Saif Ali Khan is his own kind of superstar: How the intelligent, humourous actor is congruent with Bollywood of today
Saif is currently enjoying a resurrection of sorts (that started with Sacred Games), 27 years since he first made a film debut in Aashiq Aawara
In an interview with Anupama Chopra over a month ago, timed to the release of Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior, Saif Ali Khan mulls over his silence on the current political polarisation that has divided the film industry and a large section of Indian youth. He observes that ever since Partition, India is slowly hurtling towards a potentially certain non-secular state. He also says that be it work, family, travel, money or healthcare and education, there hasn’t been a better time for him to live in India and one could go through life without participating in prevalent politics.
Saif’s statements reflect honesty and introspection that is very rare for Hindi film stars. Unlike their regional counterparts, Bollywood stars effusively portray a mass audience friendly image, be it in their public appearances or remarks. Saif has never tried to get into that groove. For nearly two decades, he wasn't ever viewed as a bankable movie star. With a film like Lal Kaptaan — Saif's only theatrical release in 2019 — opening to 50 lakhs, the industry was quick to call it quits on his stardom. But there has been a definite upswing in Saif Ali Khan’s acting career in 2020, with Tanhaji making over Rs 257 crore (and Saif walking away with the most compliments), and Jawaani Janeman, which performed averagely at the box office, opening to mostly positive reviews.
This yo-yo-ing at the box office and public consciousness is unique to Saif Ali Khan. He is currently enjoying a resurrection of sorts, 27 years since he first made a film debut in Aashiq Aawara. The resurrection became obvious with him being the first major star to act in a web series (Sacred Games), but this is an upswing that began with layered performances in Omkara, Being Cyrus and Ek Hasina Thi and continues till date — regardless of box office performance.
Perhaps it's the aura of him being an intelligent, well-read actor that works in his favour at a time when Bollywood audiences are looking for more meaty characters and films, and younger filmmakers, having seen his work over years, are writing author-backed, layered parts for him.
Om Raut has directed Saif in his most popular role as the villain Uday Bhan in Tanhaji. He found Saif’s turn as Boris in Raj and DK's Go, Goa, Gone an influence. “The way he had played Boris in Go, Goa, Gone is signature Saif. The way he did this role of completely making a joke of himself so seamlessly just proves that [as an actor] he is very comfortable in his own skin.”
Raut explains why Saif’s desire to learn works to his advantage. “He is extremely committed, passionate and down to earth. His attitude of constantly wanting to learn from everyone, I would like to adapt in my life. My action team for Tanhaji was entirely from Germany and they are trained fighters. He would rehearse with them with a commitment where he would want to get to their level of perfection and he would come very close to it each time.”
Neeraj Ghaywan, best known as the director of Masaan, a much-acclaimed indie, seconds the idea that Saif's best quality is his ability to take himself lightly. Saif’s knowledge and desire to learn made it easy to work on crafting India’s first major Netflix original series, Sacred Games, says the director. Ghaywan shot extensively with him for the second season. “He’s got a great sense of humor, which not everyone gets. His kind of humor really lightened up the set. To be honest, I feel nice that he is experimenting so much, irrespective of setbacks. He doesn’t want to conform and since he’s seen the fame and success of his time, that desire to experiment is phenomenal,” says Ghaywan.
Saif has always said that he never relates to the lily-white hero. He likes to play people closer to reality, where no one is quite perfect. Having said that, he has done a fine job of playing the Hindi film hero in quintessential Yash Raj and Dharma romances like Salaam Namaste, Hum Tum and Kal Ho Na Ho. His appetite for experimentation, as Ghaywan mentions, now makes him a coveted draw for young filmmakers and producers that write films with experimental stories.
Jackky Bhagnani, co-producer of Jawaani Jaaneman, the romantic drama that features Saif with Tabu and debutante Alaya F, differs from trade’s opinion that Saif isn’t a box office draw. “Personally, I feel Saif Ali Khan is a huge superstar. Today, every person in any city or town of India knows who Saif Ali Khan is, and that is a big plus for any producer. Saif is a phenomenal actor. And today, people will watch a film provided there is a promise of the story. If you do a good story with someone that people recognise, that’s the icing on the cake. Given Jawaani Janeman’s business so far, I am already on a plus. We always knew it was an urban film; tier 3 or single screen income on this film would be a bonus. So far, the film’s business is outstanding. When we released it’s trailer, we saw the shock value on everyone’s faces. That’s the Saif Ali Khan factor at work,” he says.
As a film journalist, one often hears stories of Saif Ali Khan being a book snob. An easy way to break ice with him has always been to talk about an interesting new book that one has read. His bookish knowledge, penchant for history and conversational abilities that cut across demographics, gives him an edge with a thinking filmmaker. Ghaywan explains, “ I was a little apprehensive before shooting because when I work with an actor, I need to have an intellectual alignment (with them). Saif is erudite and has a natural intelligence, which makes it very easy for a director to communicate a worldview of what we are trying to do.”
Longevity is not an issue for superstars that prevail in their '50s today. Even as Saif’s daughter Sara Ali Khan is part of the namesake of his 2009 film Love Aaj Kal, his body of work sustains curiosity. Next, there’s Dilli, a web series for Prime Video by Ali Abbas Zafar, followed by Bhoot Police and Bunty Aur Babli 2, where he plays a pot bellied middle aged man. As he ages like old wine, expect more intriguing and interesting parts in future from the elite Khan of our generation.
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