It’s a day for thick blankets, warm beverages and black-and-white movies. But it’s a working day.
Abhay Deol is getting a dash of foundation at the rain-lashed beachfront Sun N Sand hotel in Juhu in North Mumbai ahead of a television interview about his upcoming romantic comedy Happy Bhaag Jayegi. Outside, waves swell and crash. Inside, phones buzz with apocalyptic warnings of the showers that lie ahead, and Deol is trying to get the hotel WiFi to work.
The 39-year-old-actor retains his boyishness and good cheer that almost masks an unmistakable brooding quality. Happy Bhaag Jayegi isn't exactly a comeback for the actor – Deol appeared in One By Two in 2014, which he co-produced, and Raanjhana in 2013. But Mudassar Aziz’s August 19 release might be the gamechanger that the charismatic actor needs to convince producers that he is very much around. His filmography remains as slim as his frame, prompting admirers of the offbeat movies he headlined in the mid-2000s to frequently ask, “Whatever happened to Abhay Deol?”
In the peppy trailer of Happy Bhaag Jayegi, Deol looks like he is having fun as he plays Bilal Ahmed, a wealthy Lahore resident who becomes the unwilling host of a runaway bride Happy (Diana Penty). She has escaped her wedding to the man played by Jimmy Shergil and landed up across the border. “Bilal Ahmed is an obedient son to his politician dad, he is refined and charming and finds himself displaced in his world,” Deol said about his character. “Bilal has not had the courage to stand up for himself. I had to dig deep in the very first scene he is in – I had just five or ten minutes before he meets Happy and then loses it.
Deol has previously played the upper-crust conflicted nice guy in Aisha (2010) and Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (2011). He wears the threads and mildly exasperated manner well. But it is his scruffier and shambolic screen self that singled him out as perhaps the most unusual scion of his illustrious film family. Deol’s father, Ajay Singh Deol, acted in a few Punjabi films but his uncle is nothing short of legend. Dharmendra cast such a huge shadow over the movies between the 1950s and the ’80s that even his actor sons, Sunny and Bobby, fell short. Sunny Deol fashioned himself as an action hero, while Bobby Deol never really hit his stride. When Abhay Deol took the plunge in 2005, he played a soft-hearted romantic hero opposite Ayesha Takia in Imtiaz Ali’s debut Socha Na Tha.
The films starring Abhay Deol in 2007 and 2008 didn’t just define his screen persona, they also marked the beginning of a brief-lived trend of individualistic narrative styles and unconventional themes made by young filmmakers and featuring relatively lesser-known actors or rank new faces. Less an enduring movement than an extended moment, this cinematic development paved the way for the midstream dramas and comedies that now show up regularly on the screens every Fridays alongside the star-heavy blockbusters and gossamer romances.
Deol was there as early as 2007, in Manorama Six Feet Under. Loosely based on Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, Navdeep Singh’s Manorama Six Feet Under is a favourite of Abhay Deol cultists. In 2008 and 2009, Deol made two more films that defined the Hindi indie moment – Dibakar Banerjee’s crime caper Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! and Anurag Kashyap’s Devdas riff Dev.D. Each of these movies featured Deol in various stages of dishevelled manhood, and each of them marked him out as the poster child of this initiative to tell stories in a fresh way.
Where did it disappear? Deol has thought about it long and hard enough to have a detailed explanation. “This cinema kind of died down the reasons because it was never a movement, it was mainly individual efforts,” he said. “These filmmakers were being true to themselves and making something they believed in, but they never really got down to creating a foundation where we could all support each other. We didn’t have the salons of the Impressionists, where we could exchange notes. We are a highly competitive industry, and we are barely able to help ourselves, let alone others. It’s like the NFDC [National Film Development Corporation] cinema – as soon as the support went away, those films died.”
The industry’s leading studios quickly swooped down on the talent these films were throwing up¸ and they provided the financial and marketing muscle need to extend the reach of future iterations beyond the converted few. In the process, the Hindi indie became less strange and more familiar, less off-the-wall and more mainstream. A cruel answer to “Whatever happened to Abhay Deol?” is “Ranbir Kapoor.” A more saleable film scion replaced a riskier proposition.
