I wish more people would let go creatively, as Saif is doing: Anupama Chopra
‘Amitabh Bachchan experienced a similar creative spring in the early years of the new millennium. But the women, even those not in the leading-lady rat race, aren’t cutting loose quite as much.’
I strongly suspect that of all the Khans currently working in Bollywood, Saif is having the most fun. You can see the glee in his delicious rendition of the psychopath Udaybhan in Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior. He hungrily chews on crocodile meat and lustily inhales the scent of a woman he has kidnapped but whom he won’t rape because he wants her love — he’s sensitive like that.
Three months ago, Saif was playing a murderous Naga Sadhu in Lal Kaptaan. Next month, he will return to his trademark role of urbane party boy in Jawaani Jaaneman. He even recreates his own 1994 hit song, Ole Ole, from Yeh Dillagi. In the trailer, when his daughter in the film asks who else lives with him, he replies: “Bas ji, main aur mera swag”. It’s perfect.
Saif’s choices reveal an actor unafraid of outcomes. He is an artist unconcerned with image, public perception and, most importantly, box office. There is no longer any pressure on him to deliver an opening — Chef (2017) opened to a little over ₹1 crore; Lal Kaptaan (2019) did even worse, with around ₹50 lakh. He is an A-list star without bottom line commitments, which clearly has been incredibly liberating creatively.
It’s allowed him to jump on the streaming bandwagon with Sacred Games before any other A-list star. And to do films like the cheerfully trippy Kaalakaandi (2017), in which he plays a man who is told he has terminal cancer and decides, as a result, that he isn’t following the rules anymore. He drops acid and, in one scene, insists that a transgender prostitute show him her “southern hemisphere”.
Amitabh Bachchan experienced a similar creative spring in the early years of the new millennium. After Mohabbatein (2000), he shed the burden of being a leading man and explored roles that would have been unthinkable in his heyday, in films like Aks (2001), Black (2005), Sarkar (2005), Nishabd (2007) and even the unwatchable Boom (2003).
Which makes me wonder, why don’t female artists exhibit the same kind of creative recklessness? Why don’t actresses who are no longer in the leading lady rat race, throw caution to the winds and experiment with edgier content, new directors and narratives that allow them to fully explore their talent?
Take Madhuri Dixit: gorgeous, supremely talented, but last seen playing Bahaar Begum in Kalank (essentially a bargain basement version of Chandramukhi in Devdas). Are filmmakers not creating meatier roles for her? Or is she sticking to the straight and narrow because her riskier ventures (Dedh Ishqiya, Gulaab Gang) didn’t pay off?
Juhi Chawla, as a despicable politician, was one of the best things in Gulaab Gang, but we rarely see her onscreen at all. Kajol seems stuck in half-baked stories like Helicopter Eela (2018) and Dilwale (2015). Aishwarya Rai Bachchan was last seen in a cameo in Fanney Khan (2018). Karishma Kapoor hasn’t done a film since Dangerous Ishhq (2012) and we haven’t seen Sushmita Sen since Nirbaak in 2015 (though she is currently shooting a web series with Chandrachur Singh).
If films can’t accommodate these artists, perhaps streaming shows can. In the OTT space, your career isn’t defined by your Friday. Freedom is built into the medium. And it would be thrilling to watch these women soar.