Saif Ali Khan is unlike other celebrities in so many ways. Here’s one tiny example: While many of his peers look at social media to connect with their audience and brands, Khan can’t handle the medium’s toxicity. And so, he simply chooses not to be on it.
In a candid conversation with Campaign India, the 10th Nawab of Pataudi discussed memories from his advertising career, what he likes and dislikes about the advertising industry, brands he would love to work with, and a lot more.
Which was the first brand you endorsed? Do share some memories from the shoot.
My first association with a brand was the epitome of nepotism. I modelled for Gwalior Suitings – a brand that my father and mother promoted. And then, somebody thought it would be a good idea to have the next generation in the ad to show ‘family continuity’. I was not only incredibly effeminate looking and gawky but also petrified of my father . It was the worst thing someone could do to me then.
As for me, the first brand I promoted as a brand ambassador was Limca. My friends Kunal Kapoor and Sunhil Sippy were a part of the campaign, and they were great. I remember The Mask had just released and it served as an influence for the ad’s treatment. For my part, I had to play a funny guy. It was great fun.
You have been associated with brands across categories – Carlsberg, Santoor, Pepsi, and Vectus Pipes to name a few. What do you look for before associating with a brand?
At one point, I was told that nobody in the country is doing more brands more than I was, and it felt quite exciting. This was after Dil Chahta Hai released (in 2001). I was quite a brand favourite.
To answer the second part of your question, it’s usually the brand that looks for you and if you fit what they require. It’s complementary.
As you mentioned, though, I’ve also worked for international brands and also ones closer to home, like Vectus Pipes, which is hugely popular in North India. I suppose before associating with a brand, you look for a certain amount of respectability. Ultimately, the decision is also financial and one looks to get paid well.
For me, the barometer of success was when you get signed to do Pepsi (and get paid properly for it).
Any brands or categories that you wouldn't want to associate with?
Not really. By the time it comes to me, my management team has carefully vetted it. They let me know if it’s a good fit. A lot of these guys (brands) do a tremendous amount of research before coming to you. They have so much money on the line, it can’t be a shot in the dark. They have a reason why they have to come to me.
In terms of categories and brands, I’m quite liberal. I don’t like policing people and I feel if it’s legal (for a brand to exist), then you can promote it. I don’t have that morality, and I don’t believe we should be spokesmen for extra governance of what one should eat and drink.
However, when I’m negotiating contracts, there are times something might come up that I find a little ridiculous and end up saying no to.
How do you approach an ad film? How is it different from a film or a series on OTT?
When you do a movie or show, you are part of a story that’s being tried to be told and it’s usually about you. So, it’s up to you how you can tell it. When you do an ad, the story is about the brand, and it can be incredibly annoying at times. A little bottle could be the bigger star; everything is about that. At times it could be repetitive too. Some guys I work with make you repeat it a 100 times and is completely mind-numbing.
Do you track the feedback of ads you feature in? How does negative publicity bother you?
No, I have never tracked them. I like seeing them sometimes, and some ads have been great and enjoyable. Friends then share it with me and say it’s really funny. The Amul Vest ad was sent to me by my mother-in-law; she said “Thank you for making me laugh!” It kind of tracks emotionally on its own.
I won’t take names, but there have been times when there has been negative feedback sent my way, too. Some ads are played so much and get so much visibility and unless they are very creative, they could get monotonous (for viewers to watch). They need to have a lovely tune or song for the endless repetition.
What's the one thing you like about advertising and the one thing you don't like about it?
The good thing is that you do a shoot a day in a year and you get paid quite well! Creatively it’s a little tiring sometimes because they pack a lot into those 12 hours. You do shoots and stills on the same day and it gets exhausting. You’re also kind of slave to the brand and it’s not as creative because of the constrictions.
It’s worth it, though, because it also positions you as a force in pop culture and makes you part of a nation. You could appear on TV during a cricket match being played which the whole country is tuned in. It’s a good advertisement of your relevance. If it’s done well, it’s wonderful publicity – you get your picture up all over the city and one job leads to another. It’s quick money, too, and classy placement.
The other thing I don’t like is the repetition. Having said that, some of them are great fun. Shah Rukh (Khan) and I worked on Airtel and those ads were hysterical. I loved the LG ad I just did with Kareena (Kapoor Khan, wife). A lot of the Lay’s ads were great, too.
It is just a great honour to be cast by these brands because that means you have arrived. These were big brands; them being interested in you links to your success as an actor. Pepsi, Coke, Limca and Lay’s, are some big brands in the country, wouldn’t you say?
I’ve had some interesting moments on Lay’s shoots. I remember one ad we shot with MS Dhoni. We were both really busy, so we shot on the same set on different days. The ad saw us talking to each other on the same couch! The production was so good that they could shoot us separately and nobody could tell.
