Monday, 30th October 2017

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'Commercial Hindi cinema is too escapist for my liking'

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By Abhay Deol, who has made a name for himself with his strong portrayals in offbeat films, tells Shuma Raha that he never wanted to follow the formula line
  • Published 8.01.12

The first thing that strikes you about Abhay Deol is his height. As he walks quickly towards me across the lobby of the Marriott Hotel in Jaipur, I do a double take. The dimpled, somewhat chubby face that you see on screen doesn’t prepare you for this jaw-droppingly tall (definitely a few inches above six feet!), super slim man. He gives me a friendly handshake and wants to know if there is a quiet corner where we can do the interview. I have already spotted a likely place — a sit-out adjoining the lounge bar, which is deserted at this hour — and we head for it.

It’s a cold, windy afternoon in Jaipur, but Deol wears only a T-shirt with his jeans — apart from his trademark stubble, of course. He probably notices me looking a bit doubtfully at his attire. “It’s cold, yeah,” he nods, grinning, “But it’s nice — I like it!”

Deol, who featured in last year’s smash hit bromance cum road movie cum feel-good blast Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (ZNMD), won the hearts of the audience with his portrayal of the quintessential decent guy who is about to get into a marriage he doesn’t really want. But long before ZNMD catapulted him into the melee of the mainstream, Deol was busy notching up one critical success after another. His understated performance as a small- towner who longs to prove himself in some spectacular way in Manorama Six Feet Under (2007), his nuanced role of a thief in Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! (2008) or his bravura outing as the stoned malcontent Devinder Singh Dhillon in Anurag Kashyap’s excellent retelling of the Devdas story, Dev.D (2009), have established him as a formidable actor. He’s no super star, no, but he’s definitely the leading man of Hindi parallel cinema 2.0 — one who is almost always seen in offbeat, often noirish, films that hold up a mirror to our life and times.

His upcoming movie — Shanghai, by Dibakar Banerjee — is no different. “It’s about the politics of economics — about corruption and how it affects our daily lives. The timing couldn’t be better, given the anti-corruption mood of the country and the success of the Anna Hazare movement. The good thing is that it shows things as they are, without being preachy,” says Deol, 35, who plays a south Indian bureaucrat in the film.

Is it because of films like these that he is called the “thinking man’s actor”? Deol, who is frank, articulate and refreshingly free of movie star manners, breaks into his warm, open laugh. “Well, it went from being ‘the thinking woman’s sex symbol’ to the ‘thinking man’s actor’… As long as people are thinking, and as long as they don’t think too much, I am okay with it,” he says, his eyes dancing.

He ought to find that epithet gratifying, actually. For he always wished to do films that went against the grain, that had something meaningful to say. “I never wanted to follow the formula line,” he declares. “Commercial Hindi cinema is too escapist for my liking.”

It’s not quite the response you’d expect from the nephew of Dharmendra and the cousin of Sunny Deol, who straddled formula cinema with their dripping-with-machismo, larger-than-life roles. So didn’t they influence him at all, I ask the youngest scion of the Deol khandaan. “Oh, they were a huge influence,” he admits readily. “I grew up in a joint family set up where both Tayaji (Dharmendra) and Bhaiyya (Sunny Deol) were there to look up to,” he says.

But growing up in the shadow of two Bollywood mega stars obviously had its downsides. At some point, he realised that he wasn’t cut out to be a typical Bollywood hero. Deol is, in fact, astonishingly candid when he talks about his insecurities as a young man who passionately wanted to be in films and yet was unsure of his abilities. So much so that for a long time he did not venture into films at all.

“I knew I would be compared to my family and I wouldn’t measure up,” he says. “But they are they and I am me. My brother is an individual. And I wanted to be seen as an individual as well, you know. It was important for me to make sure that my own individuality came out.”

But though he was looking to express his individuality and make his own mark, when he finally took the plunge into films, he did so in a commercial vehicle — a conventional romance called Socha Na Tha (2005), which, incidentally, was produced by Dharmendra. That film bombed and so did the following one, Ahista, Ahista — another middle of the road romantic story.

