Sunday, August 21, 2011


For previous installments, please visit the index.

The next few posts in my ongoing series will be on heroes who are tied to the first decade of the 2000s in some form or another. I'm positive we'll be seeing them all in the 2010s, too, so please don't take my grouping of these guys to mean that I think they're washed up. It's more that I think they hit their stride in this rich and complicated decade.


Having no actual royalty in America, we’ve created our own - political dynasties like the Kennedys, acting dynasties like the Barrymores, along with the current kings and queens of the red carpet. Indeed, Bollywood has plenty of that type of “royal” - perhaps even more than in Los Angeles - but Saif Ali Khan, the subject of this post, is a royal of a different type. Often referred to as the Chhote Nawab (“Little Prince”) Saif is the son of yesteryears heroine Sharmila Tagore and former India cricket captain Mansoor Ali Khan “Tiger” Pataudi, who also happens to be the Nawab of Pataudi. Saif’s impeccable breeding by no means overshadows his considerable acting talent but his propensity for throwing petulant quotes at the press and his notorious vanity have ensured that the Little Prince label remains firmly attached, even as Saif himself nears two decades in the industry.

Appropriately enough, the Little Prince spent much of his young life at a series of prestigious boys schools in England. In 1971 the Indian government abolished the so-called “privy purses” that kept royalty funded. Unable to depend on that hereditary income to live on, in 1993, at the age of 22, Saif threw his luck into his mother’s former career and decided to try acting. Unfortunately for Saif, the very traits that would make him a superstar in the 2000s, made him a hard sell to audiences in the 1990s and despite the good will of his mother’s old acquaintances and his own innate talent, Saif struggled to find a place in the industry.

The early 90s was the era of the homegrown He-Man and bulky musclemen like Sanjay Dutt reigned supreme. Urbane, polished, understated in technique, and very anglocized,* Saif was a poor fit for scripts that required homegrown heroes to shoot, punch, and forcefully woo their leading ladies. Eventually, Saif found a comfortable - if thankless - niche playing secondary hero and foil opposite heroes like khiladi Akshay Kumar, powerhouse Ajay Devgn, and Salman “Prem” Khan. Typical 1990s films for Saif were things like 1994 hit Main Khiladi Tu Anari (I’m Cool and You’re Not) where he played a spoiled, rich actor who tags along with super cop Akshay Kumar trying to “study” him for a role and generally just gets in the way or 1999 hit Kachche Dhagge in which Saif played a corporate yuppie who tags along with hardscrabble Ajay Devgn while on the run from the authorities and generally just gets in the way.

Saif’s career might well have continued on with these sidekick roles if one film hadn’t found its way into his kitty - Dil Chahta Hai (The Heart Desires, 2001). Like a fresh breeze blowing across the overheated cinema landscape of chiffon sarees and revenge films, Dil Chahta Hai was a refreshingly down-to-Earth look at the kinds of problems facing the lives of middle-class youth. Akash (Aamir Khan) thinks life and love are just a joke; Siddharth (Akshaye Khanna) falls for a troubled older woman; and Sameer (Saif Ali Khan) is grappling with his feelings about arranged marriage. It was a watershed moment and a breakout role for Saif. The film’s laidback tone and sparkling dialogue gave Saif a chance to show off talents previously hidden. Without a khiladi or wacky plot to keep up with, Saif was able to really relax into the role and build a complete character. Sameer wasn’t a stereotyped yuppie, he was a person with hopes and dreams.

Dil Chahta Hai opened Bollywood once again to a less melodramatic style of hero and Saif Ali Khan, with his understated charms, was there to snap up the roles. And not only were heroes less flashy, increasingly, mainstream films began to involve characters living in New York or London, and Saif’s anglocized mannerisms became an advantage. He racked up box office success after box office success and a National Award. That would be enough for some actors not for Saif - twelve years of pent-up talent were released in a furious rush of critically acclaimed art house films, culminating in his breathtaking performance as Iago in Vishal Bhardwaj’s 2006 version of Othello (titled Omkara.)

But while Saif’s career seemed charmed, Saif’s personal life was falling apart. He had married actress Amrita Singh, twelve years his senior, when he was in his early 20s. Despite their two children, and the stigma against divorce, the marriage ended in 2004. Never the most levelheaded of individuals - he had allegedly assaulted Kanan Divech, editor of Star & Style after she published some derogatory remarks regarding his resemblance to his mother** - discretion vanished along with his ties to his wife and children. Saif seemed to be making gossip headlines for all the wrong reasons. On top of the usual petulant quotes and on set reports of Saif acting pricey, he took up with an Italian model named Rosa Catalano, got involved in heavy duty sniping with the media over the selection of his film Eklavya to go to the Oscars, was unapologetic about his car running over a young boy’s foot,*** and referred to journalists as ‘monkeys.’**** But none of this would hold a candle to the media frenzy to come.

