When Bollywood stars are afraid to talk about anything beyond their films, Saif Ali Khan holds forth on a plethora of burning topics ranging from the rise of Nationalism in India, his identity as a Muslim, living in a Hindu state, Triple Talaq, Kashmir and understanding the construct of religion. He also has the most balanced opinion on the Sonu Nigam azaan row, accepting that he thought the tweet was “bit aggressive, initally”.
He also has a word of caution for the actors who use steroids to get six-pack abs in two weeks: “Your pen**es may fall off!”
On his production house
I have taken a break for now from producing films in order to focus a bit more on acting. But I intend to come back to it eventually. I have a friend in Los Angeles who is a line producer, with access to rights to a number of films and TV shows. I should look at the family a little more than I have in the past. Maybe Kareena (Kapoor) can do a female-centric TV show that we can produce.
But there are a number of things that are a natural extension of self. It’s just about working a bit harder. I’d like to even open a club perhaps, not a nightclub, but eating, drinking, music kind of a place… like minded people, and doing up Pataudi and the new flat. I quite enjoy doing up places, to create an atmosphere. Maybe to do it professionally will be a good idea.
On speaking up
To keep a low profile is important, and you wonder if there is a need. Salman Rushdie thought he had the freedom of speech and said incendiary things. A fatwa was passed that changed his life. He didn’t enjoy that. Freedom of speech is one thing but you learn that certain people will kill you if you abuse their religion. Sitting in the comforts of our living rooms, it’s different; various worlds intersect in India.
On Sonu Nigam’s comment regarding azaans
Don’t know who you are offending. At one level I agree, the lesser sound the better, there should be certain decibel levels allowed across religious practices. I also understand the amplification of the sound during azaan comes from insecurity. Not just here but also in Israel apparently where three different religions co-exist. It’s been written about so I believe it’s the same. As a minority, you would like to make your presence felt and hopefully accepted. If someone says that it should be extinguished, it will make some people little uncomfortable. As a precursor to some sort of holocaust, it’s the first thing you think of. There’s a bit of fear there. It’s fine to express your views on the decibel levels. I think that tweet was a bit aggressive though, initially. And I do think religion should be a private affair and we should be a secular country.
On social media
There is a basic advantage to it, Twitter for example, should be about spreading the news. But it’s become about becoming the news. Initially, when someone criticises me on social media, I think it’s coming from a spiritual and intellectual equal. But then I realise maybe not, that they are not as open minded as I am. And I am not interested in the opinion of these faceless, nameless people. And I don’t want everyone’s approval. Also, the fame such people gather on Twitter is a surrogate form of stardom. It comes from an interesting comment on perhaps another celebrity. It’s not real talent being sold.
On fairness products and racism
I think I have endorsed them a couple of times and I am told they are the largest selling things. But it’s not a stand I have felt particularly strong about. Everyone in this country is obsessed with fair skin. It’s the first thing people say when a child is born. And it’s important that Abhay Deol’s voice on the subject be heard. Perhaps we all know somewhere that selling that product is wrong, and somewhere we wish we took a different stand but we don’t. If you don’t sell it, someone else would. There should maybe be a law against it. Without a law how do you hope people won’t bleach their faces?
On ‘white’ background dancers
When these foreigners came into the industry, there was a reason. The Indian background dancers used to be very unfit. But yes, this pricing and business and grades based on their skin colour is ridiculous. And it reflects a truth that might be a bit uncomfortable.
On the need for religion to adapt to the times
The idea of god and religion has changed and evolved over centuries. I am not an expert but I understand that at in the earlier part of the last century existentialists such as Camus, Sartre and Nietzsche talked about the death of god and a different kind of an awakening. So the future of god is something I am very interested in. What do we need to create so that it will fulfill the need of the hour, because it may not be the old one anymore. With science and philosophy advancing in this century, it’s no longer the centrepiece of our life. What did Freud, or was it Nietzsche who said, ‘There is a god shaped hole in our consciousness today.’ This is of course not for the people for whom religion is the opium of, who haven’t thought about it at all ever.
