Why is Saif Ali Khan un-‘Saif’ today?

When was Saif Ali Khan’s last solo success? Almost six years ago with home production Cocktail, a youth-oriented niche product that made a slim profit. Saif co-produced in 2012. When was the 10th Nawab of Pataudi’s last hit? Five years ago, ladies and gentlemen, in Race 2!

Yes, in 2013, he also co-produced and acted in the “zombie comedy” Go Goa Gone, which has now become a cult movie. In those days, the not-inexpensive film just broke even along with its worldwide earnings. In any case, its urban and urbane sophistication and even the humour clearly indicated a multiplex movie that was superlative. Like (very rare) offbeat movies, it deserved to be made on a judicious budget just for what it is. But every offbeat day is not Sunday!

The scenario since has been terrible. Saif has always balanced his assignments between solo leads and ensemble films, between commercial and midstream movies, but since then, it has been an alarming trajectory of flops or usually disasters (the degree of failure being much more).

In a recent interview, the actor had denied that the people did not want to see a film with him as the leading man. “I don’t think I am that important!” he said. “The biggest thing here is to not take it personally, though I can do that so easily and go wrong! The people will watch the film they want to watch, the film with the poster and trailer they like, and they would like to make the decision themselves and feel a film. I received good reviews for both Rangoon and Chef— one more reason why I did not look on those films as personal failures.”

But he does concede that he took a long while to accept his latest dud, Kaalakaandi, because of its experimental nature, and was finally convinced by arty filmmaker Vishal Bhardwaj to read the script after hearing just a synopsis. This is absolutely and undoubtedly where he went wrong!

In his statements to the media, therefore, Saif Ali Khan comes across as man who has his “fundas” generally right but their implementation is wrong. He makes much of remaining in touch (and sync) with grassroots (with people back home in Pataudi and nearest small-town Bhopal in his capacity as the Nawab), but fails to be judicious in choosing the right commercial subjects. The commercial films above are an indication that he should not blindly trust his own tastes and preferences, but work on the modifications to his selection criteria.

Director Tigmanshu Dhulia (Bullett Raja), for example, is certainly not your go-to man for a Salman Khan-like larger-than-life entertainer that this film tried in vain to be, and we all know that even this filmmaker’s good films like Haasil (2003) and Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster (2011) were far from money-spinners—and were made on a small level.

Remember how Saif even signed up the brilliant Sriram Raghavan, who had cast him in the now famous but then-unsuccessful Ek Hasina Thi, for the inordinately high-budgeted masala concoction, Agent Vinod? That was akin to asking Hrishikesh Mukherjee to make Amar Akbar Anthony!

Filmmaker Sajid Khan (Saif’s real name is Sajid Ali Khan as well!) got too ambitious with his brand of crass comedy, and Humshakals, especially as its only star hero, was a film Saif should not have touched with the proverbial barge-pole.

Kabir Khan, again, tried to go mainstream with a vengeance and without Salman Khan in Phantom, but the subject did not work and neither did its script help. There was also no Salman Khan to keep Kabir’s innate offbeat sensibilities in check. In fact, Phantom, as we all know, was launched much before Bajrangi Bhaijaan, but could get a decent release window only because of the blockbuster success of that film.

Rangoon, for the zillionth time, once again proved the axiom that a filmmaker of a ‘different’ sensibility simply lacked the skills to make a completely commercial film. The budgets, of necessity, had to be huge, but the misguided interpretation of what is commercially viable (with lots of bad music to boot) killed any threadbare chance the film might have had due to its star-cast of Saif, Shahid Kapoor and Kangana Ranaut.

Correction: all these three actors have oddball tastes, and every one of their actual hits have all been thanks to mass-relatable content! But the difference is that Saif still tries to be grounded, though he lets his yen for niche subjects override judgment. As he also stated, “I have slightly niche taste, and so do all the filmmakers I like, but then beyond a point it is also not right to try and change too much.” Bingo! Now apply this, Mr. Khan!

As of now, the silver lining has begun here, but it may complicate matters for Saif’s box office reputation by making him go more wrong. And why do we say that? Simply because Saif is now on a hunt for great roles in what he perceives as riveting (for him) scripts. He had taken it easy for most of his career and chosen acting as a passport to a great lifestyle of fame and fortune!

However, any further mishaps might wrongly escalate the belief that the audience avoids his films because of his presence.

And what is this silver lining we spoke about? It is, simply, that in these three consecutive movies, his performance has been near-flawless, despite the script (Rangoon, Kaalakaandi) or because of the role, script and direction (Raja Krishna Menon’s Chef).

Among such films, Chef was an exception, and back in Saif’s Hum Tum to Kal Ho Naa Ho era, would have worked wonders. However, two critical energies were missing: Saif agrees that the script needed more energy and pace, while the marketing energy was almost zero!

Maybe Saif is just perfect for his seemingly best assignment now, Sacred Games, a web series being made by Netflix. He never opted for television when he faced flops for five long years, but today, the Web is a different ballgame from TV.

His Baazaar may be a commercial movie in concept, but nothing about the film, as of today, excites the audience. Yet another midstream film is Navdeep Singh’s next thriller—his track record is of critical delights like Manorama—Six Feet Under and NH 10 but no hits!

The hugely versatile actor who has played both cute and caddish in so many movies must analyze his past track-record and that of filmmakers who were associated with him with truly positive results at the box-office. There is an innate and massive paradox in mentioning that Kaalakaandi is an international kind of film about “a very relatable India”. Crazily, it shows an actor who, despite his best efforts, and thanks to his company he keeps, is not really in synch with those who make every genre of film successful.

Let us not forget that Raja made the super-hit Airlift before Chef, and Akshat Varma of Kaalakaandi wrote the delightfully risqué Aamir Khan production Delhi Belly. We have no doubts that Akshay Kumar and Aamir Khan had clear limits in their briefings for these talented individuals.

And Saif can have his best learning lessons at home, analyzing the track-record of his wife Kareena Kapoor Khan as well as his eminent mother Sharmila Tagore, who could get by in a single year with both Anupama and an An Evening In Paris!

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