There was a time when many of us were above the law: Saif
Apart from shooting, what’s going on in your mind?
There’s lots going on. Things are nice. Primarily, I feel so humbled by what I am reading at the moment.
What are you reading?
I was reading the ‘History of Israel’. I’ve read two different versions. I suddenly realised one day that while I grew up during the Iran-Iraq conflict, I knew nothing about it. And I knew nothing about the Middle East in general, apart from where it is – even there, actually, not where every state is.
Does this sudden interest come from spending time in Turkey, shooting?
Yes, it might subconsciously, because I then read a book about the Ottoman empire. I read ‘The Great Game’, I read Darlymple’s book about the Mughals. And recently, something happened in the UN where Palestine was granted observer status and there was a furore, and I didn’t understand why. So I picked up this book on Israel. One was a lovely history of the modern Middle East. And this one is a funkier one by a Jewish author.
Absolutely! In fact, even architecturally, I was thinking that when we do up the house that we’re going to live in now in Bombay, an Eastern study might be great. To operate on a silk carpet, with a low table, maybe a jaali light – an Oriental feel, you know, rather than the typical wooden floors and English library that we see more often. Here, in my hotel room, I chucked out the sofas and had this silk rug placed instead.
Coming back to harder Oriental realities, you got another social reprimand recently.
Yes, recently this gentleman wrote a letter to me about smoking a cigar on Go Goa Gone’s poster. And I’m wondering whether to reply or not.
To the point about that, being a public figure, you have to see what influence you have on people, etc?
Yes. And I think, isn’t that what mothers are there for? To tell you what to do and what not to? Not actors, surely! I mean, respect the audience a little more than that. We play characters – some of which may take drugs as well. Smoking cigarettes, I feel, personally, is a form of drug abuse. I wouldn’t encourage it in my friends, my children, anybody. If I see somebody smoking in the street, I associate them with being weak, or unconscious of the damage they’re doing to themselves. You see a guy on a bike puffing away on a fag. That regular, mundane, feeding the habit – it’s a complete addiction.
Nobody’s objected to you holding a gun in Go Goa Gone’s poster, have they?
I was getting there! Nobody’s objected to the gun in the poster, nobody’s objected to zombies being shot to shreds. And smoking, so far as I know, is legal still, while shooting people is not. And if it is legal, then all this is rubbish. You have to catch the tobacco companies and depend on people’s mothers and friends to tell them not to do what these people are paid to do on the screen, it’s not a good idea. I don’t need to be told not to do heavy-duty drugs just because some Hollywood star is doing it. You talk about violence and item songs and rape – and you ignore, for example, video games, some of which are very intensely violent.
The law should petrify you. You should be like, if I act on this impulse and go and rape a girl, the law will string me up. That should be the deterrent. Not getting actors to wear burqas, surely? Also, the actors are far softer targets than tobacco companies. Nobody will pay any attention if you write a letter to a company saying this is a terrible thing you are doing. So you’ll write a letter to me or another poor sod and make him feel like he’s an irresponsible so-and-so trying to make money out of promoting smoking. A cigarette is a nicotine delivery device. It’s not anything else.
What’s your take on the other national addiction – gutka?
I’ve been approached often to do pan masala ads. And I’ve been offered obscene amounts of money. Obscene amounts. And I’ve sort of saturated my moral goodness by not doing that. I could have educated both my children in the best establishments in the world based on one gutka contract. But I said no, because I don’t think that’s a good thing to set an example for. And beyond that, please don’t look at me and expect more, because I’m already feeling sometimes that maybe I should have (laughs)! No, I’m joking. I won’t.
We couldn’t show our heroine in a bikini and shorts on TV anymore. We have to cover her up. A bikini and shorts is ‘U’ – but they’re making it sound like it’s ‘A’.
Dimple wore one in Bobby.
And my mom wore one in An Evening In Paris. That was ‘U’. So how is it ‘A’ now? It’s a bit frightening. I don’t want to talk about any particular country, but surely we don’t want to end up somewhere close to Iran in terms of censorship.
The law must be feared. The actor must not be locked up for portraying something on screen. The Amsterdam model is a good one, I think. It’s all out there, and it’s your people and your family who tell you that too much of this is not a good thing. Everything is demystified in that country, and a lot of people live perfectly normally. The fact that you can buy marijuana legally doesn’t mean the entire population is stoned. In fact, they quite frown upon the tourists who make too much noise.
They say you can’t just be high and lie stoned in a coffee shop all day – that’s for losers. I know their mentality, I’ve done a film there, I’ve met the locals, spoken to them. They have a pretty lax attitude on sex and drugs, so everyone goes there to use both – but for those living there, they’d rather talk about their art heritage.
Each country has its peculiarities. It’s strange, but you can buy something legally in Amsterdam and get executed in Dubai for forgetting to chuck it away while boarding your flight! You’ve to be careful where you are.
