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Why Saif Ali Khan's manipulative character in Rangoon might prove a winner

The actor returns to playing a suave, machiavellian rogue in Vishal Bhardwaj's Rangoon. Incidentally, Khan's sojourns to the dark side have only resulted in critical appreciation and a resurgence of his acting abilities. We wonder if Rangoon will be the same for Khan. 

Shriram Iyengar

Despite popular perception of his urbane, nawabi style, Saif Ali Khan is not a conservative actor. Since the watershed moment of Dil Chahta Hai (2001), the actor has been consistently experimenting with characters. As strange as it may seem, it is his tryst with the dark side that has seen him earn better critical appreciation. 

Starting out in the 1990s, Saif went through the usual rigour of playing second lead, a romantic lead, and even the comic relief in several films, before he found redemption in Farhan Akhtar's coming of age drama, Dil Chahta Hai. If Dil Chahta Hai is taken as the turning point in Saif's fading career, the filmography reads like a checkered list. Between the landmarks of Dil Chahta Hai and Kal Ho Naa Ho (2003) lies Saif's first tryst as the villain in Ram Gopal Varma's Darna Mana Hai (2002). In the episodic film, Saif played the brash, cigarette addict who is turned into a teetotal serial killer by Boman Irani. In his first turn in a dark, noirish film, Saif acquitted himself quite impressively.

Saif Ali Khan in Sriram Raghavan's Ek Hasina Thi (2003)

After Darna Mana Hai (2002), Saif returned to the role of commitment-phobic leads in films like Hum Tum (2004), Salaam Namaste (2005) and Parineeta (2005). It is Sriram Raghavan's Ek Hasina Thi (2003) that stands out as an aberration. Though the film did not make any waves at the box-office, it again earned Saif critical acclaim for his performance. His role as the manipulative smuggler who traps an innocent Urmila Matondkar was an impressive turn of skill. It was no surprise that Raghavan's first attempt at the genre of spy thrillers, Agent Vinod (2014) had Saif in the lead role. Despite the failure of the film, Raghavan had faith in the actor, saying "“I think he is a fantastic actor. He has had a bad spell of movies but that shouldn’t hold him down. Every actor, director everybody goes through ups and downs. It’s ok… He will shine."

As Cyrus Mistry in Being Cyrus (2006)

 2006 was the catalyst year for Saif. The year saw two releases which launched Saif Ali Khan's career as a true blue devil's child. Homi Adajania's Being Cyrus (2006) saw him take on the role of a cold, calculating, manipulative killer. As the distant, methodical Cyrus Mistry, Saif was at home balancing his urbane persona with an evil twist.

Vishal Bhardwaj's Shakespearana, Omkara, had Khan playing the machiavellian Langda Tyagi with panache. Incidentally, the role would have gone to Saif's Dil Chahta Hai co-star, Aamir Khan, but for director Bhardwaj's impatience. In a later interview, Bhardwaj said, "I saw that hunger in Saif's eyes; he was desperate to shed that lover boy image." 

With his stained teeth, buzz haircut, and intense malice, Saif embodied the role with an Indian touch. The ability to shed his urbane, chic image to become a rustic, ganglord in the hinterland added to his credibility as an actor. His ability to hold his own against the intensity of Ajay Devgn, Kareena Kapoor and Konkona Sen Sharma, added to the story. 

A look at the actor's filmography reveals that some of his most memorable roles were in grey characters. In the period after Omkara, films like Eklavya:The Royal Guard (2007), Nehlle Pe Dehlla (2007) and Ta Ra Rum Pum (2007) ended up as disasters. It was the Abbas-Mustan-starrer Race (2008), again a character with grey shades that proved a winner. In Kurbaan (2009), he again played a terrorist, biding his time. The film ran into some controversy, which took away the limelight from Saif's controlled aggression. Since Race and Race 2 (2013), the actor has hit a rough patch. Films like Bullett Raja (2013), Happy Ending (2014) and Phantom (2015) failed to create any magic at the box-office. 

Naturally, the actor has returned to the dark side as the scheming Rusi Bilimoria in Rangoon. In many ways, the role of a charming, ruthlessly efficient, and profiteering filmmaker in the 40s is a perfect fit for Saif. It also reunites him with his Omkara director, Bhardwaj. The movie also stars Shahid Kapoor and Kangana Ranaut, who complete the triangle of lovers for Bhardwaj's film. The period film allows for two of Saif's performative strengths — as the suave romantic and the cunning villain. 

Over the years, the actor has matured into an understated actor who delivers controlled performances. Though he has been unable to shed the image of the blue-blooded cityslicker, there is within him the talent of transformation. There is a certain magnetism when actors generally associated with the good guy image turn bad. Saif now joins the league of Shah Rukh Khan and Aamir who have proved equal villains. While Shah Rukh and Aamir failed in impressing the critics, though commercially successful, with their villainy, Saif can be trusted to bring out something far better. After all, history is on his side.