Saif Ali Khan on ‘Sacred Games’, ‘Toxic’ Social Media & Censorship
The Sartaj of Netflix's Sacred Games, Saif Ali Khan had a freewheeling conversation with The Quint. From the possibilities of the digital platform, to censorship, his future projects and why he is not on social media - he got candid with his special brand of eloquence. Read on about Saif 2.0.
Q: You’ve mentioned in one of your interviews that you haven’t read Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games. So what about Sartaj made you want to essay the role? What emotions did you tap into?
Saif Ali Khan: The idea was to do a good show for Netflix. What would be the best show to make? Even as a producer I would have thought, a top mafia show coming out of India to show the kind of guy this Gaitonde character is, a fairly typical kind of mafia guy, who’s got certain qualities and then there’s the cop - a slightly complicated cop, not the typical macho toughie that we are used to seeing - a damaged and complexed version. I did read parts of the book and I read the short story by Vikram Chandra - Love and Longing in Bombay and I came out with two words that were actually required to play the guy. They were ‘troubled & honest’. That’s the lens with which he sees everything. That was a clue that came directly from the book.
“You know it’s a beautiful piece of prose, the book, but he’s a rather passive character in the book and to kind of make him into an active one for the screenplay...the book happens in the character’s mind, you know. The description about how certain smells remind him of his mother - it’s hard to film that. Vikram’s quite happy with the portrayal - so that’s a relief”.
Q: The digital platform can be liberating and promising because it’s free from censorship. On one hand many viewers are raving about Sacred Games for weaving politics into its plot and then there has been this outrage against it with complaints being filed. Is it frustrating?
Saif: It will be deeply frustrating if something happens to the show. If someone says you can’t air this or if Netflix is discontinued. Then that will be my turn to be outraged. There’s no genuine cause for outrage. We wouldn’t genuinely want to upset anyone. It’s not the style of Netflix. Anurag and Vikram have not been ridiculous in their violence, their approach to sex or their subject matter. We have not taken advantage of the fact that there’s no censorship.
“We have to understand if people are trying to gain political mileage...watching like hawks whether any moment can be exploited...there are good judges and lawyers in place who can handle all this. Let’s set the precedent and let’s get on with it. Kashyap has given some reply to this, which seems to make sense to me. I’m sure the legal team will handle this properly.
To stay within the guidelines of not offending anyone would mean that we would make really dull stuff, you know. It’s really limiting, it’s frightening. Tomorrow, if we talk about making the Mahabharata, I’m wondering how you’d show Krishna...to depict someone with a god-like status, this is the best platform for it. We have to censor ourselves.
Our intention was never to sensationalise anything. We didn’t need to because of the great quality of the writing. It’s just the sign of the times. The world is ostensibly a global village. There are different attitudes around every corner. I’m in London, sitting here talking to you, it’s a very free society...people are demonstrating against Trump coming here. The Mayor has told them to behave themselves but they are allowed to express their opinion”.
I don’t know how much you can criticise your government in India, somebody might kill you. In parts of the Middle East, if you say something against Islam, like Salman Rushdie, you have fatwas issued. And the western world says, so terrible there’s no freedom of speech but there isn’t of course, there isn’t in places.
“If you date someone from the wrong caste, somebody will kill you in some parts of India. That’s just the way it is. We are at the edge but we try and make interesting things. It’s frustrating when somebody tries to pull it down. Let’s hope justice and some better sense prevails here”.
Q: The last few years have been like a bumpy ride at the box office. Do you think that with Sacred Games, you’ve got the recognition and adulation that you deserve?
Saif: It has been a tough time. On the other hand, there have been many interesting roles and offers. Even at this time, I had the ability to choose good directors and good scripts. Working with Vikram was a really good idea, I think. That’s what I want to continue doing, do good stuff with interesting directors, if it comes my way. And fortunately perhaps because of some kind of past reputation, it is still coming my way. I just got off the phone with Balki about something. Someone else called about something else. The future is... I think one needs to choose carefully, now. As always. I personally feel, yes, a certain validation.
“You know, when you work at something, work hard at something and everybody likes it, it’s a great feeling. I mean, sometimes you work really hard and do everything, and nobody likes it. It’s good when you get that shot in the arm in that sense. It’s encouraging me to choose carefully and well, and I am feeling bright and optimistic about the future. I am looking forward to coming back home after a nice holiday and sorting out some good work”.
Q: If you were to make something in the digital space, what would it be?
Saif: It would be the Mahabharata immediately or it would be the Ramayana or the story of Moghuls. Maybe, Aurangzeb’s story...the East India Company in India. Hundreds of stories at the top of my head. Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies. Any kind of saga - something that’s long and detailed. It’s going to happen. We are going to tell some amazing stories. And we have the perfect platform for it. Over the last few years there has been so much growth and excitement in the kind of stories I am being offered. As you yourself pointed out, it’s been a bumpy ride at the box office recently - that’s a kind way of putting it. The offers have still have been really exciting like Navdeep Singh’s ‘Hunter’ is a Naga Sadhu warrior, in ‘Bazaar’ this kind of a Gujarati businessman. So people are really creating exciting stuff compared to even 10 years ago. There’s an explosion, the kind of ideas that are just coming to me. Cinema is really an exciting place to be. It’s developing nations like us. We are responsible for the pop culture of the nation. That’s a really cool place to be.
“I don’t know if I said this before of the show (Sacred Games), to pull off something on a global level with the kind of international sensibility - to perform like international actors - to speak without an accent - to act without an accent. It’s nice to know when people say we haven’t seen any movies but we saw this show”.
Q: How do you manage to stay away from the social media in this hyper-PR age?
Saif: I don’t know. I think I get enough PR through the movies, doing an interview with you - it’s brilliant, it will be read, it will be seen. This constant promotion, I don’t understand. I think there’s correlation between people who like posting on social media and their lack of ability to make interesting conversation. I feel I’m seeing that. They forget how to talk to people after that. It’s nothing personal.
“I’m sitting in one of the nicest places in the world right now. But I’m not uploading that. I think I’ll be showing off. How can I upload a picture of the luxury of my life? I can’t understand that. Somebody will say, what’s he trying to prove? Maybe we come from a different era. It’s lovely to look at, sometimes to see what the world is up to. But uploading something takes you away from the moment of sitting and having a chat with someone. You can’t shoot something and enjoy it at the same time”.
Q: It can be very consuming as well...
Saif: Yeah, totally addictive and consuming. It takes people away from a lot. More on that later. Also it kind of reveals the ugly side of life. People are so violent on it and the environment is so toxic, I think.
(This story is from The Quint’s archives and was republished to mark Saif Ali Khan’s birthday.)