Young and old, men and women, admen and filmmakers, all pick Saif as today’s wonder boy.What makes this ubercool dude so sizzling hot? Rishi Majumder and Subhash K Jha find out

(Sharmila Tagore interview by Anant Narayan)

saif at pataudi

Ask him why he opted out of the soon-to-be re-made Qurbani, and he shoots back in his clipped accent, “It’s a fabulous film which I always fantasised about remaking myself, but settling the dates were a problem—I can’t order dinner while I’m having lunch!” But megastar Saif Ali Khan sure takes his time, over that menu card. “We’ll meet in the evening tomorrow,” he offers. The next evening, it’s “Umm… sorry man, but too tied up… day after tomorrow, or… call me in an hour.” In an hour: “Dude, you can’t keep calling me in the middle of a meeting. Let me see… 12 pm: Yashraj, 2 pm: Shriram. Umm… tomorrow 11 am.” The next day, his phone endlessly rings, as we sweat
it out. Hours after we’ve given up, he calls: “Can we do the interview now?” No, not scheming Shakespearan Iago, this. Saif Ali Khan is filmdom’s Hamlet.


Yet, the man who set out as an ‘Aashiq Awaara’ at 23, can perhaps afford to be uncertain—today, more than ever. “My detractors and their harsh comments have been my greatest incentives to prove myself.” And then, he leans back with, “That’s a good quote, don’t you think?” Almost every observation ends tentatively. Perhaps, it’s no wonder it took him so long to realise his worth. “But do I really know my worth today?” he wonders, brows characteristically knitted in a question mark.
“I was chucked out of my first movie and, after that, it was all about survival. I didn’t want the front-benchers to hoot me out of the hall,” the Chhote Nawab chuckles. Then followed a spate of forgettables, “but Yeh Dillagi and Main Khiladi Tu Anari were fabulous fun!” However, it was only after the success of Dil Chahta Hai and Kal Ho Na Ho, that this passionate guitar player stopped strumming second fiddle: “When Hum Tum happened, I was prepared for it. I’d observed Shah Rukh Khan carry a film on his shoulders; I stopped thinking like a second lead and was ready for the responsibility.” Versatility came with the suave rogue in Ek Haseena Thi, the classically dashing
Shekhar of Parineeta, the ultra metrosexual Nikhil, oops Nick, of Salaam Namaste… and now, the rural gritty malevolent Langda Tyagi of Omkara. “I choose my films very carefully, drastically off-setting one kind of character against the next… My two releases, this year, Being Cyrus and Omkara, are completely different in milieu and characterisation. I enjoy crossing over from one reality to another,” explains the 35-year-old. Maybe being uncertain isn’t such a bad thing.

nawab sahib


With the stardom of this coolest of Khans, the Mumbai film industry (he can’t stomach the ‘Bollywood’ tag) has hailed the new ‘actor-star’. After a string of awards, he also bagged the National Award for best actor, with Hum Tum. If the Pepsi ads aren’t as fresh in memory, try Lays instead. “I don’t want to advertise something harmful, like cigarettes, but money can be a motivator. I mean, if you do films for love, some things have to be done for money,” declares the Pataudi scion. As far as stardom goes, the only son of Tiger Pataudi and Sharmila Tagore “took to it quite naturally”. Despite personal fame and acknowledgement coming late. “Yeah, it makes me really happy, when street urchins look at me and smile… but it gets a little disturbing when they rush to bang on my car doors.” Even this casualness towards fame is a transition. “Earlier, it was all about impressing my colleagues and not being laughed at. I now enjoy the art of performance.”


The art wasn’t a childhood love, though: “We never spoke about films at the dinner table. It was always cricket.” Born in Mumbai, he grew up in Bhopal, England and then Delhi. “Bhopal was about family, jungles, open skies, eating fruit from the trees. My grandmom was an awesome woman who drove cars, grew roses, put together crystal chandeliers like jigsaw puzzles, cleaned rifles, shot tigers… perhaps I shouldn’t mention that last bit!”
For an only child (Sabah and Soha were born much later), he was brought up strictly: “I wasn’t allowed to complain about cuts and bruises. And breaking windows were only allowed if I was playing cricket!” Then followed the impressionable years at Winchester College, England. “It influenced me in innumerable ways: my English accent, my sense of humour… our motto read ‘Manners Maketh The Man’, which I interpret as ‘What you do is who you are’.” One wonders, then, how his former classmates—at a school which spawned archbishops, authors and world-class crick
eters (his father and grandfather)—took to his Bollywood entry. “I hate that word. Well, they cracked up initially but they’ve come to respect my work—and the enormous amount of money involved!” He still finds it “insane to dance around the street a schoolmate lives in” but he’d be proud “to show them a film like Parineeta or the Temptations tour produced by Shah Rukh, which was a class act”. He was touched recently, when his school authorities sent him a letter to come and meet them: “I owe that kind of respect to the film industry.”
Unlike his father and grandfather, he didn’t go on to Oxford. “I lost interest in being academic. I used to finish first in class one term, and last the next. I think I was intelligent but uninterested,” he chortles. Then it was back to India, living it up with an advertising job in Delhi. “When you’re young, you’re immortal. I couldn’t think of any vocation or calling. I remember being in this shower in Delhi and just thinking, ‘Wow, it would be so exciting to move to Bombay and take up a job there’,” he recalls.
And then films happened…

l - omkara, r - dil chahta hai


So when did he turn into a fine actor? “My self-confidence arose out of growing comfortable in an environment.” And self-awareness can be paralysing. He reads and rereads scripts “on holidays, by the pool, on the beach” and then puts together what the character looks and sounds like. In Parineeta, for instance, “The Brylcreem did it. My character was to be a cross between Sherlock Holmes and my father.” Omkara’s Langda Tyagi “has a deep voice and a dramatic sparkling delivery. Then came the haircut, scars, tape, earrings and the limp”. Saif did a lot of reading on Shakespeare’s Iago, to work out his motivations. Being in a multistarrer, he also had a word with filmmaker Vishal Bhardwaj: “I told him it had taken me a while to get to this saleable position, and I hoped he would take care of me, so I wouldn’t be embarrassed.”


