From playing brooding police officer Sartaj Singh in Sacred Games to a Naga sadhu in Laal Kaptaan and then trading in his wigs and bristles for a clean-shaven Punjabi in Jawaani Jaaneman, Saif Ali Khan’s choices are anything but predictable. Navdeep Singh’s Laal Kaptaan is set 25 years after the Battle of Buxar of 1764. Khan plays a gun for hire as well as a man motivated by revenge. The movie will be out on November 18.

The 49-year-old actor, who began his career around 25 years ago, finds himself in a curious space – no longer required to strive for stardom, he is consciously trying to straddle the space between his European sensibilities and cogent commercial entertainers. Excerpts from an interview.

What kind of preparation was required for ‘Laal Kaptaan’?
I was on a flight with Ranveer Singh recently, and he spoke about reading about Ivan the Terrible and other crazy despotic rulers in order to get into the character of Alauddin Khilji. Similarly, it probably helped that I have an interest in history and an understanding of the period of Laal Kaptaan.

Some of the mental preparation and homework had already happened before I went on set. It was a fascinating time, and I have always liked literature about the badlands, the cursed earth and Judge Dredd of 2000 AD, which is not dissimilar to 1800s India. With the collapse of the Mughal empire and the British trying to take over, the most intensely violent things were happening, which also makes it a really interesting time.

Laal Kaptaan (2019).

This character is very different from anything you have done before. What did it take to find him?
It took a while to find the character. During the shoot, I would sit in the bathroom of this very nice heritage hotel in Rajasthan with candles burning at 2am and I would think about how you turn into a wolf-like animal to play this part. During Dracula, Gary Oldman said that you should not let the costume wear you. I didn’t know what he meant until I was shooting Laal Kaptaan.

On the first day of the shoot, I could hardly open my eyes in the sun with kilos of wigs and clothes and a gun and sword and other things. Plus, I had to be on a horse, and had to make the horse behave. It took a few days, and the only way to do it was to just to do it. After a while I got used to it all. I could do a somersault, eat my food, tell a joke and dance in the costume.

Based on the trailer, the action looks raw, unlike ‘Sacred Games’. Was it difficult to achieve?
I had to learn to be agile, especially with kilos of wigs on my head. Actually Sacred Games and Tanaji [with Ajay Devgn] have far more action, but yes, there are sword fights and somersaults – which is kind of why one joined movies in the first place.

There was training, practice and choreography, and it is by far the hardest thing I have done. It couldn’t be more mentally or physically demanding, and I am very proud of it. I am not a trained actor, but I trained through this film and through Tanaji to become more theatrical, though this part is more restrained because it is an Indian-Western with the Naga Sadhu as the hero. It was exhausting and mind-numbing, hard work with priceless satisfaction.

Laal Kaptaan (2019).

After close to 25 years as an actor, have you formed a report card of your career?
If you look back on a 25-year career and if even six to eight films stand out, that’s not too bad. There is also the stuff you do to keep the kitchen running. It’s important to keep working till you get to a phase, like now, where you can be more selective.

More than the films I have done, I have thought about the films I wish I had done, such as Kapoor and Sons and Jolly LLB 2. Also I should have done Phantom very differently. Firstly – and it’s a small thing – but the hairstyle itself was wrong for that movie.

Overall, I think there has been a nice growth in the kind of films one has been doing and the things that have been offered. Sacred Games was lovely. Laal Kaptaan, Jawaani Jaaneman and Bhoot Police are all elements in a varied palate.

Do you think you are beyond hits and flops now?
I don’t think anyone is ever beyond hits and flops. If people have faith in you, you can get by for a while, but ultimately people are here to make films that run at the box office. Hits and flops matter to producers, but I need to be offered interesting work. There are certain commercial films I know I wouldn’t do and others I would do, so you have to find your space.

I am very conscious that my next three films – Tanaji, Bhoot Police and Jawaani Jaaneman, which is our own production directed by Nitin Kakkar – are much more commercial, but also within a sensible artistic world. In Tanaji, I play villain to Ajay’s Tanaji and the character is a little out there, like Alan Rickman in Die Hard or Robin Hood. In Jawaani Jaaneman, I play a hard-drinking Punjabi guy called Jazz whose life changes when he accidentally meets his daughter in a nightclub in London. It’s a comedy in that family space.

So you no longer worry about your image?
Oh, that happened a long time ago. Now the image is that there is no image. The only image is that of an actor who likes to mix things up.

My image was never a burden for me, given my inconsistent career graph. You should ask this question to a consistent kind of superstar whom audiences only want to see a certain way. I have never had that particular problem.

Sacred Games 2 (2019).

‘Sacred Games’ gave you a big boost. How did you feel about the underwhelming reactions to season 2?
It was disappointing compared to the first season, which was brave and engaging. I loved the first season and was so proud of it.

The “sacred” in Sacred Games is the guru, so that was always going to happen. I didn’t dwell on season 2 too much because, overall, it’s a good show and I am happy with my work in it. And like a mercenary, I moved on pretty quickly. But when films go wrong, there is a two-three day mourning period when you are listless and crap company for your wife.

Would you be open to another web series?
Yes. It’s a great space to act, and there is some great talent working in that space now. In India, there are storytellers who are drawn to international cinema, but they are telling the wrong story for India. For them, the web is the right space, where you have a slightly intellectual, brilliant, artistic time without the risk of theatrical receipts.

Are you and Kareena Kapoor approached to star in a movie together?
Not really. Anyway to work with her, I would have to up my game, because she is a bit more selective in that way.

Raabta, Agent Vinod (2012).

Also read:

In Navdeep Singh’s Saif Ali Khan-starrer ‘Laal Kaptaan’, a story of ‘man versus nature’