Saif Ali Khan: ‘I’am an ambassador for modern Islam’
Note: This piece was written by Nikhil Taneja (@tanejamainhoon) for Open Magazine. An edited version of the piece can be found here: https://goo.gl/YWqwjd
“I think that everything I’ve done, travelled, read and learnt, should show somewhere in a shot, and in everything I do as an artist. Otherwise, what’s the point, you know?” says Saif Ali Khan, when asked about what he’s brought to his next role, a millionaire producer, Rusi Billimoria, in Vishal Bharadwaj’s period epic, Rangoon, out in theaters this week.
Speaking to Khan, the son of swashbuckling cricketer and Nawab of Pataudi, Mansoon ‘Tiger’ Ali Khan Pataudi, and acting legend, Sharmila Tagore, makes the point he’s brought up, rather well. In a career spanning over two decades, Khan has gone from being the boy no one took seriously to a poster boy for the urban Indian man, to grappling with finding a comfort zone as actor-producer. The many worlds Khan has traversed as both an actor and as a man, reflect in the sharp wit, worldly intellect and sobering realness that he brings to a conversation.
The newly turned father of a gorgeous baby boy, Taimur Ali Khan Pataudi, that he gave birth to with actor wife Kareena Kapoor Khan, is free, frank and forthcoming about his career, his politics, and his legacy as a father, son and husband.
Do you ever think about legacy? About how you’d like to be remembered as an actor?
I think I’d like to be remembered as an actor who took some chances. And someone, who did a mixture of commercial stuff as well as films to promote something independent and interesting. (Pause) I’ve not thought of my legacy as an actor, but I think, I do represent a section of the audiences, who are not 100% mainstream, but a little more urban.
The reason that I ask is that you started off doing ‘masala’ films and had a renaissance in the early 2000s, as one of the first actors to experiment with ‘multiplex’ films, like the now-cult Ek Haseena Thi, Dil Chahta Hai, etc. But then you turned producer and veered away from your content-driven niche.
I think you’re absolutely right. Perhaps I got a little waylaid, or bored, or side-tracked with other things; my personal life took preference and maybe I did not focus so much on being an interesting actor as I did on the commercials. And I think I have paid a price for that. I had a bit of a wake-up call, and I’m certainly back to thinking the way I was.
If you look at the films this year, the first thing I turned to was a Vishal Bharadwaj movie, and thank God I did (chuckles). I’m lucky to get the chance, despite the mess of the years before. To be Vishal’s first choice, Akshat’s (Verma) first choice, Raja Menon’s first choice is like an achievement and I need to prove myself and the credibility of my acting with these three movies (Rangoon, Kaalakandi and Chef, respectively). And I think I have the capability of doing it. I know times are changing fast, and nothing can be taken for granted.
The last couple of years have really seen Bollywood go through an overhaul. Your contemporaries, whether it be Aamir Khan, Salman Khan, Shah Rukh Khan or Akshay Kumar, have all found their groove in storytelling. Are there a certain kind of stories you’d like to tell too?
The obvious answer to something like that would be, yeah, a kind of a biopic, or a genuine kind of story, like a Neerja. I wouldn’t say Rustom but a Bhaag Milkha Bhaag and others like it seem to be indicating that the audience would like to move away from the tried and tested formula that we’ve been giving them. And a more human experience is required from the movies we make. I’m very keen on working with good directors and producers and following them. I have my eyes open for exactly the kind of film Akshay Kumar has been doing… at least the ones with Neeraj Pandey, you know.
Given that you made your calling as an actor with urban sensibilities, it sounds to me that, keeping with the current trend, even you want to veer towards cinema that’s more Indian at heart.
But, of course. You know, I think Bollywood is turning more mature now. If you look at the villains of our movies over the years, it says a lot. Earlier, it was ‘thakurs’, and then it was parents, then it was your own mind, and now it’s backwardness and mediocrity. If you look at modern India, people are going to the gym; they want to be as fast, as good looking or as fit as anybody else in the world, you know. And yet, there is still a brain drain, where some of the best minds are leaving the country.
