Director Anurag Kashyap calls him an early Johnny Depp and goes on to say, “Look at all the strange little movies that have come in the last few years. The only common link is Abhay. He’s resisted the pressure of the market and done what he wanted to do, unlike actors who do what they think they ought to do.” Anurag is talking of Abhay Deol.
With his 9 films in a span of 5 years Abhay breathed new life into the small budget, independent films that had no takers. After plying his trade in some little-seen but highly acclaimed films (Manorama Six Feet Under, Ek Chalis Ki Last Local ) it’s now time for the emerging Deol to ascend Bollywood’s pecking order at warp speed. The timing couldn’t have been better. There’s a paradigm shift occurring in Bollywood that is reshaping the modern perception of what it means to be a leading man. Chiseled chests, six pack abs and angry looks are no longer prerequisites for male actors looking to bag the top slot. It’s the year of the sensitive man and Abhay has helped make sensitive, well, chic. And yes the dimples help!
But it’s not been a cake walk for this actor who began his career with duds like Socha Na Tha and Ahista Ahista. Written off and neglected Abhay officially entered leading-man territory with Dev D, a modern interpretation of Sharat Chandra Chattopadhyay novella Devdas. Though Abhay always had the acting chops required for career longevity, with Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (ZNMD) he showcased a sensitivity and intelligence rare in young performers.
All said and done, Abhay is not the quintessential Deol – oozing a raw masculinity. He’s also a far cry from the beefed up pretty boys churned out by Bollywood’s assembly line. It’s exactly these qualities (read boyish good looks and effortless charm) that landed him the title of one of the hottest males in India. With ZNMD Abhay has not only achieved a substantial degree of popularity, but also a lion’s share of swoons from adoring female fans. Though the awards glory has so far eluded him, Abhay has earned the respect of rabid genre fans courtesy his choice of films. Here’s hoping the awards follow soon.
I met Abhay for an interview and here’s how the conversation flowed…
Abhay, you are in the big league now after Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara. Happy?
I was always in the big league, what are you saying? (laughs). I was just playing on the little league so I could get ahead. Sorry I was just kidding.
Obviously it feels good. I am hoping that this would now translate into producers showing more confidence in the subjects I am attached to and distributors giving it better distribution. Ok fine, the money is better now and the platforms are bigger. But if they are the same formula films, I am going to turn them down.
Are you ready to be a regular hero now? Ready to beat the daylights out of the villain?
If you are referring to ZNMD, yes on the surface, maybe. But there were no villains in the film, apart from the demons of the characters you see. How many Bollywood films make that?
You are known for the choices you have made so far. Why are you following the flock now? Are you done with the whole small budget, independent cinema?
Oh no, not at all. I am not done with anything yet. In fact I feel like I am just getting started. I have always wanted to do mainstream stuff. But it’s just that though the stuff that came my way, especially earlier on in my career was formula films, it was with up and coming producers and director. People who didn’t have much backing. So I ended up looking like a B grade Bollywood hero. Now if I have to do the Bollywood stuff I‘d rather do it with the YashRaj films or a Karan Johar. When they come in with their experience and clout you get projected in a big way. But if that’s not coming my way then I might as well do something completely off the beaten path- non formula. Then at least people will come and appreciate that. No one’s going to appreciate an attempt to be a Karan Johar or a Yash Chopra. No one’s going to buy into a ‘wanna be’ movie. That was not out there for me. At the same time people with interesting scripts like Ek Chalis Ki Last Local, Manorama Six Feet Under, Honeymoon Travels Private Ltd., came to me and I accepted it. You didn’t need big producers to back you for those films.
Well that’s what you thought. But look at the way they were marketed.
