BY ANUJ RADIA
Saif Ali Khan began his career with playing mainly chocolate boy and comedic Casanova roles, but over time, he has matured a lot as an actor and has left his ‘Ole Ole’ days behind.
Whether it is the conniving antagonist in Omkara, a terrorist in Kurbaan or a determined father and food connoisseur in Chef, Saif has moulded into various characters with such ease and gusto.
The actor has now decided to put his acting prowess to the test as he undertakes the role of a cop for the first time in India’s first Netflix original series – Sacred Games – which is produced by Anurag Kashyap and directed by Vikramaditya Motwane.
Sacred Games is an eight-episode thriller follows the riveting journey of Sartaj Singh (Saif Ali Khan), a seasoned, cynical police officer and Anjali Mathur (Radhika Apte) – an intelligence officer, to the centre of a mysterious web woven the powerful criminal overlord, Ganesh Gaitonde (Nawazuddin Siddiqui).
The plot twists and turns along the dark alleys of Mumbai, with Ganesh and Sartaj tightening their grip on each other and staking everything on victory, including the city itself.
In his most candid interview with Asian Style’s entertainment correspondent Anuj Radia, Saif opens up on Sacred Games, the ups and downs of his career, life as a celebrity parent and what it takes to be a ‘shameless tart’ aka an actor!
Saif, the thriller genre is quite popular on Netflix. In your opinion, what sets Sacred Games apart from the other web-series out there?
The fact that is a Netflix show is a huge thing. A few other companies (whom I won’t name) offered a few shows and money. My management agency (called Exceed) said, “Netflix is completely different” and Netflix themselves said, “Look, other people will sell everything from movies to scooters and lamps. We only make movies.” So, there’s a difference there.
When you work with a production like them (Netflix), the quality control of how things get made is just different. There’s more to making movies than money. There’s a kind of a know-how required.
Having successfully established your career in Bollywood, how do you hope that this web-series will enhance your creativity as an actor?
Because it’s another platform of delivering content to a viewer, but on a more intimate level. It’s an opportunity to be quite artistic.
It’s an opportunity to be graphic novel-style darker and grittier than you could on TV and that you would on film. It’s a different medium which can really showcase what you’re trying to do without censorship or worrying to about it.
Having said that, I think we’ve been very responsible (smiles).
Is that why you feel Sacred Games is more of a Netflix series rather than a feature film, because of the censorship issues?
No, Sacred Games is perfect for Netflix because it would take about 20 hours to tell this story properly!
Its like ‘War and Peace’ would be great for a show rather than a movie, because it’s long and convoluted and there are different strands. Like ‘The Killing’, you can’t really make a movie out of it.
I mean, you could, but it’s better to expand characters and developing different characters aspects of it so that viewing becomes your world for a while.
Prior to signing the series, did you read Vikram Chandra’s original novel? If so, what was your reaction?
I did though I didn’t read the whole thing as its 1,000 pages. But I read enough to get an idea of who ‘Sartaj’ (my character) is. Vikram also wrote a short-story ‘Love and longing in Bombay’, which has a great write-up of what this guy is like.
I came up with the two words I needed because most characters are seen through a certain lens, you know you define somebody and can use one word to describe everything. So Sartaj’s two words are ‘troubled’ and ‘honest’. I found that from the book, so that helped.
We’ve seen you play secret agents in films like Agent Vinod and Phantom and this is your first time playing a full-fledged cop role. What was it like stepping into the shoes of Sartaj Singh?
When I was a kid and doing romantic-comedies, I was always told that I’ll never be able to play a cop because I didn’t look tough enough. It was probably true in that case.
The first thing I wanted to do, is to make sure I could do this convincingly. This involved putting on some muscle and making my shoes a bit higher-heeled so I look taller like a good old Sardar cop – they’re tough guys, you know!
So I didn’t want people to think, “What kind of a Sardar is this”? I think I’ve been quite convincing, it’s quite a victory to pull that off and that too in uniform.
Were there any specific preparations you had to undergo for the character?
Weight training and that kind of physical stuff. Then learning Punjabi and figuring out what kind of dialect Sartaj has got. Meeting some cops.
You played a Sardar in Love Aaj Kal, so did that experience help?
It kind of did. But I wanted this to be more authentic and proper. I think Sartaj is better.
As you’ve mentioned, the shooting took place in live locations in Mumbai, which contrasts to shooting in studios for feature films. How did you cope with this change?
It’s more fun to shoot at live locations but it was really tough and hard-work. I mean shooting 13/14 hours-a-day and no lights so you’re always ready. But to show how crazy of a city Mumbai is it’s nice to have a digital camera which doesn’t require as much paraphernalia that some film-setups do.
