By Puja Talwar
An actor who has often been called a disruptor when it comes to his film choices, Abhay Deol is the man who walks his talk. An outlier in the industry, one who was never lured by the seductive charm of the film industry. Determined to forge his path, though it came with its set challenges and hurdles, Abhay Deol managed to carve a niche for himself. His groundbreaking performances in films such as Manorama Six Feet Under, Oye Lucky Lucky Oye, and Dev D won his applause and critical acclaim.
In conversation with Face Magazine, the actor gets candid about this two-decade journey in Bollywood, career choices and plans.
- Describe Abhay Deol The Actor and Person In One word Abhay Deol: Flow Or Flowing.
It has been two decades of you as an actor, in critically acclaimed films such as Manorama Six Feet Under, Dev D, Zindagi Milegi Na Doobara, and Oye Lucky Oye. Has your process changed? What’s been your biggest learning in these two decades as the industry and audience have both gone through an evolution?
Abhay Deol: My process has not necessarily changed, but it has grown and expanded. Change is natural, so whether it is my process of getting into character, or it is the audience and their taste that has changed as well. I am constantly learning. One does not know everything, so I have opened myself to expanding and learning in every way. I suppose in these two decades, the films I was making when I started, there was no market for them and it was really hard to make, distribute and exhibit those movies. Even today if Manorama Six Feet Under, Dev D, Oye Lucky Oye”, was to be released today, they would look contemporary. It is good that what I was doing 15 years ago is accepted. Today, I have moved beyond that. Part of my process is in pushing the envelope or raising the bar and challenging myself. For me, creativity and art are about testing the system, the creative and commercial thought. Therefore what I want to make today ironically, just like what I wanted to make then, the environment for that, does not exist.
What has changed.. is me! I am accepting and embracing the popular thought, of consumerism, I don’t fight that anymore. I embrace it because, I still want to create what is true to me, and express what is authentic to me, but am not fighting the system to have them create or make change or make space for someone like myself, because I have grown to understand one man alone cannot fight the system, which I did! I got what I wanted, I am thankful for that. But, if you continue fighting it will consume you, so now I am practising diplomacy and have become part of the system to change it from the inside. It is a slower process, but there is an evolution there. As long as you are rebelling against the system, it’s about you and it’s great for you as a person, but it has its limitations! But, if you can become part of it and add your creativity to the larger community, then it is no longer about you, you are silently making the changes from the background and that’s what I am today, trying to keep the light off of myself and shining it on the industry and the people around me.”
- Is there a method to your craft, how do you get under the skin of your characters and which one was the most challenging one to play to date?
Abhay Deol: Every character has a different process for me. For example, the most difficult was Krishnan from Shanghai. He is a Tamil Brahmin, a South Indian based in Maharashtra, and speaks Hindi with a Tamil accent. Usually, when I play a character close to my background, like the character in Zindagi Milegi Na Dobara, who was pretty close to myself, he is urban, privileged and all those things and comedy is also something I enjoy. So it is all about playing and timing with your co-stars, that’s very much the process. But, with Shanghai, I had to be older, put on an accent and create the process of getting that accent, because we do not have a set up of accent training in our country, like someone specialising in accent training, which is largely due to Hindi cinema stereotyping people from different communities. So this was difficult and because it was tough, it was challenging and fun. When it is easy, I walk through it, but when it is hard, it challenges me and I like that.
I work on different things for different people, it also depends on the mood and tonality of the movie. For example, In Manorama, where he is a public works department engineer, he is kicked out for corruption. He is also a budding novelist who has written this pulpy detective novel and aspires to be an artist. There was a certain isolation that the film presented, being in the desert, the dryness, and the pulpiness. I like to get the tone of the film and play up to that. My character was dry, isolated, and had a suppressed passion within him, all that came out from the script and how it was to look. I also try to find something I could relate to the character. None of the characters are me, but you need to find something you can relate to, so you can find a door to work with that person you are playing.. I could relate to his ambition of Lucky in “Oye Lucky, Lucky Oye”, he could get anything he wanted and at any expense. For me, those days were all about changing the industry and the narrative. Finding subjects to make movies on, the people I chose to work with. I knew it was ambitious of me to try and make that change all by myself in 2006 -2012. I saw that in Lucky, who just wanted to get rich at any expense, he knew he would somehow get it, he was that sure of himself. I took that similarity between us and played that out into the character.
Dev D was my concept and treatment, it was close to my heart. When I narrated it to Anurag Kashyap, he understood that I understood the character. He let me be me, allowed me to play it as I knew it, he barely even directed me. For Dev D, I dug into my memories of a time when I was obsessed with someone. There was a phase of self-destruction, and I decided to dig into my memories. It has to be authentic, the emotions for me are not rehearsed. Even with dialogue, I don’t necessarily have them mugged up before I get on set. Through blocking on set and reading it a few times with my co-actor and directors I learned my lines… When they say Action! I allow that moment to define myself as the character, it could be coming from how my co-actor responds or reacts to me, or a new thought that comes to me as I am doing it. It is a very multifaceted process.
- From films to digital, you have been leading web series, is there a medium you particularly enjoy over the others?
Abhay Deol: I like film, it is a short-term commitment for me. Also, I get to play a character for a few months as opposed to a few years, also I have only ever done limited series. I didn’t want to come back year after year to play the same person, that would get difficult for me. But even though I would choose films over shows, I do like the content on OTT platforms more than movies since the OTT platforms experiment much more than cinema because they have an unlimited digital space, they can afford to make all sorts of products. But for film, which is cinematic, they play in cinema and are less likely to make changes and experiment. But the OTT platforms can make popular as well as offbeat cinema. It happened in Hollywood too, you started seeing varied subjects and soon all good dramas and shows moved to OTT because it offered you more freedom than the cinematic space did. In Hollywood you saw people of color leading shows, subjects were being tackled in a way Hollywood had not before and the same things were being tackled in Bollywood as well. But it is a little less now since they are playing it safe. But the spirit of the OTT platform came as the disruptive force in the business, ideation and creative space, it was also new technology, even though they are restricted now.
