What makes a star? Nobody quite knows. There is indeed no formula that separates a megastar from an also-ran.
The recent history of Bollywood is replete with instances of promising actors who squandered away the chances that came their way.
Saif Ali Khan certainly isn't one of them. He is a rare Bollywood actor who seems to have consistently created openings where there were none.
Once written off as somebody who couldn't quite carry the burden of a big film on his shoulders, Saif is today as bankable a box office star as any, besides being a quality actor that can be relied upon to go where most Bollywood stars do not dare to go.
The Saif Ali Khan of 2006 is a star and an actor transformed
Ever since a tall, wiry, gangling young man hit the showbiz big time in the early 1970s and went on to become the biggest luminary popular Hindi cinema has ever known, movie stardom, as a concept, hasn't been easy to define.
Indeed, Amitabh Bachchan redefined superstardom forever by emerging as a one-man industry and clinging on to his position across three decades and more, but the likes of Aamir Khan, Shahrukh Khan, Hrithik Roshan and Ajay Devgan haven't done badly either.
They, too, have added new dimensions to the meaning of stardom in the Bollywood context. But nobody has had an acting career as remarkably topsy-turvy as Saif Ali Khan's.
Saif, who for long languished in the shadows of the more saleable Khans of Planet Bollywood, playing glorified walk-on parts in multistarrers, has now established himself as one of the finest actors in the business. The trajectory of Saif's career is what makes him such a phenomenon.
For years, he diligently cultivated the urbane but frivolous lover boy image, which led to his being typecast as a parallel hero incapable of delivering solo hits. But all that is now well in the past.
The Saif Ali Khan of 2006 is a star and an actor transformed - with a National Best Actor Award (for Hum Tum) and films like Parineeta in his kitty, he has the confidence and the foresight to pick roles that test his abilities.
Although Saif was brilliant as the bumbling, diffident Sameer in Farhan Akhtar's Dil Chahta Hai (2001), it wasn't until he played a city slicker with deep-grey contours in the songless thriller Ek Hasina Thi that people sat up and took notice of the fact that there was more to the man than just an oh-so-cool exterior.
As Saif matured rapidly as an actor, he also got rid of the 'second fiddle' tag by delivering two huge solo hits in quick succession - Hum Tum with Rani Mukherjee and Salaam Namaste with Preity Zinta.
The year 2006 has been particularly propitious for Saif the actor. His multilayered performance as a mysterious young man with a shady agenda in Homi Adajania's Being Cyrus catapulted him to a completely different plane. And now, as the predatory Langda Tyagi in Vishal Bhardwaj's Othello adaptation, Omkara, he has stepped into a league all his own.
So, is an actor only as good as his director? In a documentary film made last year on a few of Bollywood's one-hit wonders, the now-forgotten Rahul Roy does say something to that effect in an attempt to underscore why his career nosedived after a great start with Mahesh Bhatt's Aashiqui. But the truth of the matter is that Rahul botched up his own chances by signing on too many bad films in the first flush of success.
Therefore, it is not just the directors that an actor works with who determine success or failure; much also depends on the career choices that the actor makes. In that respect, Saif has been on the top of his game. Despite the laid-back air that he tends to exude, he has in the past five years demonstrated exceptional sharpness in the matter of opting for unusual scripts to showcase his talent.
He is where he is today because he has dared to be different. He has dared to get into the garbs of Cyrus and an Indianised Iago at a time when Bollywood has begun to take measured steps towards a more sensible variety of commercial cinema. Saif clearly has a sense of where the Mumbai film industry is headed.