You can really see the city for what it is because of the digital camera and the digital medium which doesn’t require lights.
That must’ve been quite new and interesting?
It was interesting but very tiring. It was the toughest shoot I’ve ever done. In normal film shoots you get a lot of time to rest while they re-light and change stuff. Here, you’re on-the-go all the time and it’s gruelling.
Plus, the subject matter of Sacred Games is quite intense and heavy, so you have to live with that surrounding and as Sartaj Singh?
The great thing about playing Sartaj Singh was that he wore a turban. Honestly, I really get worried about the heat in my head, mainly and trying to keep my head dry when you’re sweating.
But wearing a turban, you could put me anywhere, it didn’t matter. So, I was a really calm guy, which I needed to be. Otherwise, I would’ve been edgy because it’s too hot.
You also described, “It was someone else’s house where I did everything that I don’t usually do in my life.” What did you do to get out of your comfort zone?
You had to live this guy’s life and see where he lives and what does. It’s much more than in a movie where you would fake it more on-sets. Here, I knew exactly what it was like for my character to do everything.
It must’ve been hard to settle in. How did you cope with those initial stages?
I remember I came to the set and I had to do this shot of putting on my gloves and inspecting the flat. I started doing it really fast because I thought it was really cool, but my director (Vikramaditya Motwane) said, “No. You’re too hyper. You have to be really slow because Sartaj is depressed and doesn’t want to be here so just slow down by 100.” So, I had to do that.
The parts that I’m playing these days, my own nervous energy gets in the way. I have to calm that down.
Is that the toughest part for an actor to actually live that role rather than play it?
One aspect of it is to get onto the frequency. Some actors are actually on the same frequency as the characters they are playing, so it’s easier. But when you have to make an effort to be much calmer and more mature, then that’s a bit of a challenge (laughs).
Stillness is the secret to being watched. People who attract too much attention actually put off people from watching them. It’s the quiet ones who hold your attention.
Let’s talk about your career. You have witnessed success as well as failure. How have you dealt with the drawbacks, especially of recent?
I don’t know actually, partially through denial, blaming various other people like the director and producer (laughs) and then blaming myself.
I think sometimes I’m excited to try new ideas but they don’t always find resonance with the audience, that’s the most honest appraisal of the situation.
Commercial films like Race have more of a chance of succeeding with the audience than films like Kaalakaandi, but I’m still happy I did them.
What I am beyond a point, is that I’m not bothered about this (drawbacks) anymore. Reviews are good, I work hard so I am quite dedicated. I don’t take things for granted. I don’t turn up late at shoots.
After a point, I don’t want to bounce around or panicking about why what film succeeded or why it didn’t. Part of me wants it all to end, so I can stay home and be lazy. The other half says, “No, I don’t want that.”
Tomorrow if it all ends, if I’ve got enough cash, I think it would go on long holidays.
Besides work, it’s a great time for you as Sara is about to be launched in movies and Taimur is beginning to walk. How is celebrity parenthood treating you?
I should have made them sign contracts that they should give me 5% of their earnings. Taimur definitely. I’m going to make him sign that (laughs).
But honestly, it’s in our blood to be these shameless tarts (laughs). It’s in our blood to act so that is what’s happening and it is a fantastic job yaar. Bless the children.
I hope Sara has fun being an actor because she is so passionate and hard-working. She is the most amazing child.
Check out our candid interview with Saif Ali Khan right here!
Are there any particular tips you gave to Sara as an actor?
I just told her to not worry about her looks and told her to focus on the individuality that comes from within, because it is this what attracts people.
Happiness and confidence in life can look so attractive on-screen, more than the perfect nose or face.
I only advised her to focus on her own personality and individuality – to bring what nobody else has, which is her.
Acting can be a strenuous job. What is your favourite holiday spot that Taimur also enjoys visiting?
Londres! (Laughs) But London and Gstaad (in Switzerland).
In Gstaad, I like to just eat, walk in the snow and be surrounded by nature. I often don’t leave the house in Bombay apart from going to the gym. I mean, where to go, somebody else’s house?
Post Bazaar, you have a variety of projects lined up. How are the preparations going for those?
I’m in the middle of Navdeep Singh’s film and it’s going well. I’m looking forward to some non-action films, including Luv Ranjan’s comedy film. So hopefully I can relax and have fun with those non-action movies.
This film that I’m working on is taking the mickey out of me a little bit. It’s so much hard work. The director says that I should not use a stunt-double because it takes too long. So he wants me to do it all myself. It has been very exhausting.
Well, it’s great to see Saif Ali Khan back in action and we are certain that he will continue to impress us with his terrific work!
Sacred Games is now available globally on Netflix.
Sacred Games Images courtesy of Netflix