I know they were very poorly marketed and distributed. I thought Ek challis had a far greater mass potential than it actually eventually had. People who did like Manorama Six Feet Under didn’t even know when it realized and saw on it DVD or TV. If it was marketed well these people would have come and seen it on screen. Those were the things I found frustrating about small films. It’s the producer’s confidence. Do you think you have a freaking hot gem in your hands and now you are going to show it to the world? Or do you think oh fuck I have this turkey, I better dispose it off fast. Your perception of your film will show when you market it. And that’s unfair because the director and actors have given their 100 per cent. What if we were thinking that while making the movie? We are not allowed that luxury and it shouldn’t be. Why are you in this business to begin with then? You do more harm than good in that case.
You always swam against the tide. Was it because you didn’t see yourself doing things your tauji (Dharmendra) or cousins (Sunny and Bobby Deol) did?
I wasn’t the conventional hero. I never kidded myself that I was. I wasn’t even dying to do the conventional stuff. I knew in the beginning that comparisons would be made to my family. But I was hoping that a few films down the line people would realise that I am not just fighting the image that my family has, but the image that the Bollywood hero has. It’s a bigger picture. It took them 7 films to stop asking me, “aap toh Deol hain, Par aap Deol jaisi filme nahin karte hain.” After six films I was like – ‘I am six films old. Don’t you get it? It’s not about my family, it’s about the industry. And don’t keep coming back to my family alone saying they do a certain type of movie. Excuse me every big star does the kind of film that he/she is known to do. It’s not just my family.’ Maybe because we have stuck to formula for so many decades that change is hard to come by. And if something has worked for so many years why would people want to do anything different.
Maybe that’s why you didn’t have the launch film that said – ‘iss mein action hain, romance hain, comedy hain, drama hain…’
You see they are desperate to put everything in one film to make people believe that the kid can be put in any genre and he’ll do well. I feel that completely ruins the person. I don’t think you can have all this in one film and still be convincing. You can’t be a weak person and suddenly be a heroic, strong person, at least physically. Maybe you can be a person who is weak of character and eventually toward the end of the film develop some character.
I set out to make an individual space for myself. I knew that first it would be about carving a niche for myself outside of my family’s image. Once I did that, I was hoping that people would realise I was trying to survive in this industry with my individuality intact.
In that sense you wanted to be the protagonist and not the ‘hero.’
Yeah. A hero is a hero not because he looks a certain way, beats up a lot of people and gets the girl. He’s the hero because he overcomes a lot of conflicts.
So are people chasing you now?
Well I have no reason to complain. I am happy
What was the phase like after most of your films flopped and nobody wanted to work with you?
For sure it was hard. Unfortunately Socha Na tha put me in this romantic, comedy space and after that film all I got were offers to be this romantic, comic boy next door. I was very insecure. My future was uncertain. I am not the cocky type of person who thinks I will make it, no matter what. I am the type of person who prepares for the worst. The worst had happened. That was the biggest blessing – that the worst had happened. I had made an attempt and I had failed. Now it can’t get any lower than that. So I think that gave me strength. Of course it only got more and more difficult and I had further flops after that. Things had got to me to a point that I was seriously considering quitting. My mental state of mind wasn’t that great then. All along I was waiting to have a certain body of work which will become my strength. And just when I was ready to give it all up I got Dev D and Oye Lucky Lucky Oye.
What’s your work-life balance?
If I do 2-3 projects in a row, I need to step back and get away from it all. Maybe do nothing. But I can’t be stuck in this process of shooting day in and out. It takes its toll. It’s a tough process. I love it, don’t get me wrong. Just that I need to take a break. Inspiration is hard to come by. Spontaneity starts to go. Acting is easy when you take from life. When you are only working, life is not really happening. So I took a years’ break after Dev D and went off to New York. I enrolled myself in an art school doing a bit of sketching and welding. I had time on my hands and did a lot of things as simple as buying music cds for the whole day, listening to them and going for concerts late in the evening. And let life happen. I saw some great films, discovered some great music, met people from all walks of life and got to understand what they do for a living. I didn’t complete the course. I didn’t know I could do nothing for a year and still be happy. I actually managed that.
