2006 was a crucial year for Saif Ali Khan. Parineeta and Being Cyrus, both of which had great parts for him, had released the year before. And yet, no one saw him pull off the part of a desi heartland bad guy, except Vishal Bhardwaj. Strangely, he thought of Saif as Langa Tyagi in Omkara, his adaptation of Othello, after watching his performance in Dil Chahta Hai. Saif went all out for the part and brought authenticity to Langa Tyagi by shaving his head, staining his teeth yellow and mastering an alien dialect.
Here he looks back at creating that character, how Aamir Khan almost played the part, and if Hindi cinema would have been different if the film was a success.
My first experience of this film was watching it at an industry screening. I remember leaving the theatre stunned by the power of storytelling and the language because we had never heard something like that before. What was your sense of the film back then when you first saw it?
I think that was a really interesting year for me in terms of films. There were a few creative things that were happening like Parineeta and there was a new direction I was going in as an actor, away from the 90s and a more creative and artistic phase.
There was something very attractive about Omkara right from the start and that was Shakespeare. Vishal making that film with Tassaduq (Hussain) shooting it, who was our DOP, a really interesting young man, but also the fact that we had Ajay Devgn and me and Kareena and Vivek Oberoi and Bipasha (Basu). It was this kind of multi-starrer where the two worlds of Bollywood as we knew it then – the artistic and the commercial side – were coming together.
Everyone who was a part of this film wanted to be a part of Shakespeare and a part of good cinema. So there was a very strong creative impulse in all of us and an artistic feeling. It was so good to be able to act and get into the zone which was really when you feel like a complete actor. While preparing for Omkara and learning the accent, I had gone to the Maldives at one point and Italy at another. I remember jogging in Italy and listening to this on my headphones and I felt like an actor. I have never been better prepared, and on the first day, with the first shot we took, I was sitting with Deepak Dobriyal on a bridge and Vishal was far away. He was so pleased because I had learnt my lines and delivered them well. It was sync sound as well so there was no dubbing.
The fact of the matter is that if it could have been a bigger hit, then I think the Indian film industry would have gone in a different direction and we would have been a more potent, intellectual film industry rather than the potboiler industry that we often are.
Let's back up a little. By the time Omkara came, you had done Being Cyrus and Ek Hasina Thi. But no one had imagined you as this desi heartland villain. How did Vishal think of you for this and what was your first reaction?
I remember this conversation with my mother on the phone where she said that I should do Othello. The next day Vishal called me and said that I have a script, I making a film on Othello. I said it was weird. He asked me to come over and said it is not Othello's role I am going to offer you, it's Iago's. I remember Iago being one of the great villain roles in Shakespeare and he has more lines that Othello. I said to him that my mother said I should do Othello. He said, 'no you are too good looking. Othello has to be a little complexed about his looks because he can't trust a girl who is prettier than him'. He said he had seen Dil Chahta Hai and then thought of me as a villain. He told me to shave my head but I wanted to grow it and look like Nirmal Pandey from Bandit Queen. This went on for a long time. He finally said it's Eid, so do a kurbani in the name of god, and then we buzzed it and it looked great.
There are some lovely cinematic moments in the film and the fact of the matter is that if it could have been a bigger hit, then I think the Indian film industry would have gone in a different direction and we would have been a more potent, intellectual film industry rather than the potboiler industry that we often are, which is fine. At least we tried.
Is it true that this role was originally written for Aamir Khan?
Yes, that is what I heard later. Vishal said, 'he was asking me a lot of questions and he wanted to alter things'. Aamir must have just had a discussion with him but Vishal apparently said he will call him back and then called me instead. He just said it is not going to work because he wasn't sure it was going to go the way Aamir wanted. It was not something Vishal was comfortable with following.
I read that they started calling you Khan saab on the set.
Being the kind of person I am and the films that I had done, there has always been a sense of privilege. There has always been that feeling of whether someone really deserves to be where they are. Some of these theatre guys and film institute chaps have really just come up on the basis of their hard work and talent and then there were some of us who had come up because of privilege. So given that undercurrent, when you are on the set and you do a scene and you are as prepared as those guys and you act at par, then they also feel better that okay they didn't cast somebody just because he is a star. He is right for the part. To earn the respect of those guys somehow felt really important to me. So when Vishal and the crew, who are used to working with actors like Naseeruddin Shah, started calling me Khan saab, it felt like a compliment that one deserved because I had worked on that for a few months.
Was there ever any discussion on the language?
There probably should have been but surprisingly, there was not. The idea was to create some kind of language that is natural to the milieu. There is no point in speaking Hindi. You got to sound like these guys. But at the same time, language is something that is for the smart audience that is willing to work a little hard. Good acting and maybe subtitles can help you.
My father, who was not a Hindi film buff in those days, said this is a really good film and he was really proud of what I did. But he said I didn't understand what you were saying. I need subtitles because the language is hard.
Tell me about the scene when he sees the kamarband and puts it on his head. We see a tinge of madness in his eyes. How did you get that right?
It was a really creative time. I remember that shoot and when you are in the zone and inspiration strikes you. I think it was entirely my idea because it looks demented and unhinged when you see it. It was just in my hand and I was fooling around. I remember Konkona (Sen Sharma), Vishal and I used to talk a lot and I was trying to be this intellectual actor. And I had read somewhere that Iago might be impotent but Vishal said 'no, no his wife is too happy'. So he had an idea of maybe we should have a scene where my character and his wife are making love. He couldn't say how he should show it and I was collaborating with him and I said what if we have a moment just after making love. We can be more suggestive with cinema without showing anything. So I remember spraying water on me so I was covered with sweat. And then that kamarband moment happened.
When Vishal and the crew, who are used to working with actors like Naseeruddin Shah, started calling me Khan saab, it felt like a compliment that one deserved because I had worked on that for a few months.
I want to remind you about a review I found. It's by Derek Elly in Variety magazine. He wrote: It's Khan's movie through and through, in a performance of rugged, contained malevolence which trades on his previous screen persona as a likable best friend as well as his stint as the manipulative outsider in Being Cyrus. It's smart casting, superbly realised.
It is so nice. And I remember at IIFA they had nominated me for best villain and there was a whole bunch of people from Amitabh Bachchan to Hrithik Roshan in that list and someone asked me 'how do you rate your chances?' And in full humility and honesty, just looking at this film and looking at those films, I said I rate my chances pretty well. It was a lovely feeling. I got messages from so many people. Ranbir Kapoor said I want to become an actor because of this. Not my performance, but this kind of film. This is what we should be doing. Some people from the industry said you will find it really hard to do something better than this.