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Thursday, September 28, 2023

John Abraham: Bollywood’s One-Man ‘Force’ of Talent

A chiselled physique, heart-warming smile and an incredibly humbled persona… What’s there not to admire about John Abraham?

Since he began his career, John has done diverse films ranging from the mainstream ‘masala’ space to the non-mainstream cinema. He has explored it all.

John’s choice of roles makes his filmography stand out from the rest and perhaps it is his eye for Avant-garde scripts which has contributed to the diverse projects releasing under his production house – JA Entertainment.

Of recent, the actor can be said to be in a happy space, given the success of his films like Parmanu, Satyameva Jayate and most recently, Romeo Akbar Walter.

After doing an array of serious action thrillers, John is set to tickle the funny bones once again in Anees Bazmee’s Pagalpanti, with Arshad Warsi, Anil Kapoor, Pulkit Samrat, Ileana D’Cruz and Urvashi Rautela, to name a few.

Whilst shooting in London, Filme Shilmy caught up with John Abraham to have a candid conversation about what determines his film choices as an actor and producer.

You’ve been in the UK shooting for Pagalapanti. How has that experience been for you so far?

It’s been interesting and challenging at times. We started shooting in Leeds during February where the temperatures were quite low.

Whilst shooting here in London, the temperatures have been about okay. I think our best days were Easter where the temperature was 26 degrees.

But it has been fun. I’ve done four very serious films back-to-back so doing a comedy movie like Pagalpanti is a detox in itself.

I really am enjoying my space right now.

It’s been a while since we’ve seen you in a comical role. What has it been like to do a comedy after back-to-back action/thriller films?

An honest answer would be very difficult, especially in the first 2/3 days to come to terms with the fact that I’m doing a film where you’re free-flowing and goofy.

From doing a dark character like in Satyameva Jayate to a role who hides behind Arshad Warsi and Ileana D’Cruz, where I’m the most frightened guy in town, it’s been a paradigm shift.

Let me tell you, comedy is like a drug. The minute you do it, you enjoy it so much that you don’t want to do anything else.

It spoils you. However, having said that, it’s the toughest genre to do.

I always say that it is easier to make people cry and hold the audience.

But the most difficult thing to do is to make people laugh.

Following the successes of recent films, it seems like your career is going through a good phase. Do you feel this has been a long time coming?

When I first came into the industry in 2003, good acting was often associated with being loud and garish on-screen.

If you look back at the films many of the actors did during that time and try to show it to the world today, one would laugh at it and say “that’s garish.”

Whereas the roles that I chose were very subtle and people didn’t quite understand what it was quite about.

They just correlated it to me being a model and bracketed me as solely that.

It became fashionable to say that it was all about my looks and nothing else.

However, that change gradually happened with films like Taxi No 9211, New York and Madras Cafe, people are appreciating my performances more.

Today, they recognise that this is what performances are about and it’s the subtleties in performance are what make them special.

It’s not that loud, garish and old-style Bollywood acting of raising your eyebrows and shaking your head. It won’t work now.

I think this is the right time for me. Had this time happened in 2003, I wouldn’t have been criticised initially.

But better late than never. It has taken its time and the next 5-10 years in my life are probably the most defining ones in terms of film choices and performances.

I’m very excited about it.

Many of your films (especially of recent) exude national pride. What has driven you to choose this style of movies?

It doesn’t happen by design as I solely pick up scripts that I enjoy.

Parmanu was developed in my production office (JA Entertainment) and we also developed Madras Cafe and Vicky Donor in conjunction with Shoojit Sircar.

We make films in-house and that’s why I did it. There was no design.

When I did Satyameva Jayate, I was honestly walking a thin line as it was old-school Bollywood. So initially, I kept asking myself whether it would work or not.

But when I heard the script and I enjoyed it. As an audience, if I enjoy it, I care two hoots about what’s working or what is trending in the market.

I just do what I want to do and I like to set trends.

Vicky Donor became a trend of tackling taboo topics within society and subsequently films like Shubh Mangal Savdhan and Badhaai Ho released.

I think it’s important to do what one wants and I enjoy it.

Speaking of breaking taboos, your film Dostana, for example, started the conversation of homosexuality in India…

Yes, that was wonderful and it’s important. I give Karan Johar credit for that.

Without being condescending towards homosexuality, he presented the topic in a lighter way and made people accept it.

