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Interview: Satya Bhabha for Open Magazine

For Deepa Mehta, the burden of adapting Salman Rushdie’s 31-year-old Booker Prize-winning epic novel, Midnight’s Children, could not have been an easy one to bear. For one, she had to condense into a two-and-a-half hour movie a stunning narrative that sprawls through the length of much of India’s cultural history and identity, with just as many digressions from the main story itself, as it has named characters (as many as 100, at last count).

It also couldn’t have helped that there were many before her who had tried their hand at adapting the book and failed, on account of fundamentalist elements. Yet, none of these challenges would have seemed surmountable had Mehta not found the perfect actor to embody the novel’s heart and soul, its protagonist and narrator Saleem Sinai, and to share this burden with her.

At first, there were rumours that Ranbir Kapoor and Shahid Kapoor were in the running for the coveted part of the young man who finds himself ‘handcuffed to history’, and whose life, struggles and experiences mirror those of free India. At one point, there was news that Imran Khan would make his Hollywood debut with this role. But ultimately, the duties of playing the unlikeliest of heroes ever to be found in Indian fiction went to an unlikely American actor of Indian origin.

London-born Satya Bhabha, who until now was best known for playing Matthew Patel, the first of seven evil exes in Edgar Wright’s comic-book adaptation, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, did not see it coming. “I was honestly not vying for the part,” says Satya over the telephone from Los Angeles, his current base, from where he has been travelling to promote the movie at prestigious film festivals all over the world, including the recently concluded Toronto International Film Festival.

“I had met Deepa in Toronto in 2009, long before the project was even moving. We never got into any specifics and I didn’t hear from her for quite some time after that. And then, months later, she invited me for the screening of a movie in New York on Thanksgiving, and unexpectedly, announced to the audience there that I would be playing Saleem!”

Satya admits that for him bagging the lead was a mix of “shock and elation”, especially considering that it’s been a constant struggle for him to find meaty roles in an industry where there aren’t many parts written for Indian actors. A few comic talents like Aziz Ansari (Parks and Recreation), Mindy Kaling (The Office) and Kal Penn (Harold & Kumar series) have certainly started opening up perceptions of what Indian actors can do, but these examples are few and far in between, and in the majority of films, actors like Irrfan Khan (The Amazing Spiderman) and Anupam Kher (the upcoming Silver Linings Playbook) have to be content playing strong supporting characters.

Having grown up in London and having studied theatre at Yale, Satya says he wasn’t necessarily aware that as an Indian, it would be challenging for him to find work in a professional context. “I never felt the presence of racism until I moved to New York and started auditioning for roles,” he reveals. “The limitation in the thinking of casting directors was quite irritating at times because they don’t think you can play a relatable American student because of the fear that your name sounds a certain way or you look a certain way.”

But he insists that this has never deterred him from trying, over and over again. Because not only does he believe there will be change—and that it has started on a small scale already—but somewhere, as he grows, he also wants to bring it about.

One of the major reasons he has managed to stay determined is thanks to his parents, and the fact that he doesn’t belong to a “traditional Indian family setup”. “I never faced any opposition to my offbeat career choice that children in India face, because my father, who is Indian, is neither a doctor nor an engineer,” Satya says, “He is an academic and both he and my mother, who is of German heritage, have always supported me, even though I realise that in a profession like acting, where you are out of work so much that you are just grateful to have a job, it is doubly difficult for the parents than it is for the kids.”

While these are issues he’d have to work at overcoming for much of the discernible future, it was living up to the enormous expectations of readers the world over that had Satya apprehensive and “very scared” for the last couple of years. Because where Saleem Sinai is a quintessential Indian boy representative of ‘Bombay’ and India itself, Satya had never even lived in India.

“In the British schools I studied, unsurprisingly, they don’t teach you a whole lot about India and the Partition,” he laughs. “So there was a lot of work to be done, right from learning technical things like the accent and dialect to bigger things like studying the history of the country. I wanted to do justice to Saleem, physically and spiritually, and didn’t stop preparing myself until I felt a sense of ownership over him.”

As part of his preparations, Satya stayed quite a few months in Mumbai, and observed the body language of both the people and the city. He was also helped, along the way, by the author of the original work of art, Salman Rushdie, with whom he only had one initial, “extensive” meeting.

