My father was the last of his kind: Saif Ali Khan
By bbsbuzz - Tue Nov 08, 12:58 pm
As the inheritance of Pataudi settles in, Saif, the erstwhile rebel who’s now wiser, speaks on what Tiger meant to him and how life’s changed after Abba
What does the de-linking of ‘chhote’ from the Nawab mean to you? Earlier, you spoke about wanting to grow up, to take more responsibility; it’s no longer not about you wanting…Yes, yes. You know, when I first joined movies, a producer once asked me, ‘What should we keep as your screen name?’ I thought about it for a while. Because, in school, I was always known as Pataudi. It started with Sanawar, where my grandmother used to like to stitch a red Pataudi label on my clothes (so they could be identified when they went to the laundry). My name at Sanawar and then at Locker’s Park in England and at Winchester was Pataudi – because of Abba also. I’d always called myself Saif Pataudi – it says that on my passport also.
So when I was asked what I would be known as, I said, this profession is looking a little unsure at the moment, and I would hate to bring any sort of failure or dishonour to a successful name internationally – so let’s go with Saif Ali Khan.
My father, in any case, always kept the worlds separate. What he did in Pataudi, he kept largely to himself. He’d say to me, ‘One day it’ll come to you, and then you do whatever you want.’ It wasn’t like part of a family plan.
How much did Abba shape you?I admired and looked up to Abba so much, and not just for his achievements on the cricket field. He paved the way for me in school at a time when the English were capable of being quite racist – the late seventies and the eighties – but because of that name which is written on so many boards in Winchester and in Locker’s Park also, so many sporting records, people were generally nice to me as a result. So this admiration for him was there from a very young age. Not just because he was my dad, but as a sportsman, and then his persona – a little reserved, funny at times, but always very correct.
After he passed away, the amount of press surprised my mother also. I was thinking, what was it that made him such a big star? She said that it is because he was the last of his kind. But being an actor, and a history student also, I think I could understand the elements that made him what he was. He, in a way, took on the British – being better educated than them, being better looking than some of them, and then being more talented than them, at their own game. The sex appeal really of having one eye and then going out to bat and doing what he did – if you see Senna’s documentary, what stands out is the man winning a race when your gearbox is stuck in sixth gear. That puts you into a different league, that adversity. 200 against England with one eye can never be taken away.
He used to say the most beautifully simple things. I once gifted him a pair of very nice, quite expensive shoes, and he said to me, ‘They seem too nice to walk in’. Those sort of memories bring tears to my eyes still. He had a lot of humility – and on some occasions, arrogance too. It was a beautiful mix.
Arrogance, such as?Geoffrey Boycott said that it was not possible to play cricket with one eye and that my father must be exaggerating his vision loss. Father explained to me that Boycott had a friend called Colin Milburn, an English batsman, who lost an eye and could never play again, which is why he thinks that way, that it’s impossible. So I asked Abba, how did you manage then, if it’s that tough? He said, ‘See, I was very good with two (eyes), and so I was, you know, good even with one’ (laughs).
How English was he himself?He was a little English, yes, but also Muslim aristocracy, really. He loved playing the tabla, but not in the cliched enjoying the mujra sort of way. Slight contradictions; a nice whiskey, good classical music, playing the flute. It was because of him that I was exposed to England, which is such a valuable part of my past. The fields of Bhopal, the shikaar, driving those jeeps, playing cricket in the back garden – I have these pleasant, beautifully civilised memories. A lot of privilege, really, but in a very understated way. He would constantly emphasise that. And I would consciously want to be a little louder because of the constant repression of ‘be subtle, be subtle’. I remember finding gold achkans in the family cupboards, while Abba got married in a white achkan himself. We went to somebody’s wedding and he told me, ‘You’re not the dulha, why are you trying to dress up?’ But because of that, I would do that more.
He would sit at the last row in functions so that he could leave unnoticed quicker, rather than at the front where people think it’s more important to sit. It always amuses me at the Filmfare Awards where people are fighting to sit in that front row.
What’s the practicality of the inheritance?Anything I’ve inherited comes at a time when it becomes more of a responsibility than a childish joy. If there were certain rifles that were in the family, or shotguns from Holland, other works of art that I would really want, I wouldn’t get them – now I realise they are a responsibility; take care of them, get the paperwork done, keep them safe. It’s no longer just the outer sheen of it. Similarly, inheriting Pataudi and all of that… frankly, it’s still a little surreal for me.
