“We didn’t want to do it because we thought it’s contrived, forced and most importantly, it’s immoral,” says actor-producer John Abraham, when asked why his team didn’t use former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination as a selling point in the pre-release marketing of Madras Café, his second film as producer. “We believe that a film should only sell on content and not on controversy.”
In an industry where director-producer Ram Gopal Varma and UTV Motion Pictures once famously hung what appeared to be 15 dead bodies with blood oozing out of their mouths around Mumbai to create ‘buzz’ for their film Agyaat, where actor Akshay Kumar had grinning pictures of him taken next to the hospital bed of the visibly ailing cartoonist RK Laxman to promote his film Khatta Meetha, morality is hardly ever a concept you hear a typical Bollywood producer speak of. But then, Abraham is hardly a typical Bollywood producer.
Shoojit Sircar, the director of Madras Café and of Abraham’s first film as producer Vicky Donor, reveals that after the unprecedented success of the latter—which was about sperm donation and which made whopping profits on its budget of Rs 5 crore, earning a claimed net Rs 64.5 crore worldwide—there was demand from both the industry and the audience for a ‘sequel’: the unspoken cardinal rule followed by hit Bollywood comedies of the last decade. But Abraham chose not to give in to convention for a reason that few ‘typical Bollywood films’ seem to bother with—he didn’t have a “good script worth producing.”
Instead, Sircar and Abraham teamed up for a second time to make a political spy thriller set against the backdrop of the Sri Lankan civil war of the 90s, with its central plot about the assassination of India’s former Prime Minister kept tightly under wraps. “This was a film that had no music, where the ‘hero’ doesn’t take revenge when his wife is killed, runs away from danger when he’s asked to do so, and ultimately fails in stopping the assassination, and where the hero, who’s played by John Abraham, never once takes off his shirt,” smiles Abraham, whose “faith in the audience has been reposed” as Madras Café, made on a budget of Rs 35 crore, continues its successful run at the box office, having netted over Rs 42 crore in two weeks, as claimed.
“You know, all pre-release research showed us that our film would be finished in Rs 15 crore,” Abraham recalls, sipping a health shake to beat the fever he’s been running for a couple of days, still determined to do a last leg of interviews to aid his film in any way possible. “And when we did Rs 15 crore in two days, everyone was shocked, because it beat conventional wisdom. Because it proved that there exists a QCCA—a quality conscious cinema audience—in India, and that it’s smart, and that it doesn’t deserve films low on IQ most of the time.”
“Because what are we making otherwise?” Abraham continues, with genuine concern in his voice. “We’re not making films; we’re making proposals. A film that’s based on the structure of an A-lister hero beating up villains and saving the A-lister heroine who dances to five songs along the way, isn’t much of a film to begin with. I mean, it’s really time we stop underestimating the audience, and making the same kind of films and dancing in them and then dancing in malls to promote them and dancing till our pelvises break. I don’t want to make films that I carpet bomb in thousands of cinemas to recover 70 per cent of my revenue over the weekend; I’m happy making films that pick up on Monday by word-of-mouth. Because honestly, I only care about making good content, yaar.”
That’s a line Abraham repeats seven times over the course of the interview, with utmost earnestness. It’s evident that it means a lot to him, championing sensible cinema in contemporary India, and his sincerity is infectious, if not invigorating, especially considering that most of his misses at the box office as an actor have been in ‘sensible cinema’.
From starring in Deepa Mehta’s Water, a film on misogyny and ostracism in rural India that was nominated for a Best Foreign Picture Oscar, to Anurag Kashyap’s cult neo-noir psychological thriller No Smoking, to Kabir Khan’s road movie-meets-political thriller set in Afghanistan Kabul Express—all of which failed to set the box office on fire—Abraham’s been known to make brave choices. In a personal blog post in 2010, Kashyap compared Abraham with Aamir Khan, calling the two the only actors in the industry to have the ‘imagination or intelligence to see a film before it’s made’, and commending his guts for taking on risky projects.
