"Let's name some of Saif's films–Dil Chahta Hai, Kal Ho Naa Ho, Hum Tum, Parineeta, Being Cyrus, Omkara, Race, Thoda Pyaar Thoda Magic. You pick up a photograph of his from any of these films and you cannot put it in any other film because they are such different characters."
So said director Kunal Kohli at the London press meet in London of Thoda Pyaar Thoda Magic. And the lavish praise for his actor and friend Saif Ali Khan, who was sitting next to him dressed in a green jumper and blue jeans, was not the only thing that was different about this media event. The press meet, one of the rare ones Yash Raj Films UK has organised, was also laid back, cool, funny and full of surprises.
Do you prefer working with children than adults?
Saif: It's hard to say. Some adults can be difficult and some children can be, too. But there is a saying that talks about working with animals and children and it's like something you can get in trouble with. Children have weird working patterns. They want to go to sleep or sometimes they have to work till four in the morning.
But Kunal stuck to his thought of casting kids who wouldn't look filmi. There should be nothing rehearsed or perfect about them. They should look real and they were. All four kids brought in a lot of positive energy to the set. Whether it was the freezing water or the early mornings, it was never a problem to work with these kids.
You and Rani work well together. Who's your favourite actress to work with?
Saif: I don't know how to answer that one. I've enjoyed working with Kareena Kapoor as well. I've had a lot of fun working with Preity Zinta. My co producer for this film, Adi Chopra, thinks I make Rani cool and that she grounds me. So we both have facets in strength that the other lacks a bit, which is what makes our pair so interesting.
Chemistry onscreen has nothing to do with real life. I was talking to my father the other day and he told me that often in the past, apart from very few examples, real life lovers don't make for great screen partners because there is no expectation or tension. Rani and I did not get along well in Hum Tum, but people thought we made an excellent onscreen pair. My favourite personal co-star would be Kareena. But working with Rani has been the most effective on screen. While most of the time we were discussing my private life off the sets, I think she is one of the most real and down to earth people in real life and certainly one of the most talented actresses in our film industry.
You've done loads of different characters, but the general view is that Omkara has been the strongest you've ever been as an actor. Do you agree?
Saif: Let's deal with this from the very beginning. There is this cafe in Bandra near the seaside. I was doing one of the many crappy films I've done in the past [like a lot of the films I did for the first 10 years of my career]. So instead of concentrating on the lines for the shot, I was looking at the wall of the coffee shop. I saw 15 pictures of Brad Pitt and in each picture he looked different. And I thought it's really bad that I looked the same in every film that I've done.
As an actor, if you see, Brad Pitt has really long hair in Seven Years in Tibet, he has no hair in Seven, etc. That thought stayed with me. We should approach each film like a different person and try and look and act differently. Little things challenge me. While playing Omkara, everything is put on–the limp, the haircut, the gold tooth, the red nail and the accent. It was a performance that was learnt and created. That's easy. But it's equally difficult to do a Hum Tum, too, which is like a series of conversations.
There is no drama but a mere argument between a guy and a girl for two hours. It was more of a burden to carry off Hum Tum than Omkara because you had to be charming, look fresh, not be too loud and yet be engaging so that people would love to watch you talk to a girl. Why would any actor want to do that? I mean it's so much easier to kill a guy entertainingly [laughs]. A film like When Harry Met Sally is harder to make and act in than a Rambo. I say that without offending either Sylvester Stallone or the makers of Rambo.
How much of a real dad do we see on screen? Have your kids seen the film yet?
Saif: I don't know how relevant it is. I suppose if I didn't have any children, I'd go mad doing this role. People generally talk to children like they are adults. I mean, you don't talk with them like they are some animated creatures. Yes, you have to be kind, warm and sometimes have to explain things that are really difficult. Like if there is a God, why is there so much of suffering in the world? Why did granny die? Where is she? But I still try to answer these questions. I think it's easy and you don't have to be a father figure to fit the role.
When Kunal offered me this role, many said that TPTM was inspired by Mary Poppins. And why can’t we be inspired by a Hollywood movie? Anyway, I do play the daddy, who is a sharp businessman, almost like a Yash Raj equivalent of Bruce Wayne. There are many parallels between Ranbeer's character, which I play, and Bruce Wayne. He also has a butler like Alfred. He is successful, brilliant at what he does and too busy to sort out his life. So when he has to take care of four kids, it brings out the best in him.
