The promotion routine can be killing. Abhay Deol has been giving interviews – for Happy Bhag Jayegi, his first film in more than two years – since 3pm, and at 8pm he is still at it. The fatigue is evident on his face as he says goodbye to a friend who’d popped in briefly. The last set of interviews still remain. And yet he greets us cheerily. ‘Thankfully, your number has come before I lost my voice!’
Abhay Deol never forgets his manners. He politely asks what we will have and places our order before as we settle down to talk
As he slouches on the sofa with a pillow in hand, you can sense the weariness, but he’s still approachable and warm. His PR skills are excellent, there are no doubts about his talent, and his producers are more than happy with him. So why did Deol, 40, choose to ‘run’ away and ‘hide’ the past two years? What was he doing during this extended break? What exactly was it about Happy Bhag… that brought him out of hibernation?
Abhay grew up with the Deol film family – uncle Dharmendra, cousins Bobby and Sunny, and loves spending time with his mum and relatives.
Abhay’s broad dimpled smile shows he’s not uncomfortable answering these. He shrugs. ‘I’ve been travelling a lot. Apart from that I really did nothing to talk about! It was great. I have a family [two sisters] in California, so I spent time with them there. I got myself an apartment, made new friends… so that was a new kind of experience. But you know what… I missed making films. If I could I’d be making films all the time. So Happy Bhag Jayegi came in the middle of the journey when Aanand [L Rai, producer] called me. He sent me the script, which I liked and agreed to do because I was confident of Aanand.’
With films like Tanu Weds Manu and sequel Tanu Weds Manu Returns, both iconic successes, under his belt, Aanand is considered to be a film-maker who focuses on content and not star power to drive his films to success stories. So does this mean Abhay’s only going to work with big producers hereafter?
He refuses to take the bait. ‘From my past experiences, I’ve been burnt by a combination of new producers and directors on good projects, but where no one had the clout or power to market and distribute it well. I knew I was safe here with Aanand as a producer, Eros as a distributor… and I liked the script, and the director himself had written it. I could also see this is how he thinks, and maybe he can direct pretty well too because he obviously understands the nuances of relationships, understands humour very well; his command over the language is brilliant. So those are the reasons why I said yes.’
A ‘thinking’ actor, Abhay clearly doesn’t jump for every role that comes his way. ‘I need to relate to the character. So when they are larger-than-life, as our heroes tend to be, I disconnect, because I know people like that do not really exist.
‘So if I have to play a larger-than-life character, just put me in spandex and a cape and I’ll play a superhero. Believability is important to me. When I read characters that are believable and real, they come across as heroes not because they beat a lot of people up, but because they use their mind or they overcome a lot of obstacles. Or even if they are just completely relatable, even if they’re dealing with emotional issues and not external ones, that’s interesting!
‘Sometimes the external factors influence the character, sometimes the internal. But in our industry internal is very rare, which is why I think Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara worked so well. My character ironically had an external issue – should I marry or not? There was largely an internal process for the other characters though, you know.’
Does working on intense roles that require internalising tend to affect him emotionally?
‘I think that happens when I do something more dramatic. For example, when you’re doing a comedy, like Zindagi… – I mean, it’s not an out and out comedy but it’s a relatively light film compared to my debut Dev D – you can sort of faff around, joke around, because a lot of it is lighter. The character and dialogues aren’t as heavy, there’s no intense philosophy. It’s about being yourself, and you can sort of be relaxed. When you come back the next day, you get back into it.
‘If you do something heavy on drama, you can’t joke around so much – I can’t be laughing around with you, go give a serious shot, come back, start joking around again. In order to be genuinely serious, I get into a zone where I’ll not talk to anybody too much because I need to be… I need to perform.’
This is one star who’s also candid and not one to shy away from expressing his views. So how does he manage to navigate through politically correct Bollywood?
‘It is not a choice, it is not even deliberate; it is just me being me!’ he laughs. ‘One of the advantages of growing up in the film industry [as veteran actor Dharmendra’s nephew] is not that you get work very easily – it is that you see fame and glamour up close. You see the media write about you and your family many times, personal, up close. And the advantage is… for example, I see people from outside the industry who very much want to make it, who very much want to be famous, who very much want to be written about. And I am like, I want to be famous without getting written about! Is that possible?’
He insists on doing offbeat films even now, as an established star – another no-no in Bollywood. But Abhay can’t be bothered with such nitpicking. ‘I started doing offbeat films and when I was doing those films no one was actually running after me and approaching me with work. So I always took it for granted that nobody big enough really wanted to work with me, and fair enough because I didn’t want to make the films they made in any case!’
He guffaws. ‘It suited me fine! It kept me away from the uncomfortable position of telling someone important, “Sorry, I don’t want to work with you, on this one at least.” And then suddenly when my experiments [initial films like Dev D] started to pay off they started approaching me. Now that put me in an uncomfortable position because they approached me not wanting to further the risks I was taking. They wanted to have me conform to the formula they were making.
‘And my point was, the only reason I’ve got respect from the media, from you, from the people of the industry, is because I took a risk. And now you want to take me away from those risks and package me just like every other hero? That’ll work against you and me’.
Be it Socha Na Tha, Happy Bhag Jayegi, Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara or Dev D, Abhay strives to pick films that veer away from standard formulas.
For Abhay, most of the films he’s done, from Dev D and Shanghai to Chakravyuh, Manorama Six Feet Under, and now Happy…, constitute a body of work that he hopes will take the form of a movement that will bring back believability to the standard Bollywood film.
‘[When I started out] my plan was about starting a movement,’ he says earnestly. ‘It was not about one film or two films, it was not about me proving that I am so different, it was about me trying to create an environment where I and actors like me could have our individuality made the most off, could work in a way we are comfortable. Not everybody needs to dance like a dream, flex their biceps and show their eight-pack. You know what I mean?’
His audience certainly does.