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Saif Ali Khan: 'At the core, it is the story of Chanakya'

Saif Ali Khan talks political dramas, the Roman Empire, fatherhood and his new series, ‘Tandav’

Saif Ali Khan in 'Tandav'
Saif Ali Khan in 'Tandav'

As the policeman Sartaj Singh in the Netflix show Sacred Games (2018), Saif Ali Khan became one of the first mainstream Bollywood stars to transition to the digital medium. His second starring role in a web series is in Tandav, a political drama that will premiere on Amazon Prime on 15 January. Khan, who is awaiting the arrival of his fourth child, plays politician Samar Pratap Singh in the show directed by Ali Abbas Zafar. Edited excerpts from an interview:

What attracted you to ‘Tandav’ and the part of Samar Pratap Singh?

I have grown up watching shows on politics. Besides, we are a political people, yet we have not really seen a show that centres on politics. So this was a great way to kind of get into a story that would be about a whole bunch of different people—some entitled and privileged, some up-and-coming struggling people, to student politics; the whole cross-section of India. When you look at such a story, you look for drama and when you put pressure on these people, all kinds of things happen. The stakes are quite high for them. It’s an interesting world and a nicely written character that has to deliver speeches in chaste and Sankritised Hindi. This was daunting but it was also one of the challenges.

In what way was the part challenging?

The script is very theatrical, with a lot of oration. On one level he is a quiet, simmering, tense guy, a very dark person who has done some terrible things. At the same time, he’s a forceful public speaker. So I had to learn lots of lines. On the first four days of the shoot, we filmed speeches every day, and that was frightening. I had to learn it all in one go. I had to own it. I would stay up till 4am in the hotel bathroom learning the text.

Ten years ago, I would panic at the thought of half a page of text. But you grow, and that’s the fun part. I enjoyed playing the politician giving heavy speeches in front of a big crowd.

There is a line in the trailer about kings and kingmakers. Which one is Samar Pratap Singh?

At the core, it is the story of Chanakya, and how once disqualified from kingship, he decides to run the show through Chandragupta Maurya. That’s the kind of historical backbone to the story.

Which are some of your favourite political dramas or books?

House Of Cards and The West Wing. Tandav is more Ali Abbas, which is to say it’s dramatic, commercial and serious. I like reading almost all of the classics on the Roman empire and their politics. Machiavelli’s The Prince is outstanding. I bought the Arthashastra when I was in school and looked at parts of it. That has a proper take on kingship. Robert Graves’ I, Claudius is incredible historical fiction. Then there is The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius. Basically, anything about the Roman empire has it all—sex, violence, murder, deception. You can’t get more hard core than those guys.

On what basis are you choosing projects now?

I want to be successful in life and while things are in a good place personally, I think there have been a lot of ups and downs professionally. I compare it to climbing a mountain. I think I had my head in the quicksand some time ago but I managed to pull myself out of it. I am still only at base camp 1, but the ropes are laid and the boots are on.

Bhoot Police and Bunty Aur Babli have been shot. Tandav season 2, Adipurush and Vikram Vedha are coming up, and I am in talks for another lovely movie. I feel there is a positive alignment of stars and I am feeling different. I am confident and receptive so when I am on set, I am coming up with good ideas. These good films have been signed because I am working hard on the craft and I think that’s what will take me slightly higher up that mountain. So the climb is on.

What do you think will be different about fatherhood this time around?

We are fortunate to have a fair amount of help from family and nurses, which takes a lot of pressure off and is a huge privilege. So hopefully we get to mainly enjoy the fun parts. It’s lovely when there is a baby in the house. There is such a sense of purity, cleanliness, and there are lovely sounds. Also, Taimur needs a young sibling also. We are very excited.

Udita Jhunjhunwala is a Mumbai-based writer, film critic and festival programmer.

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