Before Laal Kaptaan, a defence of Saif Ali Khan, the most exciting Bollywood star of his generation
Before Laal Kaptaan, here’s why Saif Ali Khan is the most exciting Bollywood actor of his generation.
He doesn’t always make it easy to like him, but Saif Ali Khan hardly deserves to be written off. That Nawabi attitude doesn’t help -- those off-putting comments about nepotism and comparing actors to race horses -- especially in an industry where success is often gauged by the number of years one has spent in ‘struggle’. But Saif’s royal heritage and tendency to make tone-deaf statements at the most inopportune moments have often distracted from the real thing -- his work.
To put it quite plainly, even if Leonardo DiCaprio were to call himself a ‘movie star’ on national TV (with the insinuation that being one makes him special in some way), you’d be justified in feeling embarrassed for him. But for Saif to say such things – during an episode of Koffee with Karan aired in the middle of one of the worst phases of his career, no less – is perhaps one of the reasons people have been repelled by his films lately. Because once you separate his work from the whiff of privilege he gives off -- privilege that he readily agrees to being blessed by -- Saif Ali Khan is by far the most exciting actor working in Bollywood today.
His upcoming film, the desi Western Laal Kaptaan, arrives at the tail-end of what has been a particularly creative period for the actor, marked by a near-unbroken streak of commercial failure. This is a strange situation for a star to find himself in. I’d like to think of his last couple of years as a desi equivalent to the last 12 months Matt Damon has had. Both actors have attached themselves to terrific projects, they’ve worked with exciting directors, but have been thoroughly unable to turn in hits. While Damon had The Great Wall, Suburbicon and Downsizing to his credit, Saif did Vishal Bhardwaj’s Rangoon, followed it up with the Hindi remake of Chef and was a part of one of my top five Hindi films of the year, Kaalakaandi (more on that later).
Of course, between the theatrical flops, he broke the mould by becoming the first mainstream star of his generation to work in a Netflix original series – Sacred Games has catapulted him back into the good graces of the public, and he’d hope for some of that to rub off on the characteristically offbeat Laal Kaptaan.
But his brave choice in material is hardly a knee-jerk reaction to failure; in fact, it is quite the opposite. While most actors would revert to proven formula in difficult times – Saif is also guilty of this, he did Humshakals and Bullett Raja – he continues to make movies that no one else could, and more likely, would.
And this was one of the founding philosophies of his production company, Illuminati Films, which kicked off operations with the big-budget action thriller, Agent Vinod. It was a sleek movie, keeping with Saif’s sensibilities as a producer and star, directed with flair by Sriram Raghavan. If nothing else, revisit its phenomenal single-take action sequence on YouTube to get a sense of the kind of boundaries that film was pushing in mainstream Bollywood.
But Saif’s career has been marked by bold choices for years. Six years before Agent Vinod, he starred in the delightfully strange Being Cyrus, a film set within the insular Parsi community and starring a murderers’ row of fine actors such as Boman Irani, Dimple Kapadia and Naseeruddin Shah.
While his most acclaimed performance arguably came in Omkara – a film that is a prime example of Bhardwaj’s unique talent to cast the right actors for the right roles – Saif has recently been working almost exclusively with untested filmmakers. They need an A-lister to get their movies made, and he’s the only one willing to take the leap.
On paper, Chef would’ve seemed like a home run – an official remake of a popular Hollywood film, tempered with the sort of emotional drama we’ve become so accustomed to in Bollywood – but, as journalist Rajeev Masand put it to him in an interview, it ‘failed to open’. Chef made approximately Rs 10 crore at the box office, despite being largely successful in translating a very unique film for Indian audiences.
And the audience’s outright rejection of Chef perhaps spilled over to Kaalakaandi, the directorial debut of Delhi Belly writer Akshat Verma. Like Being Cyrus, it’s largely set in English, and features a structure and tone that can be understandably alien to, say, the people who would’ve admired Saif’s performance in Omkara. It’s also a film that has trans sex workers, an overabundance of drugs – heck, the entire film plays out like a trip – and a completely uninhibited performance by Saif at its centre.
Like so many of his films, including the rather hit-or-miss Go Goa Gone, it’s a great example of Saif’s uncommon willingness to play supporting roles in ensemble films - because Kaalakaandi is hardly a Saif Ali Khan vehicle, although it performed like one at the box office. In fact, watching Deepak Dobriyal and Vijay Raaz play doofus goons is worth the price of admission alone, along with the film’s many, many other achievements. It deserves to be discovered online, if only to experience its ridiculously ambitious, Quentin Tarantino-meets-Guy Ritchie style.
As for the future, it’s difficult to predict just how much of an impact Sacred Games will have on Saif’s career. Surely more Bollywood actors will take less trepidatious steps into the world of online streaming, but with the theatrical experience losing its sheen worldwide, the online arena will only get more crowded in the coming years. Saif was ahead of the curve, now the challenge is to maintain the head start.
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The author tweets @RohanNaahar