Legacy and fame can be quite a burden. With it comes power, responsibility and a whole lot of expectations. When Saif Ali Khan decided to follow the path of his mother, Sharmila Tagore, and made his debut in films 22 years ago with Parampara, all he was armed with was a weighty surname, good looks and English-accented Hindi. And, for what was the worst decade in his career, none of these worked in his favour. His long hair and his charming, boyish smile did not exactly woo the critics, who called him a ham and wrote him off. The flops started piling—“17 to be exact,” he chips in—and add to that a series of drunken brawls and hunting outings. Even the audience dismissed him as an arrogant rich kid. It was Farhan Akhtar who finally saved Khan’s career by coaxing him to play the part of the hopeless and confused lover boy Sameer in his debut film, Dil Chahta Hai. “Can you believe that I first turned down that offer?” says Khan, 43, with a smile.
Dressed in a black leather jacket and jeans, Khan does full justice to the royal roots he has inherited from his father, cricketer Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi, when it comes to matters of fashion. “Foolishly, I thought my role was too small compared with that of the other characters in the film,” says Khan. “Then Dimple [Kapadia] and Javed saab [Akhtar] sat me down and talked to me after which I agreed to play Sameer.” But Khan is no longer the guy who is worried about the length of his role or the clothes he will be sporting on screen. Last year, he made a special appearance in his own production, the “zom-com” Go Goa Gone, as Boris, a Russian zombie-slayer with striking blonde hair. In Cocktail, he shared space with two female actors whose characters were much meatier than the one he played. Even in Bullett Raja, he sported clothes that were no longer in fashion, got a real tan and showed off his balding pate.
With age has come wisdom, says Khan. “The ups and downs in my career has taught me a lot,” he says. “Dil Chahta Hai was a big learning [experience] for me and the response to it was overwhelming.” Youngsters identified with the the new-age, confused, flawed and commitment-phobic boy-next-door characters he played and Khan proved with his performances that he would not be lost in an ensemble cast that included bigger stars like Aamir Khan and Shah Rukh Khan. “The days when I was tired of being the sidekick and wanted to be the main guy are gone,” says Khan. “Now, I just want my little corner in a film because I am a secure actor. I just look out for a way in which I can contribute to the final product. I think I have become more mature and humble.”
Humble, yes, but mature seems like a misplaced adjective. Of course, he is one of the few Bollywood stars with whom you can have an intelligent conversation and is gifted with a wacky sense of humour. But, the moment he stops talking he looks distracted and starts fidgeting, giving off a man-child vibe. “I have this thing about not being able to concentrate on one single thing for a long time,” he says. He makes unpleasant faces while listening to me and sometimes just stares at his hands and smiles to himself before making up his mind on what to say.
This playfulness was what made Sajid Khan cast him in the recently released Humshakals. “It is a world that is alien to Saif, because his is a more subtle and deadpan style. I was even afraid whether he would let his hair down to be part of such craziness,” says Sajid. “But while working with him, I realised that he has this mad streak in him and there is a certain kind of charm that he brings with him.” In Humshakals, Khan played triple roles for the first time in his career. The story revolves around three men who look the same and are all called Ashok, of which one is a business tycoon, another brain damaged and the third effeminate. Khan agrees that the film is loud and it is something he has attempted for the first time. “It is not a normal film, it is loud and very much over the top,” he says. “But such roles can only be played by an experienced actor. When Sajid asks you to perform, if you can’t then it will show. I don’t think I could have done a role like this 10 years ago.”
The first time Khan went out of his comfort zone was right after Dil Chahta Hai to play the cunning and creepy criminal Karan Singh Rathod in Ek Hasina Thi. “When I approached Saif with the film, he was fresh out of DCH and thus reluctant to take on the character as it had negative shades to it,” says Sriram Raghavan, with whom Khan went on to make Agent Vinod. “But, as we got talking, we realised that our interests in films were similar and this convinced Saif. He trusted in my vision and I was confident about his acting skills, too.” His small role in Ram Gopal Verma’s anthology horror film Darna Mana Hai as the photographer-turned-psychopath also did not go unnoticed. He followed it up with nuanced performances in films like Parineeta, Salaam Namaste and Hum Tum. The last one got him the National Award for Best Actor in 2005.