It’s important for me to keep doing projects I believe in. The day I start to sell myself for fame, money and big projects just for the sake of it, is the day I start to lose all respect for myself and the public.
What are your film sensibilities? What kind of films blows your mind off?
I like dark comedies like Dr Strangelove and American Beauty. I grew on Star Wars and Indian Jones. In my teenage years it was films like Brazil and Woman on the verge of a nervous Breakdown. Then there was discovering Irani films. I was a big fan of Kusturica and Life Is A Miracle. Quirky and dark comedies peak my interest.
Your sense of style has gone through a sea change from Socha Na tha to ZNMD
For me it’s just what I am comfortable in. I am a jeans and t-shirt guy. Once in a while I’d throw in a shirt or a waist coat and hat. I don’t even know what’s the latest fashion. I haven’t shopped for a year now and most of my stuff in the cupboard may be dated. So I will shop now.
How was it growing up in the big Deol family?
We are a joint family. It was a big house – chaotic with lots of kids. I was very close to my tayaji and grew up calling my parents, Ajit Uncle and Usha Aunty. But it never felt strange to me. My tayaji would be shooting and all of us would go along to the location. It was an excuse to get the family out and travel. We were exposed to the whole film process early on in life. Both my tayaji and brothers travelled and they would get films from abroad. That’s how I got exposed to other forms of films in other languages. But we were pretty much kept away from life in the film world. We were conditioned to be normal kids. We weren’t forced to get into films. In fact they used to tell me, “if you want to be an actor, that’s good, but perhaps if you want to be an engineer or a doctor, that’s also fine. Sort of hint, hint! But there was no arm twisting.
More ink has been spilled over your love life recently than you’d probably care to admit. What’s happening there?
Well, I feel loved. (Laughs).
You don’t believe in marriages, though.
For me marriage is a cultural thing, not a natural thing. Nature doesn’t expect you to sign on a piece of paper to be partners and to have children. It’s fair enough that you believe that. But it should be allowed to live in with body without being married. For me that’s not a taboo. Love is not something you can sign on a piece of paper. Love is something that happens. You have to work at it. The faster changing world we live in keep people apart. You really have to be in love to be together. I think when there is no compulsion of marriage and a last name you are more likely to stay together. So I will settle down with someone. I won’t predict who it is. I don’t think I’ll ever have children as I believe the world we live in is not the place I could bring children into. It’s over populated.
So what’s the kind of women you’d fall for?
Free spirited. Humble if possible.
I think I am romantic but I don’t put romantic in a box. I have had my phases. For one girlfriend in college I would get a flower almost everyday. Believe it or not. But today I wouldn’t do that.
So you are looking for someone who’s not craving for flowers
Yeah, someone who is as nomadic as I am. Conventionally speaking there is nothing romantic about me. I don’t want to get married or have children. I don’t believe that everything lasts for ever. I do believe that we get attracted to all sorts of people and not just one person and that’s fine. Flirting is ok.
You are a marriage disaster
Exactly! I am completely unromantic. Nothing is forever. The point is to carry it on till whenever it works for you. Eventually you and me will die and the relationship will also die. When I say I don’t want to have children, doesn’t mean I don’t want to adopt. It’s mainly got to do with environment. If I say attraction is ok, it doesn’t mean that I want to act upon it. It just means that I accept us to be human beings who have the emotional capacity for so much more. Lot of women can’t deal with it. They want this set security blanket and boundaries. I don’t believe in boundaries. For me that’s romantic.
On a day off…
I am watching Discovery Channel on TV.
What puts you off…
Sexiest woman alive
Can buy me everything except money
Favourite past time
As a kid I used to fly a lot in my dreams. I haven’t for a long time. So I am hoping to fly again.
Oh yes. I have to make sure plugs, electricity, gas switches are turned off. I check it a dozen times before I leave home.
This interview was first published in M magazine
Abhay was shot by photographer Tanvi Madkaiker
Styling by Carlton Desouza and Sania Momin