I’m not interested in being a Nawab in any way. I find friends of my parents, similar backgrounds, without naming names, there are other ex-royal families… I mean, there has to be more to it than being on the cover of a travel magazine, with all due respect. To us, it’s always been about something else. We’ve never harped about it. But it is legacy, and what that means in practical terms is to look after the estate, to look after the trust, maybe to do some charity work; Abba had an eye hospital, I want to maintain that. And I want to renovate Pataudi Palace. I want to infuse new blood into that property, which perhaps our family has not been able to afford to do so far. Like a lot of families, when the privy purses were taken away, they couldn’t afford to maintain their estates. By the grace of God, with my profession, maybe I will be in a position to refurbish it, and that I feel will be a contribution which will make my father proud. That’s my dream.
How clued was he into your cine career?He didn’t like movies very much, except Clint Eastwood, and he certainly didn’t take them very seriously. He called for “Omkara” once and wrote me a note for “Parineeta” once, but that was about it…
What did the note say?Just ‘Good job, Saif’. And he said, I can’t understand what you are saying in “Omkara”, but it sounds quite convincing! (laughs) I used to feel a little bad when on the dining table he was outnumbered when it was me, Soha, Amma and him – so we tried not to talk about movies very much. He was, however, I think, happy that as a result of being in cinema, we weren’t asking him for money any more (laughs). But cinema didn’t dominate conversation in our house. As a result, I think, my outlook is that while I love my job, there has to be something beyond that. Stars can get very insular.
How easy is it for a flamboyant actor and a royal to relate to all these people from the villages around Pataudi who pour in to meet you, to speak to you?This is a little psychological, my point here – Everyone you meet has a front. And everyone has a sheen of politeness and the helloji and namasteji and it goes on. But if you can break through that for a moment, every person is unique and very entertaining.
There are different types of people you meet as an actor, you learn to quickly classify and computerize who they are. There is some annoying guy with dark glasses and leather jacket who is from Muzaffarnagar and who, let’s face it, is annoying. And I can’t be bothered to bring out the nice in him, you know. And there are these really humble, nice guys and you connect immediately.
It’s not that great to be brought up in a city, you’re quite out of touch with this country. Even Bombay, that way, is a great corruptor of language, of culture. It’s the centre of the filmmaking industry, but Karan Johar somehow knows like what are the customs of India, but the knowledge otherwise isn’t great. The language – ek gilas paani mangta hai – we don’t know how to talk after a point. It’s important to have connections in rural India and other cities. It enriches you, the way they speak. It’s what makes, for example, Mr Bachchan’s language so wonderful to listen to – it’s not a big city or a Bombay influence for sure.
Do you feel older now, in the given circumstances?I’m conscious about my age. As to work – umm… Aamir Khan once asked me, when we were doing make-up in the same room during the shooting of “Dil Chahta Hai”, he said, ‘do you think I’m getting old to play love stories like this?’ I said no. So he said, well, my wife thinks so. I hope Aamir doesn’t mind me saying this. And he said, but I disagree; I feel the audience grows old with you if they accept you, and so long as you are vaguely sensible, you can continue to do what they like to see you do.
I wanted to do a movie like “Agent Vinod” also because I was looking to be accepted playing a slightly older, mature, manly character, rather than playing a boy. I can play a dashing RAW agent at 40 but if I were to play a college boy, that might be pushing it a bit… (laughs)
Films apart, as a person, how ‘old’ are you feeling, now that the 30s are past?Physically, it’s a little different; you can’t do things you did earlier. I have been nice, not drinking and smoking much and exercising. There are nights when you fall off the wagon, and that feels awful since most of the time I’m not doing that. I feel these things age you, so I think one should try to sacrifice them. But that apart, I feel on top of my game and if I support my body by not abusing it, then I will look on top of it also. I feel very confident and comfortable right now. I’m also sensible; I know it won’t last forever, so I’d like to get the most done over the next six years or so, so that if it wanes off, I’d like to be at least well-off sitting in Pataudi, not renting it out (laughs).
