Blurred lines: Will Abhay Deol return to the indie scene?
Why is Abhay Deol, who carried indie cinema through the 2000s, so quiet on the streaming scene? It’s not about the money. The game’s changed, he says. So has the meaning of courage
There’s only one request that Abhay Deol’s fans have for him. Surprisingly, his DMs aren’t flooded with pleas to make Dev D 2. India just wants him to “Do more movies,” says Deol, laughing. Will he?
“I want to,” says Deol, 47. “You know, maybe in this current environment, it’s more possible for someone like me to work. Now more than ever.”
Someone like me. It refers to Deol’s unique position in the entertainment industry. The actor is the son of Ajit Singh Deol, nephew of actor Dharmendra, and the cousin of Sunny Deol, Bobby Deol, Esha Deol and Ahana Deol. Although he made his debut with the romantic comedy Socha Na Tha (2005) and followed it up with romantic drama Ahista Ahista (2006), he’s best known for being the poster boy for Indian indie cinema in the 2000s. It was Honeymoon Travels Pvt Ltd, Ek Chalis Ki Last Local and Manorama Six Feet Under (all of which released in 2007), Oye Lucky!Lucky Oye! (2008) and Dev D (2009) that cemented him as a bankable star who took creative risks and could walk the fine line between mainstream and offbeat cinema. It’s a position he acknowledges, but warily.
“I can see where it’s coming from,” he says. “When I started work in 2005, there was hardly any experimenting going on. No one was looking for diversity of talent, of moving away from the mainstream formula. I put in a lot of effort right at the start of my career. I worked with directors who were in the early part of their careers. I think we had a good movement going and I’m just thankful that I was a part of it.”
Deol is the reason that audiences began to realise that indie films can be about subjects other than politics, marginalised communities or violence. His film, Ek Chalis Ki Last Local was an adventure comedy thriller in which two people miss Mumbai’s last local train at 1:40 am and how it changes their lives forever. Dev D was a neo-noir romantic black comedy and a modern-day take on Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s Bengali novel, Devdas. Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! told the tale of Devinder Singh, a real-life thief or “super-chor”. Manorama Six Feet Under followed an amateur detective in a sleepy town from Rajasthan. All these films showed the industry that offbeat stories can pull in viewers, and bring in profits too.
“They weren’t even indie in the traditional sense of the term, just smaller studios, making smaller films for India’s multiplexes, where it was finally possible to screen more than one kind of film for one kind of audience. For a brief window there was more exhibition space than there was product,” Deol recalls.
The movement was eventually eclipsed by big-name films, but not before Deol was cemented in the popular imagination as “that” kind of actor. There are more of that kind now, as all eyes are on streaming. It’s where stories about such unexpected subjects as piano player pretending to be visually-impaired (Andhadhun, 2018), motley characters on a road trip (Finding Fanny, 2014) and a did-she-didn’t-she murder mystery (Haseen Dilruba, 2021) have appreciative viewers.
It comes with its own complications, finds Deol. “Streaming platforms are unlimited [in terms of the audience they can reach out to],” he points out, “so it gives them the freedom to make what is considered mainstream and what is considered independent. They are in a position to create and cater to a new audience.”
It’s not quite the same as what Deol did back in the day. “What I was trying to do with films like Manorama was to make people understand that Indians are also capable of that kind of acting and that kind of storytelling,” he says. The new platforms are not in the business of carrying that legacy forward. Their risks are more calculated. It’s small experiments, backed by big business. “You need creative minds and usually creative minds and business minds don’t co-exist.”
Still, it’s a more varied landscape than it used to be, even at the height of the multiplex boom. “There is an audience that has grown up with the internet,” he says. “They’ve been exposed to all kinds of storytelling from all over the globe and they’re looking at their own identity, their Indianness and saying, ‘Hey we’re capable of that too!’ I think the younger generation wants to have a broader identity.”
Filmmakers are lighter on their feet too. As with the ones Deol worked with, they’re coming in unburdened by legacy and tradition, eager to forge new creative paths. So, it makes all the more sense for Deol to jump back in.
He last appeared in Netflix’s 2023 series Trial by Fire, playing a grieving parent in a story about the deadly Uphaar cinema fire in New Delhi. It’s not enough to stem the DMs and the requests to return to the screen. “I’ve come to that point in my life where I don’t need to prove anything,” he says. “It’s younger man’s game. Having said that, I still look for ideas that challenge me, that challenge the system, because I cannot remove provocation from art. I can’t not think like that.”
Deol is hopeful about the future of filmmaking, filmmakers and film genres today. “There’s a director I wanted to work with, who’s dead, Stanley Kubrick. I’ve loved his work. I love dark comedies. I wish we had a lot more of that genre. But it isn’t something that we culturally understand. But today, a lot more than before, people are more open to that genre.”
Three Indie films he thinks everyone should watch, that never got their due
1 Slaughterhouse-Five, 1972. The American comedy-drama military science-fiction film directed by George Roy Hill is based on the 1969 novel of the same name by Kurt Vonnegut. The film stars Michael Sacks as Billy Pilgrim, who is “unstuck in time” and has no control over where he is going next.
Don’t Look Now, 1973. A thriller adapted from the 1971 short story by Daphne du Maurier. Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland play married couple Laura and John Baxter, and the film focuses on the psychology of grief and the effect the death of a child can have on a relationship.
3 Paths of Glory, 1957. An American anti-war film, co-written and directed by Stanley Kubrick, based on the novel of the same name by Humphrey Cobb. Set during World War I, the film stars Kirk Douglas as Colonel Dax, the commanding officer of French soldiers, who refuse to continue a suicidal attack, after which Dax attempts to defend them against charges of cowardice in a court-martial.
From HT Brunch, April 22, 2023
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