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“Economics is king and the box office is everything"

Guest Editor Saif Ali Khan In Conversation With Team Box Office India

Box Office India: Only a few days to go before your next release, Bullett Raja. What’s going through your mind?

Saif Ali Khan (SAK): Busy with the promotions and hoping for the best.

BOI: You’re known for not promoting your films but, this time, you’re going all out.

SAK: I don’t know if I am known for not promoting my films or not. It’s just that I don’t understand how much television to do. Do you become a character in CID or some other serial? Doing on-ground events and reality shows is nothing but creating awareness but how much do you need to do? I suppose it’s the same as an American actor going on the Jay Leno or David Letterman shows. I wish someone had explained it to me like that earlier. Now that I understand it, I’m doing it.

BOI: Are you enjoying it?

SAK: No! I don’t like talking very much. I like acting. That’s much less tiring than talking all day.

BOI: Let’s talk about Bullett Raja. Can you share your experience while shooting for the film?

SAK: I had actually wanted to work with Tishu (Tigmanshu Dhulia) and he has lots of ideas. I had always wanted to play a mafia, gunda type gunman. But I thought a city kind of sleek guy would be easier for me, like a Bambaiya kind of mafia guy. Many people make films based on the Bombay mafia. I don’t know how comfortable I would be playing that. So I wondered what it would be like.

But with this Uttar Pradesh mafia role and Tishu directing it, I thought it would be a good chance to play this part. It was a bit of a challenge to understand the body language, the kind of character it is and the language. But once we got the hang of it, it was a lot of fun. Since the character was well defined, I understood it well and am very happy with how it turned out. I have only watched the rough cut and I enjoyed it. So I am confident the final copy will be even better.

BOI: How have the industry and friends reacted to the trailer and promo?

SAK: The trailer has been very well received and I am encouraged by that. But a lot of films have nice trailers and I don’t know how much that has to do with the Friday figures. That’s what I am most concerned about.

BOI: At the end of the day, collections matter…

SAK: (Cuts in) Collections are everything! It is like God. It is possible to make films like Go Goa Gone only if you also make films like Love Aaj Kal and Cocktail. Small films need their own budget and, for them, everything is based on money. Economics is king and the box office is everything. Hopefully, in a few years, our films will start making Rs 400 crore and that a star should charge Rs 100 crore. The box office is very important but it is not the only thing. The content you are offering your audience should matter just as much.

BOI: And what about critical acclaim?

SAK: I think it has started mattering a lot now. There was a time where a film would go on to having a 25-week run at the box office but now it’s the first weekend that matters most. We have so many films releasing and we are a film-crazy nation. But we are not very rich and cannot afford to watch a film every week, and today there is a big film releasing almost every week.

Considering how expensive tickets are, it doesn’t make sense to watch Krrish 3, then Ram-Leela, then Gori Tere Pyaar Mein and then Bullett Raja, week after week. So reviews matter because at least someone is saying ‘don’t miss this’. But we need to curb piracy first. The economics of the film industry is ruthless. If we keep on making films for the multiplex audience, nobody will be bothered about single-screens. In a nutshell, reviews are important because, before families go out and spend so much money on a film, they should know if it is worth it.

BOI: Also, with competition being ruthless, it is very important to plan your release date, isn’t it?

SAK: It’s huge. I mean, in my career of 22 years, I have had only one holiday release and that opening was huge and the biggest opening of my life. So if you have a big film releasing on a national holiday, you’re done!

BOI: Coming back to Bullett Raja… How important is it for movies like this to be shot at their original locations?

SAK: You have to be honest to your film. If you’re in a hurry, it shows. Films are about taking time and production designing is very important. And locations are almost like a character in a movie. Unfortunately, we have ruined so many parts of our own country. So apart from digital work, the air is very polluted. But if you put up a camera in Mykonos in Greece, the whole sky looks different and the quality of air is different. I mean, location is like atmosphere. And atmosphere is very important to a film. In the case of Bullett Raja, location and story go hand in hand. That’s one of the highlights of the film.

BOI: You’re a producer and also an actor. What is it like working outside your own banner versus under your own banner?

SAK: I like working at home because they spoil me! It’s also a very creative job and I enjoy that too. But it is also nice to work outside and let someone else worry about things. Sometimes you don’t want to worry too much. Like in Agent Vinod, the production design was not very good until I got involved. I prefer to act and let other people do their job. It is also really nice to work with experienced producers like Sajid Nadiadwala, Sajid Khan, Kabir Khan, Akshay Puri and Vashu Bhagnani, where you don’t have to worry about anything.

