Releasing on the lucrative holiday season of Diwali, the much-hyped Shivaay is a personal film for Ajay Devgn in a way that none of his other projects in the immediate past have been and not merely because he has directed it. For daddy Devgn (he has a 13-year-old daughter), Shivaay is as much a story about a father-daughter bond as it is an action bonanza. From what one can glean from Ajay Devgn’s recent interviews, it combines two qualities or themes that have defined the star through and through – an emotional quotient (think Zakhm, Company and Omkara) to unleash the powerful actor in him and to let the “eyes do the talking” and action-packed adventurism that has become his selling point since his entry into Bollywood in 1991 with a famous aerobics-on-a-motorbike stunt scene from Phool Aur Kaante.
Besides being a labour of love, Shivaay is important for the star in other respects too. He is in desperate need of a hit, much more as a director than actor. The unimpressive U Me Aur Hum was his last (and first) directorial outing, nearly eight years ago. Shivaay comes at a time when the actor-turned-director is reeling under the weight of commercial flops like Drishyam and Action Jackson. Earlier, Devgn had hit a new low with Himmatwala until he was resuscitated by Rohit Shetty with Singham Returns in 2014. The grouse against Devgn seems to be that he delivers blockbusters only when teamed up with hit-maker Rohit Shetty. There, too, the choice is limited. You opt for the masala cop drama of Singham or the slapstick Golmaal series. Either way, the audience will see cars blowing up – entirely unnecessarily – on screen.
With Shivaay, Devgn is taking no chances. You can see the extent to which he has gone to make a film he had originally envisioned. It has a cast from all over the world, though Devgn is its mainstay and the biggest star in the film’s firmament. No wonder, the 47-year-old star is leading from the front with all his clout and force. With a mind-boggling budget and unprecedented scale, the film ticks all the Diwali tent-pole boxes.
In what is being billed as a major showdown, Shivaay is up against another biggie, Karan Johar’s multi-starrer Ae Dil Hai Mushkil. Both films are opening on October 28. This is not the first time Devgn is clashing with another top filmmaker on Diwali. In 2012, he mounted a bitter legal fight against Yash Chopra’s Jab Tak Hai Jaan. Diwali 2012 saw a box-office war between Devgn’s Son of Sardaar and SRK-starrer Jab Tak Hai Jaan but a sympathy wave in the wake of Yash Chopra’s death ensured his last film was a minor success.
Those who know Devgn claim that he had always been curious about the technical side of cinema. That he would turn director someday was a foregone conclusion. What had many wondering though was that what took him so long to take the plunge. He made U Me Aur Hum a full 17 years after making his acting debut. As action director Veeru Devgn’s son, cinema was in his blood. For a boy who practically spent his childhood on film sets, Ajay Devgn was always driven by a compulsion to tell stories. So interested was the young lad in the direction that it is widely rumoured that he ghost-directed several of his early films, a la Aamir Khan. Devgn never denied the charge. In 2014, talking to Forbes India, he said, “While I may have achieved a lot as an actor, I am equally serious as a director. I have helped a lot of people with their films without taking credit for it.” Few know that his early experiences on a film set were in the backstage role of an assistant director. By 11, he already knew a thing or two about film editing. At 18, he assisted Shekhar Kapur. By 22, he was a hot new star on the block.
Over the years, Devgn has created his own market surviving the onslaught of the Khans and Kumars. From a ‘serious’ actor to an entertainer, he has come a long way. A reclusive Devgn who once shunned the press is now comfortable with all the attention. The awkward hinterland hero of the 90s was quick to realise an image overhaul was needed. Zakhm, Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, and Company can be counted as major turning points, after which he deftly positioned himself as a sophisticated urban star. All along, action has been vital to his success but he has also proved that he’s more than just an action hero by surprising everyone with his comic turn in the Golmaal franchise. Before that, we saw glimpses of his comic chops in Ishq. But none of this, coupled with the fact that Devgn’s off-screen persona is that of a prankster and regular fun guy, can convince the media otherwise. It has already slotted him for his masculinity and unconventionality. ‘Intense’ and ‘brooding’ are most film reporters’ stock adjectives in describing the star with the smouldering eyes. Devgn himself has rejected attempts at portraying him that way.
For now, the Singham star may be hoping that those eyes work their magic. But in the end, Shivaay is banking not just on Devgn’s star profile but also on his key strengths as a technician of cinema. Although it’s harsh and unfair to judge him on the basis of just one directorial film past records suggest he’s a better actor than director. But one is always open to be proved wrong.
(Shaikh Ayaz is a writer and journalist based in Mumbai.)