Saif Ali Khan

Saif Ali Khan plays a chef in his upcoming film “Chef,” the adaptation of Jon Favreau’s small Californian film, of the same name. (photo provided)

MUMBAI—Well, who would not, especially if he has the ability to do justice to all? In many ways, Saif Ali Khan’s has been the most remarkable success story among those of the heroes who appeared and made debuts in the 1990s. An aborted start (he was to debut with “Bekhudi” and even looked after co-star debutant Kajol at the film’s muhurat at the Water Kingdom in Mumbai when she had an attack of nerves!) led to a debut in the ensemble cast “Parampara” a year later.

(In an aside, he quipped that his mother – ‘60s and ‘70s top heroine Sharmila Tagore – did try and help him start out, but could not do much because the filmmakers she was close to, like Shakti Samanta, had stopped making films by then. When India-West reminded him that his first director Yash Chopra had worked with his mother in “Waqt” as well as his debut production “Daag,” Khan grinned, mock-admitted that he was signed because he was Tagore’s son, and called it “Back to the issue of nepotism,” a bogey raised by Kangana Ranaut, his co-star in “Rangoon.” He then thanked this writer for pointing it out!)

Khan’s career was in clear stages: the first casual phase of films like “Main Khiladi Tu Anari” and “Yeh Dillagi” (his first hits), followed by an array of flops until his ensemble cast trio of successes – “Kachche Dhaag,” “Hum Saath Saath Hain” and “Biwi No.1” in 1999.

The millennium began on a better note with “Kya Kehna,” and a better class of films and performances that spanned across “Dil Chahta Hai,” “Kal Ho Naa Ho,” “Darna Mana Hai,” “Ek Hasina Thi,” “Being Cyrus,” “Hum Tum,” “Parineeta,” “Salaam Namaste” and “Omkara.” He also starred in the Oscar-nominated “Eklavya” and was the voiceover of the titular character of a lovelorn canine in “Roadside Romeo,” Yash Raj Films’ animation collaboration with Walt Disney Productions. There was also the hit franchise “Race,” for which he reveals that he refused the role played by Akshaye Khanna and chose his character.

The third stage began when he turned producer, getting success with “Love Aaj Kal,” “Cocktail,” and “Go Goa Gone” and also doing “Agent Vinod” and “Happy Ending.” This was also a time when he funded the aforementioned films by doing mass commercial projects including “Humshakals” and “Bullett Raja.”

In the last five years, the last phase, Saif Ali Khan has been inundated with some of the above flops and the last definite hit “Race 2” (2013). His last film “Rangoon,” early this year, was a washout. However, he is in a happy space about his career and would like to continue with the variety. Up next are the dark “Kalaakandi” and the commercial “Baazaar.”

But releasing this week is a film close to his heart as well, doing which he says he received tremendous job satisfaction. The film is “Chef,” the adaptation of Jon Favreau’s small Californian film, of the same name, which became big.

We met Khan at the film’s director Raja Krishna “Airlift” Menon’s office in the quaint by-lanes of Bandra on a humid Sunday morning for a candid chat.

Excerpts from an interview:

Q: Has your outlook on food, or its definition, changed in any way whatsoever, after doing “Chef?”

A: Not really. I always understood the importance of food. Having spent a lot of my life in a boarding school abroad, I did learn to tolerate bad food! I would miss the Indian and home-cooked food, the simple things that I love like dal-chawal.

Most of us today want good food, including the workers on film sets who, like we actors, judge a good production setup on the yardstick of how good is the food they give us after our hard work! Besides, all over the world, food is the glue that binds us together, and that applies to all religions and countries and their festivals.

What has changed, therefore, is my respect for a chef – it has really grown. It’s a high-pressure job, and it is difficult to cater to a lot of people. We all tend to look at a chef as a ‘halwai’ in the same way that we look at a designer as a ‘darzi.’ But they are not!

Q: Can you cook yourself?

