In 2007, Abhay Deol approached several producers with an idea for a film. A contemporising of Sarat Chandra Chatterjee’s classic of unrequited love, Devdas, but transplanted from Bengal to north India, where a yuppie Punjabi Dev loses himself in the drug haze of Paharganj. “They would tell me that such films get made in Europe, but India won’t buy this,” he says. When no other pitch worked, Deol would remind them that the story of Devdas simply had to resonate with Indians — as it had many times in the the past. “It’s Devdas, I would say and in a split second, the film would go [in their mind] from being alternate to commercial,” he says.
When Dev.D was ultimately made and released in 2009, with UTV Spotboy as a producer and Anurag Kashyap as director, its spunky women and narcissistic hero spoke to a new generation. It walked the thin line between critical acclaim and commercial viability. A line that Abhay Deol continues to tread.
Only, of late, he has been faltering.
If he seemed tired of his roles in Chakravyuh and Raanjhana, his latest turn in One By Two, as a rom-com hero with a flatulence problem, has left his fans aghast, and his critics smirking. A few hours after the film hit the screens on January 31, a news website published an “open letter” from a disappointed fan, ruing that the “coolest actor” had acted in and produced “a sleepy, boring film”.
Deol, whose best films — from Manorama Six Feet Under to Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! and Shanghai — embody the free-spirited challenge of a new wave of independent filmmakers to Bollywood’s gaudy formulas, is now without work. The 38-year-old actor is in neither of Dibakar Banerjee or Anurag Kashyap or Imtiaz Ali’s new projects, nor in the wish-list of newer directors like Anand Gandhi and Ritesh Batra.
Abhay Deol grew up in a close-knit, joint family of Punjabi actors in Mumbai. He was the youngest of the cousins, who grew up watching the Hollywood films his uncle Dharmendra and cousin Sunny would bring back home from their travels. It started from there, he says. His discovery of cinema continued on his own, as he grew out of films like Star Wars and Blade Runner to devour Spanish and Iranian films. When he went to Los Angeles to study fine arts after his graduation, it wasn’t easy to convince his family to let him go. He was supposed to be back in three months but managed to stay on for three years, enrolling in a two-year acting course at The City College of New York. It opened up his world even more, exposing him to alternative music and cinema.
In 2005, when Deol made his acting debut with Imtiaz Ali’s first film, Socha Na Tha, he continued…