Saif Ali Khan, the unsung warrior: The actor's most redeeming quality is that he refuses to play it safe
Saif Ali Khan may play a wide range of characters on screen but he cannot help being himself, a true learned intellectual off-camera.
Saif Ali Khan does not like playing it safe. Sorry for the pun but one has to give it to the only Khan who likes to go down and dirty with every role, across films and the digital space.
Yes, Aamir Khan could contest that claim to an extent but we have to wait for two years or more to see him in a film. And given his perfectionist streak and larger-than-life brand, every film is mounted as a humongous festival release (Read: Laal Singh Chaddha, out on Christmas 2020).
On the contrary, Saif has witnessed three releases in the past four months — Navdeep Singh's Western-style period drama Laal Kaptaan, Om Raut's historical film Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior, and Nitin Kakkar's comedy Jawaani Jaaneman — along with Vikramaditya Motwane and Anurag Kashyap's Netflix Original show Sacred Games 2.
Across these four projects, Saif has been seen as an avenging Naga Sadhu in the British Raj, a Rajput associate of the Mughal rule in India, a Mumbai cop on a mission to thwart an explosion attempt, and a grown-up version of the carefree, irresponsible youngster he has played several times in his career.
After Dil Chahta Hai, Saif struggled with his previous self in films like Rehna Hai Tere Dil Mein and Na Tum Jaano Na Hum. But then came another successful turn as that metrosexual man, in Nikkhil Advani's romantic comedy Kal Ho Naa Ho. Though he continued to do films against his type — like Sriram Raghavan's 2004 neo-noir thriller Ek Hasina Thi, Pradeep Sarkar's 2005 romantic drama Parineeta, Homi Adajania's 2006 black comedy Being Cyrus, and Vishal Bhardwaj's 2006 crime drama Omkara (Langda Tyagi FTW) — the films that cast him as the uber-cool commitment-phobic guy grabbed him more eyeballs. Case in point: Kunal Kohli's 2004 film Hum Tum (for which he won a National Award), Siddharth Anand's 2005 film Salaam Namaste, Imtiaz Ali's 2009 film Love Aaj Kal, and Adjania's 2012 film Cocktail.
To his credit, he has always balanced his rom-coms with darker thrillers and dramas throughout the Saif 2.0 phase. Early shades of his 2.0 phase surfaced with Abbas-Mustan's 2008 action thriller Race, that married his versatility with box office success. It also reintroduced Saif as an actor who was warming up to 'age-appropriate' roles. After making a career out of his boyish charm, Saif played the 'elder brother' to Akshaye Khanna's character in the film. This streak of playing his age continued with Race 2 in 2013 (his last Rs 100-core hit before Tanhaji), Raj and DK's 2013 zombie comedy Go Goa Gone (in which he played a fake Russian zombie hunter), Raja Krishna Menon's 2017 slice-of-life film Chef (an NRI chef who seeks to develop a bond with his child), Vishal Bhardwaj's 2017 period drama Rangoon (a film producer in a parasitic relationship with his actress), Akshat Verma's 2018 black comedy Kaalakaandi (a terminally ill man with a crazy bucket list), and Gauravv K Chawla's 2018 corporate thriller Baazaar (a competitive Gujarati stock broker).
'Age-appropriate' is a recurring term in his interviews, and his approach is substantiated by his slate of films, including Bunty Aur Babli 2 (in which he will play the older Bunty with a paunch), Ali Abbas Zafar's Amazon Prime Video India political thriller show Dilli, and Pawan Kriplani's horror comedy Bhoot Police (in which he will be seen alongside much younger Ali Fazal and Fatima Sana Shaikh).
Another recurring motif in Saif's interviews is his confessions. Acutely aware that he has 'moved past his prime', Saif is no longer a part of the rat race. That allows him the liberty to speak his mind and not care about the consequences.