It was a blessing in disguise for Deol. “I said, so okay, I tried the commercial stuff. It didn’t work. Now let me do what I really want to.” Honeymoon Travels Private Limited — a quirky story about six couples — came along soon after. It was a moderate hit and won him critical praise as well. Deol found out, perhaps just in time, that understatement was his hallmark, the low-pitched angst of the everyman his métier, and he has gone from strength to strength ever since.

Though he was a child of the film industry — his father, Dharmendra’s younger brother, too used to write film scripts — Deol insists that his upbringing was anything but filmi. “My parents were quite conservative,” he says. “So we had a fairly normal upbringing and that kept us from being taken in too much by this make-believe world of films.”

Still, he did drift into drugs. “I experimented with drugs in my teens and right up to my early twenties,” he reveals in a matter-of-fact fashion. Years later, that experience was to find its way into Dev.D — Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s Devdas story reinterpreted with an edgy, cocaine-charged, contemporary twist. The idea for the film came to Deol while watching Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Devdas. “Here was this character,” he says, “who was chauvinistic, self-indulgent, obsessive — in short, someone you would absolutely not like.Yet he was sugar-coated.” He wondered what Devdas would be like if viewed in the pitiless light of a gritty, modern setting. He suggested the idea to director Anurag Kashyap, who also wrote the script, and Dev.D, together with Deol’s performance in it, went on to become one of the most critically acclaimed of recent times.

Was he disappointed that he did not win any awards for his portrayal of the self-destructive modern day Devdas? (The two female leads, Kalki Koechlin and Mahi Gill, both won Filmfare awards, by the way.) “Well, most of these awards are meaningless, you know,” shrugs Deol. “Once in a while there are some that are genuinely deserved, but usually, they are commercially motivated. I know people who have been given awards just so that they would attend the show. It’s really all about television TRPs.”

Deol has, in fact, consciously stayed away from award shows. “And maybe because of that, they have stayed away from me,” he says. “I used to be bitter and cynical about it before but I am less so now.” Perhaps that has something to do with the fact that his films are finding a bigger audience nowadays. For he is not under any illusion that critical success alone is enough. “Commercial success is important, you know, because it helps to get that next project off the ground,” he says.

The good thing, though, is that the contours of commercial cinema are being redefined. The films of Aamir Khan are a case in point. “He is such a huge star that he could just live up to his image and cash in,” says an admiring Deol. “But he is always moved to content-driven stuff. In that sense, he is really a catalyst of change in the film industry — in a way that would be difficult for someone like me, because I am not a big star.”

Still, Deol is very much in the vanguard of the process of that change. And he thinks it’s fortunate that there are so many more directors now “who are trying to do different things. They are making films that recognise the fact that the audience is a thinking entity, that they are not just passive, dumb recipients of entertainment!” That, he says, has made the platform wider for an actor like him.

Indeed, right now Deol does find himself in a sweet spot as far as his career is concerned. After the success of ZNMD, he has a clutch of other unconventional films under his belt, including India’s first zombie movie, Rock the Shaadi. He has also starred in a yet-to-be-released period film by Roland Joffe called Singularity, where he plays a Maratha warrior. He is a bit hush-hush about the movie, though, and the only thing he will volunteer is that it was “an amazing experience” to work in a big Hollywood production.

Hollywood movies were, of course, a major influence on him in his early years. But as he matured, he grew into European, east European, Iranian cinema as well. “I love black comedies,” he says. Stanley Kubrick’s films, especially Dr Strangelove, are also a great favourite. “Some day I would like to direct a film,” he says wistfully. “Yeah, some day, when I get my confidence.”

So does he have any role models?

“Oh, come on,” he starts to chuckle, “Now you want to degrade this interview by asking me questions that I get asked all the time!”

I laugh with him and pitch him one more. What about his marriage plans (with his girlfriend, actress Preeti Desai)?

“No plans yet,” he responds with an oh-god-not-again smile.

As the interview ends, I accidentally drop my bag and spill its chaotic contents on the floor. I am deeply embarrassed and flustered, but he helps me pick up the stuff. “You all right,” he asks, before leaving.

That’s Abhay Deol for you. Not just a thinking man’s actor — but a thinking, feeling, thoroughly nice guy.