That brings us to another aspect of his all-new aura: masculinity. The days of jibes—“Put a dupatta on Saif ’s head and he looks like Sharmila”—are gone. But the nervous energy remains: “I get paranoid about every movie. But I don’t feel like an outsider; I never did. I was always warned about camps and groups. However I always felt there was strength to be gained from standing alone.” Of course, he’s still getting comfortable with it. “On the sets of Omkara, people would talk of the four National Award winners aboard. My first impulse would be to wonder who the fourth was, after Vishal, Ajay Devgan and Konkona Sen. Then I’d realise, ‘Oh sh*t, it’s me!’” Says he’s changed yet stayed the same. Huh? “Well, there’s both emotional and physical strength that people look for in a guy. The need for emotional strength stems from the fact that we live so close together in India. There’s no concept of personal space, which might leave someone emotionally cold.” And the obvious working out that’s gone into his body? “That’s part of the Indian social psyche—so many are into pumping iron at the gym nowadays. Our guys don’t want to be pushed around!”But drift towards his personal life, with girlfriend Rosa or former wife Amrita Singh, and he withdraws. Despite the fact that he recently spoke about Rosa and him shifting apartments. “That’s a different kind of interview. I don’t want to talk about it here,” he side-steps. He only relents with his kids, Ibrahim and Sarah, saying they’ve gotten used to his stardom. “Though for a while, they thought everyone’s father’s pictures appeared in the papers,” he laughs. Unfortunately, work has cut down his time with them, “though that’ll change. I’ve started taking Sundays off, for instance”. That’s one area where Khan seems quite definite. Just when you think that maybe ‘uncertain’ isn’t the word, he lists his faults: “Lack of focus, distraction, being lost in my own head rather than the moment… I seem like a bundle of contradictions most of the time. But there’s a method to my madness.” Yes, no? Um, ah, yes… maybe…

sharmila tagore

Sharmila Tagore Khan in a candid mood

BEING MOM: “I was a bit of an absentee mother in Saif’s initial years.That was a hectic phase of my professional life. But once he turned 6, I was with him 24/7, helping him with homework, reading stories.When he turned 11, I gave him space to grow as an individual. By the time, the girls were born, he was on his own.”

ALL THAT & MORE: “Saif has some striking abilities. He has superlative handwriting.He is a skilled artist. His drawing skills came in handy when he worked at an advertising firm one summer. In school at Winchester, he learnt the guitar, wrote poetry and expanded his creative horizons. He tells good stories. He’s a charmer!”

PRANKS GALORE: “Saif always had a naughty streak. His early schooling was at Cathedral (Mumbai). I remember the times Maureen (Wadia) and I were called by the principal because both Ness and Saif were up to some mischief or the other!”

MAN OF MANY PARTS: “Saif never thinks ill of anyone. I’m proud he is good-hearted. He got married young and has played breadearner, husband, homemaker since 21. He earned my respect when he took his decisions judiciously. I know how much it hurts him to stay away from his kids, especially after the divorce.”

HUSH! “Let me tell you a secret. Saif doesn’t comprehend the first thing about ‘money’. In fact, he’s very gullible when it comes to money.”

Of the 200 people (18–30 years) What’s Hot surveyed, 80% find Saif hot. They dig his sense of humour, style, goofiness, eyes, cuteness, the fact that he’s “like one of us”…

“Saif’s an awesome actor. He doesn’t ‘act’, he flows into the character. His method is international. He seems so natural, yet is different in every movie—there’s no Saif Ali Khan style. Saif is the best we have right now!”

—Pradeep Sarkar, Filmmaker

“Saif’s success has made him a wonder boy. He represents ubercool and machoism. He’s the ‘hot’ guy of the moment.”

– Freddie Birdy, Creative Director Shop Advertising

“Four Bollywood guys dominate Indian advertising: Abhishek, Saif, Shah Rukh and Aamir. Saif scores over the others with his cool, neomodern image, humour and style. What makes his advertisements a roaring success is a combination of star value and good script.”

– Piyush Pandey, National Creative Director O&M India

“Compared to Aamir and Shah Rukh, Saif’s got a new age, cooler, hipper edge. He’s got tomorrow’s feel. He’s stylish, so that makes him a hot choice for gadgets and fashion brands. Indian advertisers map the star’s personality to the brand. So, Aamir represents earnestness and sincerity, Shah Rukh is larger than life, Saif is naughty!”

– Santosh Desai, President McCann Erickson

This article originally appeared in Buzz Magazine, Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India. Then in What’s Hot a Delhi Times Of India Supplement. And also in other Times Of India editions throughout the country:


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