When Saif Ali Khan accepted his film career will not work out: Charting the actor’s rise, fall and rise on his birthday

On Saif Ali Khan's birthday, here's looking at his Bollywood career spanning over 30 years. The long-haired loverboy blossomed into a seasoned actor who is not afraid to take risks, with a solid filmography to boot.


Saif Ali Khan — the actor who could play the spoiled playboy in Yeh Dillagi and the dark antagonist in Ek Hasina Thi with equal ease. Throw in the Sid of Dil Chahta Hai, Go Goa Gone’s Boris or Sacred Games’ Sartaj Singh and you get an actor who is hard to put in a box. He belongs to the era of the Khans, but his path has been vastly different from theirs, given the numerous ups and downs he has seen during his career. Born in 1970, Saif steps into his 51st year with a string of notable performances to his credit in his 29-year-old film career.

While Salman Khan played the lover boy who also knew how to throw his punches in the 90s, Shah Rukh Khan was (mostly) hailed as the King Of Romance. Aamir Khan struck gold with his commercial successes and proved that he could don any mantle, be it the romantic hero, or his portrayal of a police officer in Sarfarosh.

But where did Saif Ali fit? He tried everything, sometimes with little or no success. He was the romantic action-hero of the 90s, with a glimmer of comic timing that wasn’t put to use. He didn’t fade out of the limelight despite poor choices. It hasn’t been a smooth ride at all for him, but he knows he’s here to stay.

The Difficult 90’s 

Saif Ali Khan in Yeh Dillagi
Saif Ali Khan in Yeh Dillagi

Most of Saif’s filmography in the ’90s can be classified as a rather congealed mass of romance and action, with a few glimmers of hope. It was the phase he tried unusual-to-the-point-of-bizarre storylines, and characters that ironically just seemed similar.

After being deemed as unprofessional on Rahul Rawail’s film Bekhudi with Kajol, Saif Ali Khan was replaced and he debuted with Parampara. The film, which told the story of two estranged brothers, flopped. Saif was next seen in Aashiq Awara and Pehchaan, both of which bombed at the box office. Yet, he was appreciated for his performance in Aashiq Awara and he earned the Filmfare Award for Male Debut. The actor, however, says he can’t identify with this phase of his career.

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Tasting fame, Saif found more success with Yeh Dillagi and Main Khiladi Tu Anari, which earned him nominations. He again hit a rough patch with films such as Yaar Gaddaar and Aao Pyaar Karein. The next four years almost ended his career, as he had a series of duds, including Hameshaa, Keemat, Surakshaa, Ek Tha Rajaa, Bambai Ka Babu and Dil Tera Deewana. Critics were ruling him out, his career was deemed over. talking about how his career has evolved over the years, Saif had told Bollywood Hungama in an interview, “Honestly, I believe I have worked very hard. I was in a bit of a ditch, mentally and professionally. I managed to get out of that. It is like climbing a mountain. I feel like I am on base camp 1 and we have made progress but there is a long way to go. The ropes are set, the boots are tied, and we have got our sights on the hill and we are climbing,” he had said.

Back on track with Hum Saath Saath Hain

Hope appeared in 1999, in the form of Yeh Hai Mumbai Meri Jaan, Kachche Dhaage, Aarzoo and Hum Saath Saath Hain. While the first two continued the streak of performing poorly at the box office, Kachche Dhage was his first hit after Main Khiladi Tu Anari. Later, Sooraj Barjatya’s ensemble Hum Saath Saath Hain was a glowing blockbuster, something Saif later termed as a ‘morale-booster. Saif played the over-excitable Vinod in the starry ensemble film, which also featured Salman Khan, Sonali Bendre, Tabu and Karisma Kapoor.

The scramble to prominence in the early 2000’s. 

Saif has made a name for himself with his sharp wit and hilarious quips as his numerous interviews prove. This personality trait found a way into his films, and soon became the trump card for many of his directors.

In the 2000s, Saif proved his weight in comedic gold after played a rather seedy man in Kya Kehna, a film on teenage pregnancy. The film Love Ke Liye Kuch Bhi Karega flopped at the box office, but Saif’s affinity for comedy was becoming more visible, a fact that was later established with Farhan Akhtar’s Dil Chahta Hai, which told the story of three close friends in urban Mumbai. Saif played the role of the hapless Sameer, in the trio that included Aamir Khan and Akshaye Khanna. It was a turning point in his career, and Saif rolled with the punches, his wit was fresh, organic and filmmakers began to bank on this quality for their projects. There was also an evolution of Bollywood filmmaking, be it the songs, choreography, or action, and Saif seemed to move with the times.

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The following flops of Rehnaa Hai Tere Dil Mein and Na Tum Jaano Na Hum didn’t matter so much, because his performance in Kal Ho Na Ho in 2003 established him as one of the leading actors in the industry. Saif proved that he could do intense roles, coupled with comedy, all at once. From then on, he was a force to reckon with, and his career fluctuations didn’t dent this image from then on.

Yet, the enjoyable part of Saif’s choices was that he could be wildly unpredictable. He didn’t want to be typecast, he wanted to see what else was out there, and what would work. After playing various shades of a romantic hero or the ‘funny guy’, he played the dark antagonist in Ek Hasina Thi, which focussed on a woman’s thirst for revenge. Along came the romantic comedy Hum Tum in 2004, where he played the lead opposite Rani Mukerji. His wisecracks and jests in the film received widespread acclaim, and he proved that he could display a gamut of emotions. Saif won the National Award for the film as well. Love Aaj Kal carried forward the persona of urban youngster, while offering his a meaty double role. Salaam Namaste, Cocktail and Ta Ra Rum Pum established this image.

Talking about this phase, Saif told Film Companion in an interview, “You have to not be scared and you have to not be vain. You have to be really connected. Either that can come from a state of complete security or just that you have nothing to lose. It might have been a combination of both for me. I don’t know when it happened but at some point I realised that if this career is not going to work out, let it not work out. I made interesting choices, let me be a good actor and learn.”

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Saif wasn’t done experimenting — far from it. He starred in the psychological drama Being Cyrus, later followed by Omkara, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Othello, but in the gritty Indian context. He was the subtle, malevolent antagonist and it echoed in his careful dialogue delivery and mannerisms. After this, he carried the Race franchise on his shoulders, and fans agree on one thing: You can’t have the Race franchise without Saif’s snarky persona.

Saif in cinema today

Saif Ali Khan in Sacred Games (Photo: Netflix)
Saif Ali Khan in Sacred Games (Photo: Netflix)

Again, Saif went through a rollercoaster ride and made disastrous choices such as Humshakals and Happy Endings, where he was slammed unanimously by critics. He took a break from films for a while, returning with films such as Rangoon and Chef, which underperformed at the box office. Yet, he was praised for his acting. That’s the thing about Saif, he’s always managed to gain acclaim for his films, even when they’re trashed by critics. Go Goa Gone, Kaalakandi, Kurbaan saw his taking risks — not everything landed but established him as an actor who was ready to think out of the box.

Sacred Games was a breath of fresh air in his career, where he played the role of the policeman Sartaj Singh, who has to track down the murder game of a nefarious gangster, essayed by Nawazuddin Siddiqui. He’s had subsequent flops, still after this, but it’s something that his fans have learnt about him. He always finds a way back.

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