SAIF: THE ORIGINAL KHAN
His peers in Bollywood agree— Saif Ali Khan cannot be pigeonholed
In the race for Bollywood’s most popular Saif, Saif Ali Saif has always finished fourth. Even so, he has made an impression with roles that have been varied and often challenging. He was Langda Tyagi in Omkara (2006), and again a manipulator in
Being Cyrus (2006). Later, in Go Goa Gone (2013), he played a Punjabi zombie hunter who thought he was Russian. This year, we are seeing him again as Sartaj Singh in Netflix’s Sacred Games, an emotionally vulnerable police officer who struggles to save Mumbai. Later this year, in Navdeep Singh’s next, Laal Kaptaan, he will be seen playing a lone wolf who goes out on a hunting spree in 18th century India. Looking at his recent choices—Chef (2017) and Kaalakaandi (2017) included—it seems obvious that Saif is slowly growing impervious to staid formulas and box office collections.
“Sometimes when we work, we have to work for money, which means we have to follow the diktats of the market. But before
Sacred Games, there was a time when I was surrendering more to the job than worrying about how it will be perceived,” says Saif. “You follow that and things fall into place.” Sacred Games is Saif ’s way of treating his work more as an “artistic effort”, less an obligation. It’s this facet that made Krishna D.K., one half of the writer-director duo Raj & D.K., take the script of zombie comedy Go Goa Gone to him. On hearing the script, Saif called it “chu ****** and crazy”. He agreed not just to star in the project but also produce it. “He has this childlike enthusiasm and curiosity. He also has a basic instinct to do something special,” says D.K.. “There’s a drive in him—sometimes it works, sometimes it fails.”
Despite his share of failures, Saif has managed to keep his head above water. Detractors, of course, attribute it to his lineage—he is the son of Sharmila Tagore and cricketer Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi—but Saif has steadfastly chosen the lesstrodden path, never playing it safe. By agreeing to play the protagonist in Raj & D.K.’s Happy Ending (2014), for instance, Saif showed he was one of the few actors who understood what ‘meta’ meant. A satire on romantic comedies, the film forced Saif to subvert the tropes and clichés of the very films that had made him popular.
Two of those films— Imitiaz Ali’s Love Aaj Kal (2009) and Homi Adjania’s Cocktail (2012)—are still considered his biggest hits. Ali, for his part, knows Saif enough to offer some insight: “People don’t know how to categorise him. He is comfortable with that because he can be different people. He is very truthful and yet full of contradictions, like
“BEFORE SACRED GAMES, I WAS SURRENDERING MORE TO THE JOB THAN WORRYING ABOUT HOW IT WOULD BE PERCEIVED,” SAYS SAIF
a post-modern poet. He can be profound and silly at the same time, modern and old-fashioned. His mind jumps across various boundaries that usual minds do not. His perspective, therefore, is extremely broad and accepting.”
Saif will turn over an even newer leaf with Laal Kaptaan, a historical action drama. “We wanted a charismatic, cool guy for this character, and [Saif] epitomises that,” says Singh. His job was made easier by the fact that Saif got his cinematic references, some of which were Hollywood westerns. “He is well-read and informed, so the conversations become much easier.” The writer-director also makes it a point to mention Saif ’s “wicked, yet understated sense of humour, which finds its way into a lot of his performances,” thereby elevating them.
For now, though, there’s
Sacred Games. The characters in the show’s first season were all colourful, but Saif’s Sartaj, with his many frailties, stood out. Though Sartaj is doggedly committed to the truth, Saif says, “he’s not a typical Bollywood hero”. The actor instead suggests he is the “moral fulcrum” around whom the show is balanced.
Sacred Games does indeed find much of its continuity in Sartaj’s trajectory that sees him progress from bumbling to brave. Saif says, “Sartaj is a natural sucker for manipulated guidance and tries to find it in religion, or the ashram where Guruji (Pankaj Tripathi) resides.” For the actor, this second season of the web has “resolution, twists and turns, really good writing and some of the best artistic stuff coming out of India”. Given the honesty with which he has fashioned his career, you feel tempted to take his word for it. ■
A SAIF BET Khan and Kalki Koechlin in Sacred Games (above); and a still from the show