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 did not make girls swoon, or send young men rushing to the gyms. Very few took an instant liking to him. “The most common reaction to him was surprise. He was unlike any other ‘hero’. It would take him a few years to be accepted,” says Ali. He followed up Socha Na Tha with Ahista Ahista, a romantic film written by Ali, which was quickly forgotten.
In Bollywood, where lineage alone can open doors for actors, Deol was a newcomer without any sense of entitlement. The nephew of actor Dharmendra, and cousin to Sunny and Bobby Deol, he could have opted for the safe route and cashed in on the family name and clout. He chose to chart his own path. His first film was an unconventional love story, with impulsive characters. His Viren fell in and out of love before he realised where his heart lay and made a decision. Today, this is the template for many love stories like Shuddh Desi Romance and Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani, and coming-of-age films. Socha Na Tha tanked but didn’t go entirely unnoticed. “The big producers were eager to sign on Imtiaz and Ayesha (Takia), but I was offered the third-twit-in-the-group kind of roles in sex comedies. Maybe because I wasn’t melodramatic and looked a certain way, (I was) not attractive perhaps,” Deol says of his early days, when we meet him a few weeks before the release of One By Two. He is candid and doesn’t evade the uncomfortable questions. He smiles easily but clearly doesn’t suffer fools.
When the two films failed, there was a fair bit of pressure on Deol to sign a few commercial films, and then use his market viability to pursue the cinema he wanted. But Hindi cinema was changing, and Deol realised that there were like-minded filmmakers hustling for a break, many of whom wanted to look beyond the formula. He decided to take the risk. The move paid off. “By making unconventional choices in films and characters, be it the loser lover and addict in Anurag Kashyap’s Dev.D, a charming thief from Delhi milieu in Dibakar Banerjee’s dark comedy Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! and a young man who undertakes a physical journey in order to find himself in Road, Movie, he created a loyal fan base for himself among the urban Indian youth,” says Kamal Gianchandani, president, PVR Pictures, a company that has distributed and exhibited many of Deol’s films in the past. It also produced Dibakar Banerjee’s political thriller Shanghai, in which Deol aced the role of the TamBrahm bureaucrat, TA Krishnan.
In contrast, his more recent choices have been mystifyingly tame, suggesting a half-hearted attempt at mainstream acceptability. Deol himself dismissed his 2010 release Aisha, a modern take on Jane Austen’s Emma, as a film that focussed more on clothes than on acting. In Chakravyuh, Prakash Jha’s film on Naxalism, he tried to make up for the critically-acclaimed Shanghai’s average box-office response, but it was a patchy film on a serious issue. It failed to impress and, to his fans, felt like a compromise. Deol acknowledges the missteps, and says, “The directors I worked with, who made a debut with me, are all busy but I seem to be out of work.”
Director Devika Bhagat’s One By Two has been the worst of those missteps. Deol believes it’s as alternative as Dev.D, “only repackaged to make it more commercial.” Few are buying that argument. With films such as Ship of Theseus, The Lunchbox and Shahid having found acclaim in the last year, there are few takers for a half-baked love story. Could it be that the alternative Hindi film scene has moved on, leaving Deol out in the cold?
Dibakar Banerjee warns against writing Deol off just yet. “Which actor doesn’t face a slump? Didn’t Aamir Khan have one before he reinvented himself? Or Salman Khan before his recent string of hits?” he says. Few other actors can boast of a repertoire like Deol’s, he says. “No other young actor could have pulled off films as diverse as Dev.D, Shanghai, Ek Chalis Ki Last Local and Socha Na Tha.” Banerjee cast Deol for Oye Lucky because he found in him a “naturalness”. He found him good-looking and suave but also someone who could act the ordinary guy.
Having known him since his early years, the director says that his lineage makes it easy for people to overlook Deol’s initial years of struggle. “Coming from within the establishment, he chose to defy it, reason enough for him to face hostility from within the industry. Had he been just another boy from Delhi, we may have rooted for him a little more,” Banerjee says. Deol is also a loner, unwilling to side with any power clique.
It doesn’t help that Deol chooses to speak his mind, ruffling feathers in the process. Recently, he used a public platform to fight for the royalty rights of One By Two’s music composers, taking on T-Series, even if it meant damaging the box-office performance of his film. No other actor came out in their support.
