Abhay Deol says he’s proud of all his films and he can tell whether a woman hitting on him is genuinely interested in him or not.
Haven’t heard much of you since Dev D. What have you been up to since then?
I shot for Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!, Dev D and Road, Movie back-to-back and then left for New York. But I’ve been shooting for Ayesha since then.
What’s Road, movie about?
Road, Movie is about a guy who’s driving a moving cinema across a desert to get away from his house. It follows his adventures and the people he meets.
Is this a true story?
According to Dev (Benegal), he actually travelled like this once. But then, Dev can be a bit of a liar at times (laughs).
You were seen as the face of ‘new cinema’ in Bollywood, working mostly with debutant directors. How does your role add so much value to a film?
I choose roles after reading the scripts. My first five directors were debutants and I hadn’t seen any of their work to judge them. I’d liked their scripts… they obviously had a certain vision. Manorama was different because Navdeep and I knew each other for years. You may not know what they can do, but you have faith.
Actors like Ajay Devgn and Aamir Khan claim that many of their movies turned out to be different from the scripts. Does that disconnect happen a lot?
After my first few films didn’t work, nobody offered me any big budget films. So I did high-content, low-budget films. It’s easy to be different in our industry… Just remove the songs and dances. Some actors started off with regular Bollywood stuff and suddenly tried serious roles for balance. I think they should be proud of what they do, why experiment? Today, directors will forgive me if I refuse to do commercial films because they know I’ve stuck to my guns.
Did you manage to find writers whose scripts are heavy on content?
Not a lot. You’ll find some idiotic person who is usually at the beginning of his career. Later on, they all get corrupted because it’s hard to sustain.
Is that why you prefer directors who are starting out?
That’s why I worked with five debut directors back-to-back! They’re idealistic… not cynical. People expect successful directors to repeat that formula. It’s a business first and a creative field second. Proposals are made first, the story becomes secondary.
Then who is the boss on a set?
Being a star driven system, the movie star equals money. Even major directors work with the movie stars, though they can sell the movie on their own star power. Big name directors rarely work with newcomers except star kids.
But there is no system in India, where films sell on a director’s name?
Nope. Not that I’ve heard of...
Maybe Ramu attempted that with Ram Gopal Varma Ki Aag ...
(Laughs) No, there isn’t. It’s all market driven… who’s in it and what everyone’s going to get on the table.
Does that put a lot pressure on you as an actor? A lot of things are not in your control, but you are the face of the film…
You are the face, but the director is the boss. I won’t work with a director until I’m comfortable, because I will be taking their guidance. It’s blind trust because the director is the one shaping the movie.
In the ’70s, you would have been classified as art house. Is there a social message or a reason why you’re an actor?
No, if there’s any common thread in my films; I try to make them as believable and realistic as possible. A believable script automatically draws me in. I don’t want to save the day by kicking 10 guys’ butts, and then getting the girl in the end.
How about playing a fairy in Honeymoon Travels?
Fairy? There weren’t exactly butterfly wings behind me, you know… The way you look at it is interesting. Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s a fairy!
Ok, super-hero. Answer the question...
It was larger than life, so that quirkiness helped. It was a small role in the larger scheme of things. It had salsa and a tango number and that idiotic sequence at the end, so I said, “Why not?” I was shooting for Aahista Aahista, Ek Chalis… and Honeymoon at the same time, so it felt balanced out.
What do you mean by balancing out?
Trying to do different stuff at the same time. After Socha Na Tha, I was offered roles of a comical and romantic boy-next-door. I didn’t want that. I did Ek Chalis… because the climax made me laugh. The industry is always one step behind. If what you’ve done has worked, they’ll ask you to repeat it. But I want to try something new. So they’ll say “Sir, but that’s not your market!” That’s why Aahista Aahista and Honeymoon Travels balanced out. Aahista… was
Do you think that the traditional form of storytelling in Bollywood, knowing the nuances of song and script, is stuff for museums?
It died a long time ago. Dragging anything for so long is going to stifle new ideas. It’s fine to be nostalgic but let’s move on. We have a new generation, educated in a particular way and environment, so we need to reflect their ideas. I see films that say Mumbai but are actually showing Switzerland. There’s no explanation. It took me about eight films to realise that it’s just a business. It’s disheartening because you want to make money, but not at the cost of creativity.
Would you blame producers who offer the money for those kinds of films and those who take it?
Everyone is responsible. Big producers should know their (star’s) worth. Corporates came in because the industry matured. Then the films flopped, because they inflated the market and the bubble burst. It almost stops you from making anything that’s not star-based. The government needs to support us instead of just asking us to pay entertainment tax. There should also be regulation of ticket prices so that small, original films survive.
