One hour into the interview with Bollywood star John Abraham, there’s a soft knock on the door of his suite in the InterContinental, Abu Dhabi.
‘Those are my assistant directors; if you’ll excuse me for just a few minutes,’ says the Madras Cafe star, who was in the capital shooting the adventure thriller Dishoom. He plays the lead alongside some of Bollywood’s most popular actors including Varun Dhawan, Jacqueline Fernandez and Akshaye Khanna.
I lean back to flip through a magazine lying on the table in front of me, certain that he’d be away for at least an hour, when I hear my name being called out.
‘Hey Anand, why don’t you come and meet my directors?’ John, 43, shouts from the adjoining room. I walk over to see two young women fishing something out of a brown shopping bag.
‘Do you know what they’re here for?’ asks John, with a mischievous smile.
‘They’ve brought me some underwear to try out before tomorrow’s shoot.’
While the women look flustered, he rummages through the bag and shortlists a few briefs. ‘I’ll finish the interview and check these out,’ he tells them as they hastily exit.
John turns his attention back to me, his dark brown eyes twinkling. ‘It’s been a busy day,’ says the award-winning actor and producer, reclining on a leather sofa. ‘But it’s really exciting. There are a lot of sequences in Dishoom of me in the water – pools, the beach, etc… So I need to be checking out my bathing costumes.’
A former model, John, who is married to investment banker Priya Runchal, has been doing a lot more than checking out innerwear though. Known for his work ethic as well as good looks and talent, the 182cm-tall star tells me he shot all through the previous night.
‘I returned to the hotel at 6am, slept for around four hours, met with the production team, hit the gym for two hours and had just gotten back to the room when you arrived,’ he smiles.
But even though he’s only had a few hours’ sleep, John – who leans so far back his grey T-shirt is stretched tight across his famous 116cm chest – is bristling with energy.
‘Venky,’ he calls out to his assistant, and a lean, much-tattooed guy in his 30s, whose nose stud glints in the room’s soft lights, appears. ‘Can I have my lunch, please?’
The assistant offers to get me tea, and minutes later both arrive – a plate of grilled chicken in white sauce with a heap of veggies for John, and a refreshing cuppa for me.
‘You don’t mind if I talk while having my lunch, do you?’ he asks, before digging in.
The actor, who was labelled international sex symbol by The Guardian last year, had been shooting Dishoom for six weeks in the UAE capital when we met. He is now wrapping up the film.
‘Man, Abu Dhabi is just fabulous,’ he says. ‘We arrived here in January and have shot at almost 30 different locations, including Ferrari World, Nurai Island, Emirates Palace, Yas Waterworld, Sheikh Zayed Stadium, Liwa Desert and Reem Island.’
In the midst of the shoot, John had also been flying to Mumbai at intervals to prepare the release of Rocky Handsome, the third film from his production house John Abraham Entertainment in which he stars opposite Shruti Haasan.
What made him get into production?
‘I was doing well, getting a lot of roles but not the kinds I really wanted,’ he says. ‘So I told myself, if I’m not getting the kind of films I want to do, I may as well produce films I like.’
Teaming up with award-winning director Shoojit Sircar, who produced the much-acclaimed Bengali film Aparajita Tumi, John decided to produce Madras Cafe, a political thriller set in the late Eighties and early Nineties, touching upon the civil war in Sri Lanka. ‘We – Shoojit and I – went to every studio in Mumbai for six years, urging them to back us to make this film,’ says John. ‘But none was willing to come forward because they felt it was not a commercial entertainer.’
So the duo set the project aside and worked on the National Award-winning Vicky Donor, a comedy-drama about a sperm donor in New Delhi, India, and the stigma associated with sperm donations.
‘We felt it was a novel subject. It wasn’t a big budget film so we co-produced it.’
Vicky Donor, which starred newcomers Ayushmann Khurrana and Yami Gautam, went on to become a critical and commercial success, ‘and people started to say “OK, John is a thinking producer”, says the star.
‘It was a game changer. Suddenly, studios began to approach us to work on Madras Cafe and I began to spend less time acting and more in production.’