“We spoke about the character and the process of adaptation, but we really connected only when we started talking about family,” Satya chuckles. “I come from the Parsi community, which is filled with eccentric and wonderful characters. Salman, although he is from a different community, has many such characters in his family too, and that’s reflected in the book. It helped me realise that I was more similar to Saleem than I had imagined. Salman really is an incredibly generous person and I still find it hard to believe that I’ve worked on the first movie he’s ever written and produced.”

For the most part of the interview, Satya is just as excited and wide-eyed at having received the “incredible opportunity to play every moment and every range of emotion in a man’s life”, and the only time his earnest and polite tone changes is when he’s asked about the controversies that have plagued the film. A major chunk of the book, leading up to the climax, is set in the time of the Indira Gandhi-declared Emergency, and makes a strong political statement. For fear of a backlash, Deepa had to shoot the film in Sri Lanka, instead of India, and even with these measures, the cast and crew dealt with minor hiccups when Iran asked the Sri Lankan government to withdraw permission for the film.

More recently, the film is facing difficulties in finding a distributor in India, and Satya admits that he fails to understand why. “The book is available on every street-side bookshop, every bookseller and vendor, so the idea that the book is allowed but the film wouldn’t be allowed is strange to me,” he says. “Ultimately, the politics is only a small part of it, and the movie is really a warm-hearted, Amelie story and talks about the importance of family and community, which no people understand better than Indians.”

“Yes, the film was made not just for India but for a worldwide market,” he adds, “but having said that, it would mean so much to all of us in the cast and crew if the film released in India.”

The film, meanwhile, has found US distribution already, and is likely to release there in theatres sometime in April next year. And while Satya eagerly awaits reactions of the mass audience and his next acting assignment that would be a worthy follow-up to, and “as rewarding as” Midnight’s Children, the 28-year-old has already graduated to direction. In the midst of post-production of his first short film, Satya says he is developing a full-fledged feature film next “that is based on a famous short play”, and if all goes according to plan, it will go on the floors sometime next year.

As for Indian cinema, he is “definitely interested.” “The new wave of cinema in India, led by Anurag Kashyap, Ronnie Screwvala and Aamir Khan Productions, is very exciting. I love Omkara, Maqbool, Love Sex Aur Dhokha, and Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!. I’m a huge fan of Dibakar Banerjee, and if I get the chance, I would love to work with him someday.”

He is not opposed to commercial, mainstream Bollywood. “I want to try everything out once, maybe twice. I can definitely dance, and if they are okay with giving me work after they’ve heard me sing, I’d love to do their movies!” he laughs.

Note: This interview first appeared in Open Magazine on October 20, 2012
© Copyright belongs to the author, Nikhil Taneja. The article may not be reproduced without permission. A link to the URL, instead, would be appreciated.
Picture courtesy: Google. None of the pictures are owned by the author all rights belong to the original owner(s) and photographer(s).


Interview: Paul Schrader for Open Magazine

At 67, Paul Schrader, the screenwriter behind perhaps two of the most important American movies of all time—Taxi Driver and Raging Bull—is nowhere near done. If anything, he has a renewed vigour—the sort you might see in fresh-faced filmmakers who’ve just released their first feature. The reason for this new energy is The Canyons, Schrader’s 18th film as a director, written by American Psycho novelist Bret Easton Ellis.

The film might as well have been the duo’s first, considering the do-it-yourself manner in which it was made. Crowdfunded (through Kickstarter), crowdsourced (with all actors apart from the leads cast through Facebook, and costumes and locations sourced on favours) and made on a microbudget of $250,000, the film finally released via video-on-demand before it got a theatrical release. Both Schader and Ellis invested $30,000 in the film, and female lead Lindsay Lohan put money behind it, too. The other lead, pornstar James Deen, may have been the only one to be paid up front.

Despite having collaborated with Martin Scorsese on some of the seminal films of recent cinema, and directed actors like Richard Gere (American Gigolo), Joseph Fiennes (Forever Mine) and Michael J Fox (Light of Day), Schrader doesn’t seem opposed to starting from the ground up again, if need be, because cinema is the only way of life he’s ever known. Speaking over the phone from his home in Los Angeles, Schrader shares his thoughts on DIY filmmaking film, the state of cinema today and ‘Xtreme City’, his ambitious one-time project with Shah Rukh Khan and Leonardo DiCaprio that was ultimately scrapped. Excerpts:

Q Now that the noise about the movie has subsided, how do you look back on the process of making a DIY film? What did you learn from the process?

