In an industry where you are as good as your last release, it is not surprising that obituaries are already pouring in for Saif Ali Khan’s supposed ‘sinking career’ post the box-office failure of Kaalakaandi – his eighth flop in a row. But that’s not a first for Saif.
Remember the barrage of bad films – Aashiq Awara, Imtihaan, Bambai Ka Babu, Aao Pyaar Karen – he acted in the 1990s, with critics and audiences pulling the noose on him almost unanimously?
Saif’s 25-year career has had ups and down – he has a history of being written off and bouncing back resiliently. If Main Khiladi Tu Anari salvaged him in the 90s, his boisterous energy in Dil Chahta Hai made us gush over him in the 2000s. Omkara established him as a performer par excellence, placing him in the breed of serious actors.
It is remarkable that he has managed to retain his sanity amidst a flurry of sly remarks and unsolicited advice after Kaalakaandi failed to set the box office ringing. But are we jumping the gun in drawing curtains over the Chhote Nawab’s film career? Going by his unusual cine-curve, we sure are.
Choosing Substance Over Stardom
It will be fair to say that the last five years, post Cocktail, have been particularly harsh on Saif. Unfortunately, these are also the years where he has been at his experimental best.
Sample this: Go Goa Gone, Bullett Raja, Phantom, Rangoon, Chef, Kaalakaandi.
He effortlessly gets into character of a Russian mafia – cracking us up with his impeccable comic timing – in Go Goa Gone. He plays to perfection the part of the earthy Raja Misra – not the conventional turf of the actor – in Bullett Raja. He stands tall in Phantom, which oscillates between coherence and chaos. In Vishal Bharadwaj’s ambitious Rangoon, Saif pulls a powerful performance as the ruthlessly suave Rustom Billimoria. He charms us with his cigars and perfectly-tailored suits. He is convincing as the urbane, middle-aged man trying to mend relationships with his son in Chef.
As for Kaalakaandi, Saif is a laughing riot. He is witty, uninhibited and outrageously funny as a debutant druggie in the movie. He mouths sexually explicit dialogues without being sleazy. In fact, the film takes wings every time Nary Singh and Saif share screen space. It’s not just us, Saif’s delightfully trippy act in Kaalakaandi even had the revered Aamir Khan in splits.
And he is not done yet. There is Bazaar and Sacred Games also slated for release in 2018. The latter marks Saif’s foray into the digital arena where few ‘big stars’ have dared to tread.
It’s not that Saif hasn’t been a part of masala entertainers, Race and Race 2 being two of his most successful films. But in the quest for doing something hatke, he had no qualms in moving away from Race 3 because the part offered to him “wasn’t exciting enough.” Had stardom been his ultimate goal, he would perhaps have latched at the film considering it will most definitely succeed.
A Self-Aware Actor
Bollywood has a penchant for seducing stars into delusion. But Saif’s self-awareness of his craft is endearing. He knows he is not a Shah Rukh or Salman whose films make an easy Rs 300 crore. He accepts he erred big time in Humshakals and that sometimes his choices were backward looking.
But he also wants to do things not everybody else is doing. At 47, he is perhaps rediscovering himself while reigniting his passion for cinema. In one of his recent interviews, he said:
"I want to redefine myself as an actor. And despite its failure, I think Rangoon was a step in the right direction. It was an artistic experience."
In fact, Saif has exhibited exemplary maturity in dealing with unkind headlines hurled his way. He has not bogged himself down by the pressure of playing larger than life characters on screen, doing things completely incomprehensible at 50 (think Tiger in Tiger Zinda Hai). This makes his self-assuredness appealing albeit to a niche audience.
His defiance, in choosing roles he finds worthy, not going overboard with marketing, and in maintaining a guarded distance from his fans (Saif isn’t a social media ninja), needs to be applauded.
The Tricky Terrain of Filmmaking, Circulation and Consumption
That Saif has never really been a mass-puller is no secret.
"I wouldn’t call myself a superstar; Aamir, Shah Rukh and Salman are superstars because their films make Rs 200 to Rs 300 crore. My films don’t make that kind of money at the box office." - Saif Ali Khan
Besides, not every film that makes that kind of money is a good film. We wouldn’t go back to a Dabangg or an Ek Tha Tiger with the same fondness as an Omkara. Neither can we use the Rs-100-crore club as a yardstick for success. A Rangoon not making Rs 100 crore might be a problem because it is made at a budget of 80 crore, but the same doesn’t hold true for films made at a smaller budget. The economics of filmmaking are changing.
If we look at Kaalakaandi, why are we even surprised that it didn’t turn out to be a monumental success? Around 50 percent of the film is in English. It is dark, edgy and not your regular potboiler. Sure Indian audiences have evolved, but not as much to embrace this film wholeheartedly. And many who would find the subject interesting, would wait to catch it on Netflix or Amazon Prime. This change – in terms of the ease of content consumption – certainly needs to be factored in.
Saif may not be your conventional crowd pulling actor, but he is an actor unfettered by box-office numbers. If anything, he must be lauded for choosing the unconventional over the formulaic, especially when the 'superstars’ don’t mind sitting in their cushy zones, serving one insipid dish after another.
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