Interview with Abhay Deol

To follow the Deol men would be one way of tracing Bollywood’s history. From Dharmendra, rarely allowed to dip into his deep well of comedic ability, to Sunny Deol, whose big battered body gave us a sweet-natured bull, forced into brutishness by a relentless world, time after time. Then, there was Bobby, askew enough to not quite fit into the dying genre of masala romance, too early for a cinema that fit him. When Bobby played an amiable young liar who discovers that much bigger crooks are cloaked by respectability in Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s Kareeb (1998) we had very little to say to it. A decade later, when cousin Abhay played a just as amiable crook in Oye Lucky Lucky Oye, we were ready to embrace Lucky, the terror just below the surface and the much sharper indictment of middle-class greed.

Thirty-two-year-old Abhay Deol is, in one sense, the physical embodiment of New Bollywood. His genetic heritage is big, goodlooking and smooth enough to draw the crowds. His acting chops strong enough to work with a range of clever young directors. It would seem that perhaps it’s his timing that’s right. Oye Lucky’s director Debakar Banerjee disagrees, “There is only one of Abhay. There should be many more. Right from the beginning, he has gone in search of directors who enjoy surprising their audiences. And at this stage, even for producers who think in terms of pure cash, he is a sound strategic choice. I think Abhay has created this space in the industry on his own.”

Anurag Kashyap, who likes to call Deol an early Johnny Depp, goes further. “Look at all the strange little movies that have come in the last few years. The only common link is Abhay. He’s resisted the pressure of the market and done what he wanted to do, unlike actors who do what they think they ought to do.”

DEOL HAS a quality of silly happiness that is infectious. Of all the strange young men he has played so far, Deol’s own personality is closest to the hopeful hero of his first film, Socha Na Tha. Deol’s other heroes have been fallible, corrupt, foolish. In Oye Lucky Lucky Oye, he’s no Robin Hood. In the shot where he’s awaiting capture in his expensive apartment, you see him surrounded by his tawdry spoils, hugging them the way Tim Burton’s Penguin communed with frozen fish — with desolate affection.

Even to journalists on the phone, Deol is without the guarded machismo of young stars, the carefully cultivated intensity meant to shorthand gravitas. But Deol’s charm lies in his vulnerability, his inability to disguise his wheedling. “Love me, love me” the undertone demands while he confides that growing up in the Deol family was like being a Von Trapp. He was the youngest of seven strictly brought-up Deol cousins. Outings were limited to family trips, and there was a blanket ban on late nights. The son of Dharmendra’s younger brother, producer Ajit Singh Deol, Abhay grew up calling Dharmendra ‘Dad’. “It sounds strange to outsiders. I grew up calling my parents, Ajit Uncle and Usha Aunty. But it never felt strange to me.”

His is the charm of the beloved baby of the family. To know that and then watch him in the movies doubles the pleasure. What on earth would this boy know of unhappiness or corruption or self-doubt? This really must be that strange thing: acting. Even Navdeep Singh, a close friend, thought he was too young to play Satyaveer, a man resigned to failure and life in small-town Rajasthan in Manorama Six Feet Under. Deol failed to convince him, then attempted another route. Shemaroo was interested in producing a film with Deol. Singh was looking for a producer. Deol made the project take off and put on Satyaveer’s moustache. The Satyaveer he became was to Singh’s great satisfaction.

More recently Deol saw a chance to play India’s heroin chic: the wan but cool lover, Devdas. Deol first dreamt up a contemporary Devdas set in Los Angeles. Scriptwriter Vikram Motwani, who worked on Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Devdas, liked the idea but asked him to read the original. “I told him that Devdas was not cool. He was alcoholic with tremors and shakes.” Convinced, Abhay brought energy to a grittier tale of addiction and obsession. Motwani wrote the first draft and took it to Anurag Kashyap. Kashyap’s draft is the forthcoming Dev D, set in Punjab and Delhi.

Deol’s directors and coworkers will tell you he will actively campaign for his scenes to be cut if it will improve the screenplay. Kashap says, “He’s not the kind of actor to hog the camera.” Deol likes movies more than being a star. He reads scripts slowly and thoroughly — and all the time. His film sensibilities are eclectic. “As far as film families go, we were fairly sheltered. But we did go to shoots to see Chacha. I remember going to the sets of Loha and seeing Mandakini. I remember watching Sholay and loving it. But the big moment was watching Star Wars and then Bladerunner. My brain exploded. Then I fell in love with Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. Terence Hill, Iranian films, all sorts of films.”

As an adult, Deol was confident that a more script-driven Bollywood would arrive. “I believed that there would be a change. I just had to work and it would happen.” After a few years abroad in film school, he was back in Mumbai looking for something different.

There was a familiar, relatively easy path awaiting Deol, but his six movies have all (except one) been with debut directors and small budgets. He has chased projects, read hundreds of scripts, wooed and seduced directors into carefully tailored movies rather than picked the one-size-fit-all star launch.

Motwani has known him since he was eight. “Hrithik Roshan’s launch changed the industry’s idea of a launch. Abhay has resisted pressure to go in that direction. It’s hard to watch people your age get high profile movies, more publicity, more money and not give in.”

He found it in Socha Na Tha, persuading the startled Imtiaz Ali, whose first film it was, to meet the formidable Deols, who were keen on producing it. It was in that strange little romantic comedy where Deol and Ayesha Takia wander around as if they know something no one else does, that Deol started out.

“Socha Na Tha looked like Bollywood, but it was only in disguise.” Much like him, one would imagine. Though the response to Deol was positive right from Socha Na Tha, few of his movies were big commercial successes. Deol’s biggest frustration has been the lack of wholehearted marketing of small films. That has changed with Oye Lucky and Dev D.

But Deol confesses he can’t imagine being a regular hero. “I’m too shy to dance. I don’t want to seem stuck up and arrogant, so if it is absolutely necessary I will do it to keep the peace. But most directors would see that I am uncomfortable.” He prefers the quirky and even powerless to the spectacular and heroic. “Everyone in the audience would empathise with the vulnerability of someone like Satyaveer. He isn’t super clean but he has some principles. He can’t take revenge on goondas. He can’t beat anyone up.”

What a revolutionary thing for a Deol to say, “He can’t beat anybody up.” In Abhay you see the alter-lives of the other Deols, a Sunny who’s actually beaten by the world’s inequities, a Bobby who gets to be the oddball, a Dharmendra who gets to deliver cheesy one-liners with relish and a handsome smirk.

Published here.

Related links: 

Bollywood in 2007

Interview with Navdeep Singh

Interview with Imtiaz Ali


Lucky, lucky you ;-)

February 2, 2009 at 11:30 PM  

Memsaab, will you watch Luck by Chance and tell me what you think? I like it and I am on the losing team.

February 3, 2009 at 6:34 AM  

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