Saif Ali Khan is emerging as the most durable of the Khans. Having always played a character rather than himself, he has kept alive the excitement around his craft. Whether it is playing Sartaj Singh in Sacred Games, the killing sadhu in Laal Kaptan, or the malevolent UdayBhan in Tanhaji, he makes sure he brings something new to the table.
With Jawaani Jaaneman, he returns to his rom-com roots, the movies that made him a staple of Yash Raj Films (YRF) at one point. In films such as Hum Tum (2004) and Salaam Namaste (2005) and even later, outside YRF, Cocktail (2012), he played the man-child who refuses to grow up but is finally convinced by the love of a good woman to settle down and be responsible.
It’s a sneaky idea which in the noughties has accommodated the roughing up of the girl as well in movies such as Kabir Singh (2019) but in Saif Ali Khan’s man child, there was an innate gentlemanliness that descended into goofiness, at the most.
In Jawaani Jaaneman, Saif updates the rom-com hero, with a millennial daughter (introducing a confident Aalia Furniturewalla, daughter of Pooja Bedi and third-generation actor) he didn’t know about, and a kooky former girlfriend, gorgeously played by the ever splendid Tabu. While most of his compatriots are acting opposite ever-younger heroines (as his daughter Sara Ali Khan said in an interview recently, even opposite daughters of actresses they worked with) Saif has the sense to do so ironically. His ability to play the Lothario without seeming sleazy is outstanding and he uses it to complete advantage in Jawaani Jaaneman.
There is obviously the usual climax, involving a cross-London marathon on a bicycle, designed to wake up the responsible man in the man child, and ever so reminiscent of many rom coms before this, not the least of which is Notting Hill, but Saif is clearly enjoying the role and as we watch it, so are we.
Saif’s masculinity is mischievous, not toxic, somewhat like Hugh Grant (and the scene with granny panties is clearly inspired by Bridget Jones’ Diary) and it doesn’t hurt that the movie is set in London, where he seems very much at home. Growing up and staying relevant in Mumbai cinema isn’t easy, but Saif has always shown an ability to mix high art (his memorable turn on Vishal Bhardwaj’s Omkara, 2006, comes to mind) with crowdpleasers (such as Kal Ho Naa Ho, 2003) which remains unprecedented.
He will always remain every director’s first choice to play either the urbane New Age Man or the unpredictable anti-hero. Not everything he does may work, but Saif’s extraordinary journey of remaining relevant in the 2020s has only just begun.