Partners in crime: Tracing Ajay Devgn-Saif Ali Khan bond over the decades

Shaikh Ayaz
tanhaji the unsung warrior

Ajay Devgn and Saif Ali Khan at the trailer launch of Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior. (Express photo: Varinder Chawla).

While promoting Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior, Saif Ali Khan has been all praise for Ajay Devgn. "I think his confidence, generosity and calm on set... it's just really nice to work with him. You can be yourself with him. It's just easy," a dapper Saif said about his longtime co-star and friend in one interview. A laconic Ajay nodded sheepishly, "Saif's always been honest. He says what he feels, at least with me. We both, actually, need to think before we speak. So, we can say whatever we want to each other, and we know we are not going to be judged."

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Saif Ali Khan and Ajay Devgn in a still from Kachche Dhaage.

An ambitious historical epic, Ajay Devgn seems to be personally invested in Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior in a way only a producer can. And besides, it is his 100th film, a mark of an extraordinarily prolific and hardworking actor capping a more than 25-year career. "I see him carrying this film like a very concerned parent, I'd say like a mother," Saif noted on Zoom TV, as an all-ears Ajay sat next to him.

In their latest collaboration together, the old friends will appear in a famously fight-to-the-finish clash, as Ajay's titular warrior takes on his wily opponent Udaybhan Rathod (Saif). These days, historical dramas are the flavour and no one would be surprised if Om Raut-directed Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior makes a killing at the box-office. Added advantage: It's the first big release of 2020, starring three A-listers (including Kajol as Tanaji Malusare's wife) and a historical backdrop that serves to take Indian audiences' mind off today's political tumult and turn them gently towards our glorious past and unsung victories. While Bollywood epics often face flak for historical inaccuracies (may we remind you of the furore over Padmaavat?) whether Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior distorts history or sticks to the facts is an exercise best left to the historians and learned men who can have a gala time unpicking facts from fiction. The makers are rather clear about their intention. As Ajay told the media, explaining his interest in Shivaji's lesser-known general and why a bloody 17th-century battle led by Tanaji was a parable worth telling, "He was indeed an unsung warrior. The two paragraphs on him in school textbooks don’t do justice."

Fellow travellers

According to Ajay Devgn, the decision to have Saif Ali Khan as antagonist Udaybhan Rathod was unanimous. Saif apparently had the "wicked and quirky" quality that they were after. When Ajay called him to offer the role, the Chhote Nawab was more than willing to be a part of his co-star's 100th film. Ajay has admitted in media interviews that though they were working after more than a decade — their last project together was Omkara in 2016 — it never felt like it. Watching the duo, you can feel their rapport and mutual respect for each other. Ajay has not shied away from revealing that after Omkara they lost touch for a decade or so, but when they met on Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior, it was like old times. "After the first five minutes, we were the same," Ajay said, adding that the only difference today is that they are probably maturer and all "grown-up."

Ajay and Saif are, in many sense, what you might call fellow travellers. Both are more or less of the same age. Saif is a year younger than Ajay (the former is 49, the latter 50) but they started out at roughly the same time. For Kajol, too, working with Saif must have been like a school reunion. For they go back a long way, all the way to 1991 when an unprofessional Saif reportedly got hired and fired from Bekhudi. Later, they acted in Hameshaa and Yeh Dillagi, one of Bollywood's many shoddy versions of Billy Wilder's classic Sabrina. Son of the late action master Veeru Devgan, Ajay made his acting debut with Phool Aur Kaante (1991), which catapulted him instantly into stardom. Tipped as the next big action star, Ajay with his brooding intensity and versatility found immediate resonance with film-goers at a time when the Khans were carving a niche for themselves in light-hearted romantic comedies. Of course, in Ajay's case, riding atop two motorcycles like a boss in his action-packed debut helped. In hindsight, it might be the best career strategy that he could have ever devised.

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Ajay Devgn and Saif Ali Khan in a still from Omkara.

Saif Ali Khan, on the other hand, waltzed into the public consciousness with 'Ole ole ole' from Yeh Dillagi (1994). A racy repackaging of the hit song has been used in the upcoming Jawani Jaaneman that will likely introduce it to a younger audience. Initially at least, Sharmila Tagore and Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi's scion lacked Ajay's luck. He had to wait in the wings for his turn at fame. Sandwiched between the likes of action kings Ajay Devgn and Akshay Kumar on the one hand and romantic icons such as Shah Khan, Aamir and Salman Khan on the other, he may perhaps have had the most difficult career of all 1990s' stars. Though he was a natural fit for urbane-looking and stylish comic-romantic parts (which everyone from Kunal Kohli and Siddharth Anand to Farhan Akhtar and Homi Adajania tried their best to harness later on) compared to leading men Kumars and Khans, he was largely dismissed as an eye-candy at best and a sidekick at worst. If in Hollywood, he'd have been Woody Allen's muse. But it is of Bollywood we speak, where the raffish Saif had to languish away the decades before coming anywhere close to being called a bankable star.

Not playing it Saif

Initially, many filmmakers saw Saif as a sidebar in two-hero films. Hard to believe today but time was when he wasn't top-tier at all. In filmy-speak, he was the Anari while someone more mainstream like Akshay Kumar was Khiladi. The first time Saif and Ajay worked together was in 1999. Milan Luthria's Kachche Dhaage saw Saif and Ajay play estranged brothers belonging to different faiths, handcuffed to a similar fate after their father brings them together on his deathbed. In a theme that doesn't feel too out of place today, their father wanted to marry his Muslim lover, but the 1971 Indo-Pak war foiled their plan and the lovebirds were separated once and for all. Ajay's protagonist Aftab is a Muslim (who gets mocked by an officer, with lines like "Ugly people, ugly blood" and "you've become a burden on us," which would be music to the ears of today's so-called Hindu troll army) while Dhananjay played by Saif is a Hindu, in a well-worn story of two on-the-run innocents trapped in a crime and are forced to overcome their circumstances to prove their innocence. Perfect foil to each other, the duo is well cast — Ajay as the elder son, more reserved and intense joined by the suave Saif as the metrosexual outsider.

In 2003, Saif Ali Khan and Ajay Devgn found themselves giving each other company in the JP Dutta multi starrer LOC: Kargil. But it was with Vishal Bhardwaj's Omkara that Saif truly came into his own. The fact that Ajay, who was also its producer, had faith in his friend only goes to prove his own sharp instincts as well as an ability to take a backseat while giving his co-star the more meatier role. Reportedly, Aamir Khan has once wanted to play Langda Tyagi! Nobody saw it coming but clearly, Ajay and director Vishal had seen something in Saif that most filmmakers had missed over the decades. Cast as baddie Langda Tyagi (an adaptation of Othello's manipulative Iago), he's a loyal second in command to Ajay's Omi (Othello) who turns on his former master by hatching an elaborate conspiracy that will cause Omi's downfall. This critically-acclaimed Shakespearean tragedy saw Saif deliver the performance of a lifetime and the film quickly became a turning point for its Iago. He's had his fair share of success with Dil Chahta Hai, Ek Hasina Thi, Hum Tum and later, Love Aaj Kal but it was Omkara that made critics sit and take notice of Saif, the Serious Actor.

As opposed to Saif, Ajay's success wasn't pyrrhic, simply because he was always the critics' darling and a box-office magnet. For the two friends and colleagues the journey, though different, has been tough and challenging in its own way. And as they face-off in their latest creative endeavour, it would be interesting to see how their careers will shape in this new decade.

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