[A profile-interview I did of actor Abhay Deol for the Sunday Business Standard. It was done in 20 minutes on the phone – wouldn't have minded a longer and more indepth conversation, but maybe next time, after Abhay has done a few more films]
How long does it take for an actor to reach the point where his name is automatically associated with high-quality (if low-key) cinema? Abhay Deol is just six films old (the seventh, Dev D, releases next month), he’s played the lead in most of these films, and there isn’t really a weak link among them. Serious movie buffs – the ones who can look beyond box-office collections – know exactly what “an Abhay Deol film” is code for: a strong script, a fresh but confident director with a willingness to explore new terrain, and an understated but very effective lead performance. The growth of his career graph has been equally understated; though his films haven’t been smash hits so far, most of them have already developed a cult following and will probably have a long life on DVDs.
During a telephonic interview with Abhay, I mention that this career trajectory is especially notable when one considers his family background. As an impressionable young boy growing up in the 1980s (he was born in 1976), he would have watched the mainstream pulp that his paternal uncle Dharmendra and his much-older cousin Sunny Deol were doing at the time. A certain amount of hero-worshipping must have taken place at that age. (“Yes, yes, of course,” Abhay says.) So how did he get from there to where he is today, a standard-bearer for small, script-driven movies?
I'm expecting Abhay to underplay the Deol family connection; to steer the topic in a different direction. Not a bit of it. “But that's just the point,” he says, “As a child I had wider exposure precisely because I was from a filmi family.” His voice is warm and open (it reminds me of the young Sunny Deol in movies like Betaab and Sunny, though Abhay is speaking in English), he talks fluently and somewhat faster than I had expected – rarely pausing for breath, never stumbling over a sentence. “My taayaji and brothers travelled all over the world during their shoots, and through them I got to know about other cinemas, the possibilities of other types of movies. Most Indian youngsters didn’t have that kind of exposure before satellite TV came in, but I was lucky.”
Of course, this in itself doesn’t explain Abhay’s choice of roles; after all, most other star-children his age are doing big-banner movies with assembly-line screenplays. But he developed a varied taste in films at an early age, he explains: he was watching regular kiddie fare like Star Wars and Indiana Jones all right, but also more offbeat films such as Brazil and Blade Runner. “I was too young to understand all the nuances back then, of course,” he says (while I shake my head to dispel floating visions of Dharmendra bringing home video-cassettes of Terry Gilliam films for his little nephew along with Toblerone packets), “but I loved the look of these movies, and the music, and they motivated me to explore further.” His viewing habits are eclectic but he admits to a particular fondness for Iranian cinema. “Given the limitations on what they can portray, it’s amazing how much they’ve achieved. It’s a conservative culture, like ours, but they put subtle emotion ahead of gloss.”
Subtlety is the hallmark of Abhay’s own performances. As the engineer Satyaveer in Navdeep Singh's excellent “Rajasthani noir” Manorama Six Feet Under, he was the epitome of the inconspicuous, small-town Everyman, getting by from one day to the next, vaguely sensing that he can go on to better things but not driven enough to do much about it. Occupying a very different world from this character is the go-getting thief Lucky Singh in Dibakar Banerjee’s Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!, but Abhay brings a fine shade to even this inherently flamboyant role. Lucky is a charismatic rogue who lives by his wits, but we can see the effort that goes into his facade of self-assurance; he’s what one might call a fully realised character, created from the inside out.
“Well, I liked films where I could relate to the characters – where I found them tangible and real,” he says, “As you know, most of the Hindi movies we grew up with were full of larger-than-life characters. I would watch all that and be entertained by it, but I didn't feel a connect with it. For me, exploring my creativity as an actor has meant staying away from bigger-than-life roles.” Asked for examples of actors who have inspired him, he rather unexpectedly mentions Charlize Theron in Monster. "Now there's a performance that could make you feel empathy for a serial killer, a woman who's monstrous on the surface. She puts the viewer in the character's shoes, showing us how cruel and isolating society can be – how it can push you into a corner. I'd love to do work like that, which opens your mind to other lives."
It's interesting that the very first performance he thought of was by a female actor, I remark (and also non-Deol-like, I think silently to myself, though I've told myself to get those simplifications out of my head). “It isn't about being male or female, it's about performance, it's about something that strikes a chord with you,” Abhay says, adding, almost as a concession, that he was a big Peter Sellers fan too, “in Dr Strangelove, and many other films.”
He enjoyed playing the title role in Dev D, an updating of the Devdas story, written and directed by that most individualistic of filmmakers, Anurag Kashyap. Having only worked with relatively inexperienced directors so far (including the debutants Imtiaz Ali, Navdeep Singh and Sanjay Khanduri), was it intimidating to be helmed by a man who is among Bollywood’s few genuine auteurs? Did he feel constrained as a performer? “No, Anurag has been a friend for a long time – since before I joined films, in fact – so there was nothing to be nervous about,” he replies, “Besides, in my view, an actor is a tool in any director’s hands. For that matter, a director himself is a tool – I think of a film as one big jigsaw puzzle, which everyone contributes a piece to.”
This said, he’s excited about the adrenaline, the originality of treatment, that Kashyap has brought to a familiar tale. “Our setting is modern, urban and gritty,” he says, “but deep down this is very much the Devdas story as it was originally written nearly a hundred years ago. When I read the Chattopadhyay book – we all did, before starting the film – I was fascinated by all the angst towards social norms, which has been poured out through this one character. We haven’t tampered with that spirit at all.”
“I tried to dig deep into Dev’s psyche, and I hope I’ve succeeded. Right now he’s the character closest to my heart, though I also enjoyed playing Satyaveer – a common man forced into submission – and Lucky, who represents the idea that we can all be extraordinary on some level.”
A couple of decades ago, Naseeruddin Shah – the thinking man's actor for another generation – decided to wriggle out of the “Serious Actor” straitjacket and have a grand old time in entertainers like Karma, Tridev and Jalwa. Does Abhay see himself doing something similar down the line? “But you know, my intention even now is to make films that are commercial,” he insists. “It's not like I'm trying to select movies that won't do well.”
Very briefly, he gets defensive. “I don't know why my uncle and brother got singled out for doing the sort of cinema they did,” he says. “Everyone in mainstream Hindi cinema was doing the same thing back then – if you wanted to make a film that would have a decent-sized audience, the possibilities were limited. Today, things have changed. International films are released immediately in India, we have movie channels that show foreign-language movies, people are more aware and spoilt for choice. It’s possible now to make a film with a strong, original script and still have it seen by a large audience.”
“I don't much care for this division between commercial and non-commercial films – I don’t think it’s relevant anymore.” Strong scripts are what attract him and in the final analysis “the only distinction to be made now is between a good and a bad film”. Going by his record so far, it's likely that he'll maintain that distinction.
P.S. See this blog post by Abhay on Passion for Cinema.