Interview Hindi

Saif Ali Khan: If Jon Favreau sees Chef, he will respect the differences


The Nawab of Pataudi says that his film has much more to offer even though it is adapted from the Hollywood film of the same name.

Photo: Shutterbugs Images

Mayur Lookhar

It’s been over an hour since the scheduled time, but Saif Ali Khan hasn’t turned up yet. One of the journalists present jokes that he must be cooking. After all, we are here to interview Sail Ali Khan for his next, Chef, an adaptation of Jon Favreau’s 2014 Hollywood film of the same title.

Suddenly, there’s a buzz and the actor walks in. He’s quick to apologize for the delay. What catches our attention is that he’s wearing a cool t-shirt, and bright shorts. He looks anything but a Chef, but his attire reminds us of Khan’s popular inner brief advertisement. The Nawab that he is, Saif walked in ‘bade aaram se’ (effortlessly) as he did in the TV commercial. However, one then notices the crepe bandage on his feet.

“It’s nothing serious. Just hurt myself while doing an action scene,” he says, perhaps referring to the shoot for Netflix show, Sacred Games.

All through the 45 minutes he spent with the media, Saif comes across as iceman. He’s extremely soft-spoken, listens to each word in a question carefully, takes an odd long pause, before dishing out the answer.

His calm demeanour is also maintained while responding critical queries. Be it blaming the director for his films' failure, or cheekily admitting that his mother was instrumental in launching him, Saif is honesty personified. However, he strongly defends his daughter Sara Ali Khan over false reports of unpunctuality.

Excerpts.

Has your perception of food changed after taking up this film?

I don’t think so. I always understood the importance of food. That is one of the things that I like about the story in the film. I think, understanding of what a chef does has changed. The respect for the high pressure job, how difficult it is to cater to what people want. People want to eat well.

It takes a lot to make good meal. But we don't want any excuses at all levels. Be it the set workers or actors, they don’t mind working hard but they all want to be well fed. They are very upset if the food is not very good. In fact, that is a hallmark of a good production. I have always loved food and cooking.

So, was there always a ‘Chef’ Ali Khan in you? 

Ah... I mean a bit, I mean everyone should know how to cook. But not like this (Chef).

What is your favourite memory of food from childhood?

I think favourite memory is eating french fries, on the bed while watching films on my VCR in Delhi. I always liked eating dal-chawal (lentil and rice) and bhindi (okra). I went to school in England, and so, obviously home made Indian food was something special for me.

How often do you cook for your kids? 

I’m not sure if they like it. Ibrahim still eats spaghetti but Sara is off the carbs (carbohydrates), but I like cooking. It is very therapeutic, it is very relaxing. You feel self sufficient.

Does your cook look a bit worried about his job?

Yes, he does look worried, but he doesn’t have to. 

You’ve played a chef before in Salaam Namaste (2005). How different was it this time around? Did you see a change in the way you approach such a character now?

Salaam Namaste (2005)

Yeah, this is a completely different kind of film. How times have changed. That was really good fun, colourful, more about relationship — so too is Chef, but here it's a divorced couple trying to make friends with the son who doesn’t really know his father, so it’s much more mature. I think my approach has also become a bit deeper over the years. You understand more about life and it just shows up on your face.

The film is adapted from Jon Favreau’s Chef (2014). Has anything changed in the Indian version of your relationship with the son vis-a-vis in the original Chef?

The film is different enough. I don’t really think of the original any more. I saw the film but I don’t know why I even saw it?

Normally, I wouldn’t do that in connection with this film. By the time Raja adapted it, we worked on it, with Ritesh Shah (writer) and changed the look and gave it a journey from Kochi to the north, made the relationship about north Indian, south Indian not really understanding each other’s culture, and really kind of made it an original.

There are some things in common but there’s enough done differently. I’m sure if Jon Favreau sees it, he will respect the differences.

But comparisons are bound to happen.

I’m sure they will and they should. I hope people appreciate the differences and the fact... you know the fact that how sometimes people do a total remake, copy stuff badly. I don’t think people will feel that here. It is quite a class product.

The original had a star in Robert Downey Jr. Will we get to see any star in that role?

Yes, we do. It is a lovely character. But we don’t want to reveal the surprise. There is much more to the film than in the trailer.

One of the impression that I had from the trailer was that this is a journey film, did you discover a vagabond in you too?

Still from Chef (2017)

No, it's not really like that. It’s more a question of coming home, trying to make a relationship with your son. One of the themes is definition of success, Roshan Kalra’s father wanted him to be an engineer or lawyer, but he fights with him and say he wants to be a chef.

The father equates it with being halwai (confectioner). So, success also means what if you don’t have relationship with your children, and you just make money.

You’ve been around for 25 years. How do you see your own journey and how you have evolved?

I think I’m getting better. I think I’m in sync with the elements that go into making a film. Earlier, I was very edgy, impatient. Now we are more in sync with what the background music will be like, and every time I’m on the set I just want the director to be happy.

It’s the director's medium. You just put your own feelings, ego aside, and do just what they want for those 12 hours. It is easier that way.

Your recent films (Chef, Kaalakaandi), are not really portraying you as a big star, but showcase more of a story. Does that reflect you being in sync or getting exposure to other things (forms of cinema)?

I don’t know if that is a good or a bad thing? We are all a product of our experiences, our thoughts, the constructs we make, the values we give our life.

So, yes, my views of things is because of things I have experienced. My take on Kaalakaandi is very different. I don’t see it as a niche film and normal people shouldn't do too. I think it is the most honest film I’ve been a part of.

