“2020 has been a bad year for most people,” says Saif Ali Khan, with considerable understatement, “but I feel that I’m climbing a mountain and I’ve managed to get to Base Camp One.”
The past 12 months began with the Bollywood superstar taking the lead in what became India’s highest-grossing movie of the year, Tanhaji, a swashbuckling tale of 17th-century heroism. This was followed by his playing the lead in another of its biggest hits, Jawaani Jaaneman, a lively coming-of-age comedy. And now, 2021 begins with Khan preparing to launch Tandav, a lavish political drama that airs worldwide on Amazon Prime from next week.
“We’re on a good wicket,” admits the 50-year-old, over Zoom from his home in Bandra, a beachside Mumbai suburb where he’s been locked down with his actress wife, Kareena Kapoor, and their young son. He also has two other children from a previous marriage. “The next year is going to be interesting.”
One of India’s most recognisable stars for more than two decades, he’s best known in the west as the saggy-bellied, depressed and downtrodden Sikh cop, Sartaj Singh, in Netflix’s gritty Mumbai-noir, Sacred Games. “I had to come right down,” says the usually energetic performer. “The character’s a loser . . . It’s the role that I’m most proud of.”
Prior to that show’s release in 2018, Khan had been through a “professional low . . . Nothing was working. Five or six movies had not run. Seven movies, eight movies, I don’t know how long.” He responded by putting commercial considerations aside. “I chose to chase good work and learn to become a better actor . . . I thought if my career’s over, let me just choose the best roles I’m getting with the best directors without worrying about the box office. I managed to get out of that slump simply by doing good work, not looking at money or success.”
He now fronts the latest big online production as US streaming giants vie to establish themselves in India, one of the largest and fastest-growing television audiences on the planet. Tandav means “dance” — particularly the cosmic dance of Shiva, the ascetic wild-man god of destruction who obliterates and recreates the universe with each step — and the series is a grand Hindi version of House of Cards, taking an intimate unsparing look at the relentless Byzantine intrigues of India’s vast democracy. But while it is realistic on the behind-the-scenes skulduggery of politics, the characters are biographically far removed from contemporary figures such as Narendra Modi.
Khan plays Samar Pratap Singh, the ambitious and Machiavellian son of a sitting prime minister. “Dark,” is how the actor describes him, “a cross between Michael Corleone and somebody more emotional. He’s rebellious and aggressive, dangerous and passionate. Someone who frightens his own father . . . He’s constantly under pressure to survive.”
Acknowledging the parallels between himself and the role, he concedes: “I have grown up in a very privileged section of New Delhi, I understand that. If you’re asking me to play a privileged prince of a politician, a lot of that will come naturally to me because of the way I’ve been brought up . . . It’s pretty good casting.”
Filming took place during the pandemic, as Khan explains. “It was difficult to try and get back to work when things were at a halt. It was very scary initially and all our productions were trying hard to keep a secure environment with people wearing masks, etc . . . quite a high-risk thing. But it’s important and I’m proud of the fact that we’ve given thousands of people some security and some employment in these tough times, since we were shooting throughout.
“We preferred working to not working and just staying locked up at home. It’s been a very different year and it’s been kind of challenging, and I suppose one learning from it is looking within you and even looking within our own country. Normally we travel a lot more but this time I was in Dalhousie and Dharamshala [both in the cool, mountainous northern state of Himachal Pradesh] which are really beautiful places. New Year’s was with my sister in Bombay for the first time in 12 years. So there are advantages, in a way, in these dark times — also of spending some time looking inwards.”
Self-deprecation and cricket analogies are unsurprising in a former pupil of English public school Winchester College and son of India’s national cricket captain, the late Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi, Nawab of Pataudi. The actor himself is the current Nawab of that princely northern state, created by the East India Company in 1804, its rulers tracing themselves back to 16th-century Afghanistan. The Pataudi Trophy, contested between India and England, is named in honour of his father and his grandfather, Iftikhar Ali Khan Pataudi, who played test cricket for both countries, winning the 1932-33 Ashes series for England.
The other side of Khan’s family is known more for artistic than sporting success. His mother, Sharmila Tagore, is herself a former movie star — a favourite of Satyajit Ray, she acted in several of his films — and a member of the Tagore clan of Bengal that includes Rabindranath, the writer and painter, who in 1913 became the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Born a Hindu, she converted on marriage into the Muslim Khan family.
Given the immense privilege of Khan’s background, with a lineage rich with laureates, royal blood, sporting glory and cinematic glamour, he has, intriguingly, taken on numerous everyman roles in a career spanning 30 years. They range from the small-town pretty-boys that got him started in 1990s romantic comedies to the sad cop in Sacred Games. That he has developed such a close and enduring rapport with a hugely varied Indian audience — with whose life-experiences he has little in common — is a testament to his empathy and abilities as an actor.
The show confronts the nation’s eternal but conflicted relationship with dynastic power, and comparisons between Samar Pratap Singh and Rahul Gandhi, the latest Nehru-Gandhi scion to head the opposition Congress party — and whose father, grandmother and great-grandfather were all prime ministers — will be easily made.
However, the series is no straightforward biopic — not least because Singh, unlike Gandhi, is a highly effective operator — and the issue of ruling families is one that exists across Indian society, from business to politics and, of course, cinema. Khan’s wife Kareena Kapoor is also a film star and a member of the Punjabi acting family that has produced several generations of screen icons.
But dynasties are no longer respected as institutions, and Tandav reflects how inherited privilege is increasingly challenged as Singh battles with his “very underprivileged and very idealistic” nemesis. “The whole show is really a play-off between these two,” says Khan. “People are definitely questioning the idea of privilege and lineage, as it should be . . . We’re arguing and talking and rejecting and accepting, and it’s lovely to be in the culture right now.”
Digital platforms are enabling the outside world to engage with the country’s reality more closely than ever. Netflix spent $400m on original Indian content last year, winning an Emmy for its grim police drama Delhi Crime, while 20 per cent of those watching Amazon Prime’s Indian content are outside of India. Tandav promises to add another dimension to this growing interest. “Indian politics is more dramatic than American politics, because parts of our country are wilder,” Khan says. “There are incredible scenarios, the pressures of caste and creed and religion. The scale of it is massive. It is the world’s largest democracy, and to film that was fascinating.”
Despite lacking the songs, dance and fantasy that are the staples of Bollywood movies, Khan believes that such tough long-form series speak to Indians in an irresistibly direct way. “These shows are more honest and reflective of what the country’s going through . . . This milieu is more realistic and gritty, and it’s more fun for an actor to be in those environments. You feel you’re more connected to the truth when you do stuff like this.”
Cinema has been, historically, Indians’ escape from the difficulties of their lives, but television feeds another, deeper need. “They want to relate to something like Mirzapur [Amazon’s blood-soaked gangster series], for example, that tells them how it is . . . They connect more than they do to a movie, and that connection is on a different level.”
While Bollywood has usually swept many of India’s harsher realities under the carpet, streaming series are delivering both the authenticity and artistic flourish that Indians crave and now want to share. “There’s a strong sense of nationalism in the country. We want to be proud of our own products, our own people,” Khan says. “There are so many stories to tell. So many interesting characters to explore and celebrate.”
‘Tandav’ is on Amazon Prime from January 15
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