. “They were very serious about their professions but they knew which parts of it to take seriously and which ones to not.”
“Dil Chahta Hai was a false start. There should have been more noteworthy changes and more quickly”
But Saif has repeatedly had headlines announcing his second coming. Especially after Dil Chahta Hai, a landmark film that turned Saif into the poster boy of the metrosexual man – a role he somewhat repeated in films like Hum Tum (2004), Salaam Namaste (2005), and Kal Ho Na Ho (2003). “Dil Chahta Hai was a false start. There should have been more noteworthy changes and more quickly. I don’t get it right always. I am just bumbling along,” he admits.
At 48, he’s set for new innings. “Today Bollywood doesn’t revolve around 20-year-old college kids anymore, and even at 48 I can play a leading man,” he says. “Also, there is no such thing as age being a deterrent to an actor. Acting is timeless. The technique only improves with time,” he adds.
“There is no such thing as age being a deterrent to an actor. Acting is timeless. The technique only improves with time”
But now that his daughter Sara (Ali Khan) is in Bollywood, is he ready to play his biological daughter’s dad in films? Something Anil Kapoor has been famously refusing to do until very recently? “I understand when Anilji says he doesn’t want to play father to Sonam, although he might have said that in jest,” says Saif. “As actors you are not anyone’s father or husband or boyfriend. You are just an actor. I have no qualms playing my age, and I definitely wouldn’t mind playing Sara’s father on screen but the role should be interesting to me, not a gimmick.”
Whether he deliberately shied away from stardom or stardom eluded him, Saif has no qualms admitting he wants to be part of commercially viable films. “You can’t be financially irresponsible,” he says. “I want to be in the zone of a Gully Boy, a sensible film that also made money.”
By his own admission, he’s now so much evolved as an actor that he can hardly identify with his Aashiq Aawara (1993) and Main Khiladi Tu Anari (1994) days. “I can’t remember that part of my life at all. I think I’m reborn,” says Saif. “Instead of being called a ’90s hero, I’d like to think of myself as a 2019 actor; though I’m a person of a certain vintage.”
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From HT Brunch, May 5, 2019
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