Abhay Deol has clearly forgotten about our appointment. He opens the door to his bachelor pad in his pajamas, rubbing sleep out of his eyes. As he freshens up and brews a pot of coffee, I scan the stack of scripts on the coffee table, examine the collection of DVDs near his home theatre system, and glance at a photograph of a young Abhay with uncle Dharmendra. Sunny and Bobby’s cousin, the lean and lanky 32-year-old is the son of producer-director Ajit Deol and a far cry from the macho hero his uncle and cousins have personified.
But this has not deterred Abhay. He stuck to his guns, and four years later, has carved out a remarkable and interesting niche within the Hindi film space. With his choice of films and his determination to play the leading man, his resume has recovered from the poor box office response to his debut film Socha Na Tha (2005) and his sophomore venture Ahista Ahista. The films that followed had audiences and critics sit up and take notice. He played one half of a perfect Parsi couple in Honeymoon Travels Pvt Ltd; an executive whose life changed when he missed the last train home in Ek Chalis Ki Last Local; a junior engineer in small town India by day and a crime writer by night, in Manorama Six Feet Under; and recently he was seen as Lucky, an ambitious thief in Oye Lucky, Lucky Oye.
Classic goes pop
Dev D, his latest offering, is a contemporary psychedelic interpretation of the classic novel Devdas. But Abhay won’t be around for the release. He’s taking a sabbatical in New York and has enrolled himself in an art college. The idea for Dev D germinated from him and his interpretation of the classic Devdas includes the modern urban world of alcohol, drugs, MMS scandals etc. “I thought it would be fascinating to explore Devdas in a modern context. The essence of Devdas and his angst is imaginable even today. As an actor it was an awesome experience to play Dev. He is the quintessential romantic hero and there is a bit of him in every Bollywood hero.”
By playing Dev, Abhay also hopes to respond to the pressure to do a commercial film. “A character explored so often in film must be commercial. He’s iconic and yet here’s an opportunity to add my interpretation, infuse originality and escape repetition. Therein lay the challenge and entertainment,” he says, adding, “I was always clear I did not want to follow the usual song-dance routine. If I have found a niche, it’s by default. I chose my films for selfish reasons – because I liked the stories. I also knew that no producer would put me in lead roles because my first two films had flopped. Though I don’t believe in luck, I do feel I was lucky with what has come my way.”
So how has he managed to shake off the perceptions that surround a Deol? “A trade critic once said that my cousin was silly to launch me as a romantic hero and not as an action hero – and that’s what most of the industry felt,” says Abhay. “But when I met people they saw that I was quite thin and young looking and they didn’t know how to deal with the boy-next-door appearance. But since I have been working consistently and releasing movies, because critics are supportive and the public has begun accepting me, perceptions in the industry too are changing,” he says.
Art + Commerce
Abhay is rapidly reinforcing his place in the independent, offbeat space. Every Bollywood hero feels the need to reconcile commercial and non-commercial cinema. But Abhay does not subscribe to the distinction. “Had I subscribed to those categories, I would not have done the films I have. I select subjects that will be entertaining and insightful.” And now that his career is on an upward swing, he has set up his own film production company, Forbidden Films. “Our first film, Junction, is being directed by Atul Sabharwal. I am acting in it and producing it. Plus I have written several treatments and synopses, some of which will be developed into scripts for my company. I will act for others, but produce only for myself,” he says.
He’s recently finished a film with Dev Benegal and is now looking forward to some perspective as he takes classes in New York. “As an actor it is great to have a change of environment and new experiences. If you work continuously, you become repetitive,” he says.
Today Abhay is, unarguably, a big fish in a small pond. But he says he’d rather be a big fish in a big pond: “As an actor, I always wanted universal appeal.”