As Saif Ali Khan’s Laal Kaptaan released this week, the actor talks to Titas Chowdhury about his fascination towards darker characters, his liking towards the western cinema, his transformation over the years in the Hindi film industry and more
Hello Saif, how are you doing?
I am alright.
How are the promotions going on?
The promotions are going nice. It’s actually quite relaxed. There is no madness… we haven’t gone on comedy entertainment evenings or anything like that. We probably should have. Anyway, right now we are at a studio in Bandra and my house is next door. I am very happy.
Saif, you brought this trend of urban rom-coms to Hindi cinema. But it’s your grey characters that actually proved quite game changing for you. What really fascinated you towards these grey characters?
I don’t know, I just feel the idea of playing the classic kind of hero (is not by cup of tea) and Hindi films historically have had a really strong sense of ‘good’ in the Ram. I guess it’s our mythology also. I don’t think the Ram like characters have ever really suited me. At most it’s the Krishna like character that is my kind of a thing. The Rajshri Movies character is may be the closest I have come to being super nice. And even that was quite Kanhaiya like. So I think it’s just more interesting to be a little more real, a little darker somewhere. Maybe because people wanted to make me a chocolate boy when I was starting out that I thought no okay, I am not. (Laughs). When Ek Haseena Thi came out, I don’t know but I just had a natural attraction for characters that are kind of greyer; ideally not dark, just little grey that become good. Or even…
Not necessarily good…
Yes, not necessarily good. But I am saying it’s more satisfying when they become good, like Race rather than Baazaar which is nice but dark.
Or Langda Tyagi from Omkara that is so dark.
Yes. Dark like a buffalo in Rajasthan.
Woah! Yes. But that’s a universal favourite. I am sure for you also it must be close to your heart.
That’s a Shakespearean villain. That’s like Iago. If you read about Iago, that’s the only Shakespearean character that has more lines than the hero. He is the greatest villain in western theatre. That’s the role.
Navdeep Singh in an interview said that it’s your fascinations for the westerns that drew you towards this film.
Yes, I am a big fan of westerns. I don’t know why but I grew up in Delhi and at that time there wasn’t much there to watch on TV. We used to have a VCR and I used to watch a lot of movies all the time. One of the things that I really loved ever since I was a kid, I discovered, I loved films like A Fistful Of Dollars, For A Few Dollars More and The Good, The Bad And The Ugly, more than anything else.
The thing about the western is you have a mysterious central character, you don’t know if he is good or bad. You have an environment that is really hostile where everybody is kind of out to kill everybody else. It’s like a dangerous place. You have a mysterious guy; you don’t know who he is. He might even be a supernatural character. Is he a ghost? Is he a lie? These are the frontier kind of movies that are exciting for people. There are no rules, there is no law. 18th century India is wilder than the Wild West. The Naga Sadhu is a more interesting character than the man with no name. In our own culture, all these things are there and I always wanted to do a western but my head was always like a kind of American idea of a western. But it was Navdeep who kind of translated it into our language and therefore it really works, at least in my head. I don’t even know if this will work at the box office because there has been no film like this. It’s got no item songs, none of the usual trappings of the kind of films that we are used to and we enjoy. But I just could not say no to this because it’s so amazing – just the horses, the costumes, the action, the drama and the whole world. This is something that I will be proud of forever. I think this is the film. If people ask me in 5-10 years, which is the one film that you are most proud of, I think I will say Laal Kaptaan. It might even out rank Omkara in my head. Because it has got a little more action, a little more style in terms of say western style. It was the hardest thing we have ever done. You cannot do this with the kind of budget that we did it in, without crazy people exploiting each other. Because you have to be mad and secondly you don’t have the money to really do it. So people will have to go beyond of what they have been paid to do. That’s the only way you can do it.
So tell us, how was a day on the set of Laal Kaptaan?
Okay, it wasn’t too crazy. So you wake up at about 7 in the morning, do couple of hours of makeup, have the stuff clipped on to your hair until its going bald by pulling out clumps of your hair. Makeup everywhere, body makeup… clothes, this, that but eight people are working on you at the same time. It takes one hour or 45 minutes to do all these things but there are too many people around you and I don’t like too many people touching but I have become patient. Somebody is stitching something, somebody is strapping something, it’s taking a long time, then you drive to location for around 45 minutes, sometimes an hour or two away. Then you are under the hot sun, on the horse, doing action with all the clothes on, in the dust and everything… Then with Navdeep sir screaming, ‘why is there a road here? I told you I wanted it to look like a barren land but you made a production road. I am going to kill you all…’ and that’s pretty much every day. (Laughs). In fact, yesterday only he said the same thing. He was always yelling at them for making roads because they kept making roads on location. He was like, ‘you know this movie is set in a time when there were no roads. We want this to be untouched and that’s why we have come two hours. And you have made roads.’ This would be a common fight every day. Yelling, a lot of yelling! Because it was extreme. But it was an amazing thing to pull off. When you see it, it looks like nothing else. Everyone is making films on CGI today. The upcoming film, Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior which I did for Ajay Devgn’s production house was similar but it was all CGI, on a beautiful set, it was air conditioned, so for sweat you have to spray on. It’s all going to look amazing but this was all live. Uff… there is just no comparison. It looks also so real. I get tired when I think about what we did.
But it looks like it’s going to be super interesting.
I think so.
Let us talk a little bit about Saif 2.0, which is what you talked about in a recent interview. You are now willing to take more risks, you are willing to work harder. What’s the inspiration behind this?
It might be Saif 4.0. I don’t think it is 2.0. See, if Saif 1.0 is Parampara and Aashik Aawara and Yeh Dillagi, then Saif 2.0 is Dil Chahta Hai and what followed after that, Saif 3.0 would be Omkara, etc. and 4.0 would be Sacred Games and Laal Kaaptaan. It’s not 2.0, its 4.0 after 30 years.
Are you feeling more creatively satisfied now?
Yes, because I think I have understood little bit more about acting and they are making very different things. Also, now I have a little less stress like I have to buy a house one day, or make money to look after my family, there is always responsibilities. But now you can choose a little more. So as soon as I do web show, Ali Abbas Zafar’s Tandav on politics, my next film is Bhoot Police which is a horror comedy. This creative stuff out there happening can really keep you happy because you have a job you enjoy and respect. It’s nice. It wasn’t always like that. In the 90s we were just working and doing some things that were great but a lot of what I did at that time, I much prefer what I am doing right now.
What is your biggest take away from this mysterious character Laal Kaptaan?
Just the ability to find some strength in order to play slightly wilder characters because the kind of person he is, everything about him… like when you wear a costume like this, sometimes a costume can wear you. When you are on the horse but you can’t open your eyes because everything is just too heavy. Your head is hurting, the sun is out and all these excuses you can give. But to sit there with your eyes open giving some energy to a bunch of people saying alright I am doing a scene… if you can find that power then you have grown. That growth somewhere happened. It always happens in the bathroom of hotels. I don’t know why but at about 1 am or 2 am in the morning… I think because that’s where the mirror is. Just that preparation for a film with me at some point it happens in the bathroom of a hotel. That’s the final prep. So at some point in this Rajasthan hotel the transformation happened.