NEW DELHI: There is a good reason why South African businessman Iqbal Meer Sharma did not recognise actor Saif Ali Khan or his guests inside the posh Wasabi restaurant at Mumbai's Taj Hotel despite having a wife who has worked in several Bollywood projects and hobnobs with its top people.
Sharma's comment that he did not know at the time of the confrontation who Khan was, was met with incredulity in the Indian press mainly because his wife Tareena Patel has acted in films such as Bhool Bhulaiyaa, Das Kahaniya and Dhol. He clarified his comment on Friday in an exclusive phone interview from South Africa following a live web chat on IBNLive.
Sharma, who accused Khan of assaulting him following an argument over restaurant etiquette, said the seating area for Khan and his guests was curtained.
"I genuinely did not know," Sharma, who was formerly the Deputy Director General of South Africa’s department of Trade and Industry (DTI) and CEO of Trade & Investment South Africa (TISA), said. He presently serves on the board of Transnet as a non-executive director.
"We did not know who they were. We could only hear them." Sharma said he later lodged a complaint about the ruckus at that table which led to an angry reaction from the star and his guests. "We later discussed the matter amongst ourselves and I was told who he was." But by then, the two had come to blows. "I know who hit me," he said.
Sharma said he has not seen a film in 20 years and would not have recognised the actor if he walked past him on the street.
"I haven't seen a Bollywood film properly in 20 years, though I do watch the ones my wife acts in. I am of the generation that liked films of Amitabh Bachchan and Dharmendra. Those are the names that I instantly connect with," he said.
Had it been Shah Rukh Khan in the table next to his, Sharma said he would have definitely recognised the star, having met him in South Africa previously. "I am from an industry that has very little connection with showbiz. I work for 16 hours a day. I do not even know who the girls were at the table with him (Saif). I would have recognised Shah Rukh, or Amitabh or Dharmendra, but Saif, no."
He was referring to actress Malaika Arora Khan, her sister Amrita Arora and actress Kareena Kapoor who were with the actor at the time of the incident.
Sharma who has been hailed as "one of South Africa's most remarkable entrepreneurs" (SA Success Magazine 4/98), said his wife Tareena shuttled between South Africa and India to maintain her career while he lived mostly in SA.
"I had specially flown down for the anniversary dinner with my wife that night," he said.
A visibly upset Khan later said he could have handled the situation better and regretted his action. Will the buzz surrounding the incident help or adversely affect Tareena's career?
"It would be really sad to drag her into this," he said, adding that the day after the incident was absolute chaos and he did not even get a chance to talk to Tareena.
He has one message for Khan. "Any public person should behave in a way that is becoming of his stature." So far, statements of eight persons have been recorded in which except Sharma and his family members, nobody else had come forward to say that the actor had bashed up the victim, police sources said.
Meanwhile, investigators, who had pinned hopes on CCTV footage for evidence in their probe into the assault case against Khan, were left disappointed with police saying on Thursday no video cameras were installed in the area where the brawl took place at a luxury hotel. The 41-year-old Bollywood star, who has been booked for assault, said the midnight brawl on Tuesday night is not a "publicity stunt" and that he felt sorry for what had happened.
Many Bollywood stars came out in support of Khan including Salman, who is back here after the shooting of 'Ek Tha Tiger' in Cuba. He said the media should have waited for his version and dug out the facts before running what was carried on television.
"Even the press yesterday was all for the other guy. They didn't even bother to ask what happened to Saif. Did Saif got wacked first or not? We should have waited for Saif to come out and say what he had to say," Salman told reporters after he was aksed to comment on the incident.
- Rituparna Chatterjee