- You have often been called the thinking woman’s sex symbol, how do you react to that?
Abhay Deol. I have always reacted to that, saying hope they don’t think twice. I don’t know what to say, I don’t play up to being someone sexually desirable. I have always played characters who are rooted, real and relatable. My last show was “ Trial By Fire ” of a regular average husband and a father of two kids who goes from 39 to 59. So I am a bit surprised how a sex symbol tag came onto me because I have never played up to it. But I don’t mind it and complaining at all. I have some films coming up so I may play up to it more than I have been so far.
- You are known to speak your mind, especially in an industry where people are so conscious about their image. What does the image mean to you and also being sincere about who you are?
Abhay Deol: I have not consciously tried to create an image, I didn’t even have a PR for the first seven years of my career. I am aware I have an image of one who makes Indie films, takes chances with new ideas/ directors, and someone who challenges the system… So my image was created out of my actions. I was trying to find my space in the industry and stay authentic to myself. I was idealistic. They say ignorance is bliss. I felt I could challenge the system on my own and come out fine. I am not saying I didn’t make an impact. I did make one. But, you have to realise you are not doing it for a self-serving purpose, there is a larger vision of the society, and you have to find another way. It is not about the applause you get, but the changes you make. The image of the diplomat works better for me today because I feel I can bring change and create more movement as a diplomat… There is pressure on actors to create an image and hold on to it. Let it be natural, let it flow, I don’t like to work on creating an image, for me, it is the natural product of my actions
- You did a course in welding, you are an artist as well. What are your hobbies and a skill you want to learn?
Abhay Deol: I love to paint and draw. It is drawing I am interested in, even as a child I had a very clean hand. Painting is something I would like to put more energy into and improve those skills. My hobbies are all in the creative field, and I plan to do some more drawing and painting.
- You are also known for your sartorial fashion choices, what is fashion for you?
Abhay Deol: Fashion for me is the ease with which you dress up, without trying too hard. Also as the climate changes and the planet is getting polluted, fashion needs to catch up to that and start defining the times we live in. Start using materials that are planet friendly, to me would be fashion. However fashion these days is all about consumerism, cheap products, and quick and easy delivery. I don’t follow fashion. I like to dress comfortably. I like dressing up. For a formal occasion, I will wear a suit, but I don’t spend too much time and effort thinking about my fashion, or what’s trendy out there. If fashion suddenly as a community came together and said we are going to recycle and use planet-friendly products, that’s when I would notice fashion.
- You have moved away from the hustle and bustle of Mumbai to Goa.. and also spend your time in Los Angeles. How has that panned out?
Abhay Deol: I love my life in Goa, I have a beautiful house and could not be more grateful for the same. I found a great location and built my home. Los Angeles is also home, I have family in the State of California and a community of friends. I executively produced films there, I love festivals and live music, the United States offers a lot of that, and I participated in many too, like Burning Man. Also just moving away from a country where yay are a public face, and cannot go out without being recognised. I don’t mind meeting people and getting clicked, but you are always aware and reminded of who you are. Whereas abroad I am anonymous, and people talk to me for who I am, and not movies of mine that they have seen. It is nice to be just average, and it allows me to grow as a person and offers me experiences which help me as an actor, by keeping it real so to speak. I can do things I enjoy, I love live music, drawing and travelling. I take off on road trips and you cannot have it better as in the United States, and just stepping away from the hustle and bustle of Mumbai, the industry and not talking about films all the time. I have very good friends who are mostly filmmakers because this is the community I relate to. But even though I don’t have a varied circle apart from the film industry, what Los Angeles gave me was people from all over the world and different backgrounds, which makes my life experiences more special.
In Goa I turn into a hermit, my house is my huge cave, and I entertain people, and invite friends, something I rarely do in Mumbai, living in an apartment. Goa is green and clean, it’s quiet and gives me peace, whilst LA offers me stimulation, Bombay is family and work, and I love my people there.
- If you were to meet your 20-year-old self what is the one advice you would want to give him? And what is the one thing that your 20-year-old self would not have believed given your journey?
Abhay Deol: One advice I would give my 20-year-old self is, to calm down! Too much passion is also not a good thing. Be smart, and play smart rather than wearing your heart on your sleeve. But play smart, what you are striving for is good, but you do not need to take everything happening around you on your shoulders. Sure, do it but temper the passion. Controlling your passion does not mean you are compromising on it. And what my 20-year-old would not believe is, me saying this, given my journey so far. But I would reiterate this to my younger self if I met him. Calm down, you have the ambition to make change, but don’t get so taken in that it may harm you. By being sincere, honest and wearing your heart on your sleeve, you will be taken advantage of by those very people, whom you have been supportive of and will have fingers pointed at you. Nothing is in black and white, for those in power and those who are under their power, there are shades of grey, and nothing is as it seems.
I would have not expected myself at 20 to say these things to myself. Great you have been a rebel, you needed to do it and get it out of your system, but diplomacy is key. A Rebel in my 20s and 30s and a diplomat in my 40s would shock the 20-year-old me.
RAPID FIRE ROUND:
- The last book you read?
Abhay Deol: Babaji and The 18 Siddhas
- A movie you wish you had starred in?
Abhay Deol: Dr Strange Love, all three parts that Peter Sellers played.
- A place you want to visit?
Abhay Deol: Hmm, S America! Brazil let’s go with Mexico City, I want to head there.
- Favourite Genre?
Abhay Deol: A Dark Comedy!