Kunal: There is also a certain reason why the kids hate Saif in the film, which I can't reveal. Saif, too, is very uncomfortable with the kids. That was something difficult to do because if you see Saif with his kids, he is very warm and loving. That was a challenge for Saif because he had to be aloof from them.
Do you see anything of yourself in the character you play in TPTM?
Saif: Apart from a certain amount of compassion, not at all. Ranbeer Talwar is a sharp businessman with no interest what so ever in worldly pleasures. I am far more undisciplined [laughs]. If you gave me that kind of money and the lifestyle, I'd make a definite mess of it. Also, I did associate myself with the late Sanjeev Kumar saab. I certainly realised that I was playing an older guy in those waistcoats and suits. I felt a bit like an uncle. I was worried.
Saif has received critical acclaim for Ek Hasina Thi, Being Cyrus, Dil Chahta Hai and Omkara. Do you wish to cast Saif in completely different roles like the ones mentioned or will it be the same Yash Raj roles?
Kunal: Well, he got a lot of critical acclaim for Hum Tum and won the National Award for it, too. I find it very strange when people say the word 'typical Yash Raj kind of role' because all my four films were different. You can't call Fanaa a typical Yash Raj film because it's a terrorist who falls in love. When did that happen last in a Yash Raj Film? I don't want to make Saif look or do roles like the ones you've mentioned because he has already done those before. I want to show him in a different light each time I cast him. TPTM is a Saif you've never seen before.
Saif: The concept of Yash Raj Films have changed ever since Yashji stopped directing. Shimit Amin's Chak De! India was also a Yash Raj Film. In my experience, Kunal is a very varied filmmaker.
What more can we expect from you?
Saif: There was a time when I actually knew that. I was doing such bad work four years ago that I was really frustrated. Something had to change. I've just learnt how to cope up and survive in the last five to six years with hitting a reasonable amount of success. There is a lack of fear in me that I like.
I'd like to be a big star and earn crores of rupees and then go and do a film like Being Cyrus. Someone would then question: What the hell? And I'd answer: Well, that's what I wanted to do this summer because it's just a movie at the end of the day and why should it matter. I don't want to be a slave to the box office. You often get confused just like how I am now [laughs]. Right now I feel like going back because Omkara and Being Cyrus didn't run so much at the box office.
I don't think it's a great idea to be too clever in your choices also. But it will be a balance. One day I'm in Melbourne with my hair spiked and dancing in my shorts with Preity Zinta, the next month I’m on this huge set with my hair shaved off going rustic and then I'm in Mahabaleshwar and it's awful because we could have been in New York making a feel good entertainer, but no, we are in a third rate hotel drinking some crap whiskey at two in the morning. But that's the way I see my life. It's good.
What was your favourite magical moment while filming? Did you play any pranks on or off the set?
Saif: You know, I've got such short-term memory I can hardly remember anything. I think I've become quite boring nowadays. Somebody told me that people often ask question like ‘did you play any pranks on the sets’ and I think I should start now so that I have an interesting answer. I should've asked Iqbal, the small kid who plays the sardar to poison someone's coffee or something [laughs]. But the only thing I was up to was annoying Rani.
Kunal: For me, the most magical moment would be for the film to open to house full boards and to fare well at the box office.
Given a choice, whom would you choose as a director or producer?
Saif: Yeah, Kunal's definitely up there. He is good because Hum Tum was a big success for me personally. Omkara was a performance in its own league. Also, Sriram Raghavan because it's a completely different school. I enjoyed Ek Hasina Thi a lot.
Kunal and I may have a lot in common like talking about the same subject, drinking the same drink, eating the same kind of food, but when you take it to another level like what happened to me with Pradeep Sarkar, who directed me in Parineeta, it is amazing. He wanted to work with me again, but it didn't work out.
All four films you've produced are with Yash Raj–TPTM being your first production jointly produced by both. But have you thought of producing your fifth film as a solo producer?
Kunal: I hope Adi Chopra is not hearing this [laughs]. No, I haven't thought of it yet. But I really cannot think of producing any of my films without Yash Raj Films because of the rapport and understanding I've shared with them since my first film. Not to forget, all our films have done decent business and some even more. And it's not about investing money individually. I can do that but why make a solo production when you've got a family backing you? Yash Raj is family for me.