In the lead up to the first of the three releases he has this year (Kaalakaandi, Bazaar and Sacred Games), Saif Ali Khan says he's finally excited about the acting opportunities coming his way. "I've learnt more in this last year than I did in the first 24," he explains. He looks forward to his upcoming projects, but he's equally serious about reflecting on the choices he's made in the past and why many of them didn't work. "There has to be acknowledged regret," he adds. Here are excerpts from the interview with the actor –
The posters of Kaalakaandi have you in a yellow fur coat and tiny ponytails. I was wondering if you ever have a moment of doubt when you need to look silly on screen?
I think when I was a kid, one of my cousins whenever he would drink too much, would pick up a stupid piece of clothing and be happy to carry it for the rest of the evening. This was a kind of statement that life is not to be taken too seriously. Also what the character is going through at the time is that he's bonded with a transvestite, taken some acid and just found out that he's dying. The straight-laced character that he is to what he becomes needed to be shown in concrete terms apart from just internal. It was my suggestion that he should look like a freaked out version.
Your director Akshat Verma has said that he called you immediately after he wrote the film and you ended up meeting him a good two years later. He told you about the time you'll could have saved if you had just met him earlier to which you said – I'm sorry I was doing Humshakals at the time. I had lost my mind! How do you manage to look at your mistakes with such candour and objectivity, especially when it's so easy for actors to deluded?
I think Sajid (Khan) is going to put a hit out on me if I keep saying that. I must have said something like that. 'Every film has its own destiny' sounds like a cliche but I don't know if I'd been right for this film two years ago. And I don't want to be a deluded actor. It's such a waste of time. I think a lot about many things. Like Agent Vinod shouldn't have been such an ode to the West. It should have been like Akshay Kumar's Special 26 look – tel and side parted hair and pen in pocket. You realise that in retrospect but you've got to have that understanding. This is the tapestry of your life and there has to be an acknowledged regret. It's not possible without accurate reflection otherwise delusion just lends a sheen to everything.
How much distance do you need from a film to be able to look at it critically?
Sometimes it's while you're doing it. Like Love Aaj Kal was a film where I was just not in the right space in my mind and then I got Hrithik Roshan's make-up man. He just kind of painted this face on me. It would have suited Hrithik because he has this angular face and superhero make-up. I just wasn't happy from day one. Sometimes in the past when I've had tremendous opportunity and been on a great wicket, I haven't made the most of it. I've learnt more about acting in this last year than I have in the previous 24 years. That's also because I'm getting more opportunities and I'm willing to experiment a little more with style. Directors like Vikramaditya Motwane in Sacred Games are saying play it down. I know what they mean. Someone flipping between Narcos and this shouldn't feel a style change. They should say this is better.
We recently asked a group of producers why 2017 was such a terrible year for Hindi movies and they all agreed there's been a serious crisis of content and that the writing just isn't good enough. What's your sense of the scripts being offered to you?
I think there's definitely a lack of ingenuity when it comes to situations. For example, if someone is going to die. In Phantom he just gets shot. It's hard to come up with things that haven't happened before but we needed something genuinely creative. Real life is more exciting sometimes. If you think about these biopics, perhaps that's why they work, because the real life situation is more thrilling. So that can be one reason. Also writing is a job that requires a great deal of artistry and emotional intelligence to actually captivate an audience – especially a busy and less naive audience.
How often are you genuinely impressed by a script?
Honestly I think a part of the success that an actor enjoys is when he can fix some of these scripts himself. Like if you're hosting Filmfare Awards and Shah Rukh works on the script, he takes it somewhere. I'm not at that top level where you get the best script so by the time it comes to me there are usually some issues which need to be worked on to make a good film. It's not an area I excel at but I can point it out and say this is where I feel it's not working. Scripts in America go through through processes and with lots of clever people, so by the time it comes to you, you should not be saying the first act is not working. You should just be doing your bit – which is learn it and make it come alive and not fix it.
I'm sure people like Salman (Khan) and Akshay (Kumar) know after a while that this is what the audience likes but I'm an ass and I don't even think about it. I just do what the director says. But sometimes it's good to have a chat. Like last minute in Phantom, Kabir (Khan) thought I should die and I agreed with him. Whereas actually she (Katrina Kaif's character) should have died. Things like that can throw the film off. So to understand that is also required by the actor.
When was the last time you were truly terrified by a character and wondered if you were good enough to play it?
I've said no once or twice because it frightened me. Pan Nalin had an idea about a lunatic in an asylum. I was was quite frightened by it. I didn't relate to it. He even said I'll help you. I think my role in Navdeep's (Singh) film frightens me. It's emotionally inspired by a Western in the sense there are rugged landscapes, rugged people. So that's daunting because the action and the acting will be quite heavy. But I think you should generally stay away from roles that don't frighten you or else all you'll do is a rom-com in London. It's not going to work.
This is your 25th year in the film industry. What's the most useful piece of advice you've got from the filmmakers you've worked with?
Mahesh Bhatt once told me, pitch it to your 5 year old kid. If they understand what you're doing, that's good enough. Play it straight, keep it simple and be honest. Sooraj Barjatya said when in doubt, do nothing. So if you're looking at a dead body, just feel it and trust the background music to convey it. Don't over do it.
And my mother said think of the camera as a beautiful woman who is looking at you. Don't impress her by overdoing things. She'll notice every little gesture, she'll even notice how subtle you are. Also, Vishal Bhardwaj said do the scene the complete opposite of what your instincts imply. So if it implies you should be laughing and saying the lines, try crying and saying it. These are all the things that have helped and stayed with me.