“Did you have your chai? Would you like some?” asks Abhay Deol as I join him for what will be too brief an interview. I’ve told him I’m nervous. He’s generously playing host, putting me at my ease. Inside, I’m panicking – I know my time with him is strictly limited, and I have so many questions I want to ask him about his films. So, I just plunge in and ask my first question. “Your shoes,” I say, “I want to ask you about your shoes.”
Abhay looks a little taken aback. “My shoes?” he says, surprised. “These ones?”
“Yes, your shoes. Those are fabulous shoes.”
He laughs. “They’re Dior, fancy brand, and I got them on a photo shoot. I don’t want to give them back,” he confides.
Of course. They are Dior. And unless I’m mistaken, Abhay Deol is attired head to toe in Dior Homme 2012, simple, elegant, understated. Hip, without being pretentious. Like the man himself, from what I’ve seen as I’ve watched him interact with the other interviewers also vying for a few minutes of his time this evening.
He doesn’t even seem more than a little taken aback when I confess to yet another obsession besides men’s shoes: first films. So I plunge in and ask him about Socha Na Tha. It’s a film with all the external trappings of a star kid being launched by his family, in this case, his uncle, Bollywood legend Dharmendra and cousin Sunny Deol. But, I note, that’s where it ends. The film itself is completely different from other Bollywood launches, and I wonder if that was always the intention. Abhay gives me some insight into that:
“What I liked about it was it was a really nice rom-com, you know? It had a good story, it was like you say, you think it was going to go a typical Bollywood way, and then there’d be a twist, it would turn the formula on its head, something original about it.
“Socha Na Tha was such a fresh story. You’d think it’s going to go the clichéd route, and then it suddenly turns around. Sure enough, bhaiya (Sunny) heard it out and loved it. And that’s how it worked out. There was no intention of, we’re going to launch you this way or that, there really wasn’t. I don’t think my family had any idea how to launch me, really, you know, because, they would look to me and see what I wanted, and I wasn’t very clear. I think they thought I was confused. I told Imtiaz (Ali, the film’s director), bhaiya’s going to listen to this, and he’s going to say the character’s Abhay, because he’s really confused in life anyways. So that’s typically how it worked out."
I comment on how nice this is, how refreshing, because typically you see these star vehicles, and they hit all these marks.
Abhay interjects: ”Action, drama, romance – tick, check check check,” he laughs.
“And this one – wasn’t,” I add. “ And I hate to use the work “quirky” cos everybody does...”
“Quirky,” Abhay laughs again, “That’s all right, I hear that a lot.”
“But,” I continue, ”I see that film setting the stage for everything else you did after,” I confess to him. More confessions: that I’ve seen all his films. He thanks me politely.
Before my time runs out, I jump from his first film to his latest, Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, the second film from director Zoya Akhtar. I’ve been curious – did he have any idea what the character was going to be when Zoya approached him for the film? The answer is no:
“When she approached me I had no idea what she was approaching me with. She just said it’s like a road trip between three boys who are on a vacation essentially, so I said okay. I read it, and – obviously I’m attracted to scripts that, sort of, don’t conform, but not because it’s not conforming, it just is what it is, its own animal, you know what I mean?”
In fact, I think I do know what he means. I think that’s the reason that so many films that try so hard to push boundaries and wear their non-conformity like a badge end up not succeeding. End up, all too often, not being very good films. Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara was different, but for me, as a viewer, it was a difference that actually kind of snuck up on me as the film unfolded.
“And that’s what I liked about Zindagi,” says Abhay. “For me, when I first read a script it’s not really about looking at my character, it’s really just understanding the film. Does it interest me? Does it not? For me, personally, I can’t be reading a script with my character in mind – I don’t understand that. I genuinely do not understand it. I have to like the film in order to like the character. I can’t like a character and not the film. You have to sort of enjoy a movie, and then everything falls into place.”
And I did enjoy Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara. But I persist just a little, because I did enjoy the character of Kabir. Because, as I tell Abhay, it was after I went home and got thinking about the film that I realized that if you take the character of Kabir out of the film, it doesn’t work. At all. I ask him about it, and he expands:
“Zoya said that character is the thread that ties the film together, and it was a very important casting for her. You know what, when it’s a well-written film, you don’t need to use your imagination too much because it’s all there in the script, so your imagination is only stoked by what you see on paper, if you have to use your imagination outside of the script, there’s really nothing there. But this character was very clear, I could see him, I could see the kind of person he would be. You of course don’t want to get too rigid or have a very strong vision of what he is because you want to interact with the director and see what he or she is thinking.”
He continues on, excitedly, (and if there’s one thing I’m learning about Abhay Deol is that he’s excited talking about the work, about the process): “But then again, when it’s a well-written script you’re probably going to guess what the director says anyway because it’s all there on paper.”
At this point, I’m mindful of the fact that the handlers want me to wrap things up. But Abhay presses on, giving me some insight about Zoya Akhtar:
“She’s very, very sharp. I don’t think anyone can sit in front of her and she’s not read what they’re about before they’ve said hello. But she’s also the kind of person to hold back her judgement, she’s not a judgemental person. But,” he says, snapping his fingers, “I’m sure she’s bang on all the time. She doesn’t say it. She won’t ever say it to you, but she’s so insightful, I think it just comes from having lived a life, being out there, I suppose. If you let yourself be vulnerable, I think that’s when you learn most about people. I think she’s got those qualities in her.”
Abhay spoke more, about how he works as an actor, how that played out in working with Zoya Akhtar, and with his co-stars, Farhan Akhtar and Hrithik Roshan. “There’s no right or wrong,” he shares, “in one actor’s method of working over another.”
I’m fascinated by it all, but I’m still thinking about what he said about vulnerability. If you let yourself be vulnerable, you can learn a lot. I confided my obsessions to Abhay, and he took it all in stride, and graciously shared so much with me in such a very few minutes.
If I have anything left to add when we’re done, it’s a message to Kalyani Chawla, vice-president with Christian Dior India: let Abhay keep the fabulous shoes. He was rocking them.
Abhay Deol is in Toronto this week as part of the Masala! Mehndi! Masti! Festival running at Harbourfront from August 19th to 21st. If you want to hear more from him, he’ll be in conversation with OMNI Television’s Mohit Rajhans on Saturday, August 20th at 5 p.m. in the Studio theatre. As well, a number of Abhay’s films are being screened throughout the weekend:
Dev D. – Friday, August 19th at 7 p.m.
Honeymoon Travels Pvt. Ltd – Friday, August 19th at 11 p.m.
Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! – Saturday August 20th at 12:30 p.m.
Manorama Six Feet Under – Saturday August 20th at 10:00 p.m.
Ek Chalis Ki Last Local – Sunday August 21st at 12:30 p.m.