Interview: ‘Phantom’ not trying to cash in on 26/11 sentiment, says Saif Ali Khan

August 25, 2015

Bollywood actor Saif Ali Khan did not have a good year in 2014. Three of his films, “Humshakals”, “Bullet Raja” and “Happy Ending”, crashed at the box office. More than 10 months after “Happy Ending” came out, Khan is back with “Phantom”, a thriller based on a fictional plot to bring back the mastermind of the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai.

Saif plays Shaikh Daniyal, a disgraced agent who is brought back to carry out the mission. Khan spoke to Reuters about “Phantom”, what went wrong with his last few films, and what his new plan of action is. (Portions of the interview have been edited.)

Q: What about “Phantom” stood out for you that made you say yes to the film?
A: In this case there was Hussain Zaidi’s book, which Kabir (Khan) then distilled and dramatised into a film. Sajid Nadiadwala mounted it as an international action adventure. I am hoping that the kind of coolness and the entertainment quotient of the film comes through. What seems to be happening is that the 26/11 heaviness seems to be pervading, which is not actually the whole thing. I wonder if it’s a mistake to have revealed that, and whether we should have just described it as an action thriller.

They’ve spent so much money on the film that you cannot possibly be cheating the audience, but I think relying on their patriotism is the angle we’ve taken. The background is based on real events. I don’t think everyone knows about the people who are responsible for it. I certainly didn’t know, and I am averagely informed about subjects that are not even close to my heart. Also, this is a personal story, about a man and his redemption. The mixing of fact and fiction might not be new for Hollywood, but it is new for us.

Q: What do you mean by 26/11 heaviness?
A: Whenever we start talking about it, that’s what comes up. It’s an action movie with machine guns and all that. The background is completely peripheral and it’s just something you say in the beginning. You are trying to take for granted what the emotional payoff is. But that may or may not be the case, because I think Indians are very inured, very desensitised. Anybody’s pain or violence doesn’t touch us as much as it touches more peaceful societies. So let’s see. We have not made a documentary – they’ve spent insane amounts of money on making an entertainer, and that needs to come through. The attempt is not to cash in on Indian sentiment and make money.

Q: The scale is international, but is the narrative Indian at heart?
A: It has to be. I can sometimes make the mistake of not doing “Indian films”, in inverted commas.

Q: Can you elaborate on that “Indian” bit?
A: Films like “Happy Ending” or “Agent Vinod” become a little western in their syntax and it doesn’t necessarily connect.

Q: What about “Happy Ending” made it western?
A: I just mean the grammar of the movie is western in its approach, so the things that people go through or the kind of emotions that are driving them would only connect with someone who is comfortable and well-off and living in a society like America. It’s not very Indian, in that sense. Most of the crises that the characters go through are selfish ones like not wanting to marry the pregnant girlfriend. It was actually Karan Johar’s expression. He said the syntax of the movie was western so it didn’t really connect. I did though, so that’s probably a little dangerous. (Smiles)

Q: What do you think went wrong with your last few films?
A: “Agent Vinod”, it’s a shame. Sriram Raghavan is a brilliant director, and I think maybe we rushed it. I think we wanted to make this big spy film, and some of the scenes he got absolutely right. But then some of the plot things – I don’t know if we looked at it objectively. There wasn’t complete clarity on what was going to happen in the script. We should have discussed it before and said this is too complex. What went wrong is lack of clarity – all of us pulling in different directions. “Bullet Raja” also, I felt very close to. Sometimes actors feel that this was a great movie, and nobody agrees. That can be a little disillusioning.

“Humshakals” and “Happy Ending” are not as disappointing. “Humshakals” is a movie I did on the director’s conviction. He’s a great friend of mine and he’s got such good taste in movies. This was his personal take on comedy, and it was not only niche, but it was weird. People won’t get it. Next time, the idea is to do something you are convinced about, and not someone else’s conviction. As for “Happy Ending”, it got delayed. I delayed it because I was told that “Humshakals” was going to be this huge blockbuster and therefore I should release “Happy Ending” later because it would really help the film. Again, lesson learnt. You should just let the film you shoot first, release first. I felt I could take that liberty because it was my production. But it’s other people’s money and time too. It should have been a quick film done in a small budget and shot in record time. But we shot it in LA like we were making “Gone with the Wind.”

Q: While watching the film, I kept wondering, “Why LA?”
A: Because the directors wanted it. See, the problem is that we are working with directors who make really clever films on small budgets. And then we are giving them these huge amounts of money to make these huge films to make these big films, which is not really required. It is up to us to tell them that you are good at making economically viable films, so let’s stick to that. Also, in India, I’ve noticed, people don’t tell you what they want, or what you are doing wrong. People aren’t very forthcoming – they expect you to know.

(Editing by Robert MacMillan. Follow Shilpa on Twitter @shilpajay and Robert @bobbymacReports | This article is website-exclusive and cannot be reproduced without permission.)

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