The most enjoyable flight that I can remember having taken happened as recently as this February, when on the Jet Airways flight from Calcutta to Bombay, I sat next to Saif Ali Khan. Saif and I go way back to 1986. I had just shifted to New Delhi and within a couple of months formed a very close circle of four friends with him, inseparable and usually up to no good!
We lost regular touch in the early ’90s as he shifted to Bombay to start his film career and I came back to Calcutta to start my business career. His marriage to Amrita, having children and the challenges of establishing himself in Bollywood ensured that even the interactions that we did have were superficial and incomplete. For most of that time I always got the impression of him being under too much pressure and unsure of the next step.
Saif was in Calcutta to promote Agent Vinod (part of the film has been shot in my sister Priti’s hotel in Marrakesh) and dinner not working out due to time issues, we found ourselves the next day on a flight back to our past. We discussed films, books, family and our lives and I can tell you there was not a moment of that two-and-a-half hours that I did not relish.
In part because that old connection was alive and kicking but mostly because I found Saif to be the mature, intelligent if not intellectual man that anybody would be proud to be friends with. Without losing his sense of mischief and humour, he talked with curiosity, passion and drive. He is at the top of his game now but I am utterly convinced that he will be a prolific actor and filmmaker whose creativity Indian cinema will admire for years to come.
At dinner the next day at his flat in Bandra, it was his sense of style and elegance that impressed. Books and art everywhere, pictures of his royal legacy, his father’s cricketing moments and of his family’s cinematic successes framed in the hallways. This was a home that mirrored a mind and a life being well lived, comfortable with history and sentiment.
It was Kareena, however, who was the real surprise as I had never really met her before. An absolutely fabulous woman. Hospitable, intelligent and charming. With beauty to put most of Bollywood (and Hollywood) to shame! Saifu has indeed done very well!!
The most interesting conversation was about his father, Tiger Pataudi. An aloof, reserved man. Saif had always been scared and overawed in his presence, which rubbed off on us friends. In later years I always found him to be an approachable, warm individual, impeccable in every way.
His death had unleashed the most amazing national media attention on his life and personality. As an observer I thought that this was unprecedented coverage for a very discreet man who lived quietly and only came into the limelight at cricket season. It turned out that even Saif’s family thought much the same. They had been overwhelmed by the love for Tiger Pataudi expressed by literally millions around the world. The fact is that mainstream India had connected with him emotionally more than even Saif could imagine.
What was it about Tiger that brought this about? His royal lineage, Oxford, cricket, losing his eyesight and then demonstrating true grit to reach the pinnacle of his profession, marriage to a famous actress with a famous legacy? In my view it’s indeed a combination of all infused by the elegant temperament that captured the hearts and minds of India. There will be no one like Tiger Pataudi, his life was unique in every facet and India understood.
Saif’s family has lived their lives in the media and their connection to the collective consciousness is so deep that I can’t even begin to understand. This is a privilege but in all their cases it’s fructified on their talent and efforts, not the legacy. And I will bet money that Saif will be up there with his father (despite some misadventures with shikaar and at Japanese restaurants!) as a national icon when time passes judgement.
In that time I do hope he makes a movie on the amazing story of Tiger Pataudi!