In Kal Ho Naa Ho Saif Ali Khan was to Shah Rukh Khan what Shashi Kapoor was to Amitabh Bachchan in Deewaar, or Amitabh Bachchan to Rajesh Khanna in Anand
Among the superstar Khans of Hindi cinema, where does Saif Ali Khan fit in? I am not very sure. I am sure that Saif is not sure about where he fits in either. But then Saif is not sure about anything. Once I asked him if he was indecisive he said, “I don’t think is…Am I…I don’t know…Maybe.”
Neither up there with the SRK-Aamir-Salman triumvirate nor down there with the Ayushmann-Vicky-Rajkummar gallery of actors, Saif comes somewhere in-between. Like Shashi Kapoor to whom Saif bears an uncanny facial resemblance, Saif is not quite the A-lister he would like to believe himself to be.
There were reports all through the making of Kal Ho Naa Ho regarding how insecure Saif was about Shah Rukh. Saif denied feeling the least insecure vis a vis Shah Rukh. Saif says he knew the kind of role he had. He knew from the start that Shah Rukh would be the pivot of the film. But he also knew he had great lines and an appealing role. He was never made to feel Shah Rukh was more important to the project. He says he went with very clear expectations.
But I don’t there is ever a crystal clarity in anything Saif does or doesn’t do. Which is why Farhan Akhtar was sure he wanted only Saif to play the confused naïve and confounded Sameer in 'Dil Chahta Hai'. As usual, Saif wasn’t convinced.
Vishal Bhardwaj who in Omkara gave Saif his single-most important makeover role before and after 'Dil Chahta Hai' told me how everyone he approached for Omkara said yes immediately.
The only actor who needed some convincing was Saif. He was reluctant about cutting his hair. Vishal would have never been able to make the film with Saif’s long hair. If he couldn’t convince Saif to do something so minor as cutting his hair, how could he convince him to get into character. On the night before shooting Saif sent Vishal a message saying he had a razor in his hand wondering whether he should cut his hair. It was Eid, and Vishal told Saif to take Allah’s name and make the sacrifice.
Saif admits he’s incapable of enjoying the gift of the present. He once told me he’s always anxious about the future. On the sets of Omkara people would say there were four National award winners. Saif’s first impulse would be to wonder who was the fourth after Vishal Bhardwaj, Ajay Devgn and Konkona Sensharma.
Vishal really pushed Saif. Initially, Saif read his lines with a bit of an English accent. Looking back Saif felt he could’ve taken his character in Omkara even further. But it was correct timing. Everything fell into place. Just how Saif got the National award for his performance in Kunal Kohli’s Hum Tum and not Omkara is a mystery no one would be able to solve, not even Saif himself. On the night of the announcement, a livid Rishi Kapoor called me to question the decision.
I don’t think Saif was convinced either. But a National award on the shelf didn’t hurt. Where does Saif Ali Khan stand in his career right now? Saif started his career with Yash Chopra’s 'Parampara'. He has certainly evolved on screen. But somewhere the Shashi Kapoor in his personality refuses to leave him. Saif always seems to maintain an aura of patronizing superiority to the characters he plays. It is not something he can help with. Once a Nawab, always a Nawab.