But Khan credits Shakespeare with teaching “him all about acting”. When Vishal Bhardwaj offered him the part of Langda Tyagi in his adaptation of Othello, Khan was offended that he wasn’t given the titular role. Nevertheless, he transformed himself to fit into the menacing, limping, bad guy’s shoes, by completely shedding his urban image. The first step to this transformation was shaving off his prized long locks. “I was very upset that I had to go bald,” says Khan. “But I guess that was how I surrendered to my craft.”
Post Omkara, the next film he underwent a complete makeover was for Prakash Jha’s Aarakshan, in which he appeared as a Dalit professor entangled in the country’s reservation system. He started being hailed as the most versatile actor in town, and it even looked like he would have broken into Bollywood’s holy trinity of Aamir, Shah Rukh and Salman Khan. But, he never made it as the fourth Khan. “It is all to do with conviction,” he says. “All those who made it big, like Shah Rukh and Aamir, knew exactly what they were doing and what they were aiming at. But I was clueless when I entered the industry and wasted almost a decade trying to deal with communication issues I had with the people I was working with.” And by the time he found his foot, all his peers were way ahead of him. However, Homi Adajania, who directed Khan in both Being Cyrus and Cocktail, says, “Whenever he has been given good content and has been directed well, he has delivered. So maybe it depends on how much you as a director can extract from him.” Sajid compares Khan to a car with manual gears, which catches speed after the fourth gear. “His best comes out after the 15th take and he is ready to go on even if I need more variations. Saif‘s commitment is extraordinary and he is immensely talented, too. He is one of the actors who I feel hasn’t got their due,” he says.
Labels do not bother Khan anymore. “I am happy that I have the power by now to at least pick and choose roles, and make films which I believe in.” Khan does this under the banner of the production house Illuminati Films, which he co-owns with friend Dinesh Vijan. The duo, who met on the sets of Being Cyrus, hit it off immediately and have been making films together since 2009. Khan admits that he is not the most commercially viable producer in town. “Filmmaking is very much like cricket,” he says. “It has a lot to do with luck and your form.” He is also not shy to admit that Agent Vinod, in which he played a spy modelled after Bond films and Tintin comics, was not the best film that was made. But, he says, it won’t stop him from making movies. What still confuses him is the lukewarm response Bullett Raja got. “I don’t know what went wrong with the film, because, funnily, I liked myself in it,” says Khan. “Now that is very rare because you know when you haven’t done it right. Maybe it was that people had different expectations from me and Tishu [Tigmanshu Dhulia].” He is quick to add that Bullett Raja was not a flop, it did the numbers which a Dhulia film does, but he is sad that he couldn’t live up to the director’s wish of adding to those numbers with his star value.
The way Khan is plotting out his career now—his attempt at action with Bullett Raja, slapstick comedy with Humshakals and signing a film with Prabhu Deva—it gives the idea that he is following the money-making bandwagon and falling prey to the formula. “These are all deliberate moves,” he says. “As an actor I now want to work with these directors. Over the years, I have come to realise that India is a schizophrenic culture and there is a genuine divide between the multiplex and the single screen audiences,” he says. He wants to follow his mother’s style by balancing the act with doing both commercial films and arty, experimental films.
The nawab of Pataudi, however, has never had a dry spell when it comes to film offers. He is now working on a serious action thriller, Phantom, directed by Kabir Khan. He has also signed on Reema Kagti’s next with Kangna Ranaut, Vijan’s directorial debut with Parineeti Chopra and Raj Nidimoru and Krishna D.K.’s Happy Ending. He is getting busier by the day, but Khan makes sure that he doesn’t compromise on his “detox” time. “I am a detached person,” he says. “I believe in living my life properly rather than following what people think I should be doing. Even if others think it is lazy, I think it is important to go on holiday with my family or stay at home and read a book.” This realisation is what keeps him going, he says, that there is a world outside all this glamour and there is very little time to catch up on all that.