The most recent example of this was when he questioned the politics and historical accuracy of Tanhaji, produced by lead actor Ajay Devgn, in which he played the primary antagonist. When the film was criticised for its alleged subtext, of upholding Hindus as the saviours of India, amidst protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act, Saif confessed he found the politics of the film dangerous merely days after it opened to his career-best numbers. An avid buff of history, he claimed there was no 'idea of India' till the advent of the British, and that Chhatrapati Shivaji and Aurangzeb's conquests of capturing land were more territorial than religious.
While he claimed he agreed to do the part because it was 'delicious,' he did admit to the skewed politics of the film as a whole. Saif could have easily maintained diplomacy (as so many Bollywood actors do) but his experiments with truth are not a byproduct of hogging the limelight on social media. In fact, he is not even on social media. His confessions are often a function of who he is as an individual, and his unrelenting attempts at being true to himself.
He claimed he would not have done a Laal Kaptaan (which he correctly feared would be a box office dud) had he not been influenced by a rich appetite of the Western genre. Similarly, he knows his extensive knowledge of history would not allow him to deny the inaccuracy of Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior. While a lot of people in the industry are learned enough to arrive to this conclusion, not too many have the audacity to voice their dissent on a public platform, particularly when the nation is undergoing a politically charged turmoil.
Tanhaji turned political even before it released as it was pitted against Meghna Gulzar's social drama Chhapaak, that released on the same day (10 January), and had Deepika Padukone as the leading lady and producer. A couple of days before the release, Deepika showed solidarity with students of Jawaharlal Nehru University by joining their protest against the central government. Her actions led to several hashtags trending on Twitter, ranging from #BoycottChhapaak to #WatchTanhajiTheUnsungWarrior. The battle lines were drawn on political grounds.
In that scenario, for Saif to take the stand he did (without making it sound like rebellious) was clearly a sign of true expression. In the light of commerce, having tasted success after seven long years, Saif should have done another Tanhaji-like film to amp up his brand value and trade standing, let alone take a stab at the film which recrystalised him as a bankable star in the eyes of the trade. Secondly, to 'take sides' ahead of his production, Jawaani Jaaneman, that also saw him as the lead actor, could have jeopardised the box office chances of the film.
But it has become quit clear that Saif is not interested in playing it safe. He just plays it Saif.
He is the last star-actor to mull over the box office yield of his films. Had it been otherwise, he would not have rejected Race 3, in which he was offered to play the younger brother of the lead actor Salman Khan (later essayed by Bobby Deol). While one could argue that decision could stem from his growing interest in taking up only age-appropriate roles, maybe he could see through the ludicrousness of the film, that turned out to be a critical disaster when it released in 2018.
Another recent confession in a Saif interview that became the talk of the town was his opinion on the trailer of the new Love Aaj Kal, directed by Imtiaz Ali, and starring his daughter Sara Ali Khan in the lead. He claimed he liked the trailer of Ali's romantic drama of the same name from 2018, that starred Saif in the lead role, much more. He even revealed he turned down a role Imtiaz offered to him in the Love Aaj Kal reboot. Again, taking a shot at his former collaborator's, and moreover his daughter's, next film could lead to some trouble in the paradise. But Saif did not intend to make it sound like a cheap shot. It sounded like every Saif Ali Khan confession ever — calm, respectful, and matter-of-fact. "That's what it is" and "That's how it is" are often the concluding sentences of these well-thought-out and cleverly contested confessions or claims.
From saying his Tashan and Main Khiladi Tu Anari co-star Akshay Kumar is his most competitive contemporary to revealing he feels guilty to having turned down Shakun Batra's offer of Fawad Khan's role in the 2016 family drama Kapoor & Sons, Saif's confessions on the Koffee with Karan couch are also unmistakably refreshing. He also pleaded guilty of defending the allegations of nepotism through an argument about eugenics in a severely criticised open letter. He later said he should just shut up and acknowledge his privilege.
In a market where an Ayushmann Khurrana gets pigeonholed into playing the middle-class, small-town hero battling a societal taboo, and a Salman Khan is hailed as the go-to masala action hero, Saif manages to carve a niche for himself, where he can no longer be slotted into any bracket. He continues to play a myriad range of characters, but never forgets to assert his individual identity off-camera, when he chooses to be himself, truly and thoroughly.
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