I had this thought… You realise how little you know about anything, you know. After reading a couple of books on a subject, you start getting an idea… everything requires a certain amount of time and depth for digging.
You’re beginning to enjoy reading now?
I’m learning that to truly enjoy an experience, the process of connection is important. Like you can try and rush through a book, but you don’t enjoy it. You can’t plug it in into your head like in The Matrix and zoop, it’s downloaded. It doesn’t work like that. It takes time.
Like gymming, you’ll lose it if you expect results every day. You can’t look at the mirror each day and ask, where is it? After a few months, you suddenly say, there it is! The same happens with the mind as well. You don’t read to find yourself different next morning.
I feel if the people who wrote the books I am reading might see me as really unintelligent if I were to try to be smart, but they’d be more forgiving if I was trying to understand. It’s like the fat guy at the gym – you don’t laugh at him, he’s there, he’s trying.
Sanjay Dutt and Salman Khan. The perception that these high-life guys do things without understanding the implications. ‘Actors have it easy because they’re big’ vs ‘Actors get away lightly because they’re big’. You’re an actor, an ex-royal, and have cases pending. What’s your take?
India has changed. There was a time when a lot of us were above the law. And we’re not, anymore. The rest is specific to each case, but the point is, there have been paradigm shifts in thought, in attitude. Things have changed, massively. People talk of things like there were princes ruling India, but for us, it was not a concept, it was a way of life for my family. It changed, and it changed fast. Similarly, there was a time when India was very forgiving, the law didn’t really apply to everybody. It was like, you’re a huge star and you’re a good guy and you’re okay, if you don’t really create trouble for someone, you’d be fine. We’ve grown up like that. There are things some of us would do without thinking earlier – today, I wouldn’t do in a million years. No chance! The country has changed. There’s a silent revolution that happened, in a sense. You understand these things later in life. You understand why customs stop you for pair of sunglasses.
Is it the customs and the police and such, or is it that the public wants stricter handling of celebs?
Yes, that’s also changed. I don’t know what the word is, but people were, you know, more forgiving earlier. There’s a more aggressive India brewing.
Would a Rajesh Khanna have been stopped by customs for a pair of sunglasses?
I don’t know, for all I know customs may have been tougher in those times, but I wouldn’t see a Rajesh Khanna getting into trouble outside the airport, you know. If something happened, he’d be told, forget it, we’ll handle it. If ‘handling’ is about bribing big shots, that perhaps is still there for people who know whom to bribe when, but for us, it’s not there anymore. There’s still a tendency of people to call you and say, “arrey, humein bata dete”, but I don’t waste time on such conversations, because it means nothing anymore. There was this word people used a lot – influence. “I’ll use some influence”.
For us, in any case, influence would be about getting the job done, because otherwise the job would never get done, the file would never move. Just to get your basic right, you had to look for influence. Now also, when we are trying to do so many things by the book at the house, it’s unbelievable – it’s taken thousands and lakhs and taken man hours by the hundreds and people have travelled the length and breadth of the country to get one little signature, you know. That’s how it is. Ultimately, you have to tolerate things.
Maybe, things will get better. Like we have land dispute cases in Bhopal. Twenty years back it was inconceivable that the court would rule against the government, in the aura that the government had in the Old India. Now, it is possible that a court turns to the government and says you owe them these many crores. And if that happens, it would be great!
And in how many cases are you a defendant, currently?
Currently, there’s the Jodhpur case, and the Wasabi incident. I think for as long as I have been in movies, there’s been one thing in court. Constantly. It’ll be great to have none. But I’ve learnt one thing. As Johnny Depp said to Kate Moss, never explain, never complain. Shut up and move on. It’s fine. Like this little incident at the airport, I was dying to explain, because what people thought was the opposite of what happened. People will think I’m arrogant; they’ll get the wrong idea. To be written about as someone who throws his weight around… that’s just not me.
What actually happened was – I was asked to sit in the lounge, and so I sat in the lounge. And then these two gentlemen came up and said problem hai and this is only for VIPs and you’re not in the list of VIPs. I actually smiled and stepped out and sat in the main area. Then the airport manager came and said, it’s a misunderstanding, please come back to the lounge. I said, I honestly couldn’t be bothered, it’s a lovely airport, and it’s not as if I’m being mobbed or bothered by anyone, this is fine. He said, please come and have a cup of tea, and I went and had a cup of tea with him. That was it.
So why wouldn’t you explain, if you were dying to?