So there is a struggle between a new India and a kind of old India happening, and I think Dangal sums it up perfectly. There is a large shift to looking inwards, at our own country, and being a bit more original with content by celebrating our heroes. So we’ve got to decide which side we are on. Even if you try and fail in a movie that’s trying to be progressive, I think that will be forgiven. But to be regressive now is not going to fly at all. As an actor, I would rather be part of a forward movement in the vanguard of the art.
In a post-Trump reality, the world is sharply divided into two as well: the liberals and the right wingers. And there seems to be a political slant attached to everything in the news. For eg. The controversy about the name of your son, Taimur. What was going through your mind when the uproar happened?
I’m glad you asked because I’d love to answer this. I think with social media today, there’s a downside that you can hear everybody’s opinion. And you realise that the world has many bigoted people. But I feel as far as Taimur goes, it’s ridiculous to judge somebody based on medieval history. It’s a name that I’ve grown up with – my cousins had similar names – and nobody had an issue with it in the 70s or the 80s or the 90s. It’s only recently that everything’s become so ‘touchy’. Some section of people, some kind of right wing, are now talking about Kareena and me and saying we are anti-national, or we’re too fair, or the baby is too blond (laughs).
You know, you’ve got to understand that India is not 40 years old and it is not only a Hindu country. This is a country of Jains, Christians, Muslims, Sikhs and many more, who have trodden this earth and this soil and have given it the unique flavour it’s got. If it was only a Hindu country, I think we’d lose something. The idea is to respect all religions. But, you know, I understand it in one way, and I put it down to lack of education or lack of happiness, where, with the anonymity of the internet, people say terrible, uninformed things, and it’s ‘nationalism’. I mean, my Taimur will grow up to be an open-minded, very liberal, syncretic Indian, who’s a mix of all faiths, so what does the name matter?
But I was very happy that a lot of people were supportive and spoke quite liberally for the issue, which made me feel, that okay, at least there’s two sides to these arguments. As long as those voices are still there, I feel relieved that we also are in a liberal society.
Do you find it tough, in this climate, to be an actor and nothing more, just like in the days you were coming up?
You know what I find tough? Acting like a twit to promote my movie (laughs). You have to go onto TV shows and say incredibly fake things, like ‘I’ve got tears in my eyes’ because of somebody singing at Indian Idol, you know. Why can’t I just say I really liked the song (chuckles)? I mean, I can’t do all this bullshit! I just want to act. I don’t mind getting paid half the price, honestly. I just want to live my life simply without being a political tool or an emotional tool where I have to appease everybody.
Because of social media today, you have to say the right thing or do the right thing and have to come across as the right sort of guy. I mean, I haven’t been brought up like that, honestly, so why can’t I be someone like Billy Bob Thronton, for example? He’s such a great actor, but he’s not traditional. Johnny Depp’s not traditional. Why can’t we have far out ideas? Why can’t we be a bit rebellious? Why can’t we be creative and artistic and sometimes say the wrong things, as long as we are not bigoted or racist, you know?
Why can’t artists in India be outspoken, indeed? When you see what’s happening in the US, some of the biggest stars, Meryl Streep, included, are making political statements on global platforms, don’t you think India needs its Meryl Streeps too? Shouldn’t artists be political here?
No, when it comes to politics, I think, you have to be very careful because you have been given that platform to be an actor. And when you’re an actor, people listen to you. When you are successful at one thing, people have a tendency to imagine that therefore your opinion counts on all topics, which is a big mistake. For example, somebody, who is a big star, might be completely clueless politically, or might not be balanced in his opinion. So to use the respect and the support he’s getting by the audience for doing a certain job, which is acting, and to try and get people to agree with his political views on the same front, is very dangerous. In that sense, actors should completely be apolitical. Or, at least, the audience should be mature enough to separate the actor’s political opinion from his popularity as a screen idol, and, you know, not confuse the two. But they do confuse the two. They end up voting for Amitabh Bachchan when he stands.
You have always been forthcoming when asked about your politics. In fact, a couple of years ago, an article you wrote on ‘Love Jihad’ went quite viral too. You had mentioned the need for a moderate Muslim voice within it. Do you never imagine that voice to be yours?