On the other hand, working on your own production is exciting. I enjoy every part of production since it’s a creative job. You think of which film to make; how you want to make it; when you want to make it; and where you want to make it. And then when you make it, there’s poster designing and publicising it. I think it’s a very exciting profession at every level including the pre-release nerves.

BOI: Over the years, you have worked with solo producers and now the corporate world is here to stay. Do you think this is a boon for our industry?

SAK: I don’t really know but I guess it does make a difference. It’s a very good thing on some levels, like tracking whether your film is well publicised or not; creating awareness for your film, a background in marketing; experience in advertising. I am very comfortable working with Fox Star because they seem to know what they are doing, when they take a film, buy a film and release a film.

But knowledge of scripts, what will run and what will work… well, no one really knows. I am still comfortable trusting the judgement of one or two people rather than a bunch of people. Sometimes, too many cooks can spoil the broth. So you have to be careful. But after a film is complete, I think the corporate culture is very efficient in that area. I am also happy that there is a certain transparency in our figures now.

BOI: Although there is a measure of transparency today, people are still fudging collections.

SAK: That’s human nature. You do it if you think you can get away with it. But I think it’s difficult to actually fudge the numbers because, eventually, the truth will come out. It’s a question of what kind of image you want. It depends on whether honesty is important to you or not. I believe if a film earns Rs 150 crore, you should be very happy and not pretend that it collected Rs 200 crore. But that’s just me.

BOI: When you look back, are you satisfied with the way your career has shaped up?

SAK: When I started my career back in the ’90s, I was like a child who had no idea what he wanted to do. I was not focused at all or interested in anything in particular. But now I feel I am in control. I think I have a certain kind of respect as an actor, in the sense that a director like Tigmanshu will give me a UP mafia role. That’s not something you will give someone who is only urban, Western. So it’s nice to be able to pull that off. Also, the money is good and the work is challenging. I am enjoying my life more than I ever. I feel I must do some very good movies and make a bigger and better mark for myself.

BOI: You just mentioned that you weren’t focused initially. When did you start taking your career as an actor seriously?

SAK: I don’t really remember. I think it’s become more and more as time has gone by. I guess I enjoyed my work around the time of Dil Chahta Hai. It felt different. Also, the film we were making before that was a totally different experience. It felt more like work. Even the directors were from the old school of filmmaking. Yash Chopra’s assistant and Prakash Mehra’s assistant used to make films in the old style. Then Farhan Akhtar came along and it was like a revolution and everything changed.

BOI: Do you think we are now in a better phase in terms of technology and concepts, that we are thinking out of the box?

SAK: We are thinking amazingly. I am very proud to be an Indian actor today. After Hollywood, there’s Bollywood. We don’t have budgets but we are making interesting films, which are only the perks. Technologically, amazing things are happening. Young directors are thinking of exciting subjects. Everyone is pulling in different directions. If you put six directors in a room, they will look at each other and think, ‘I don’t make films like this idiot does. Mine are much better!' That only means there’s diversity. But we are lacking in the writing department. And I think that is also a function of economics. Are we paying them enough? We wouldn’t want intelligent writers to go to some other profession. We need writers who can understand the structure of films.

Look at America… every TV show they have is well written, every episode is perfect. That’s understanding the technique of writing. The beginning, the middle, the crisis, the resolution… there is a whole system to it. Here, we just take one or two guys, some of whom are educated and some who are not. They are supposed to understand the psyche of the country and write amazing stories. I am saying we have the actors, we have the directors, we have the technicians. What we need are good writers.

BOI: Speaking of actors… isn’t there just too much competition among them in terms of the numbers?

SAK: That’s a lifestyle choice. If that’s how you chose to live, then that’s great. As long as the net result is that you’re making good films for the audience. That’s your dharma as an actor. Different people are motivated by different things. So, if you’re obsessed with numbers, that’s your call. We have an interesting job and we make a lot of money. It’s a pity to waste time obsessing over negative qualities. There is so much in the world that is beautiful and fun and this job is so high-pressure that we hardly get a chance to enjoy it.

BOI: Have you ever believed in the numbers game?

SAK: I have never believed in the numbers game and never want to, not even if I have three successful films in a row. I want to be a good actor; I want to travel and experience fun things with nice people. I have never experienced the high of being a superstar but I don’t think that’s the most important thing in the world because it doesn’t last. When I look at what Shah Rukh Khan has achieved, even financially, it’s amazing. The things he has done for his family, the houses he has bought, and the kind of lifestyle he has given himself. But I am not driven by the numbers game.


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