As a person, you are developing too. I’ve met some actors on the Netflix show or even Kaalakaandi , who I would have never met in the mainstream. I think my acting has improved as result.

Do you ever regret doing films that fail?

Rangoon (2017)

It depends on how you feel about the film. If I loved the film, then you just feel okay. Rangoon was a cinematic experience for me. This is what I think an actor should be. He should get a chance to be Rusi Bilimoria with one hand gone, smoking a cigar, doing a great scene for Vishal Bhardwaj, it’s a lovely experience, I can keep doing that even if it fails.

That’s (failure) somebody else’s problem. I hope the financier doesn’t feel bad. But I’d love to work with Vishal. I’ll never regret that.

I think you feel bad when you try and make a hit, and you do (incorporate) all the elements of a commercial and it still fails. Most of the time, I believe there is something wrong with the movie. People have never rejected a film on the idea that I have done. They’ve rejected it because somewhere it failed.

How fair is it to blame just the director?

I think it’s pretty fair (this evokes a laughter from all). I think everybody gets the flak. The important thing that an actor does is, that he chooses. A nice mix is really good idea, something like my mother did — Bengali, little artistic cinema, and commercial cinema.

In my mind, that’s the way to go. I like doing a Kaalakaandi, Being Cyrus (2005) as well as Race (franchise). I don’t think you should be known by one type. But this is a director’s medium. I think we should let them call all the shots. It’s our fault as much as anybody else’s for getting involved sometimes.

You’ve taken a break from producing films, why is that?

I think the energy behind production was me being an interested actor. Somewhere, I was losing touch and contact with (film) makers and other producers because I was becoming very insular.

I wasn’t enjoying the feeling I was getting as a producer, even though I look forward to do that. But first I need to solidify my ground as an actor and my relationship with people in the industry as an actor and then concentrate on production.

There’s been talk of Go Goa Gone 2. What’s the status on that?

There is always talk about Go Goa Gone 2 happening, but we need good directors. Things are difficult to finalize because of (long pause), I mean there is always nitty gritty on contracts... Everybody wants to get paid … TOO MUCH. (laughs). So, these things become difficult.

Amrita Singh is said to be playing an active role in shaping Sara’s career? Was your mother Sharmila Tagore influential in your first film too?

She tried to help, but there is a slight generation gap. May be that is less between Sara and me. She (Tagore) would try and help, but the filmmakers that she worked with (Shakti Samanta) were not making films when I joined.

She has worked with Yash Chopra though in Waqt (1965) and Daag (1973).

Yes, she and Yash ji gave me my first film, probably because of her … (goes silent and smiles)  So, we are back at nepotism. Kya kare (What to do?). Thank You.

Today, given the huge debate over nepotism, especially since the advent of social media, do you think star kids carry an excess luggage?

Is it excess luggage? 

Well, you ought to live up to expectations, especially given the debates over nepotism, social media trolling. Have you had a discussion with Sara over chalking off all the negativity that comes with it (star kids making debut)?

I don’t think negativity is coming Sara’s way at all. I think people are being very kind and supportive. Everyone says nice things about her. I’ve never got the feeling there is any kind of negativity.

Well, unfortunately there was a report which said that she’s been coming late to the sets of Kedarnath, taking too much time on her looks. How did you react to such report?

I heard something like that also. But then I heard the producer giving out a statement that she is acting really well and this is all rubbish. So, it’s nice… some mixed up reviews always come out. I won’t believe that Sara is making any kind of trouble, because she is very helpful, constructive, and very focussed. She is very passionate and hard working. I would not believe that she would ever behave badly. I think it’s impossible.

Two of you best career roles are Omkara (2006) and Ek Hasina Thi (2004). I reckon you must be flooded with such negative roles. After these films, you went to playing the protagonist, few clicked but when they didn’t did you feel compelled to go back to playing the antagonist?

Scene from Omkara (2006)

I think it is a mix — films like Hum Tum (2004), Parineeta (2005) were nice, they (characters) were very heroic, then there was Race (2008) where they (makers) wanted me to play the younger brother (Rajeev Singh, which was played by Akshaye Khanna). I requested them that they let me try and play the older brother Ranvir as he had a more sorted moral compass. That suited me as well. So, I like variety in a role.

I get pretty bored playing the same thing. So, it’s fun to not think about it too much, play a bad guy sometime good guy or whatever. If I keep playing the same guy then I’ll start feeling stuck somewhere. I’m glad that I I have got the chance to experiment. 

How tough is it to choose a character or film? How tough is it to repeat success? 

I don’t know. Up until now I felt that there are many ceilings you come across in your career. After a point, ah... I think Ek Hasina Thi is the best movie of its kind, similarly Omkara and Hum Tum were the best movie of their kind. But after that what do you do? You just flatten out and start doing some bad movies.   

They are not making (good) movies any more. I mean what has Vishal Bhardwaj made after Omkara that is comparable, what has Kunal Kohli made after Hum Tum that is comparable. In fact, you can't find many films, no offensive to anyone.

We’ve all been part of the same industry. I don’t know there is a growth and now there seems to kind of break in that where we can go beyond. Where you play slightly more grown up characters in slightly more grown up situations likes a divorce couple in Chef. So, let’s see what happens. 

What’s your idea of a romantic home cooked meal. Have you done that for your wife? 

For me that would be a nice spaghetti with an Aglio Olio sauce, not much garlic, though. There have to be more candles than the food anyway.