Because you sound like an idiot. You can’t create an image that’s not you. Let it go. And I really feel that – unfortunately – even a little bit of a controversy today gives you a little edge (laughs)! Actually you don’t want to be a particularly overly nice guy. It’s fine if you are, but it’s very boring. For consumption, at least. It really is. I go to the gym everyday in Lucknow, you know, and now they see me as this regular friendly guy who’s there every day, and nobody really bothers anymore. It’s like ghar ki murgi or whatever that thing is. If any other star would enter that gym, he’d probably be mobbed. So friendly and nice is perhaps quite the enemy of stardom (laughs)!
So in a way it’s fine, it works all right. Anyways, there’s a class of good people… Delhi aunties and these kinds of people who think that most movie stars are like brats. So they kind of watch you very carefully and then if you turn out to be actually polite and well-behaved, they kind of melt. I’ve also seen it with a lot of good-looking actresses, people assume they’re arrogant and are pleasantly surprised if they aren’t.
We take it very seriously when we’re misrepresented in the press, but I don’t think it really matters as much as we think it does. Certain things – like it being said that you said to a poor peon, do you know who I am? – are just embarrassing. Or someone saying he beat up my grandfather. What I mean by don’t complain and don’t explain is, on a serious note, is that if lightning strikes, something is said that you don’t deserve at all, or if you have gone and done it, either ways, you don’t have to explain it. Just keep your head down and keep going. It’s much better that way. Misquote, mis-this, sue this, do that – it’s ridiculous!
You invite a fair amount of rabid online response, and in earlier interviews you’ve spoken of the viciousness of the Twitterati sometimes.
Talking about them now, really, I’m really happy I’ve grown a thick skin. When we were kids we would think of people who spent too much time on the computer as nerds, right? I think they’re still nerds, so let’s not be too carried away by what they say. And then there are the haters who will write negative stuff about anything, without checking or verifying anything. It doesn’t matter after a point. And I’m really happy I’ve risen above. They talk rubbish. If what they said was true, I’d be dead by now, and I’d get two people seeing the opening of my films. This sitting in a room, commenting on people – it’s kind of frustrated and weird. For me, it’s funny now. I don’t have too much respect for haters. We shouldn’t be afraid of abusing them back (laughs)! I think I’d like to join their sites and say, hey, Losers, what’s up? And there are so many sites, and most of it is junk. You can’t wallow in a garbage can and then wonder why a rat bit you. Stay out of it, dude! You can’t please them – they’re unpleasable.
A lot of IPL teams have “royal” titles. A lot of IPL teams have Bollywood stars owning them. Stars are venturing beyond the IPL with things like Salman and the CCL. You are a bona fide royal and you are reasonably big in Bollywood and you have a cricketing pedigree. Why aren’t you anywhere near cricket?
We tried once to get involved; we tried to get my father involved in acquiring a team. We tried to buy the Pune team at one point of time. But then there were only two of us bidding for two teams, and then Lalit Modi said sorry, the rules have changed, and so our first shot was all over. And then Sahara came in and bought the Pune team which we were originally looking to get, and obviously we can’t bid against Sahara. Of course it wasn’t all our money, we were tiny shareholders.
In a way, it was a blessing in disguise. Cricket, to me, is a very mystical thing, with my father, my grandfather, Pataudi, all these things involved. It’s a very heroic game, something that I have enjoyed and something I understand very deeply. And I don’t particularly like the IPL; I don’t find it very interesting to watch. It’s not my kind of cricket also. It’s trying to make cricket into a kind of baseball, or slogging, or a kind of gulli-danda in the park. You can watch that also.
One-day cricket is great; I watched the World Cup final and Dhoni get those runs. I like to watch a fast bowler bowl to his field which is well set in a Test match. An exciting test match is usually very much more exciting than a one-day match, though, of course, if it’s boring, it’s terribly boring. So no, I don’t like the IPL and am not particularly interested in it and it’s probably a good reason not be a part of it; it’s a bit of a circus with so many people getting on to that thing. I think it would’ve been a great drain on our energy if we had.
What’s the focus on ‘use of energy’ about?
When you’re young, you fear death and graveyards so much. But when people you love die, and after a while if there are more than one or two, it becomes less frightening. Even the graveyard becomes a pleasant place where you go and spend some time. There comes a point in life, maybe around 50, where half the people you know have gone and half are around… many of my father’s generation have gone. It takes the sting out of the thought of dying. It makes you conscious that it’s inevitable. And it colours everything you do. You are like, everything’s rented, nothing’s yours.
As Jim Morrison said, I want to get my kicks before this shithouse goes up in flames. True, that. I used to say when I was a kid that I’m still young because Mel Gibson’s still young. I am young because Pierce Brosnan is still young. And I’m way younger than them. So when they start getting old, I’ll start worrying about my mortality. Now they’ve all packed up, and do whatever I have to, soon (laughs uproariously), because I’m next. And there’ll be a new generation to do what we’re doing. There will be a time when I’m past it, but I’m not past it yet. So for me, the time is now.
Tagged Saif Ali Khan