[Saifeena in all their glory!]

The onslaught of Hurricane Kareena began slowly. In 2007 Saif and Kareena Kapoor, along with khiladi Kumar, had signed on to a big budget film called Tashan. On set link-ups are one of public relations firms favorite rumos, so nobody took it very seriously when reports bubbled up of Saif and Kareena being to get closer on set. Nobody would have predicted that the beast known as Saifeena was about to be unleashed upon an unsuspecting public. Kareena and Saif emerged from Tashan as a single unit and a massive media generating machine. They traveled together, did appearances and interviews together, and did yoga together. In a permanent show of affection, Saif even got Kareena’s name tattooed on his forearm. Saifeena were everywhere.

[The infamous tattoo...]

Yet, even as Saif continued to dominate gossip column headlines, his run of successful films slowed to a trickle. After Salaam-Namaste in 2005, there was only the mainstream thriller, multistarrer Race in early 2008. A couple of young, new heroes had debuted and were scoring hits with roles that would have previously gone to Saif. Saif began sporting dark sunglasses and a bandanna when spotted in public. And when he finally began going out without them, his face bore a suspiciously “refreshed” look to it. His one big hit post Race was a romantic comedy called Love Aaj Kal (Love Forever, 2009), in which Saif, nearly 40, played a young man in his mid-20s confused about love and marriage - a swan song for Dil Chahta Hai’s Sameer.

Love Aaj Kal was not only Saif’s last big hit, it was also his entry into production with his new company Illuminati Films. After Love Aaj Kal;s success, Saif disappeared almost completely from cinema screens, popping up only for the poorly received Kurbaan***** in late 2009. Currently in the works is a film titled Agent Vinod, a super-sexy spy film co-starring his lady love Kareena Kapoor. In true Saif fashion, the film has been making the gossip pages for all the wrong reasons. His Illuminati Films business partner left the company, the budget was slashed, and shooting was delayed and delayed again. Only time will tell if it will be the film that lifts Saif back into the top tier of heroes or if he will be buried in a pile of self-indulgent film reels.

For viewers looking to dip a toe into Saif’s filmography, I recommend sticking between 2001 and 2006 until you are more sure of what appeals.

Hum Tum (2004)

This sweet, low key film follows two friends, played by Saif and his frequent co-star Rani Mukerji, through their romantic ups and downs and ins and outs. It's quite similar in tone to a Hollywood romantic-comedy but pleasingly mixed with some very Bollywood elements. If you liked Bride and Prejudice, do check it out.

Parineeta (2005)

I've recommended this one before but it's worth doing again. Saif plays a spoiled rich boy whose heart is melted by the sweet, idealistic girl next door. The songs are wonderful, the 1960s period setting is a lot of fun, and Saif generates some wonderful chemistry with co-star Vidya Balan. It's really, a must-watch film.

Omkara (2006)

Saif puts in a career-best performance playing Langda aka Iago in this Bollywood adaptation of Othello. The film is just as dark and wonderful as Shakespeare's play and should be proof enough that Bollywood films don't always have weddings and happy endings.

* Saif has a pronounced English accent when speaking Hindi and said in interviews that he even thinks in English.

** To be fair, Saif and his sister, actress Soha Ali Khan, both bear a striking resemblance to their mother.

*** “I have paid up Rs.15,000, which amply covers all his medical expenses. My car has been impounded and the court case may or may not lead to more trouble for me. I am prepared to face the legal system. But I won't be milked by people outside the court. I am troubled by the fact that a kid is hurt. But please remember, it was a very crowded road. And such mishaps aren't uncommon. Luckily no one was hurt seriously. Otherwise god knows what they'd have done to me.”

**** After almost running over a pedestrian, [Saif’s] rage at the media could only elicit the view that journalists were “monkeys”. The comment was carried by a tabloid beside a still of Saif jumping in the air.

***** Not only were there charges of Muslim-baiting leveled against the film, Dharma Productions was taken to court over not paying it’s bills during the shooting of Kurbaan. Nobody was happy with that film.

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Note from Filmi Girl:

I love Bollywood - and all the ridiculous things that happen in Bollywood - but it doesn't mean that I can't occasionally make fun of various celebrities and films.

If you don't like my sense of humor, please just move on by - Trolls are not appreciated and nasty comments will be deleted.

xoxo Filmi Girl
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