Anurag Kashyap and Dibakar Banejee gave Deol some of his most indelible roles, but they moved onto other actors even as they expanded their canvasses. If Deol feels left behind by his fellow travellers, he doesn’t betray it. “Ultimately that is not for me to judge – I may personally feel left out because of my career, but that’s about it,” he said. “If the filmmakers are being pressured by studios to take a certain actor, it’s possible that the movie would not have moved at all if they had refused. Maybe they wanted to turn into star directors – it’s not for me judge them.”
It might also have been a mistake for Deol to leave Mumbai for New York City in 2009 just when Dev.D was earning him raves and expanding his fanbase. Deol took off to learn welding at the Arts Students League of New York. One of the reasons he gave for his flight was that he wanted to get the gruelling experience of shooting Dev.D, in which he plays an alcoholic and a drifter, out of his system. The Hindi film industry cherishes momentum and economic progress, and regards a break at a career peak as a sign of nerves. Deol’s subsequent films, including Dev Benegal’s arthouse feature Road, Movie (2010), Banerjee’s Shanghai (2012) and Prakash Jha’s Chakyavyuh (2012), levelled out the early rush of glory and fame.
“It might have been a mistake career wise, but not personally,” Deol said. “It was a moment of self-reflection, and you cannot regret anything when you can’t do anything about it. I got a lot from being by myself.”
Acting is a tricky profession, packed with risk, success, failure and uncertainty, he added. “You can’t put a number to risk,” Deol said. “It’s an insecure place, it’s not a nine to five job with guarantees. You learn only when you have gone through it.” Despite burning his finger with production – One By Two in 2014 was a flop – he will jump off the cliff again once he has wrapped up his forthcoming assignments. “It was an enlightening experience, and I would have wasted it if I don’t produce again.”
Though Deol would actually fit right into the new midstream cinema, he is leery of the new dysfunctional dramas and offbeat romances that have caught the box office’s fancy. “The change we are seeing now is superficial – there is somewhat better writing and production values, but the real change will come when you have actors who don’t conform to the conventional look,” he pointed out. “All the actors feel compelled to dance like a dream and have an eight-pack body. Can we have someone who is not known for dance and body but still be a star? That is when the change will happen.”
He is known for neither musculature nor happy feet, and yet, somewhere, there is still an Abhay Deol fanbase that wants to see him in films that showcases his unusual skills. “I am told that my stuff is different, that I don’t do enough films,” he said about he thinks his fans expect from him. “I am told that that I make thought-provoking content – that even when it’s a comedy, it is driven by character and situations. Every film must be different from each other and there must be something original beyond the formula.”
Might Happy Bhaag Jayegi be the deal breaker and help Deol fit into the new kind of Hindi movie? Its producer, Krishika Lulla, is upbeat about the film’s prospects. “I have always wanted to give audiences a rooted kind of cinema, one that they can connect with,” she said. Happy Bhaag Jayegi, which she calls a “run-com”, is “simple and sweet cinema” that deals with an Indo-Pak situation without getting into treacherous politics.
For Deol, his character is an added opportunity to collaborate with artists across the borders – the movie also stars Pakistani actors Javed Sheikh and his real-life daughter, Momal Sheikh. Lahore has been recreated in Chandigarh for the production. “I hope that this film will prove that artists should be allowed to collaborate no matter what the situation between the two countries,” Deol said. “Culturally we were the same for thousands of years, and 70 years [since independence] is not going to take away. When we are in America, we are all brown people facing the same issues.”
Future assignments for Deol seem to come in the ones and twos, but he has always worked that way. He has signed another movie that will be announced soon, and he is looking at another script. “I have always had the confidence that I can come back,” he said. “You can strike a balance only when you go from one extreme to another. You need patience and you need to make mistakes. Right now, I am not being as extremist as before, but I am not being a sell-out either.” His devotees would not want it any other way.