Were you a huge film buff yourself while growing up?
I wouldn’t say that, but I was exposed to films more by chance. Sunny bhaiyya (Deol) had a huge LD collection and then before people started buying LDs, he already had DVDs. Obviously as a kid, I was intrigued by action films like Indiana Jones, Star Wars...
You’d also be watching Sunny Deol action films, right?
Yeah, a lot of them were action films. I liked the escapism, and action was better escapism than romance. Action in Hindi films was always inferior to Hollywood. We should be able to make even better ones, as we’re an old culture with great stories.
Which movie shook you?
Stanley Kubrick’s movies. I saw The Shining when I was 10 and it scared the pants off me… but it was an amazing experience. While in college, I gravitated towards films like Blade Runner that were made in this pseudo world.
So why did you decide to debut with something like Socha Na Tha (a romance)?
I decided to conform and do a song and dance movie to enter the industry. I needed to prove myself first before I could start asking for changes. Socha Na Tha was a safe romcom. Even distributors are willing to go that extra mile because it has a wider audience.
As an actor, if you weren’t successful by now, you would probably be the most angst-ridden human being ever.
Mumbai’s infrastructure sucks, the roads are bad and it’s too crowded. If I hadn’t survived in the industry, I would have probably left by now. I’m not going to sit in Lokhandwala and be angst-ridden. If it didn’t work, I’d get over it.
Since you’ve grown up hating the star system, do you hate your own star status after Dev D?
I don’t hate anything. I’m happy that my film did well; it gave me freedom and opportunities. But every interview was always about alternative cinema. Since my film did well, I didn’t feel the need to give too many interviews. I went to New York because I was very jaded and needed to get away. Seeing stardom since childhood made it less attractive to me. The interviews, the gossip, the rumours… nothing shocks me.
You don’t believe in the myth of stardom. You’re probably the first to come for an interview driving your own car...
I’ll tell you how that happened. I left early, so I was here sooner than planned and my mom took the driver. I don’t use a driver unless I have to go for shoots.
I’ve seen the pressure of stardom. You maybe surrounded by people who aren’t your friends. You can never have a
private life and you have to justify your actions because you’re always going to be judged.
Does that kill creativity because you’re continuously in a cocoon?
Yes, if you’re surrounded by people just because you’re a star. To keep up with your stardom, everybody expects you to do what works, as opposed to trying something new. There’s never been a huge frenzy. People appreciate my work because it’s different. I want fans who think for themselves and participate because that kind of audience lasts forever.
But you also have the female fans…
(Laughs) That’s always welcome; nothing wrong with that.
Do you get mobbed sometimes?
Not mobbed, but people ask for your phone number, propose their daughters to you.
Do you come across as having a bad attitude?
Perhaps some people think that I have bad attitude but after interacting with me, they know that isn’t the case. I’m not arrogant by nature. In the beginning, they were dismissive and said that I wouldn’t survive.
What about your brothers and uncles? They would obviously be on your side…
They were really worried. My taiji (Dharmendra) saw Socha Na Tha and said, “It doesn’t matter how the film does, you’re a good actor and if you continue to work this way you will find an audience.” He was really thrilled.
What did he think of Dev D?
I sent Bobby (Deol) and my family for the trial (screening). They shouted at me for sending my mom with them. My dad’s sister prayed that the censor wouldn’t pass it. My sister comforted my mother, so she felt a little better.
But if you are so close, why don’t we see you together on screen?
They are stuck in an image; it’s a lot harder for them to break away. So if my taiji is the He-man, they’re not going to go against that.
How did you flesh out the characters you’ve played?
I had Dev D in my head for many years before I spoke to Anurag about it. I drew from my own experiences… I knew a lot of addicts and had been obsessed with this girl years ago. I went back to memories of her. With Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!, I told Dibakar, who’s an amazing actor, that I would just copy him.
Is it possible to get out of the character that you play? Is it like taking work home?
I’d like to believe that I don’t. But if you have a bad day, it tends to affect you. It also depends on your director.
A great philosopher said, “Most people react, don’t respond.” So I decided not to react to people. I didn’t interact with the people much and didn’t make an effort to be a part of the team. I was very professional and after two weeks, everybody was my friend because I was this quiet guy.
Is it fun being a single movie star?
You want to make the most of it. Girls aren’t very defensive because they’ve seen my movies, so the
initial introduction is already taken care of.
For me, conversation matters. Does she laugh at my jokes? Does she really find me attractive? I can usually tell whether the girl is interested in me or my money… not that I have lots of money.
What would it take for you to do a complete song and dance masala movie?