In its own way, I am an ambassador for moderate Islam. I’m not very Islamic, and I’m not very religious. But when people meet me at Gstaad, or at London or wherever we are travelling abroad, I think I leave them with a certain sense of ‘Okay, well, we’ve just met a secular Muslim’. So in that sense, yes, but otherwise, I don’t believe in the philosophy of religion enough to want to be a voice for anything.
But with Islamophobia at its peak, don’t you feel like actively participating in progressive discussions about Islam —
— (emphatically) No! No! I mean, (pause), I think somebody might be required to redefine the religion, you know, as Jesus Christ redefined Judaism. Islam is, technically, the last revelation of the same message.. the first message was to Abraham about Judaism, the new message was to Jesus Christ, and then the most recent message was to Mohammed, but nobody agrees with each other to this point. It’s a mess when you get into religion. And just the idea… it’s post gratification to the nth degree, where, you know, you are even allowed to drink wine in paradise but it’s banned on earth. That kind of thing, I mean, I don’t buy.
You sound a lot more sorted in your head about what you seem to want from life, as you approach your 50s, as opposed to your early years, where you were self-admittedly ‘immature’. Is this state of mind a reflection of your marriage to Kareena Kapoor Khan and the second phase of fatherhood?
I mean, it’s more to do with age, you know. My father wrote me a note once that said, ‘The secret of Islam was revealed to the Prophet after his 40th birthday’. I think, he meant that when he was 40, he started going through a maturity too, where things kind of slow down. I’m not in a rush to lead my own life, and to explore my own horizons anymore. I’m pretty sorted with what I am, what I’m doing, in the kind of life I wanted to lead. So I’m happy to share all that with Taimur, you know.
(Pause) I loved bringing up Sara and Ibrahim, but, somewhere, I was also finding myself at that time. Of course, part of that continues, but I feel more grounded and I think I’ve grown. I’ve grown in front of people, where they were mimicking me with a nasal voice and now they don’t. Over time, with the kind of reading I’ve done, a process of enlightenment has begun, where one understands, and things resonate more.
And as for being married, like my father said, after a point, you must accept that your wife is another person than you. On one level, you are replacing her family so you need to be a bit aware of that. But, I think, in Kareena, I’m very lucky to have a wife who is very, very tolerant of me. I really don’t have to watch my Ps and Qs around her. But I mean, balance is the key in a relationship. Some space apart, some time together, and it’ll all be easy.
The golden rule, of course, is to not question it, you know (chuckles). It’s a quasi-religious approach (laughs). There’s no chance, no chance, if you start questioning. It has to be unconditional and unequivocal. You can’t even question whether you are happy or not or whether what your wife said makes any sense or not, just take it for granted and just get on with it, you know. As Abba said, ‘Think about something else’. (bursts out laughing)
I started the conversation talking about your legacy as an actor. I want to end by asking you —
— On legacy, actually, there’s one thing that’s important to me. Karan Johar asked me on his show, what are two Nawabi traits about you, and because it’s such a bloody high pressure show I gave him some shit answer like ‘horses and guns’, which I don’t mean, because I don’t ride a horse (laughs). But what I should have said is, looking after Pataudi is an honour, and that is my legacy. It’s something that I want to pass on for generations to come. I want the gardens to be perfect, I want the photographs that reflect cricket history to be perfect, I want to spend money that I earn, as Kareena says, standing in the sun for movies (laughs), on maintaining that house, and maintaining the family atmosphere there. So it’s somewhere we can all get together. That means a lot to me.
My question was about the legacy you would want to leave as a father?
Without being arrogant, I think Taimur is going to grow up, whether he likes it or not, as a bit of a Prince, you know. But the big thing for his mother and I, is to keep him level-headed and not to let him be spoilt. And the bottom line for that is a good school and a balanced upbringing, with a slightly strict focus on education being very important, because that’s the only thing that grounds children.
But, besides that, I think fatherhood is not about changing diapers and reading stories only, it’s a lifelong commitment, guidance, and rock-like support forever. I’m happy I have older kids like Sara and Ibrahim and a tot like Taimur, and I want them all around when I drink wine around the fireplace in Pataudi in later years. I must pass on the legacy of Tiger and his ancestors too, of what a man should be, and the open and curious mind one should have.
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Note: This interview first appeared in Open Magazine on February 24, 2017
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