In the current age of the paparazzi craze, Saif Ali Khan might be the lesser-known, less visible partner amongst India’s most widely covered married couple and parents. Kareena Kapoor Khan and their son, Taimur Ali Khan Pataudi is often spotted out and about, while Saif is clearly, reticent to be seen or clicked. That, actually, might be a good thing for him.
Audiences today have a whole new generation included. The millennial generation is not invested or influenced by power hierarchies and established star structures of Hindi cinema. So the fact that the three Khans- Aamir, Shah Rukh and Salman- lead Hindi cinema’s star brigade, while Saif was always the lesser star, doesn’t quite matter to them. What might matter instead is that he are the performances and films that work for them?
Saif Ali Khan has always been the most interesting Bollywood star amongst his contemporaries. Through his career, his film choices have ranged from unexpectedly great to simply disinterested. So have his performances. It’s visible when Saif is out there to deliver a memorable character. Langda Tyagi from Omkara, Dil Chahta Hai and Inspector Sartaj Singh from Sacred Games on Netflix are such parts. He has also slept walked through mediocre films like Kurbaan, co-starring his wife Kareena, and Happy Ending. And he has acted in quality films that are less known featuring him in winsome roles, like Being Cyrus and Go Goa Gone. Subtlety, shades of grey and underplaying a role are his calling cards.
His kind of acting didn’t always have takers in Hindi cinema, and often, he is excluded from the list of mainstream heroes that hold mass appeal. It’s not an incorrect interpretation. Saif is not always everyman’s hero. But his career has grown at a time when a large section of Indian audience- the urbane, educated, the upwardly mobile viewer, was completely left out of the gamut of Hindi films. They prefer to watch international films, Hollywood and American TV, they didn’t seem to matter to filmmakers. With millennials taking over-consumption patterns, this approach is changing quickly and evolving to accommodate better produced, better-written content.
Which is why this is probably the best time for Saif Ali Khan to do his thing, and do it well. His performance in Sacred Games has been widely appreciated; it holds the edgy show together. Kalakaandi, a recent released tanked but Saif did a brilliant job in it. So did Chef, a remake that didn’t do well at the box office but featured Saif in a great, author-backed part. Such content ends up finding an audience gradually on streaming platforms. As streaming gives the option of picking and choosing what one will watch, some of Saif’s better performances might find takers now. He tackles humane, believable characters with finesse, leaving out the lily-white. And that’s the kind of protagonist that finds takers amongst streaming and TV buffs.
It is also an interesting time in his life with immense possibilities of international avenues. While speaking to CNN in a recent interview, Saif called life in the Hindi film industry ‘a little exposed’. His remark refers to the fact that with each new release, an actor’s career is judged and assessed in terms of box office value. That doesn’t leave a lot of room for someone to experiment and go beyond the typical. With Sacred Games having brought him international viewership, Saif might be one of the few Indian actors that make the transition to becoming a streaming star. Hollywood has had precedent in the likes of Nicole Kidman, Dustin Hoffman, Jude Law and Robin Wright, among others of stars that have left behind the pressures of competing for cinematic roles alone. They dabbled in streaming shows and on TV successfully, increasing their shelf life. Saif has categorically stated that he is open to international work if it’s suitable, thereby indicating that he might have finally found his niche.
While working on a film where he plays a Naga Sadhu, the royal star has announced the launch of his production company Black Knight Films with an upcoming project, ‘Jawani Jaaneman’. His previous stint in production with Illuminati Films didn’t end well, although he did collaborate with Dinesh Vijan on hits like Love Aaj Kal and Cocktail. Saif wanted his vision and voice to reflect without complications. Therefore, he has waited before launching the second company and now seems intent on taking it forward with content that will work with contemporary viewers.
An important aspect of Saif Ali Khan’s personality that doesn’t get noticed in an industry where witty remarks, sweet banalities and empty praises populate, is his remarkable intelligence and measured public conduct. Saif is never over the top, not fawning or fuming. Even when he discusses being harassed 25 years ago as a newbie in cinema, he gracefully directs attention towards the growing #MeToo movement in India. He speaks sense and is updated on current affairs. More often than not, he makes a sensible point. This lack of conscious, continuous self-marketing and self-promotion, in addition to restraint, actually increases his appeal with today’s Indian youth. As a journalist, the author has found conversing with Saif, well read and unpretentious, a genuine delight. It will definitely be heartening to see the essence of this subtle star transition to larger audiences in the present day changing scenario.