From Ole Ole to Omkara and from Surakshaa to Sacred Games, meet Saif Ali Khan 2.0. For those planning to watch Laal Kaptaan this weekend, here’s a lowdown on SAK’s eventful journey.

“The idea in any creative field is to not be scared and if you can manage that, then you have a bit of an edge,” mused a rather cheerful Saif Ali Khan in an interview with Anupama Chopra last year. Khan 2.0 is not scared, neither of box-office nor of starry expectations and finally seems ready to sell some “edge” to an evolving Hindi audience hungry for edgy content. And if, as they say, content is king, then it is only ‘safe’ to say that Saif Ali Khan is ‘King Khan.’ There’s no denying that 49-year-old Khan – who appears in this weekend’s new release Laal Kaptaan as a vengeful Naga Sadhu unleashing a splash of violence in an apocalyptic Rajasthan – is enjoying a highly unpredictable and exciting second act, the most relaxed in his royal skin he has ever been.

On surface, at least, director Navdeep Singh’s Laal Kaptaan echoes most of Khan’s recent output. You can see the actor’s not playing safe anymore, hurtling head-first into a zone of experimentation that should finally exorcise the ’90s ghost. Khan has described his role in Laal Kaptaan as physically challenging, in what has been a “rough film to make.” Talking to Zoom TV, he said he will celebrate the completion of Laal Kaptaan “with a 30-year-old whiskey and some Chinese food.” The father of three summed up his latest film as “boundary expanding.” You could probably use the same expression to describe many of his recent hits.

Saif’s slow evolution

A confused writer (if only writers were this charming, we would forgive their confusion) in Happy Ending. A blondie Russian zombie hunter in Go Goa Gone. A dapper 1940s stunt star with one lost arm dreaming of a new life and a movie studio with Miss Julia in Rangoon. A cook who starts his own food truck in ‘Chef.’ A man suffering from cancer swearing to live it up in Kaalaakandi. A cop set loose in the dark Mumbai underbelly in Sacred Games. A greedy stock king in Bazaar. The list is endless. Saif Ali Khan has been all this and more in his recent innings, showing his vast reserves of unsung talent, bankability and effortless charm. This is a surprisingly impressive profile for an actor who was once trapped in a listless (and hopeless) career. In the 1990s, Saif Ali Khan was just another comic sidekick goofily playing second fiddle to the likes of Akshay Kumar and Ajay Devgn. Even to those who grew up in the 90s the cinematic memory of Khan can be a reluctant afterthought. Today, the Kumars and Devgns ought to take a cue out of the Saif playbook.

It appears that even today Khan shares a great equation instead of healthy rivalry with his 90s fellow travellers. In press interactions, the actor sends out a message that though it’s a competitive industry and profession, he’s not squaring off with anyone, not least his nineties’ colleagues and seniors. He has often said he feels nothing but respect for them. In one interview, he admitted that he trusted Aamir Khan’s judgement more than director Farhan Akhtar’s for Dil Chahta Hai, a film that would change his life. In a conversation with Mumbai Mirror, he spoke reverentially of co-star Ajay Devgn. In 1999’s Kachche Dhaage, they played estranged half-brothers and reunited, in maturer phases, as Shakespearean incarnates in Omkara, in 2006. “Ajay is someone I look up to as an actor and a movie star,” Khan gushed, to Mumbai Mirror. “He’s a low-profile guy with a strong sense of family, is committed to his work and guards his privacy. He’s successful, with just the right amount of exposure at the right time. That’s how I’d like to see myself too.” The two will return in the upcoming Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior with Khan reportedly playing antagonist to Devgn’s titular character.

While most of the 90s stars are prisoners of their own image and stardom, Khan seems unfazed by fame and appears eager to jump into a film and character with potential for performance and heavy lifting instead of relying on just good looks and sex appeal – of which, as even his worst critics would concede, Saif Ali Khan has aplenty. In fact, it won’t be out of place to say that he’s not even interested in an image, simply because he’s smart enough to know that not having an image is also a form of image. So, he may be reaching for something like an Aamir Khan-like celebrity which isn’t about frenzied superstardom of Salman or Shah Rukh Khan but a more relatable staying power that comes with having a consistent streak of good films.