With Madras Cafe, released in 2013, also becoming a success, John, who started his career with Jism opposite Bipasha Basu in 2003, was happy that people were looking at him as an actor with brain – he has an MBA from Mumbai University – as well as brawn.
‘I had clear ideas about production, and I was keen to marry commerce and content,’ he says. ‘As an actor I’d tried to do it in Water, Kabul Express… If you look at my trajectory, I didn’t go down the beaten path. I tried hard to take the road less travelled, and do some non-typical commercial movies.’
Although John attempted to move away from commercial cinema, the films he did act in went on to become huge hits as well. Race 2, Shootout at Wadala and Welcome Back, among others, were the high grossers that kept him in demand.
‘I’d always desired to do more quality movies,’ he says. ‘But I decided to do enough commercial cinema so I can have good equity to do the kind of films I want.’
Along the way, John appears to have understood the pros and cons of commercial cinema. ‘I realise that it’s important to have a commercial element, but without sacrificing quality,’ he says.
‘Rocky Handsome, which will release on March 24 in the UAE, is a case in point. In terms of sheer math, even if it has a decent opening, it will be a commercial success.’
Directed by Nishikant Kamat, the movie tells the story of a man who sets out to avenge the abduction of an eight-year-old girl with whom he shares a special bond. ‘If you are a parent, you’ll love the film,’ he says.
In case you’re wondering if he’s anxious about the fate of Rocky Handsome considering it is opening on the same day as Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, he’s not. ‘I respect the power of a Batman and a Superman,’ he says. ‘But I’m not worried. My film is a commercial one with great content. I’m proud of it. Full credit to Nishikant.’
The star, his 43cm biceps rippling under his tee, adds, ‘A few South Indian actors saw the rushes and two superstars in fact have shown interest in buying the film rights.’
John emphasises that a superstar isn’t crucial for the success of a film. ‘I believe content is king,’ he says. ‘Hugh Jackman in X-Men is an example. The studio made the movies and then got Hugh to star in them. They didn’t get him first and then make X-Men. Of course, Bollywood is a long way from there.’
Will viewers accept a Shah Rukh Khan or a John Abraham in a completely different role?
‘I’m sure they will,’ he says. ‘But it comes at a price.
‘If Shah Rukh or I were to go to a studio and say, “Look, I don’t want a penny but I’m passionate about a role in a film on a very different subject”, they might buy it and make the film.’
The business-savvy actor looks serious for a moment. ‘See, at the end of the day, movie-making is a business. As an actor, I’m here to make money. But as a producer I’m here to make the kind of films I want to. While I am driven by content, some are driven by commerce. So we have to find a common ground.’
John is convinced films don’t necessarily have to go overboard with gimmicks to make a mark. ‘Let me speak for myself. I try to keep the costs low, but I don’t stint on quality.
‘For instance, for Force 2 [scheduled for release later this year, with him starring opposite Sonakshi Sinha] we shot in Budapest. The cameraman had done Die Hard 4, the action-director had worked on the Oscar-nominated science fiction film District 9… But we did all of this within a reasonable budget, so Force 2 will break even on the first day. I don’t care if it makes Rs10 million (about Dh546,482) in the opening week. But I am happy that I made a good movie.’
Having said that, the question that springs to mind is whether awards are more important than the moolah. ‘I have respect for fair awards,’ John clarifies. ‘Being completely Indian at heart, I have huge respect for the National Awards. But I decided a long time ago that I would never go to any award function other than the National Awards.
‘I believe all our shows are made to boost channel ratings. Actors are expected to perform at those shows and those who do will get an award... some award. That’s the way it has been happening.’
Naturally, the actor feels strongly about the entire concept of performance rewarded by an undeserved prize. ‘I’ll never do it,’ he says. ‘Gyrating to a song onstage so I can get an award? Sorry, it just doesn’t add up in my book. I did it once for a show long ago and couldn’t live with it.’
What about dancing at weddings and parties? Several Bollywood stars are known to have performed at such events, I tell him.
‘I would never dance at a wedding either,’ says John, putting down his plate.
