Sacred Games: Where Saif Ali Khan Finally Found His Voice

Pop Culture

Sacred Games: Where Saif Ali Khan Finally Found His Voice

Illustration: Akshita Monga/Arré

Kaalakaandi and Sacred Games’ star, Saif Ali Khan is a wondrous oddity in the Bollywood Khan-iverse. The actor who turns 48 today doesn’t hold the larger-than-life romantic promise that Shah Rukh Khan has been milking forever. He doesn’t command the frenzied fandom that comes naturally to Salman. Saif can’t inculcate the “serious actor” niche either, because Aamir got there first.

It’s also why Saif, who flits across genres effortlessly, is considered a lightweight and non-mainstream hero, despite starting his career only a few years after the other three. He is a rare A-lister who is almost impossible to bracket.

While the other three Khans, accompanied by box office bae Akshay Kumar, are legit “stars”, Saif is understood to still be finding his way and his voice. His eclectic films choices, bold as they might be, haven’t really paid off. Take the last ten years for instance, where the only three memorable films that the actor has been a part of have been Imtiaz Ali’s semi-competent Love Aaj Kal (2009), a problematic Cocktail (2012), and India’s first zombie-comedy Go Goa Gone (2013), a film that he produced as well. In between, the actor has remained a starry addition to Race 2 and Humshakals (a move he later admittedly regretted), faced failure as the forgettable Agent Vinod, and participated in abject jingoism in Kabir Khan’s Phantom.


Kaalakaandi starts off with meeting a transvestite (Nyari Singh) on the corner of the road, where Saif is at his comedic best.

Image credit: Ashi Dua

These films, despite their varying levels of success added nothing to Saif’s progress as an actor, and save for the occasional brilliance of Dil Chahta Hai, Being Cyrus, or Omkara, he still wasn’t considered a performer.

We’ve awaited Saif’s second coming for a while now. To his credit, the actor’s self-awareness made him realise this, and ensured a year-long absence from films.

With Kaalakaandi, Saif’s 60th film in his 24 years in the industry, this self-awareness seems to have finally paid off. Akshat Verma’s directorial debut gets its distinct flavour only from the madcap performance that Saif, its nameless lead, gifts the film.

In the bizarrely uneven film, Saif plays an uptight man who sticks by the rules of life: He doesn’t drink, smoke, take drugs or indulge in any frivolous behaviour that can be Snapchatted and circulated for laughs. On a visit to the doctor, he is diagnosed with stomach cancer and informed that he only has a few months left. Unable to deal with the burden of his premature mortality, while putting up an act of liveliness at his decked-up house bustling with guests celebrating his brother’s impending wedding, he decides to finally let go. He revels in taking a puff of the cigarette for the first time in years despite ending up coughing, and proceeds to “drop acid” via a magical red pill.

As he is entrusted with the task of driving around his brother, the groom-to-be (Akshay Oberoi) for a haircut through the city, his trip kicks in. Saif’s character then enters a psychedelic world where he doesn’t let his habit of overthinking simple encounters ruin the pleasure of impromptu experiences.

“Saif’s effortless jump between the slapstick, and the outrightly bizarre is possible because of how comfortable he appears in the universe of Kaalakaandi.”

It starts off with meeting a transvestite (Nyari Singh) on the corner of the road, where Saif is at his comedic best. “Humko bahut curiosity hai aapke saaman ke baare mein,” he tells her, before referring it to as “Cape of Good Hope”, “Southern Hemisphere”, and “Australia” eliciting chuckles that don’t go down the sleazy route. There’s another scene in the bathroom where Singh and Khan’s chemistry shines, aided by the fact that Verma treats his portrayal of transvestites with a kind of exhilarating maturity that Bollywood is yet to see.

Saif’s effortless jump between the slapstick, and the outrightly bizarre, between sombre and downright existential, is possible because of how comfortable he appears in the universe of Kaalakaandi. Where he can slip between English and Hindi without it being at odds with the plot. It’s a subtle craziness that Saif usually excels at, and one that hits a crescendo in Kaalakaandi.

The film’s inconsistent narrative, however, lets him down. It is packed to the rafters with too many things, which shortchanges Saif’s dying man on a foolish high. Yet, Saif’s uninhibited performance is heightened by the fact that it’s devoid of any star baggage or the sacrosanct need to protect an image.  

A few months after Kaalakaandi, Saif took to the small screen to start a new innings as an actor. As Sartaj Singh in Sacred Games, India’s first Netflix original, he brought a kind of gravitas to his role that wouldn’t have necessarily been expected out of him. For someone who is known to be an animated actor, Saif effortlessly blended in the background in the terrific show as the troubled cop who’s fighting a daily war with his conscience.

It’s almost as if the saddening realisation that he’s on the clock, has dawned on Saif, the actor, the same way it dawns on his character in Kaalakaandi and in Sacred Games. In 2017, he might have been closer to being taken seriously with notches of brilliance in Rangoon and Chef. But it is in 2018, that he might have found his voice.