If you look at people from a generation ago, a Hindu who would say adaab seemed more accepting, made you feel a little more comfortable, sophisticated and kinder. It’s the India we grew up in. Nationalism is amazing and important for development. But is that the same as Hinduism? I don’t think so. In a country that has been secular, there are minorities, it will make them uncomfortable. On the other hand, my freedoms have been afforded to me based on economics. So it doesn’t apply to me. To me, I am happy living in a Hindu state also. Make the same law for everyone.
On Uniform Civil Code and Triple Talaq
Why should we see people as different? I know the argument, that the criminal law is the same but the civil law varies. But of course there should be one law for the land. Also on Triple Talaq. I have been married in the past, I have had a nikaah, but that’s also because my ex-wife mother is also a Muslim. And also because we ran away and got married. But when I got divorced, I just couldn’t think Triple Talaq was the way. There are responsibilities, financial one has towards the wife and children. These aren’t just divorce arrangements, but so you sleep right. My arrangement expired when Sara turned 18 but I haven’t stopped taking care of her and Ibrahim, to be a father, emotionally and financially. It’s not a contract or a religious out. I don’t agree with it because I haven’t followed it, I could have. Yes Muslims say it was started at a time to give women rights but things are different now. Indian Constitution does try to address this with the Special Marriage Act. There is a way if people are willing to follow. Kareena (Kapoor) and I followed the Special Marriage Act. I think times have changed, and I have too. Although I had no interest back then either, to convert anyone. I think Taimur should have the freedom tomorrow to be a Buddhist if he wants, or an atheist.
It’s so scary. We have had phobias against religion. The Jews have been historically persecuted. And anti-semitism has been used by the Western civilization as a political, philosophical and economic tool, to treat someone else as ‘the other’. And after the holocaust, it’s scary when people say Islamophobia because it feels like you will be persecuted or discriminated against no matter how you are. And I am not religious but as a kid, I was so proud to be a Muslim. One used to think of the Mughals, Turkey, calligraphy, art etc. And now it’s this, which is a far cry.
But I’ll tell you, there is no such thing as the Muslim or the Jew. We create the construct of the Muslim and give it certain characteristics, that he does this or that. But we are individuals. Our views will be different, even on religion. It’s scary when we are all are called ‘the Muslim’ because it implies we all have the same beliefs and characteristics that can be easily summed up.
On students’ movements in India
It’s fabulous. Kanhaiya Kumar’s intellectually regal behaviour when he was released, and the speech he gave was phenomenal. It’s a schizophrenic situations and all voices are important right now.
Our families in Bhopal and Pataudi were divided by partition so we have a first-hand experience of what that was about. So when some people talk of a war as an option in a nuclear age, it’s frightening. (laughs) And nobody is talking about how China is looking pretty aggressive these days. They have changed the names of places in Arunachal Pradesh. We probably don’t like to admit there is a stronger neighbour around the corner. Because we think we can easily bash up Pakistan, apart from the nuclear missiles that are pointed towards us.
Also jokes aside, it’s a complicated situation. And the fact that Pakistan exists really undermines the Muslim situation in India. The obvious reaction will be that why don’t you move there if you like Pakistan so much. So the people living here also have to be pro Uniform Civil Code.
On the ban on Pakistani actors
Make up your mind, make it a law if you want to. (Laughs) Also, there is a sense of exotic to them because they are from the forbidden land, like Fawad Khan. If they were from India, that would remove that extra glamour from them. Maybe they are just usual but there is a Mata Hari sense of a foreigner about them.
I can understand the ban. On one hand you are playing nice, casting each other in movies and playing cricket, and on the other hand they cut five people’s heads — who are ‘they’ though, I don’t know. We don’t know how much to believe. A lot of what happens between the two countries is covert, there are a lot of underhand dealings and trade etc. And then there is an espionage situation then you don’t know what’s really happening? Is it a grave misunderstanding? Or is the bad, bad Pakistan trying to just hang someone? Or does this guy is really a destabilising factor? How do you say he should be released or not? Of course as a humanitarian you don’t want anyone to die. Everyone tells you even in a spy movie that if you are caught, you are on your own. But you don’t know what will happen? It’s statecraft. Will they really hang him, or are they just saying so? Or will India trade him for someone else?