Deol chooses to ignore how his own contemporaries, children of stars who he grew up with, mock him in private, dismissing it as a reaction to his rebellion. He is eager, instead, to talk about his struggle to find and support the cinema he liked. “When Socha Na Tha and Ahista Ahista failed to help my career, instead of waiting in the wings, I went out in search for scripts I’d have liked to do,” he says.
First-time director Sanjay Khanduri was looking for an actor for his pacey thriller set in the backdrop of Mumbai’s local train network. Deol sought him out, as well as got in touch with Navdeep Singh, who wanted a 40-something to play an amateur detective and father to a five-year-old. Ek Chalis Ki Last Local and Manorama Six Feet Under would become his first few “cult classics”. Recounting how he had to almost arm-twist Singh into casting him, Deol says with a laugh, “It was only because I was bringing the producer on board that Navdeep agreed, albeit reluctantly.”
Dev.D, similarly, came to him because the film’s idea was his. “He has the mindset of a producer and a vision for cinema. That sets him apart from other actors who have since arrived on the indie film scene, such as Nawaz or Rajkummar Rao,” says director-producer Vikas Bahl, who was heading UTV Spotboy when it produced Dev.D.
Deol says that one of the reasons why he finds himself out of work is perhaps because he didn’t build on his successes. “I didn’t market myself every time my films did well. I wasn’t even in the country when Dev.D released, instead opting to pursue a course in metallurgy at a foreign university,” he says. Now, with the zombie comedy Rock the Shaadi aborted halfway, and his Hollywood debut Singularity awaiting release, and no projects of his liking coming his way, Deol says he has no choice but to take to production. “Once again, I am doing what I did earlier, looking for scripts and new directors who are willing to take risks. The films that I may not be able to do as an actor, I can always produce. The idea is to push the envelope for Indian cinema.”
This time, though, Deol might not find it easy to fit into the small films that suit his sensibility. The head of an established production house, who didn’t wish to be named, points out an important reason why Deol is where he is. “He is a star and comes at a certain budget. Many of his earlier directors have moved on, either opting for safer scripts or by casting bigger stars to make their experimental projects more viable. The only directors still willing to take risks are newbies and they may not be able to afford him. So they go for performers, which is how the industry discovers newer, talented actors,” he says. Deol might have priced himself out.
But Deol remains unfazed and secure as an actor, which is probably what led him to take on Zoya Akhtar’s Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara and Shanghai, aware that those weren’t the author-backed roles.
Neither is he rattled by competition from emerging actors. “Which actor gets the independence and finances to make the kind of cinema he wants? Yes, Ship of Theseus was an experiment and succeeded, but which of those actors will bag a lead role?” he says. Would he have done such a film if it came to him? If he had, he says he would have been put in a box again. “I still want to be commercially saleable,” he says.
Banerjee, who says he is very keen to work with Deol again, calls it the industry’s failing that he hasn’t found the right roles. Quoting from an interview of Christian Bale’s, Banerjee points out that actors are the most helpless people in the industry. If a film succeeds because of their talent, it is hailed as the film’s success, but if a film fails for whatever reason, it becomes a measure of the actor’s viability at the box office. “It’s what has happened with Abhay too. An actor of such range and talent, had he been in Hollywood, he would have pulled off films such as Boys Don’t Cry, Matt Damon’s role in Courage Under Fire, mixed it with a Dude Where’s My Car, Requiem for a Dream, Bourne Identity, The Prestige and The Artist.”
There are others, too, who believe in Deol, and that he hasn’t lost his loyal fan base. “He is a brand by himself, what with the social causes he supports. His standing isn’t about his cinema alone but also the promise of intelligence and doing what is right — something that resonates with the youth. It’s what brought the audience to
the theatres on the first day of One By Two’s release. Aamir Khan is the other actor who enjoys this kind of goodwill,” says Gianchandani.
No one will contend with the fact that Deol is a thorough professional, who roots for cinema. He says he doesn’t want to be the face of festival films or remain a poster boy of alternate cinema. “I just want to be able to make films. I want to be a star only because I want to make movies, not so I can be a star,” he says. The fans of the Talented Mr Deol would say amen to that.