It’s important to make certain choices we do.

You execute action stunts convincingly. How do you hope to break stereotypes regarding the ‘action hero’ image in Bollywood?

I always say that an ‘actor is a prisoner of his own image’ and my physicality lends to one of being an action hero.

I don’t want to take that away so when I do an action film, it’s not about the stunts you perform but about the physicality and looks where people would fear you.

That’s the same with international stars like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, Sylvester Stallone and Dwayne Johnson.

There are a certain physicality and attitude they have especially through certain catchphrases.

How will you ensure that by breaking the stereotype, the action doesn’t exude toxic masculinity?

So, I’m doing Pagalpanti and it’s so funny that my character is so scared in this film… Especially seeing my physicality.

People are just going to laugh.

The other two actors Arshad Warsi and Pulkit Samrat are sweet and little compared to me (in terms of physicality) but just imagine me trying to hide behind Arshad?!

When you use your physicality in a smart way, people kind of appreciate it more.

The audience knows that I’m going to try something different… I’m not going to just bang people into walls (laughs).

That’s the way I want to maintain it and I want to do action films as well. I’m developing my Force franchise and developing the third instalment.

There are many feathers to your hat, one of which is that of a producer. As a producer, how do you know what project is worth investing in?

I view the projects as an audience.

The minute I react to a subject or script as an audience, I then wear my producer hat and question whether it will be commercially viable.

If I do think it’s viable, then I will start developing it.

What makes me choose that is simply my gut instinct and my intuition.

I work with 2/3 people in the office – my creative producer, my creative development head and so we have democratic discussions, constructive arguments and sometimes I get my way, whilst at times I don’t.

Subsequently, we make a film.

Henceforth, what will be the main objective of JA Entertainment when choosing to back a venture?

I know back home in India when they know it’s a JA Entertainment film, they know that their money and time won’t be wasted in watching the film.

I want to create that kind of a niche where people become aware that the production offers films that are sensible, smart, different and of quality.

The films have to be path-breaking. My philosophy as a producer is to make those kinds of films regardless of whether I star in it or not.

Like we had Ayushmann Khurrana in Vicky Donor. I want to cast different and new faces.

Hypothetically, if there’s an action film we could cast Tiger Shroff or if it’s a dance movie, it could feature Varun Dhawan.

So I want to explore all possibilities.

But the hero of my film is always going to be the content. It’s never going to be about the actor.

I can’t get five actors and make a huge proposal. I can only make a film.

You spoke about launching new talent. What is your view on nepotism in Bollywood? Is it getting out of hand?

I have no problem with it. I’m not bitter about it at all.

I think I am really cool to have lasted throughout all this (laughs). I think nepotism exists in all industries, it’s very conspicuous in the film industry.

I’ve got friends like Abhishek Bachchan who belong to the industry and he’s a lovely guy.

If one expects an actor from the outside to be bitter, then I’m probably not one of those.

Karan Johar is a good friend of mine and we get along well.

Presently, I’m not working with him on any projects, but we still get along.

I’m not bitter about the fact that we’re not working together, I’m not bitter about the fact that maybe his films have only film kids. It doesn’t matter to me.

What matters to me is my personal relationship with him and it’s great.

I am fighting my own battles, doing my own films and I enjoy my space.

For me, nepotism doesn’t hold me down because I don’t belong to that space.

I’m not afraid of failure, I do anything I want to.

Every person deals with trials and tribulations. What has been your mantra to survive as a human being?

I was just talking to my team and told them that, because I’ve seen failure and success at the same breath, the only thing that has kept me going is when people around me have said that “I cannot” is me telling myself that “I can”.

It’s self-conviction, that’s the only thing.

To everyone reading this interview, I want to tell them that if you have a dream and want to get to a certain place, you need to have self-conviction – that is very important.

You cannot rely on the sympathy of others, you should not expect anybody to empathise with you and one has to fight their own battles.

That is what I do. I fight alone, I stand alone and I live alone.

Listen to our interview with John Abraham right here:

John has never been bound by conventions and that’s what makes him special.

Undoubtedly, he is a one-man army who has never followed the crowd.

In moments of hardship and setbacks, the actor has risen from the ashes like a phoenix and has only got stronger and better at his craft.

Admiring such confidence and chutzpah, Filme Shilmy wishes John Abraham all the very best for his work!

Anuj Radia
Journalist and film enthusiast.

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