A Well, I think I got very lucky with that. We were doing something that hadn’t been done before. We were kind of exploring to see if we could do it. I look back and I realise that so many things that could have gone wrong didn’t go wrong. And in fact, we got very, very lucky. It was very exciting to do that for the first time, but I don’t know if it would be so exciting to do it a second time. So, I mean, I learnt that you could do it. I learnt that it was a lot harder than we thought. And the whole distribution system—VOD —is definitely real, but it’s not as organised or efficient as it should be. And it’s got to improve if it’s going to be genuinely competitive.

Q Did the film make any profits? Can a well done, good looking, profitable film be made today bypassing the studio system altogether?

A Yeah, the film has made profits and everybody has been paid. Lindsay got her deferment; we will all get money.

But just because it worked for us… I don’t know how [replicable] it is. It was a kind of special situation where Bret and I found ourselves in the same frame of mind, at the same time. I mean, at that point in our lives when we were ready to work for nothing, it worked out for us. I don’t know whether you can make it happen every time. I know a lot of people are trying, and it’s very, very hard to make a film that inexpensive and still have anybody notice it.

So to answer the second part of your question, I did make a film that way, but for it to happen again, it has to be a very special kind of film, which has to be a) a contemporary film, b) without any special effects, c) without any action sequences, d) one where you source practical locations for free and e) where people use their own wardrobe or hair. So it can only work for a certain kind of film.

Q Steven Soderbergh gave a keynote address at the San Francisco International Film Festival this year, where he lashed out at the studio system saying it’s now more about salesmanship than movies. Do you feel the same about the state of the industry today?

A I’m neutral about this, actually. I began by making films for the studios, then I made independent films, now I’ve made a DIY film, and now I’m going back and making an independent film again. It’s obviously getting harder and harder; the budgets are smaller and smaller. It’s not a very healthy time in the film business, but I think the studio system won’t be around that much longer to attack. What’s going on now is that the executives of studios are basically taking all the money out of the safe in the Titanic. Because they know that ship’s going down. It’s bound to happen if profits are the only reason you are in this business.

Q Would it be a good thing if that happened?

A Is it a good thing that we lost newspapers? Is it a good thing that we lost bookstores? Is it a good thing we lost CDs? I don’t know. But it happened. And it’s going to happen to movies too. Things will change soon.

Q So is Kickstarter—which you used to fund The Canyons—the way to go if the studios go down? Do you believe it’s a viable source of funding in the long term?

A It’s viable, but I think it has to change. I mean, I think you can only go so far in asking people to give you money and not paying them back. And so, at some point, they should be able to work out a system whereby when you put in money, if the film is successful, you get paid back.

If one of these Kickstarter films becomes wildly successful—like, The Canyons wasn’t wildly successful, just plain successful, but if a film made a huge amount of money—there would be a lot of antagonism about, ‘Why did we give money to this film’ or ‘Why do you give these people money just so that they can get rich?’ So it’s got to change.

Having said that, because of [Kickstarter], our film got bigger and better. At first, Bret and I were going to do it with our own money. Once Kickstarter happened, we had people volunteering and helping, [and] we got a house to shoot in Malibu through it. At first, the film was just going to be an exercise but it ended up being a more or less real film because these things started to happen.

Q With the way the filmmaking process has reinvented itself, has your approach to screenwriting changed too?

A Well, a little bit, yes. I mean, there used to be some kind of rules of filmmaking, but there aren’t any rules anymore. You can try almost anything now. If you want to have a 10-page monologue, you can have one. If you want a do a film that’s one long action sequence—like Captain Phillips—you can have that too. You can do sort of whatever you want now. So, with both filmmaking and writing, there really are no real rules anymore.

Q Movies used to mean something to the young people of your generation as they were growing up. That doesn’t seem to be the case today. What has changed?

A Well, that was because we had a ‘model culture’, which we don’t have any more. Everything is split in all parts—no one universally likes something today. So just like there won’t ever be a Bruce Springsteen or Michael Jackson again, there will be never be a film that sits at the centre of culture again.

I’ve said before that earlier we faced a crisis of content, and today we face a crisis of form. And the crisis of content was much more exciting, because the problem with a crisis of form is that movies are becoming something else and we don’t know quite what they are becoming yet. We only know that things won’t be what they used to be. Are those Youtube videos movies? I suppose. Is Breaking Bad a movie? Yes, I suppose. The whole definition of a film is changing.

Q Even the great directors of that time—like Brian DePalma, Francis Ford Coppola and William Friedkin—haven’t managed to sustain themselves, except for Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg…

A Well, everybody is working today, but in [Martin Scorsese’s] case, you are talking about someone who has spent his entire life managing his critical reputation; it didn’t just happen to Marty—I mean, I have the same tenacity as Marty, and so do a number of others, in the way that what you do is what you are. It’s more fun to keep trying and fail, than to give up.