But there’s still the paradox of the two contrary John Abrahams—the smart producer of high-concept cinema; and the mass entertainer-actor who has, since 2011, starred in pulp action films like Shootout At Wadala and Force catering to the lowest common denominator, and featured in four multi-starrer blockbusters, including Sajid Khan’s Housefull 2 and Abbas-Mustan’s Race 2, both of which are part of the Rs 100 crore club, one he admits is composed mainly of films that are “not great”.
“I don’t want to be condescending towards these films because I enjoy working on them,” says Abraham, who is next slated to star in the sequels to Anees Bazmee’s Welcome and Tarun Mansukhani’s Dostana. “I don’t have a problem with mainstream commercial films and, in fact, I’m a big fan of Rohit Shetty’s movies. Because starring in these films has helped me fund and back the movies I believe in. And I’ll do them only up to the point I can make content-driven films commercially successful.”
Abraham has a clear strategy here: marry content with commerce. Having been inspired by films like Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List growing up, and, more recently, by Roman Polanski’s The Pianist, Stephen Gaghan’s Syriana and Ben Affleck’s Argo, films that have garnered both critical and commercial acclaim, the actor-producer wants to make “alternative cinema commercial”.
“My aim is to entertain people, which is really important, but at the same time, give them something to think about while walking away from the movie. The idea is to try and touch the Rs 100 crore mark by giving a platform to another story like Madras Café that needs to be told, so as to break the myth that only bad films can make Rs 100 crore. As a producer, I don’t want to bow to the diktats of commercialdom, because our industry needs intelligent films. Someone has to be the flag-bearer of these films, and I’m proud to be among the ones to do that.” A quintessential Bombay boy, the 40-year-old’s deep-rooted patriotism is one of the key driving factors in his endeavour to make ‘good’ films. It’s also one of the reasons that the actor has shelled out crores of rupees to set up offices for his production house, JA Entertainment Pvt Ltd, in central London and Bel Air, Los Angeles, and is making international Indian films as well as international English-language films.
“I don’t like how the world perceives Indian movies,” he says. “Ask any of them about us, and they’ll say, (with an accent) ‘Bollywood! Song and dance!’ We have become caricaturish, and that needs to change. So I’m meeting with potential principal partners in LA and London to tie up with them and take Indian cinema to another level. Instead of screaming from the rooftops that I’m doing Hollywood films, I’d rather be doing an international film that’s an Indian film on par with international films. As much as I’d not like to lose my Indian passport for anything in the world, I’d like to propagate our evolved films internationally.”
“Also, I am not making these films to compete with Hindi films. I’m competing with any good international film from anywhere in the world. And if Hollywood is now making such inroads into our market, I want to bloody well make sure that I make films that are up there with them, so we can penetrate their markets too! I’m a true Indian in that sense,” he chuckles.
As far back as he can remember, Abraham, the son of a Malayalee father and Parsi mother, was ambitious. He enjoyed watching movies but he was most passionate about sport, biking and fitness. So even as he has become a name to reckon with in Indian cinema, he has continued devoting a sizeable part of his time, money and effort towards his pet passions.
“I’m indebted to sports,” says Abraham, who has captained various sports teams, including football, at both the school and college level. “Sports taught me to always be a leader. In fact, my coach told me something very dangerous that’s always stayed me. He said, ‘John, you don’t win the silver, you lose the gold.’ I never knew any other way but to win. At the same time, sport also made me gracious to loss. So when I was criticised for my acting, I took it positively and worked hard at improving.”
In an attempt to return a favour to sport, earlier this year, the actor-producer, who holds an MBA degree, announced a partnership with former boxing world champion David Haye to open a fitness franchise called JA Haymakers aimed at promoting boxing in India. Abraham had already launched a franchise of gyms called JA Fitness in Pune last year. A football academy with Baichung Bhutia has also been announced, and a clothing line called JA Clothes is already in operation. Abraham counts co-owning a motorcycling team in the MotoGP and owning equity in the manufacturing of motorcycles in India as priorities among his business goals.
