The A-list’s poshest player talks about going digital, creative satisfaction and being comfortable in his skin
Innumerable toys and a tricycle are casually strewn in Saif Ali Khan’s conference room, where I wait, on the second floor of his production office in Bandra’s Fortune Heights. Just a couple of months back, a huge birthday bouquet — with pink and crimson balloons and roses, for actor-wife Kareena Kapoor Khan, from Alia Bhatt — was resting in the corner. Saif meets us in the study, as always, lined with shelves upon shelves of books that would do any literature student proud. Dressed in a T-shirt and shorts at our last meeting, when he was promoting Chef, today he is in a white kurta-pyjama, looking ahead to Akshat Verma’s Kaalakaandi in mid January. But that’s about all that seems to have changed since we last met over coffee and conversation.
He hasn’t had a hit in a long while. This year has been fallow too, with both Rangoon and Chef coming a cropper. Yet, despite his career not being on the upswing, he seems undeterred, and oddly comfortable in his skin as an actor. “I am much happier. It comes with time and it couldn’t have come earlier. I wish I could’ve felt the way I do now about acting when I was doing Hum Tum,” he says, adding, “There is a time for growth, when you just seem to understand things. I consciously feel the growth and I’m really enjoying acting.”
He does have a few interesting projects to look forward to in 2018. Besides Kaalakaandi, and the lead role of Sartaj Singh in the much-in-news Netflix original series, Sacred Games — based on the Vikram Chandra thriller, and directed by Anurag Kashyap and Vikramaditya Motwane — he is starring in the new Nikkhil Advani production, Baazaar, and tipped to be in Navdeep Singh’s next.
Passion and pain
Work is important because it defines him. “Late at night [when] I am learning lines for Sacred Games and Sartaj Singh, I feel there is a responsibility to create that role as well as I can. That completes my life,” he had said, when we met him two months ago. Now he claims he has been thinking a lot more, and is more aware as a person. “I examine my life. I wonder why I am doing what I am doing; where is the passion, where is the pain? It leads you to insights over time. You understand what is important,” he says. It’s not about being in a race, but about good creative jobs and getting better at your work.
In our last meeting, he told us about getting used to things not working. “Most of the films we make tend not to work. If we get emotional about it, we’d be wrecks. It is disheartening, but we have to keep going, try and get better, and be positive about it,” he says. So, despite no visible signs of success, he thinks it’s his best phase in terms of personal growth. Films are also changing. Saif is happy not to just be dancing and singing; that is something he has never related to. “I think I am finally beginning to understand my sense of style as an actor. I am developing my craft, understanding what acting and communication is. In that sense, I am in a really good space.”
So we pick up the thread from where we left off last time — how the evolving digital technology is not just changing the technique of filmmaking, but the practice of acting as well. Something he has experienced up close, in both Kaalakaandi and Sacred Games. At the turn of the year, Saif is foreseeing the future in both the digital equipment at filmmakers’ disposal as well as digital platforms available to artistes for their work. In fact, he is the first A-list Bollywood actor to venture into the digital space with Netflix.
He considers it a most exciting time to be in filmmaking. “You’ve got these very small cameras that you can take anywhere. The massive equipment of sets and generators and lights are not needed. You can shoot without lights, in people’s houses, just the way it is. It is making it all more real,” he says. It is helping performances too, especially for actors like him who have been oddballs in their own way. Despite being in the thick of the mainstream, the 47-year-old has chosen to be at a tangent with films like Ek Hasina Thi, Omkara, Being Cyrus and Go Goa Gone. But these have been few and far between. Now he could, hopefully, do more of the work stitched to his off-kilter sensibility, with a younger lot of directors.
The whole process of acting has also altered for him. “I am changed as an actor,” he declares, “You relate to the character differently when you are in a live location than when you are on a set.” The real spaces bring out a better, and a more felt, intensity while relating to the character. “You won’t get that [on a set],” he adds.
Digital technology is also helping an actor break free of archaic set ups and the “start sound camera action” routine. “You can keep it [the camera] rolling; it’s not costing money. That’s helping my performance. Earlier, you had a 200-foot camera and it was all very tense and precise. For me, there is more scope of being brilliant, if you are looser. You can go back to a line, you can address things,” he says. For him, it’s important as an actor to settle in and get a feel for the emerging technology and machinery. “You have to adapt like an army adapts to the weaponry at its disposal,” he says.
For someone who calls himself an “old Bombay, Cathedral, Carmichael Road” boy, now comfortably settled in Bandra, shooting in live locations has helped him connect better with Mumbai and see facets he had never been exposed to. “You couldn’t get to the city earlier [in films]. Now you are seeing it, feeling it. I am much more aware about what is out there — the rains in Chowpatty, the town, Ballard Pier. It’s so cinematic, this city. There is a chaotic ruin that is still functioning,” he says. With Sacred Games, he went deeper into its underbelly — the docks, Dharavi. “You can’t breathe in some places. There are rats everywhere; you feel like having a bath for just standing there,” he says.
Both his upcoming films carry the narrative of “Bombay cinema” forward. They reflect the city for what it is. Ironically, the other significant set-in-Mumbai film of Saif’s, Farhan Akhtar’s Dil Chahta Hai (Yeh Hai Mumbai Meri Jaan doesn’t hold as much value for him) also revolutionised filmmaking in its time. “DCH was the beginning of a new reality. The T-shirt wearing non-hero. The whole making, behind the scenes, sync sound, AD system — it changed the system forever,” he looks back.
The new found realism in cinema that he’s so taken with is not quite novel though. Didn’t he himself live through realism of another kind, of the badlands of UP, in Vishal Bhardwaj’s Omkara? “Realism took a long time to create then. Camera, lighting and all kinds of things. This is a much faster experience. That had to be created, this is already created,” comes the answer.
Clear-eyed as he seems about his craft, he is as fiercely sure about guarding his personal space. It’s as important to work hard on Sacred Games as it is to decorate the Christmas tree and open an amazing (not just good, mind you) bottle of wine. For the stylish Saif, season’s greetings demand nothing less than a Château Lafite Rothschild that his wife has two bottles of. “You need to congratulate yourself, rejoice in things. Before you realise, it’s all gone and you wouldn’t have even punctuated it with the right celebration,” he concludes.