Saif’s Unsafe Safari
It may not ultimately turn out to be a losing proposition considering half the cost has already been recovered from music and satellite rights but Saif’s journey as a producer has surely not been as thrilling as he might have wanted. Though it must be said to his credit that he has turned in a credible performance as a super cool spy who does not let go of his sense of humour even when he knows his queen is in danger, and castles her out to safety through Morocco, Moscow, Riga, Latvia, Sri Lanka (even faked Pakistan), and Afghanistan cleverly named Desert of Death no matter what the mode of transport—eventually in South Africa for the non-existent sequel. That’s one of the reasons the narrative turns out to be too long drawn, full of knots within knots that only result in more firework and bullet-ridden corpses. Made at an estimated cost of Rs 50 crore with another Rs 12-13 crore spent on promotion and publicity (which has now suddenly become an important component of every big or small film), the opening response did not totally set box office on fire.
In the absence of either Ian Fleming or Robert Rudlum’s writing skills, and the characterisation of super spies, James Bond and Jason Bourne, Sriram Raghvan’s both rolled into one Vinod but, unfortunately, neither shaken nor stirred, though unlike the other two good at shaking a leg or two and let his hair down when the situation demands it (would someone please tell me that he looks a buffoon in dance sequences). Clearly, the inspiration (complete with scorpion tattoos) is the 70s mediocre Mahender Sandhu-starrer (then labeled by many as the Bachchan alternative, and loaded with the sobriquet ‘Swinger Sandhu’) with the same name, only in Raghvan’s version the bad guys are smarter than the hero thinks they are. Also, the action sequences have been exquisitely picturised by cinematographer V Manikandan, the chase questions being brilliant added substantially by the background score by Daniel George. But too much is not always good, better suited to short 100-minute Bond narrative where the spy’s safari takes him to breathtaking locales, not a 160-mt one with song situations for a loo break.
Beginning with Parampara (1992) where he was lost in the melee of a big starcast headed by Sunil Dutt, Vinod Khanna, Aamir Khan, Ashwini Bhave, Ramya Krishan, Raveena Tandon, Neelam Kothari and helmed by Yash Chopra with a script by son Aditya—panned mercilessly by critics, Saif has thus far starred in almost 50 films, in supporting roles to begin with like Aashiq Awara (93—Filmfare Best Actor, Debut), Main Khiladi Tu Anari (94) and Kachche Dhage (99—Nominated Filmfare Supporting Actor), Dil Chahta Hai (01—Filmfare Award for Actor in Comic Role), Kal Ho Na Ho (03—Filmfare Best Supporting Actor). It was during this phase that he walked out of his 13-year-old marriage with senior actor, Amrita Singh from whom he had two offsprings, a son and a daughter.
If the Farhan Akhtar-directed Aamir Khan, Akshaye Khanna, Preity Zinta, Sunali Kulkarni, Dimple Kapadia-starrer was the first turning point, the second milestone was achieved with his first independent hit, Hum Tum (04) co-starring Rani Mukherjee, which not only got him second Filmfare Best Actor in a comic role trophy but also the National Award for Best Actor. The next major path-breaking production was the sensitively made Parineeta (04), directed by Pradip Sarkar’s adaptation of Sarat Chandra Chatterjee’s novel by the same name which again won him a Filmfare nomination, followed soon after by Vishal Bhardwaj’s superhit Omkara for which he received the Filmfare Best Actor in a Negative Role trophy.
Salaam Namaste (05) seemed the image change-over time as he carried the film entirely on his own. Vidhu Vinod Chopra, who had once been wary of Sarkar casting him in the lead in Parineeta, summoned the actor in a meaty role in Eklavya: The Royal Guard (07) with Amitabh Bachchan towering over all others, and Vidya Balan as his love interest. Though it turned turtle at the cash collection centres, his subdued performance elevated his status further strengthened by the stupendous success of Siddharth Anand-directed Ta Ra Rum Pum. By this time he had a new love interest in the form of co-actor Kareena Kapoor. The 2008 report card showed disaster after disaster as Tashan, Thoda Pyar Thoda Magic, Roadside Romeo licked the dust. The only saving grace turned out to be Abbas-Mastan’s Race. Critics were unanimous that subdued, under-played, less-speaking roles brought out the actor’s latent intensity.
The following year he not only launched his own banner, Illuminati Films and produced Love Aaj Kal, helmed by Imtiaz Ali, which became one of the biggest hits of the year but also in Karan Johar’s dud Kurbaan, co-starring live-in girlfriend Kareena Kapoor and Vivek Oberoi directed by debutant Rensil D’Silva, an erstwhile assistant. With Prakash Jha’s Aarakshan (11) Saif Ali Khan had finally arrived, putting in yet another sterling performance, standing up to powerhouse performers like Amitabh Bachchan and Manoj Bajpeyi, in a role which one thought was in total contrast to his image, and previous performances. And there was no looking back. And now Agent Vinod, a suave, quick-witted, stylish spy, yet another genre defying a role, though that is all that far can one probably go. Certainly not in the Rs 100-plus bracket.
Nevertheless it is a personal triumph of Saif Ali Khan as an actor. Considering he was unceremoniously thrown out of his debut film Bekhudi by director Rahul Rawail as a junkie, his late blooming could raise his rating higher though he is unlikely to fill in the space systematically being vacated by the three Big Khans, or stand up to the challenges thrown by younger heroes like Shahid and Ranbir Kapoor, amongst others waiting in the wings. Controlled aggression, as has been evident from his last couple of starrers, is really his forte coupled with an underplay of emotions (Race, Love Aaj Kal)—not violent outburst though it seemingly worked in Aarakshan—that suits his soft face that even a naturally grown beard can’t hide. Not roles without a substance, Agent Vinod, therefore, is a double whammy because the star himself is the producer. Another point that the actor ought to learn is, not to temper with a director’s vision. It is not without reason that the technician is called captain of the ship.
By Suresh Kohli