With such a diverse portfolio of investments, the larger ambition isn’t so much an ambition but a motivation that stems, according to Abraham, from his “middle-class sensibilities”: that of making a difference. Ask him why that matters, especially as part of an industry that—by definition—revels in vanity, and Abraham digs deep down to narrate an incident that he vividly remembers:
“My father, who is an architect, has always been a very honest man,” Abraham reminisces. “He’s never taken a bribe from a contractor and he’s never been to the BMC because he doesn’t want to bribe anyone either. But I remember, it was the year 1996, and I had come back from college to find my father really upset. We had money issues, and he had been cheated of some money. Because of his honesty, he had often been cheated, but this time, it deeply affected him. And at that low point, instead of ranting about how honesty doesn’t matter [to so many others], he sat me down and asked me to promise him never to be dishonest in my life. He told me that credibility matters, being nice matters, doing good matters and being honest matters, even if people around us aren’t like that. That left a deep impression on me.”
“So making a difference matters to me because of the ethics, values and principles my parents have taught me, and because, when I was young and impressionable, many people made a difference to me, too. There’s an inherent core in me that tells me to always do the right thing, because my father has worked really hard to see that I am a good man. And I wouldn’t want to blow that away by any one bad deed.”
“And these are the principles my life and company are built on: We’ve never cheated anyone, dealt in black money, undercut anyone, owed anyone money or bribed anyone. We’ve ensured that the studio makes money on our films even if we don’t, because credibility comes before career. If I’m honest and make credible content, success will follow. At the end of the day, being middle class, I believe, makes me a lot more special.”
Abraham is one of the few actors who puts his money where his mouth is. In an interview with Times of India earlier this year, director Sanjay Gupta, who directed Abraham in 2006’s Zinda and this year’s hit Shootout at Wadala, vouched for Abraham’s simplicity and his distinct lack of ‘star behaviour.’ “John has built a powerful, positive brand around himself. What else can explain a dozen endorsements despite a mixed-bag filmography? Unlike other actors, if he finds a project interesting, he’s flexible on his fee. He doesn’t smoke or drink, is a fitness freak, stays clear of camps, doesn’t dance at weddings, sleeps by 10 and wakes up at 4 am.”
The actor says it’s easy for him to remain grounded—it’s being a ‘star’ that he isn’t comfortable with. He admits having the same five friends since kindergarten; he meets his parents every day; he drives a Maruti Gypsy, which, he points out, cost him only Rs 6 lakh; and “until push comes to shove, I still travel economy,” he says. “People tell me they can’t sit in regular cars because their backs hurt and it’s rough. But I want to feel rough because if I feel settled in my car, that’s a reflection of how I’ll feel in my life. And I don’t want to feel settled. I’m happy in this space and in this lifestyle.”
“It’s difficult for me to be a star with dark glasses and bodyguards because that’s not in my DNA. I can never be that. You can ask my make-up man, I never look into the mirror. I’m not narcissistic. And believe it or not, I am not concerned about a six-pack, I only believe in fitness. I think it’s ridiculous that we all walk around today looking like a bunch of Spartans. And I genuinely feel shy when I meet actors because I don’t know how they’ll treat me! Although, I’ve met some pretty wonderful people like Abhishek [Bachchan] and Akshay [Kumar]. I’m not in films to look good—I want to have a filmography I’m proud of.”
That’s not just a goal but a mandate for Abraham, who is looking to get into direction soon. As a producer, he has two films lined up on historic events with Shoojit Sircar, and a romcom with Sajid Ali, Imtiaz Ali’s younger brother. “The universe, or God, or hard work, or luck, or a combination of these factors has ensured that my childhood dream of being known by my name has come true,” he smiles. “I’m going to respect that and use the platform of films to influence society positively. I’m just two films old, but 10 films down, I want to be an influential filmmaker and one of the most powerful media people in this country. And I’m going to keep my father’s words in mind and work my heart out to make that happen.”