‘Is it wrong? I don’t know. But I can’t bring myself to do something like that and learn the next day that the very rich person who hosted the party boasted to his or her friends, “You know, yesterday I had this star dance for me. I put my arms around him and he was available”.
‘That’s deriding for me. I know actors do it and I respect their choice. I won’t say it’s wrong, but I wouldn’t do it.’
Pushing his plate away, John says his next step is to produce regional cinema. ‘The Malayalam movie industry, for instance, is extremely evolved and I have a tremendous amount of respect for actors like Mammootty and Mohanlal.
‘I want to produce some Malayalam films. I’ve been in the process of identifying some writers, plots and themes.’
Does he watch his own movies? ‘I don’t watch a lot of Bollywood films,’ he says, dodging the question. ‘But I love Aamir [Khan]. He does a lot of good cinema. I really enjoyed Rang De Basanti.
‘Of the directors, apart from Nishikant, I think Sanjay Leela Bhansali is in a class apart.’
Sipping a cup of English breakfast tea to round off his meal, John wants to point out that the Hindi movie industry is blessed to have a lot of talented actors, directors and technicians. ‘We only lack good writers,’ he says.
‘Parallel cinema does exist, but only for the makers. I believe that if you want to make a film to be viewed by a larger audience, you should make it palatable for them and commercially viable. Don’t intellectualise it.’
John is sure that good cinema can be made on a commercial basis. ‘Commercial cinema is not [always] mindless. The good news is that there is a huge change happening among the viewing public and believe me, very soon, mindless movies may become parallel cinema.’
Apart from cinema, caring for his much-talked about bod takes up a lot of his day. ‘I act in films, and I produce some. Between all of it, I need to stay fit.
‘If I’m shooting for 12 hours a day, I ensure I work out for at least an hour before or after the shoot. I then spend about four hours on production work, and an hour on my football team [John is a majority stakeholder in NorthEast United FC]. Sleep is for about four to five hours a day.
‘I’m obsessed with constantly improving my skills. I keep pushing myself to do more and better constantly.
‘I keep telling myself, “Why nibble on mediocrity when you can chew on greatness?” I’d rather take on more and choke, than nibble on mediocre projects.’
A passionate lover of sport, John was a footballer during his school and college days and played centre forward in the Indian A-division league. So, when the Indian Super League started in 2014, he quickly picked up NorthEast United, keen to promote the game in a nation crazy about cricket.
‘Cricket will be popular,’ he says. ‘It may be No. 1, but football is the fastest No. 2. And for this we need to thank [Indian Super League founder and chairperson] Nita Ambani. She single-handedly took the sport from nothing to something.’
John is deeply involved in the day-to-day management of the team, and he intends to keep it that way. ‘I’m not the kind who wears dark glasses and just sits in the stands and cheers for the team,’ he says.
His wife Priya handles the business side. ‘She is fabulous and I must say she has helped me save millions by giving me some good financial advice,’ he laughs. ‘She has brought a lot of stability and clarity to my life.’
John’s other passion is charity work. A staunch supporter of the National Association for the Blind India and Make a Wish Foundation, he is regularly involved in fund raising. ‘There have been times when I’ve received calls from them asking if I can stand in for Salman Khan or Hrithik Roshan, who have not been able to make it,’ he says. ‘I’m happy to do it because it truly gives me great joy to do something for these causes.’
Being a producer, what advice can he offer to newcomers?
‘If the actor belongs to a filmy family, I’d say, listen to your father or mother.
‘To others, I’d say, be clear about the kind of roles you’d like yourself to be cast in and meet those kind of directors. Have a dream and work towards it.’
John recalls the days when he was a model. ‘It was not easy,’ he says. ‘When I started off in the industry, I had just Rs550 in my bank account. But I had this fierce determination to make it happen.
‘I have the need to push myself to do more... to constantly better myself in whatever I do.
‘My advice is to pursue one’s dreams relentlessly. Do that and you will succeed. I often tell people, if a John Abraham can do it, you can. In an industry rife with nepotism and favouritism, I’ve managed to stick my neck out and make a mark. If I can, anyone can.’