Stardom today comes with a fair share of attention, not necessarily benign. How do you cope?I think there is an emerging Indian personality that was a little dormant when I was growing up. I see it becoming a more confident lot, and it’s not the most benign one. They are a dangerous bunch, these Indians. They’ll tear you apart. The aunties will rip you apart, they are worse than the Italian mafia. We are not an overly nice race, but we have this veneer of being extremely nice. But there’s nothing you won’t say about a film if it flops. Or any event that happens, the SMS jokes that start, are fairly vicious, you know, they are sharp. I don’t know if any culture is quite as bad! In fact, that’s started entertaining me now, earlier it would deeply disturb me. Now I’m like, I read something and I go, bahut haraami hai yeh, dekho kya bol raha hai (laughs and laughs).
How do you rate your degree of flamboyance, a decade back, and now?See, flamboyance is very dangerous to try to do, because if you overdo it you appear terribly loud and affected. Ten years ago… long hair bobbing around, but that is not necessarily flamboyant! Hiring a chartered plane to travel is also flamboyant, which couldn’t have been done 10 years ago.
Somebody once said to me that a fit and sorted out 40-year-old is way more attractive than a 25-year-old. It’s a different thing, a different vibe. More control over things, more confident and self-assured, I think. When I’d say to dad that I don’t know how to run my house, he’d say, you’ll know when you’re 40. It’s a good age. I wish I was 30 with this experience, but it doesn’t work like that, sadly.
You’re re-interpreting flamboyance, essentially?Umm… no, it’s not just that. There’s much more maturity, I feel. There’s much more care, sensitivity to others, more respect for oneself, there’s a lot of honesty in working hard, in understanding that there are 50 other people on a set who expect something… Earlier it was like, schools or films, there was a sort of immortal sense of time, there’s forever to do everything. Who was interested in working in a particular way or trying to leave a mark or even taking stuff seriously in being an actor? Which is probably a defence mechanism – you have the fear of failure so you don’t even bother trying. It’s completely different today.
When did this transition happen?Very recently… Now, really. From now on, I feel what I do should be my best, and people should judge me by that. Earlier, I didn’t even want to be judged. When your father’s alive, you can afford to, in a way, bunk. It may sound cliched, but when you are the only man in the family, suddenly everyone looks to you.
You want to make them proud, you want to make him proud, live up to a memory, and not ever let it be sullied in any way. But you don’t mind sullying it while he is alive – that’s rebellion!
What would you have noted in your diary as dad’s life tips?Treat people equally. Don’t be flashy, keep it subtle. Invest your money well – and don’t tell anyone where it is! Always declare to customs if you’re carrying something you shouldn’t be… there are so many things.
Women only mind you drinking, and when other women are involved with you – nothing else, really.
Did he advise you on your personal life?Never. Sometimes, when I asked him what to do, he’d say, oh, you’ve got yourself into a bit of a mess, but that was about it. When I ran away and got married, though, I don’t think he appreciated it very much. Yet, he was very gracious about it, very gracious.
What did he say?He said a very deadly thing. He said, ‘you didn’t ask me before you did this, meaning you didn’t really care what I think when you did this. So I’ll let you know what I think, in time.’ For me, that was panic. Then he had a chat with Amrita, and said, fine, welcome. Then he said to us, ‘When Rinku and I got married, the press gave us two weeks; it’s been 25 years. I hope you can say the same someday.’
How do you compare yourself with your father, as a father?I think it’s my responsibility to ensure that these guys are educated a little bit internationally. I don’t live with them… I see a lot more of Sarah than of Ibrahim. But BB messenger, funnily enough, has connected us tremendously, and we’re very close in that sense. Sarah is a brilliant student, and I want her to go to college in England, and Ibrahim too, if he can. I’m working hard to invest, so I can afford to do that. That would be the biggest contribution.
To answer your question honestly and with all due respect to Abba, I think in some ways I am better, and in some ways inferior. I think your father is always your benchmark in whatever you do. Either you’re doing it because he did it or you’re not doing it, because he did it.
You are a less controlling parent?I think I’m a little more friendly and approachable, not as reserved. Maybe because I’m much younger. Abba was certainly not emotional or outspoken.
But for him to then say, ‘bete, take care’, is the equivalent of me saying ‘arre Sarah I love you more than anything else in this world’. Much easier to use fewer words, emotionally easier too. When you, for instance, talk to your girlfriend, you have to say certain things; it’s not enough to say, ‘see you’ or ‘miss you’, full stop. Abba was precise… Wonderful to be able to get away with so much succinctness! (laughs).