From Ole Ole to Omkara, Saif Ali Khan has, indeed, come a long way. Of course, “Ole Ole” (a cheesy dance hit from 1994’s Yeh Dillagi) from his early days of acting was once responsible for Saif mania, but might look somewhat flat-footed today. However, when the song had first hit the airwave, Akshay Kumar had called Khan to tell him, in between peals of laughter, that “bro, it’s a masterpiece.” This anecdote was recollected by Khan in his wide-ranging interview with Anupama Chopra in 2018. Khan and Chopra laughed uproariously about it. He’s the rare star who can revel in his own self-parody and is ever ready to poke good-natured fun at his clumsy 90s appearances. He should know because he spent a better half of that decade stereotyped as a pampered ne’er-do-well. Nobody took him seriously. Even Saif Ali Khan didn’t take Saif Ali Khan seriously.

Always the ‘Anari’

Since a child, Khan was no stranger to glamour. He is the son of two legends. Between them, Sharmila Tagore and the late Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi combined the twin Indian passions – movies and cricket. The royal lineage helped Saif Ali Khan get an easy break-in into Bollywood but the journey for Chhote Nawab was far from easy and smooth. If the 1990s were all about fun and harmless hanging-out in “bromances” in which he was invariably given a short end of the stick, always the ‘Anari’ never the ‘Khiladi’ (‘Parampara’, ‘Main Khiladi Tu Anari’, ‘Surakshaa’, ‘Kachche Dhaage’ etc) by the onset of millennium he was still doing the same routine. Only this time, in more lavish productions. Whether it was Kal Ho Naa Ho or Dil Chahta Hai, Saif Ali Khan was always the silly comedian, a joker whose wild card would take time to reveal its true hidden power.

Dil Chahta Hai was arguably the best thing to have happened to him (besides Kareena Kapoor, needless to say). But critics tend to agree that Ek Hasina Thi, Being Cyrus and Omkara were equally major turnarounds in his filmography. In Dil Chahta Hai, he played Sameer, the eternally confused lover-boy which shortly became a trademark Saif moment that continued until Hum Tum (or ‘Hampton’, as YouTube’s closed caption in one of his interviews says; maybe that’s how Saif should pronounce it, given his clipped Oxford accent) and even Cocktail and Love Aaj Kal although Bollywood’s ‘Aashiq Awara’ was already in his 40s. Playing an anti-hero in Ek Hasina Thi and Omkara helped Saif Ali Khan break his lighthearted rom-com image. It was like entering a dark world no filmmaker had previously imagined the suave and meterosexual Saif would even be capable of. Vishal Bhardwaj’s Omkara, in particular, silenced Saif’s detractors. As the uncouth Langda Tyagi, inspired by Othello’s Iago, Saif Ali Khan emerged as the film’s dark horse, a true scene-stealer despite the overwhelming presence of ‘serious’ actors like Ajay Devgn, Konkana Sen Sharma and Naseeruddin Shah.

Since then, Khan’s rise has been astonishing, an upswing that nobody saw coming. In 2018, he made his Netflix debut with the now Emmy-nominated Sacred Games, in which he once again gave a bravura performance as the turbaned cop Sartaj rushing against the ticking clock to save Mumbai from an impending threat. It established Khan as a good reader of changing time and one who knew that digital was now dictating the future of moviemaking. Revealing a good head for novel scripts and interesting choices, Khan has along the way embraced directors as diverse as Sriram Raghavan, Imtiaz Ali, Raj & DK and Homi Adajania among others. He has often compared his own methods to “American craft” and closer home, is said to be inspired more by Satyajit Ray (who launched his mother Sharmila Tagore in ‘Apur Sansar’) than Siddharth Anand. Compared to his more venerated peers, Khan looks like someone who knows his assets and handicaps and is not delusional about his own mythology. It helps that he has a sense of humour. For example, when he jokes about son Taimur being more famous than him. “Unfortunately,” he once quipped, “I live with the biggest internet star, Taimur Ali Khan, so the paparazzi is always parked outside and I get clicked often.”

For Bollywood stars who think they are cat’s whiskers, Saif Ali Khan’s self-deprecation and candour comes across as a breath of fresh air. Fatherhood (two-year-old Taimur, Ibrahim and the new kid on the bloc Sara Ali Khan), marriage (to Kareena Kapoor), a promising career and plenty in the works, looks like Saif Ali Khan has finally arrived. A bit late but definitely a well-deserved vindication in time to coincide with his 50th birthday celebrations next year.

He can now pop open that 30-year-old whiskey and treat himself to some Chinese repast.

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