Don’t Play It Safe, Saif

Priyanka Pereira is a Mumbai-based freelance writer and a regular contributor to Open magazine
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The familiar romcom hero Saif Ali Khan has an uncanny ability to pull off surprisingly edgy roles. Can he do it again?
Saif Ali Khan is currently biding his time like a bull in a bear market. This was a given after two of his big budget films— Tigmanshu Dhulia’s action drama Bullett Raja and Sajid Khan’s slapstick comedy Humshakals—crashed at the box-office, leaving him high-and-dry as a film star in an increasingly competitive industry. However, Saif shows no hint of jittery nerves, neither is he afraid of being written off. Perhaps, this is the effect of having struggled as an actor for a long time and having been written off many times. “As long you are enjoying the kind of work you do, it is all good,” he says.

Khan is at Mehboob Studios in Bandra, a popular haunt of Bollywood actors for interviews and film promotions. He has arrived in his sleek red Audi, and the vehicle is making more heads turn than his presence is. He smiles as people gather around his car to admire it. He exchanges hellos with his erstwhile business partner Dinesh Vijan and gets into his vanity van, which is also painted a bright red hue. Red, then, seems a favourite with the Nawab of Pataudi. Or it could be wife Kareena Kapoor’s choice.

He starts rehearsing his lines for a television show as part of a promotional appearance for his just-released film Happy Ending. Unlike many actors, who don’t enjoy the film marketing drill, Saif Ali Khan is taking it in his stride. He is in an upbeat mood, making conversation with almost everyone who approaches him. After his round of official meetings, he invites me inside the van for the interview. His upbringing is immediately evident. He apologises for making me wait outside, stands up to greet me, and sits down only after I have taken my seat. He is very much the person one wishes most famous people would be: unrehearsed, and well-mannered.

Seated amid a heap of national dailies and magazines, his manager shows him the interviews he has recently given. He puts on his spectacles and starts browsing through them. “A good interview is one where the interviewer knows what to leave out from the interview,” he says, apparently satisfied with what he reads; a broad smile appears on his face. He says, however, that he has never been a fan of reading his own interviews, but is doing it for a change. Almost all actors like to say that about themselves and yet keep close tabs on how they are projected in the media.

And, like all actors, he’s doing several things at the same time, prepping for his TV appearance, catching up with what the press has to say about him, hurriedly taking in a salad, and putting his mind to answering my questions. He terms Happy Ending a “life saver”. For starters, it is in a zone that Khan is most comfortable with: romantic comedy. “But it is a romantic comedy from the boy’s point of view,” he says. Produced by Khan himself and directed by NRI techies-turned-directors, Raj Nidimoru and Krishna DK (with whom he seems to have found a camaraderie, their last film together being Go Goa Gone), it has Saif playing the man-child yet again, a role he has mastered since Dil Chahta Hai (DCH) which released in 2001. “It is good to be back in a familiar area,” he says.

Happy Ending, a romantic comedy that sets out to spoof the genre but plays it safe and is more concerned with being cool than clever, has received mixed reviews. The movie is a typical Saif Ali Khan entertainer, with him playing a mature version of the charming and easygoing romantic hero. It’s light and frothy, will leave a smile on your face, but will also make you wonder if Khan will ever do another noteworthy role or is happy doing the romantic comedy hero, a spot that would seem vacant without him.

Homi Adajania, who directed him in Being Cyrus and Cocktail , feels that his redemption lies in turning a corner. “He can do romantic comedies successfully in his sleep, but I really feel his contentment will be in exploring a darker space. He has an undeniable talent so I think he should give in to more experimentation.” Ileana D’Cruz, who co-stars with him in Happy Ending, says, “His audience loves it when he does goofy characters.”

Saif Ali Khan finds himself in an unenviable position. He’s tried his luck with fail-safe big-budget entertainers and multiplex middle-of-the-road movies. Sajid Khan’s Humshakals was one such big bet that did not deliver the desired results. He has publicly called it a mistake. He smiles and concedes, “There are hundreds of things people tell you when a movie doesn’t work. But things would have been different had the movie worked. For me, personally, I wanted to attempt something new and hence I took it up.”

Khan’s next is Phantom, a Kabir Khan action thriller, and then a film with Reema Kagti called Mr Chaalu, which sees him return to his comfort zone of romance. So one wonders if there is any space for Saif Ali Khan the actor left—the performer who reads literature and quotes from it but finds himself confined to a box he can’t get out of. “Currently, I am revisiting classics like Moby Dick and Don Quixote, but I am not sure these will make good films,” he says. He has been sharing notes on Moby Dick with Sriram Raghavan, who is currently making a revenge saga called Badlapur. “Who knows, Moby Dick could be of help,” he winks.

