With Sacred Games, Saif Ali Khan rises above starry trappings to build a universally resonant character
Grey characters have always been up Saif Ali Khan's alley. In Sacred Games, he tackles the dark side in all of us artfully.
Watching Sacred Games makes one thing clear: Saif Ali Khan is a consistent performer who can surprise you with each new role. The youngest Khan has never made the cut to unquestioned commercial success in Hindi cinema. He is considered the most urbane Khan with minimal recall value and mass following. But as an actor, he stands ahead of his contemporaries and always has. With Sacred Games, a Netflix series that targets international viewership along with Indian audiences, Saif has made a timely and successful transition to content that would do justice to his kind of acting. He made a brave choice of exiting the safe zone of Hindi cinema where he is established, and the accolades have vindicated the move.
Meeting Saif, the courteous and genuinely well-read movie star for an interview has always been a pleasure. Off record, he interprets and gives opinions on the state of the Indian nation like a well-versed columnist. His recent observations on the rise of extremist reactionaries and that one could face death for criticising the government reflects this trait, and also inherent frankness. On record, his conversation is measured and honest. He does not pander to the soft touches that are often viewed as endearing in a movie star. During two such interviews, he reiterated that he does no relate to lily-white heroes.
Grey characters have always been up his alley. He tackles the dark side in all of us artfully. Saif’s performance as Langda Tyagi in Omkara remains one of the greatest transformations ever; this suave young Nawab, who was often a romantic hero, had manifested pure evil as a crude, crass and manipulative Iago from the Hindi heartland. Saif’s dark shades first emerged in the lesser-known Ek Hasina Thi by Sriram Raghavan. The filmmaker, who steps out occasionally to direct, had made this twisted relationship saga in 2004, featuring Saif as a violent man that meets with a terrible end, a comeuppance for his cruel treatment of a young girl. He did a muted grey role in Being Cyrus and recently, held up a misdirected film, Kaalakaandi, on his uninhibited performance alone. Saif also had a knack for playing the goofy romantic hero once upon a time, with charming deadpan comic skills. Dil Chahta Hai and Hum Tum are testimony to that.
But as men mature and grow older, so do their emotions and ability to tackle characters (in ideal circumstances at least). With Inspector Sartaj Singh, one of the better etched book characters in India, he has outdone himself. As the series opens, Singh’s body language in the series is slumped and defeatist, like the man himself. His boss, Neeraj Kabi, and colleague, Aamir Bashir, in a departure from the book, dominate and manipulate him. A part of Sacred Games — the complex, sophisticated universe of convenient secrets and well placed lies of the Mumbai police — emerges as similar in texture, tone and resonance to popular international TV shows and web series.
As it progresses Sartaj rediscovers both his conscience and confidence. His posture and personality flower. He leads brazenly and takes big risks, yet keeps it muted. As Saif has admitted to in recent interviews, keeping it muted and limited in the emoting scale, was challenging for a Hindi film actor. The creative team behind Netflix, show creator Vikramaditya Motwane and director Anurag Kashyap along with its actors, have achieved the touch of muted realism in a context that is quite a leap of imagination (a nuclear bomb in the middle of Mumbai is rather wild, conceptually). Watching him play this character, one might not sense his discomfort at all. In fact, when one tires of profanity and endless sex that Nawazuddin Siddiqui and his criminal colleagues constantly engage in while dealing with other matters, one finds relief and a solid story in the portions featuring Mumbai police, Inspector Sartaj Singh and his friend, constable Katekar, and the R&AW agent (Radhika Apte).
Sacred Games finally positions Saif amongst movie stars who have chosen to move to TV and web series for better work. Simply put, when films have retired talented or ageing stars, they have turned to smaller screens successfully. They bring loyal audiences and brand recall to roles that let them play complex characters. Robin Wright, Carey Mulligan and Jane Fonda have made impact with their Netflix shows and films. House of Cards, Mudbound, Collateral, Our Souls at Night and Grace and Frankie have become successes. Emma Stone will act in Maniac for the streaming giant, a black comedy directed by Cary Fukunaga and co-starring Jonah Hill. Hollywood heroes too have chosen small screen parts that give them visibility and substantial characters. For example, Dwayne Johnson in Ballers, a comedy on HBO. Original content from this channel has, in fact, drawn Hollywood in large numbers. Westworld and Big Little Lies are prime examples of TV shows that bring meaty roles to movie stars. When Hollywood stars have stepped onto the small screen, they have made a smooth shift to characters that command attention, yet sustain personalities as episodes progress.
Here in India, shifting to a TV role or a web series is often viewed as the death of a film career. Few have managed to alter this perception, with Anil Kapoor successfully straddling TV with his remake of 24. But he is an exception to the rule. Judging musical contests, variety shows and dance shows seem to be ideal employment for heroines whose careers are on the wane. Saif’s transition to the small screen via Netflix will be viewed diffaerently. International critics, not familiar with his Hindi films, have applauded his performance. They have judged it based on its merit alone. His recent releases, Chef and Kaalakaandi, despite being fine performances, have tanked.
With Sacred Games, he might have opened up a potential avenue to take up international roles in both TV and streaming content. Hopefully, this Khan, who could not quite become the populist filmy hero that can draw in wolf whistles and claps, will lead a different kind of change for Indian film talent, one that can go beyond filmy trappings and build universally resonant content.
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