He steps out of the makeup van, passes a squealing crowd and finds himself amidst a Bengali family in north Kolkata. There's no disconnect - reel or real. "My feminine side is Bengali, my masculine self is Pathan," he says and cracks up at his own line. Returning to the city where he shot for Parineeta and his own production, Love Aaj Kal, memories come crowding back. "Kolkatans are very critical about films made on their own city. I was a little jittery when I did Parineeta. But mom said, 'You've got it right'." On the sidelines of the shoot for Tigmanshu Dhulia's film on Saturday, we catch up with the Bullet Raja - Saif Ali Khan.
You were just through with your reception when Tigmanshu took you out of all the hullabaloo and whisked you off to Lucknow to shoot for Bullet Raja...
The starting point for the film was the kind of films these guys have been making — Saheb, Biwi Aur Gangster and Paan Singh Tomar. I don't watch too many films, maybe I should watch more, but I'm clued into these films. Somewhere I had put it out that I wanted to do such films and I also wanted to work with Tigmanshu. And it worked out. We had met a few times and we were discussing various scripts when I finally said, 'Look I leave it to you. I'm okay with whatever you come up with'. Luckily for me, the film we zeroed in on was something really exciting. We were talking about all kinds of films but not this — it's more of an Indian Scarface. It's an interesting role, which involves total acting rather than playing an extension of my own self. That's rare. And so here we are.
It's heard your act in Omkara inspired Tigmanshu to offer you this role...
I think he knows I can act and Omkara is one of those films which proves that I can. It's a leading question. It might imply if I'm required to act in the same way that I did in Omkara, but it's not. But then, Tigmanshu will get more than my off-screen persona because if he was getting just that, he wouldn't be satisfied. I love doing different things.
Has the experience of playing langda Tyagi stayed with you...
The experience of acting always stays with you. There's a discipline involved in learning the lines and trying to do something you are not - create a character. There's a different fun in getting a role where you can choose the clothes interestingly, not stylish clothes, some of them are horrible clothes but you make them stylish — like a silk shirt, trousers, boots with zips on them. You dress like a character. That's the fun. Omkara was a little like that. In all the other films, you play normal people. These are not normal guys. It's good fun to not play usual people. I loved Paan Singh Tomar, it's pretty near-flawless and I think Irrfan is perhaps the best Indian actor alongside Naseeruddin Shah. With this film, we hope to make lots of money at the box office and become bigger stars.
This is the first time you are doing a film opposite Sonakshi...
Sonakshi's very nice. I like her work in films. She's genetically an industry child. They are different. They know how to act and behave and Sonakshi seems like a well-brought up girl.
You too are an industry child...
Not at all. I'm an outsider to this industry. I haven't been brought up in a filmi atmosphere. Not that it's good or bad - it's a fact. We were brought up in a cricketing house. Of course, I remember visiting film sets as a child, but that was different. I had no understanding of what was going on. There's a way of behaving in the industry which you learn. But people like Sonakshi or Kareena know it from the start.
Sharmila Tagore was in Kolkata last week and in an interview to us she said she couldn't communicate with either Soha or you after her name was announced for the Padma Bhushan and that you learnt it from the papers...
I heard about it from various other people. They congratulated me. I tried calling her. She was in Jaipur, but she didn't answer the call. She's become like my father. He doesn't answer my phone either.
So, did you celebrate the occasion?
No, we are not that kind of a family. We don't celebrate our achievements. We celebrate being together. Because we don't live together, it's different. We used to come and visit our parents, and when we are there, we don't say, 'Yeah, things are going well or not going well'. The moments are important. If it's her birthday, we make an effort to celebrate that. That's the way we are.
A lot was written about Rajesh Khanna receiving the honour late. Do you think it came at the right time for your mother?
There's a time for everything. On the other hand, how does it matter really?
Do awards matter?
The ones that have mattered came at a time when people thought I wasn't deserving. These film awards certainly don't matter. I think they are a little corrupt. I don't see Aamir Khan getting an award because he doesn't want to turn up. If an award is based on your attendance, then what kind of an award is that? Government awards are also not much different. I wonder how many people get an award purely based on merit! It doesn't mean anything to me because I never get the feeling that it's something you have won fair and square.
Do you watch your mom's films?
No, I used to find them too disturbing. She would be crying a lot in them and I don't like to see her cry. I haven't even watched Apur Sansar, though I know I should be watching her films. She might be a great actress but she's my mother and I see her differently. I've seen some of her films, but not all. But I'm fully aware of what she has done and who she is.
How does it feel coming back to Kolkata?
Now, most of my relatives are dead. But yes, I feel there's a Bengali in me. Earlier, I used to think differently, but now I'm pretty much sure. Particularly when I'm in my white kurta-pyjama and chashma, I get this feeling. Also, I've memories of this place. Let me share a story with you. My father once told Farokh Engineer that Victoria Memorial was his house. So Farokh Engineer went there at night, knocked on the gate and said, 'Please tell Nawab saab that I'm here'. The surprised gatekeeper replied, 'No Sir, this is Victoria Memorial. This is a public building!' On this visit, I am pretty much staying in the hotel and hitting the gym.
You started working on Bullet Raja just after your wedding. How are you catching up with Kareena?
It's just a matter of time management. Your work is also important. You do a little bit of work and you are home. It's easy.