He may not have a licence to kill, but Bollywood actor Saif Ali Khan on Saturday was surely armed with a licence to thrill.
Clad in a brown Cavalli jacket, black T-shirt and Diesel jeans, the glint in his eyes was unmistakable as he spotted the Ferrari parked on the Belhasa Driving Centre tarmac.
"Wow, is that what I am going to drive today? It's amazing," he said, looking at the testosterone-pumped two-door Ferrari 458 Italia. Without waiting for a confirmation, he continued: "OK, show me the stretch where we can drive more than 200 miles per hour."
In a matter of seconds, Khan transformed from a rather reluctant jet-lagged star, who hid behind his sunglasses, to a boy who was eager to play with his new toy. His companion and passenger for the afternoon? This tabloid! team member, who has never earned a speeding ticket in her life.
"You know I have only driven a Ferrari once before — the one belonging to Sanjay Dutt in Mumbai. And I remember, I put my foot down on the accelerator so fast that the back wheel began to skid — it's got so much power," said Khan. His confession made me slightly queasy, but his comment as he swerved sharply around a curve that he had been taking speeding lessons to master the car chase scenes in his upcoming spy film, Agent Vinod, was reassuring.
"You know, men and machines have this incredible connection. Boys in general like flying, driving fast motorcycles … Also, the incredible engineering that goes into making such marvellous cars where you can go at this speed with so much comfort is amazing." But his admiration for automobiles is fuelled by practicality: he has never got a speeding ticket in his life (that's a fact that may be hard to digest, especially if you watch our video of him driving that day).
"I am not that much of a car enthusiast. But after Agent Vinod and the many car chases in it, plus this fun experience, I am turning into one I think. I am even thinking of getting one of these." Currently, he drives a Ford Mustang but in his much-anticipated espionage thriller Agent Vinod, in which he plays a RAW agent (from India's intelligence agency, the Research And Analysis Wing), he will be seen zooming around in a yellow GM Camaro with two black stripes running down the bonnet.
"Sriram [Raghavan, Agent Vinod's director] would have been happy to have a realistic car. But I asked him if we could use a slightly flashy one for our film. But this is no James Bond." As we looped around the track then continued our chat in the back seat of the white BMW he was being chauffered around Dubai in, he told us all the reasons why Agent Vinod was not a rip-off of the iconic Bond films. The 41-year-old actor, who has treated us to several hits including Parineeta, Kal Ho Na Ho and Race since 1992, claims it would be career suicide to create a desi Bond.
"It would be such a mistake and a foolish one at that. I mean, when you think of a spy thriller, it's difficult not the think about Bond or to compare it to him — it's an iconic film. But we have not tried for a cheesy Bond rip-off here."
And to prove his point, he claims that none of the legendary crutches that make Bond a Bond have been used. What not to expect: glib one-liners like "Bond, James Bond"; shaken, not stirred Martini and cameos from token attractive women. So what is Agent Vinod all about?
"Just one more round... and we will get to all of that," said Khan, as he stepped on the accelerator one more time. Don't ask me the speed — my eyes were shut.
Khan gives us the inside look at what makes Agent Vinod a uniquely Indian super spy.
In James Bond flicks, an automobile turning into a submarine or missiles to obliterate baddies is not unusual. Agent Vinod steers clear of all those accessories.
"In our film we thought we would stay away from gadgets. Technically, a RAW agent wouldn't have any gadgets. He will be lucky if his phone worked. But what you have instead is an agent who has a sharp mind. Here, it's not about my looks and the superbly-tailored clothes. It's gritty and each chapter in the film — whether it's set in Russia, Morocco or Delhi — promises different moods."
Made on a budget of Rs500 million (Dh37 million), Khan believes that his film tilts towards the "biggish side" as far as Indian films go.
"Yes, James Bond has set the benchmark internationally for action. But the budget of one of their sequences would be more than the total budget of our film. Our idea is to make a hero — an Indian hero that we can be proud of. But we want to go about in an original manner here. Yes, there is a limit to which car chases can be authentic, but when it comes to creating an original character, there are no boundaries."
While James Bond flicks are peppered generously with glamorous, eager-to-please and easily disposable girls, Agent Vinod has one of Bollywood's most bankable stars and Khan's real-life girlfriend Kareena Kapoor in the female lead.
"She's not the token hot girl in my film. Agent Vinod likes women to an extent. He comes across them during his mission but he doesn't go out of his way to chat them up. Kareena doesn't have a shallow role. I think Pakistanis are going to be proud of her. For once, India and Pakistan are on the same side. Also, roping in your girlfriend is double-edged. You want to make her happy, at the same time you don't want her to do you any favours either. Getting her onto the project wasn't difficult because it's a good role. And she hasn't charged us any money for it either. She has been very gracious about it. For whatever reason, she did it. I am happy she is in the film. It's nice and different."
"I have done more dangerous stunts that Tom Cruise has done," proclaimed Khan as he sank into the leather seat of his BMW. My first reaction to this bold statement: Had that adrenaline-charged, Ferrari spin addled his brain?
"Because in Hollywood, there's insurance and unions. In Bollywood, there is no such thing. We just have to do it." Khan adds that he had jumped off "ridiculously high buildings" and executed deadly stunts in speeding motorcycles and cars for Agent Vinod.
"While Tom Cruise is the biggest star in the world and I am aware of his achievement — I respect him greatly as an action hero — I don't know how many stunts he has done. I think Akshay Kumar has done more stunts, which I think is very brave. He has gone from one building to the other on a rope with nothing underneath to break his fall. It's crazy."
Tell him that Cruise's recent death-defying stunts, especially the one seen in Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol atop the Burj Khalifa, were well-documented as being his own, and Khan brushes it aside with a glib retort. "They are not allowed to do most stunts. Whether you are 200 floors up or 50 floors up, it doesn't matter after a point." Plus, he adds that the security measures in Bollywood — or lack thereof — make it more deadly for Indian actors.
"It makes what we do all the more dangerous. And the body doubles don't look anything like you. Half the time, to get a body double with the same skin colour and same hair quality is next to impossible. So if you want to make a film look authentic, you have to do the action yourself. That's what doing an action film in India means," said Khan as he rubbed a band-aid on his forehead absent-mindedly.
"This happened due to a broken wind shield while I was doing a last-minute patchwork."
Setting a marriage date with Kareena Kapoor: "I will speak about my personal life after Agent Vinod releases. Very often, I give an hour-long interview and they only write about my personal life."
Staying away from Twitter: "I don't see the need to update my thoughts. I find it ridiculous to tell people when I go to the toilet. I am not particularly interested in being a star, I love being an actor. But, I find it a huge pain to be recognised."
Don't miss it
Agent Vinod will release in the UAE on March 22. Rumour has it that Khan may revisit Dubai for the premiere with his girlfriend and co-star Kareena Kapoor next month.