Q In Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and The Last Temptation of Christ, you and Martin Scorsese have collaborated on three of the most powerful films of our times. Why haven’t you worked together for almost two decades now?

A That time passed, you know. In the last thing we did together, Bringing Out The Dead (1999), it was clear that we were both thinking like directors. And that really wasn’t how the relationship worked. I think those movies before that one just had to do with the times as much as they had to do with anything else.

Talented artists come from the times, not the other way round; they don’t make the times. And when the times demand and ask artists to step up, there are always plenty of artists that do. We lived in a moment where we had a very exciting supportive social situation—and we weren’t the only ones. A lot of good things were done. It’s not that the 60s or 70s had more talented people than today, there’s just as many talented people today. It’s just that the times are different.

Q Why do you think Taxi Driver has managed to outlast other movies of your time?

A I’m not sure. I think we got lucky with [Robert] DeNiro, [and] Scorsese and myself being at the right place at the right time for the right movie—I mean, it was absolutely true to what we were feeling. We never really talked that much about the main character because we all knew exactly who he was. But we didn’t think it would be very successful. We had jitters the night before it opened, and at that time, it was harder to predict what would happen, and we said, ‘Wow, we’ll see tomorrow. Nobody should be embarrassed, because the film is a real film.’ But it didn’t fail. (chuckles)

Q Would a Taxi Driver set in today’s times be relevant?

A Well, not that film but a film like that, I suppose. That character is a part of the 70s, and when you move him 40 years later, he’s a different guy. He’s probably scarier today than he was then. Because today, he will find a group of people who thought just like him, and he would become some kind of… militant.

Q Do you ever wonder if your scripts would have been any different if Taxi Driver hadn’t been so wildly successful at the beginning of your career? If they would have been better or worse?

A It was great, actually… it was terrific to get [that] out of the way. I was fortunate to get that kind of gratification early on, and I could put that aside and continue. It’s a terrible thing when you go through your whole life without ever having that one moment where you realise that not only do you think that something is valuable but other people do too.

Q So what happened to ‘Xtreme City’, the film you were going to make with Shah Rukh Khan and Leonardo DiCaprio?

A Well, in the end, I don’t think Shah Rukh wanted to make it. It was really up to him, and I just got the feeling that he was never going to be comfortable doing an international film that he didn’t control. You know that everything SRK does, he has total control over? So if he did something like this at an international level, he wouldn’t have that control. I think in the end he wasn’t that comfortable not being a hundred per cent in control. We did have a script, which was a hundred per cent paid for. We also had a meeting with SRK and Leo in Berlin, but neither of them actually ever committed. There was a lot of waiting—maybe they were waiting for each other to commit, but it never quite happened.

Q Were you ever interested in doing the film with someone else?

A I was interested in doing it with Salman Khan some years ago. I actually met with him, but I couldn’t really take it very far with Salman—because if SRK found that out, that would have killed it for SRK. By the way, how’s Salman’s health? I just read that he had cancer or something.

Q No, he’s absolutely fine. You seem quite knowledgeable about the Indian film industry…

A I was intrigued about Bollywood for a brief period because I had flown to Delhi for a film festival and I had met some people there who asked me if I would like to work on a cross-cultural film. I just liked the idea of trying to combine an international movie with a Bollywood movie. I’m always interested in things that haven’t been done before. At this point, I only knew of Anurag Kashyap, and he was very exciting to me then. He has a new film out, I think, and although I haven’t seen it, I did get to meet him a few weeks ago.

Q What kind of role do you think Indian cinema plays in the larger world cinema scene?

A All the international cinemas are kind of coming together.

I remember that when I was in India five-six years ago, there was a craze starting here about these hyper developed bodies, with all the six-pack stomachs and steroids and all these kids who had very atypical bodies. They looked like gym rats, and I remember there was a young actor at that time who was really a wonderfully handsome kid who was obsessed with getting this new body. (tsks) He’s a star now. (pauses to think) Shahid Kapoor! He was such a handsome young kid, and the next thing you know he has this body that looks like it came out of a comic book. I thought that trend was very silly at the time, and then two-three years ago, it went from Bollywood to America. I started seeing these young American actors who had these bodies that were implausibly fit. (laughs) So, I just sort of [figured] that world cinema is interconnected.