It’s not an easy situation, and I feel bad for the Kashmiris. We can’t be jingoistic about it unless we are taught to understand and view it objectively. I don’t know what was really happening when the man was tied to the jeep by the army. The army is in there, it’s a war zone. We cannot tell them sitting in our drawing rooms what’s right and wrong. Kashmir is a complicated issue. My personal view is that the two governments have reached an agreement that this kind of a situation should be kept at it, because it cannot be better or solved and hopefully it won’t get worse. It’s insolvable legally, second probably to Lebanon or Israel.
The Dogras when they were awarded Kashmir, they were not the maharajas they became. And the fact that it’s a Hindu maharaja and a Muslim population, the insurgency into PoK, the plebiscite with Pandit Nehru that never happened, the people were never asked where they want to go because there was a fear that it wouldn’t go the way we wanted it. And the Kashmiris know that in this whole deal the people who have not been asked are them, so they want their own freedom, which is also not feasible really because from Khalistan to kashmir, separatists have been trying to break away from the Indian Union ever since it was formed.
On cosmetic surgeries and use of steroids
There are actors looking fitter than ever. Though am not sure I approve of overuse of steroids (laughs). That seems the only way an average Indian can get ribbed in two weeks in the gym. They better be careful because their pe***es might just fall off. The new six pack Indian has sold his what-not to the devil in exchange for an eight pack. It’s the new Faustian pact! And they don’t care if it makes them look good.
On daughter Sara’s acting aspiration
I told her once try to concentrate on the art. Look at people like Aamir Khan, you can make your own rules. Don’t get caught up with what it seems to be about. You can take a script and check into a Venice hotel by the canal, read your script, think etc. Be creative, see the world. If you don’t get caught up in the tiny little politics but push creativity. The compromises define you. My first movie I was told if I didn’t stop seeing the girl I was, I will be chucked out. I said okay chuck me out. But I bet a lot of people would, if they were told by the king of Dharshraj (laughs) to do that. Not that they would.
I know Sara is so bright, and having conversations with her on art and history when she was at Columbia University was so rich. I’d like her to be enriching. But this is what she always wanted to do. But so much of it is fear and insecurity. But as a parent, I know you don’t own them, you can only provide them a good education, send them to a good school and university. I am from the Khalil Gibran school of parenting, like my father, am there if they want to talk to me but won’t tell them what they should do. Ibrahim understands it’s very competitive in the industry but then which career isn’t these days. A BA from a good university will fetch you nothing, you need an MBA.
On being a star in changing times and hating selfies
The age of privilege is threatening to be over. It’s scary because we don’t understand anything else. We all grew up reading about positions of power, the World War, the Queen of Britain, the Pope, such titles of privilege. But the more Arab Springs take place, you see a middle class obliterating the hierarchy of royalty and creating it’s own. Social media, Instagram is also making them more available, people like Carey Grant or Mr Bachchan. And to be a star and be in a queue in an airport is a curse. Because you don’t get paid enough to fly private so you are attacked and people will want to take selfies. And it’s too intrusive. I dislike selfies. There’s something very aggressive about it. Kids I never say no to, that’s more innocent. But stars you know, they should be up there, they should be looking down from the galaxy, they cannot be standing in the same line as you (laughs out loud). Or change the word for it, call it ‘representative of people’ or something, become a communist, it’s what we are after all. And everyone asks stars but no one asks industrialists or politicians where the money is coming from.
On Award Wapsi
I wouldn’t give up my awards, the National Award or the Padma Shri, but senior filmmakers like Kundan Shah and Saeed Mirza who protested against the appointment of Gajendra Chauhan as the head of the Film and Television Institute of India. I think that’s fair, it’s allowed in any democracy.
On his National Award and Padma Shri
When I found out about my National Award for Hum Tum, I was having breakfast in my bed in London. Mom called me and asked me to take the first flight back. I told her I didn’t want to because I’d have to buy my own ticket. Also, I have my father’s blood in me, so I thought I didn’t deserve it — although I think differently about it now. I did come back and it was nice. But there is also a story with the Padma award. I had asked my father if I could use the family letterhead. And he said to use the letterhead while I am alive is to denigrate it, like the Padma Awards have become. And a week later, they gave it to me. So I called him and told him I don’t think I deserve it, there are so many people senior to me. So he said, ‘I don’t think you are in the position to say no to the Government of India just yet.’ So I went.