Another came from when we were shooting for Lay’s in Prague. We travelled a lot for the brand’s ads and it was quite a big deal. I remember making friends with a person working in the agency and telling him we should get an extension and that we travel somewhere else and make another nice ad (the year later). He said yes and joked about whether I would get an extension. As it turned out, I did keep getting an extension for a few years. The person who said that was unfortunately not with the company after some years, so we were shooting without him. It’s quite funny how these things work out.
You also have your label – House of Pataudi – co-owned by Myntra and Exceed Entertainment. What was the inspiration behind creating this brand?
It was about wanting to diversify. I feel I have a certain kind of energy and stand for something in pop culture. I believed this could be monetised; any energy can be monetised in some way. It was an idea that we had where we wanted to combine elegant, classic heritage to meet affordability. Most things have been overpriced in the past and I don’t know who manipulated who (to get to that pricing), but some things cost way too much in India.
You have wonderful stores but it’s surprising how expensive things are. The idea is to make a classy look, affordable.
Given the heritage you spoke about, was there a temptation of making it a brand for the niche consumer?
I would have made that mistake, to be honest. Myntra’s idea was to make it available to the masses. The plans for the company are in a staged manner. We started with a more mass base and then, as we do better, want to evolve into something more high-end.
Are you actively involved with the brand? Do you have suggestions on styles, pricing, etc?
I give them vicious feedback if something doesn’t fit. It’s tricky and there’s a lot that you take for granted in design. If the slit isn’t cut correctly, then the fabric will crease differently. Buttons have to stay closed for certain styles, for instance. They need a little effort and know-how. So, I like to try all styles and I get to try them when I’m modelling.
We do talk a lot about how the brand should be and they tolerate my inputs quite a lot, really.
Celebs state that social media helps them connect with their fans. You have steered clear of social media. Why is that so?
I really don’t see the need to be on it. It doesn’t excite me. I feel connected to my fans even without it. If I ever want to reach out, I can do an old-fashioned press release or a photo session, or my wife can put a picture of me on her Instagram account.
The other aspect of social media, the concern about representing a moment, destroys it for me. I live in the moment instead.
My family – my wife, my sister-in-law, my daughter, are always looking to take pictures during family gatherings and that sort of ruins the moment! It’s only my children – Taimur and Ebrahim – who don’t like the moment being photographed and would rather experience it.
Also, at the expense of sounding old-fashioned – and why not, since I’m 50 – somebody just compared the internet to families who lived in neighbourhoods where you kind of knew each other and there was respect and love. To continue the analogy, Twitter and social media are a high-rise slum where you don’t know your neighbours and there’s a lot of negativity. On the one hand the internet is keeping us sane during the lockdown, and I love it, but the level of trolling in India has gone out of hand. I’m so upset and disappointed with it that I don’t want to go anywhere near it. I need to wash my brain to keep clean, it’s so disgusting.
So, would it be a no if a brand comes knocking and wants you to get on to social media?
No, if it’s a great brand and if they are paying me, I might get onto it just for that. But I’m not going to get onto it connect with people.
You were one of the first big celebs to star in an OTT series with Sacred Games. Were there any apprehensions before taking up the series? Or was it a no-brainer?
It was a no-brainer. It’s the viewer's attitude towards you that bothers the actor. There’s a big difference between dancing as part of a show at the Wembley Arena versus dancing in someone’s dining room for them over a drink. The difference is that at the arena there’s a captive audience looking at you, and in the living room people could be sipping on whiskey and not pay attention to what you’re doing.
Television is like the living room performance. It could be on and at the same time kids could be crying in the background, somebody’s walking in and out, and you could also be competing with the plumber working in your house, for attention. So, even while it’s on, no one is concentrating on it. With all due respect to the TV fraternity, this is exactly what actors fear (not having the attention of the viewer).
OTT, and in particular, Netflix, isn’t like that. It’s more intimate than the theatre for two reasons. Firstly, your phone is the same aspect ratio as the big screen. So, you can take long shots. TV is a close-up media, and technically, a little dull too. OTT is much more intense. The sound design is more cinematic too. Think Game of Thrones, where the viewer is watching it with headphones and tuned in. The whole idea of Netflix was to bring ‘Class A’ entertainment to the small screen. I think it’s revolutionary and that’s what excites me. It’s a platform that’s on par with cinema and not one that’s below cinema. In fact, in today’s pandemic, it’s actually above cinema!
Could you name 3-4 international brands that you wish you could work with?
Top-of-mind would be Johnnie Walker (I think it’s pretty cool), Mercedes Benz as a car brand, and Rolex, too.
Any of the new-age brands like say Apple, Spotify or Uber?
I would love to do a Spotify ad. I think it’s a pretty cool brand.
How would you define ‘Brand Saif’ in a line?
I think ‘Brand Saif’ is about me becoming somebody else. I can sell anything by adapting.