A: Yes, I do cook a few things like dal. I find cooking beautiful and therapeutic. It makes you feel self-sufficient. I think that everyone should know how to cook a bit. My character even cooks for his son when he has said or done something to upset the boy. That is so much better than just talking to them, which I do!

Q: You played a chef 12 years back in “Salaam Namaste.” What was the difference here?

A: This time I actually learned to cook and chop and be generally comfortable in the kitchen. “Salaam Namaste” was very colorful, but this time the film goes deeper. At that time, it was about two lovers, but this is about a divorced couple and a father trying to make friends with his son. Also, I think I understand more about life today than at that time.

Q: Did Raja brief you on requirements for your looks?

A: Well, he did say that he did not want me looking too thin or even too fit! You see Roshan, my character, as a rather lazy guy in shorts and T-shirts, He is not fitness conscious at all! But having said that, most chefs I know, like Vikas Khanna and Sanjeev Kapoor are pretty fit!

Q: This is one remake that even has the same name.

A: Chef, as a term, is known to most Indians. Let’s just say that certain films lend themselves better to remakes than others. But we have made a wider, deeper, more colorful film than the small original.

Q: The father-son relationship – has it been dramatically enhanced to suit Indian movies that are more emotional?

A: Well, I would call my film adaptation, with some things in common. If Jon were to watch the film today, he would respect the differences! On the surface, it is a father-son story like their film. But Raja has made it a film that also explores how success cannot be just counted in money if we are not able to maintain relationships. The story moves from Kochi to North India and also examines the North-South divide. There are some more surprises that we have consciously not revealed in the trailer.

Q: Isn’t your bus in the film also a character?

A: It is actually a metaphor. This ‘khatara’ (dilapidated vehicle) is shown shining, new and beautiful when there is a change in my character. One girl in the film even says earlier that Roshan is the actual ‘khatara.’

Q: You have remained relevant for 25 years. How do you see changes in yourself?

A: I think that I am getting better, I understand cinema and my work better, and I am more in sync with all the elements. It is easier to follow a director than think too much or differ from him. I was edgy and impatient earlier.

Q: When did the turning-point come?

A: I think somewhere along the way, taking its time. Now, I am enjoying my work as every film is a different school with different filmmakers. I understand characters, and I really enjoy acting well-written parts. A job well-done is satisfying. And besides children, wife and family, I need to be creative with a good role to be happy.

Q: How do you see changes in the film industry?

A: It’s wider angle now, with exciting work. The standard of acting is improving; it’s becoming more natural. Screens are getting smaller all the way to a mobile phone, but ideas are going bigger. Content is important, and like. Hollywood, we will now have the blockbuster kinds, small films – all kinds of movies even in the theatres – and superstars. The digital medium has also made it easier now – you can shoot anywhere. You don’t need big, expensive sets.

In the ‘90s someone had told me that if a producer tells you that a Ferrari stops outside a palace and the hero gets out, you should actually know that what will happen is a Fiat stops outside a producer’s bungalow, and you get out! And then you judge whether the film will still work! That means that the content works, not the looks! It’s even more so today.

Q: You have had a bad patch after “Race 2.” Do you regret doing flop films?

A: I am always disappointed by a flop, but regrets happen when I get involved in a film that turns out to be bad. A director may deserve and take the blame as cinema is a director’s medium, but everyone, including us actors, gets the flak and we actors are made by the films we choose. This is true even if no one sets out to hurt a film, themselves or the audience. With a few films like “Rangoon,” the creative experience of a character like Rusi and a director like Vishal Bhardwaj ensure that I do not regret doing the film even if it flops.

Q: You have stopped producing films.

A: Yes, I felt that I was getting insular and losing contact with filmmakers. I think I should solidify my ground as an actor and refresh my relationship with the industry first.

Q: There was recent talk about “Go Goa Gone 2.”

A (Smiles) Such talk will always be there. But we need contracts, good scripts and good directors. Over here, everyone wants to get paid…too much!

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