In hues of grey

After the release of Laal Kaptaan, Saif Ali Khan talks to Titas Chowdhury about his fascination with grey characters, attraction towards western cinema and transformation over three decades in the Hindi film industry

You brought this trend of urban romcoms to Hindi cinema but your grey characters have actually proven to be game-changers. What drew you to these characters?

I just feel the idea of playing the classic kind of hero is not my cup of tea and Hindi films historically have had a really strong sense of 'good' in Ram. I guess it's our mythology also. I don't think the Ram-like characters have ever suited me. At most, it's the Krishna-like character that I associate with. The Rajshri Movies character 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 knew I am not (laughs). When Ek Hasina Thi came out, I just had a natural attraction for characters that are kind of greyer; ideally not dark, just little grey that becomes good.

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.

Yes, but that's a universal favourite. I am sure it must also be close to your heart.

That's a Shakespearean villain, 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 said in an interview that it's your fascination for the western that drew you towards this film.

Yes, I am a big fan of the western. I don't know why but I grew up in Delhi and at that time, there wasn't much to watch on TV. We used to have a VCR and I used to watch a lot of movies all the time. Something that I really loved ever since I was a kid, I discovered, were 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 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 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 stuck to a kind of American idea of 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 enjoy. But I just couldn't say no to this – the horses, the costumes, the action, the drama and the whole world. This is something that I will be proud of forever. 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 outrank Omkara in my head; it has got a little more action, a little more style in terms of say the western.

It was the hardest thing we have ever done. You cannot do this with the budget we had, 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 what they have been paid to do.

So tell us, how was a day on the set of Laal Kaptaan?

Okay, it wasn't too crazy. We would wake up at about 7 am, do a few hours of makeup, have stuff clipped on to our hair until its going bald by pulling out clumps of hair. Makeup on your face, body makeup, clothes, this, that and eight people are working on you at the same time. It takes one hour or 45 minutes to do all this! If it's taking a long time, then you drive to the 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 with dust everywhere. Then with Navdeep 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 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.

But it was an amazing thing to pull off. When you see it, it looks surreal. Everyone is making films on CGI today. The upcoming film, Taanaji: The Unsung Warrior which I did for Ajay Devgn's production house was similar but it was all CGI on a beautiful air-conditioned set, so for sweat, you have to spray. But this was all live, there is just no comparison.

Let us talk a little bit about Saif 2.0. You are now willing to take more risks and 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, 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.

At this stage in your career, are you feeling more creatively satisfied?

Yes, because I think I have understood a little bit more about acting. Also, now I have a little less stress like having to buy a house one day, or making money to look after my family, Now you can choose a little more. I do web shows, Ali Abbas Zafar's Tandav on politics, and my next film is Bhoot Police which is a horror comedy. This creative wave can really keep you happy because you have a job you enjoy and respect. It wasn't always like that. In the 90s we were just working and doing some things that were great but I much prefer what I am doing right now.

What is your biggest take away from this mysterious character of Laal Kaptaan?

Just the ability to find some strength in order to play wilder characters because though you wear costumes, 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 happened. It always happens in the bathroom of hotels, I don't know why but at about 1 am or 2 am in the dark; I think because that's where the mirror is. Just that preparation for a film, with me, at some point happens in the bathroom of a hotel. That's the final prep. So, at some point, this Rajasthan hotel assisted my transformation. BOI

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