Indias Saif Ali Khan Talks Bunty Aur Babli 2, Vanity and Censorship (EXCLUSIVE)

Saif Ali Khan is a Bollywood A-lister known for heroic roles, but that hasn’t stopped him from playing against type in recent years.

The star of Emmy-nominated Netflix series “Sacred Games” is constantly in motion, with a raft of varying roles coming up, starting with this week’s release of “Bunty Aur Babli 2.”

Directed by feature debutant Varun V. Sharma, the Yash Raj Films production is a reboot of 2005 smash hit “Bunty Aur Babli,” which followed a pair of con artists known by the nicknames Bunty and Babli. In the present day, Bunty and Babli are forced out of retirement after a spate of robberies with their trademark style start appearing across India. Khan stars alongside Rani Mukerji.

“It’s taking the story forward 20 years later, where the guy’s got a paunch [and] the party’s over. He’s happily married, but he needs whiskey, and is a bit bored,” Khan tells Variety.

Khan is, literally, royalty. He is the current Nawab of the erstwhile Indian princely state of Pataudi. His grandfather, Iftikhar Ali Khan Pataudi, played cricket for England and was later captain of the Indian cricket team, while his father, Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi, also captained the Indian cricket team. Khan is also Indian cinema royalty via his actor mother Sharmila Tagore who debuted in Oscar winner Satyajit Ray’s “The World of Apu” and went on to a hugely successful career straddling both Bollywood and independent cinema.

After more than a decade playing Bollywood heroic roles, Khan has changed direction to explore his anti-hero side. He portrayed Shakespeare’s Iago with a limp and stained teeth in “Macbeth” adaptation “Omkara” (2006), a blond Russian mafioso in “Go Goa Gone” (2013), a depressed Mumbai Sikh cop in “Sacred Games” (2018/19) and the villain in “Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior,” the biggest Bollywood hit of 2020.

“That’s the fun now for me; that is something I kind of almost look for,” says Khan. “But then you have to be careful not [to do it] all the time, [to make sure] you don’t fall into a trap where you’re like, ‘Now I have to paint my hair yellow because people are expecting something different.’”

Consequently, in Khan’s upcoming film “Vikram Vedha,” an adaptation by director duo Pushkar-Gayatri of their hit 2017 Tamil-language film, he plays a straightforward cop role pitted against Hrithik Roshan’s mafia boss.

“It’s a mix. I mean, you do have to send yourself up. One thing I’m conscious of is not to be vain,” says Khan. “On screen I have idols like Al Pacino who could have played sexy, tough, cool cops, but they always find a way to subvert whatever appeal they might have into the role, and I thought that’s a good way to go.”

Adds Khan: “When I see actors playing the hero, especially the kind of Bollywood hero in a scene that doesn’t require it, I find it a little disturbing because I think it comes from vanity. And it’s easy to be vain or to want to be handsome when the camera’s on you, but it’s a trap that I try and avoid.”

Continuing his penchant for variety, Khan will play a fireman in Rahul Dholakia’s “Fire,” produced by Farhan Akhtar and Ritesh Sidhwani’s Excel Entertainment, who previously backed another of the actor’s hit movies, “Dil Chahta Hai” (2001). Khan describes the new project as a thriller about the fall and rise of a fireman whose son thinks that cops are far cooler.

During the pandemic, Khan was busy with two releases. Political drama series “Tandav” premiered on Amazon Prime Video in January. The series quickly ran afoul of Hindu nationalist politicians who objected to a scene depicting the Hindu God Shiva in a play, with the deity being played by Muslim actor Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub. The series was subsequently censored with the offending scene deleted.

In February, the Indian government published a set of rules governing streaming content, which were implemented in May.

“I don’t know what the new rules are, but I am very happy if there’s tons of rules,” says Khan. “Yes, I might feel restricted. And I might say, ‘oh, this is not restricted, and so-and-so is restricted,’ and whatever, that’s a different conversation. But I still get paid, I can do my work, and choose films and find some sort of artistic expression and be happy with it. But when I have a situation when I don’t know which rule I broke, that’s very worrying.”

In September, Pawan Kripalani’s “Bhoot Police,” a horror-comedy designed for theatrical release, premiered directly on streamer Disney Plus Hotstar, bypassing cinemas that weren’t fully reopened then. Khan describes the film going directly to digital as “a bit of a let down,” but adds that the producers said the offer from the streamer was too good to turn down and that they’d do a sequel for cinemas.

Development on “Bhoot Police 2” is underway.

Meanwhile, through his Black Knight Films production outfit, Khan is developing a number of scripts, and has just wrapped action drama “Adipurush,” alongside “Baahubali” star Prabhas.

“We really want to start producing films properly, and we can expect lots of things, I hope, and it’s something I look forward to doing quite seriously,” Khan says. Along with Dinesh Vijan, Khan had founded Illuminati Films in 2009. The partnership ended in 2014 with “Happy Ending.”

“Bunty Aur Babli 2” releases theatrically worldwide Nov. 19.

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