With this Khan, one thing is certain: anything is possible. While unpredictable moves have been his weakness as an actor of late, it was the same trait that was once his greatest strength. When Farhan Akhtar chose him to play the character of Sameer in his debut venture DCH, Khan was not quite sure if he wanted to do it. He almost did not sign the film because he thought that the role was a small one. It was Javed Akhtar and Dimple Kapadia who sat him down and explained to him the importance of the role.

Khan admits that DCH was a turning point for him. Youngsters identified with Sameer, the new-age, confused and commitment-phobic boy-next-door. The characters that followed were in a similar mould—Kal Ho Naa Ho, Hum Tum, Salaam Namaste—but his affable charm carried the day, making him the most sought-after romantic hero, a Rishi Kapoor of our times, one who would not be lost in an ensemble cast that included bigger stars like Aamir Khan (in DCH) and Shah Rukh Khan (in Kal Ho Naa Ho). “I am a secure actor,” he says, and has never been bothered about the length of the roles.

A big breakout moment of his career, one that made everyone sit up and take notice, was the role of the scheming, fuming, but heart-rending Langda Tyagi in Vishal Bhardwaj’s Omkara, where he stole the show from Ajay Devgn. In contrast, in Cocktail, one of his most successful solo-hero films, the two actresses had meatier roles than he did. Last year, however, he pulled off another of those surprises that have become his hallmark: he made a special appearance in his own production, the so-called ‘zom-com’ Go Goa Gone, as Boris, a Russian zombie-slayer with blond hair and a strange accent. Even then, he pulled it off in a way few other actors can, earning back his cool cred. Raj Nidimoru, who directed that film (as also Happy Ending), describes Khan as one of Bollywood’s few actors who are willing to listen to something different and go a step further by putting their faith and money in it. Sriram Raghavan calls him an instinctive actor.

Saif Ali Khan entered the industry as yet another star kid. When he made his debut with Yash Chopra’s Parampara in 1992, he was widely expected to exhibit the same talent as his actress mother, Sharmila Tagore. Bollywood was brimming with new faces then. The Khan triumvirate of Shah Rukh, Salman and Aamir had already taken hold of the big screen, and Ajay Devgn and Akshay Kumar had been crowned the new action heroes. Saif Ali Khan not only had to live up to his film lineage, but also make space for himself among the younger crop of actors. He managed a few hits, but none too memorable. It was his personal life that was more the talk of the town than his acting. “Back in the 90s, I wasn’t a hero of choice for many filmmakers, and I often ended up doing films where I detested my roles. Waking up every morning and heading to shoot was a pain,” he recalls. Movie critics too had almost written him off by the time Farhan Akhtar’s debut film came to his rescue.

While his keenness for content over the role’s length became his forte, directors who have worked with him point out that his strength also lies in his effortlessness. “Saif is proficient at making a performance seem effortless and for an actor to appear not to be acting is the greatest asset he can hope for,” says Adajania. He is not a method actor, he adds, but believes in staying on a sharp learning curve. “We actors are like watches. You know how a watch brand keeps making new watches every season. We often wonder why they are making so many watches, but the fact is with every watch they are getting something new into the market. Similarly as actors, with each film, you have to upgrade, enhance and reinvent yourself,” says Saif.

Reinvention for Saif is a double- edged sword. Whereas he has evolved rather wonderfully as a romantic hero, and his goofiness still has takers, his experiments with slapstick and action have failed. Does this mean that an actor of his calibre should stick to roles that fit in with what perceptions his audience has of him? Khan ponders this question a little, and then responds. “Audiences are much like parents. Their perceptions grow out of certain expectations. They trust you to give your best, but when you let them down, they become disappointed.” What matters to him more than the views of his audience is his own will to do a certain film. “I am selfish in that sense,” he states. “When directors or producers offer you a film, you know they have done their homework if that part will suit you or not. So I leave that to them and then go with my gut.”

Conversation on his wife, Kareena Kapoor Khan, is restricted to work. He says that the two of them, dubbed ‘Saifeena’ by the tabloids, will not be working together anytime soon. In Happy Ending, she did the cameo of his girlfriend who dumps him right at the beginning of the movie. He is aware that their onscreen pairing hasn’t been very successful. Tashan, Kurbaan and Agent Vinod were all box-office duds. “Honestly, we are not in a hurry to work together. If a wife who is at home is also with you all day on the sets, I do think that it is a bit too much.” He says they share their views on work-related matters with each other, but in the end choose films that each wants to do. And that’s how it should be, he adds.

When he is not being an actor, he has the role he has inherited from his father, that of playing the Nawab of Pataudi. But Khan dismisses his royalty. “I have inherited a house and property, and maybe emotionally Pataudi is important to me and I am trying to do something for the place,” he says, “But I am not ‘His Highness’, I am just an actor.” An actor, we hope, who can astonish us again.