There is a new genre in Bollywood—blockbuster masala, films set in the heartland with a li’l bit of action, romance and comedy. And, every leading man worth his salt has done at least one in the recent years. So, is Bullett Raja Saif Ali Khan’s Dabangg, Rowdy Rathore or Chennai Express? The 43-year-old actor mulls over the question as he runs his hand through his hair.
“I thought it was, but I am scared to say. Dabangg was such a huge hit and Salman Khan was so charming in it that it is silly to compare. Bullett Raja is not as far-fetched as Dabangg, but if that was about an entertaining cop, this is about an entertaining gangster,” he says.
In the 20-plus years that he’s been in Bollywood, Saif has been best known for his urbane films. The last time he was plucked out of his comfort zone was more than a decade ago in Vishal Bharadwaj’s Omkara. But the actor insists, it’s not that difficult to make Raja Mishra believable. “Everything takes work. I was just watching Illuminati’s next film Happy Ending. It’s a really nice film that is set in my ‘world’. It’s a romantic comedy that is different paced. The film is my space, but I had to work hard for it. I had to learn lots of lines. To be effortless on screen, you have to be all there. Bullett Raja is a lot more dramatic. I won’t say it’s out of my comfort zone; it’s just different. After having been around for a while, I felt comfortable enough to do it. It is filmy and a little macho. If I can get away with that it’ll be an achievement. At the same time, there is an edge to the film that is true and artistic.”
Shooting in Lucknow helped him get under the skin of the character. “Being in a live location always helps. Also, when you put on those shoes, shiny shirts and wear those glasses, you look like the character. Like, I tend to behave like how I am dressed. I become a little more Indian when I am in a kurta. That’s the fun of it. It comes together. The different aspects of the character are tacky, but when it all comes together it’s fun and entertaining.”
The process of becoming Raja Mishra also involved getting the rustic body language and dialect down pat. “Once you get the body language, you understand how you should be speaking. One governs the other. Usually I learn the lines first and then figure out what the body language should be. What makes for interesting acting is when the character doesn’t mean what he is saying. So your body language is at odds with what you are saying. The way you adjust your trousers, touch your hair or roll up sleeves says a lot about who you are. So, someone from the heartland will not have a very polished body language. I had to work on that slightly.”
Bullett Raja is Saif’s first film with director Tigmanshu Dhulia, who, judging by the kind of films he makes, comes from a different space than the actor. “Working with him was everything I had hope it’d be. He directs really well.” What impressed Saif about Tigmanshu was how the director presents a scene. “There’s a scene where I’m trying to assassinate a man while Jimmy Shergill, my partner in the film, is acting as a journalist. I need him to move because there’s a tree in the way. Then I realise that another shooter has a record of shooting from 100 yards away, so I decide that I want to break that record. I tell Jimmy to move a 100 yards. (Laughs) Now Jimmy is hassled because I tell him to walk the target to that distance by using a stick as a measure. While all this is going on, the target is wondering what’s going on. It’s a really funny scene.”
Last year, Saif has been shooting almost back-to-back and all over the world. “If you count Bullett Raja, I have shot and continue to shoot four films. I just felt like I hadn’t done enough work. I wanted to feel like a prolific actor. I wanted the audience to see different sides of me. I just felt like testing my limits and presenting myself as a versatile actor. It wasn’t thought out. Instead of living my life on the couch watching TV, I thought let’s live on the sets. And, I have loved it. But now, I think, I would like to take some time off in Bombay to see what club to join to play tennis and try out the new restaurants. I live here, but I have no time to really know my city.”