Q If you had any advice to give today to the kid you were in the 70s, what would it be?

A I don’t know, because the way things are now, I wouldn’t want him to get into the movies.

On Being Nice

December 2, 2013: Met a petrol pump attendant today who inspired me. He was an old man, with a happy face. He knocked politely on my window and asked me to check the ‘zeroes’, all the while smiling, informing me why it was important to ‘be aware’. He then took my debit card to charge me, but since it required a pin, came back and requested in the politest of tones if it wouldn’t be much trouble for me to step out of the vehicle to put in the pin. Once the transaction issued a receipt and I thanked him, he asked me to wait, while he quickly got a stapler to staple the debit card receipt with the petrol receipt and gave it to me respectfully on a writing board. He then smiled again while he bid me a great evening.

This was a man who wasn’t just extremely professional and efficient and doing his job to the best of his ability, but a man who exuded warmth and generosity in perhaps his umpteenth dealing of the day. Not only did the man ensure that his customer was satisfied, he also made sure that he extended a genial civility to the human being in front of him. This was a man who, just through the human decency that is so utterly lacking in people today, made my day. His name was Ketan.

It’s so easy to be nice, is it not? It only takes a smile, a warm ‘Thank You’, an affectionate ‘Please’ or a general kindness, which shouldn’t be too difficult, right? Why do we, then, not be like Ketan, when it’s easy, it’s nice, and it will make everyone’s day? Why don’t we extend common courtesy to everyone we meet? Why are we so eager to close the lift and stop the next person coming in, or walk inside a door without holding it open for the next person who is just a few feet away from us, or give our gratitude to anyone who offers us a service?

For that matter, why do we haggle for a couple of rupees with the sabziwala at his thela when we wouldn’t dare be caught doing that in a public supermarket? Why don’t we give a mere Rs 20 to the delivery man when ordering food for 500 bucks? Why do we ensure the auto rickshaw driver pays us back the exact change when it wouldn’t make our life any better but may definitely make his?

If, at 60+, I can be even half as happy doing the job I love as Ketan is (whatever that job may be), and if I wouldn’t hold all the shit the world has had to offer in those years against the next human being I meet in my line of work, I’d consider myself successful. Because really, as Ketan showed me today, a successful life isn’t one that’s earned with money, but one that’s earned with respect and love, and a little bit of niceness. That’s what Ketan had to offer to me today, and that’s what I offered him back, and hope to do for as long as I possibly can. And if all of us do the same, wouldn’t the world just be a slightly more happy place to live in? Thank you, Ketan

Interview: Imran Khan #OpenMagazine #Film

Chocolate Boy. Good-looking. Romantic. Dreamy. Cute. Sweet. These are the sort of words that an average cinegoer would use to describe Imran Khan. ‘Brave’ isn’t used much for him. Nor is ‘actor’. Yet there’s something odd about Khan’s filmography, as it stands today. His first release this year was Vishal Bhardwaj’s Matru Ki Bijli Ka Mandola. His second will be Milan Luthria’s Once Upon Ay Time in Mumbai Dobaara! Besides a Dharma Productions’ romcom, Khan has a film each lined up with Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra, Tigmanshu Dhulia and Vikramaditya Motwane.

Khan’s upcoming filmography reads like a list of some of the most anticipated films of next year—with some of the country’s finest directors. What have they spotted in Khan that the audience hasn’t? Or is the audience so used to correlating an actor’s looks with the scope of his acting ability that they’ve missed Khan’s risk-taking?

Take a closer look at his filmography; the only pattern that stands out is the distinct lack of one. At first glance, the number of romcoms he’s been in seems high. But Break Ke Baad and Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu, two of his lesser successes, were not your stereotypical Bollywood romcom fare. Putting these aside, along with the somewhat more mainstream Jaane Tu… Ya Jaane Na, I Hate Luv Storys and Mere Brother Ki Dulhan, you are left with Kidnap, Luck and Delhi Belly. These three films are all remarkably different from each other, and while one may call into question Khan’s acumen in picking the first two, one cannot blame him for not trying.

Talking to him, it becomes apparent he is one of the smartest actors of his generation—commendable in an industry where everyone would much rather be a ‘star’. Much like his celebrated uncle Aamir, Khan is a polite, well-spoken and intelligent interviewee. He gives elaborate, articulate and well-reasoned answers. Unlike his uncle, though, Khan never pauses to think before an answer. He has a clarity and honesty rare in Bollywood. He swears casually every now and then, and when he’s talking about something he’s obviously passionate about, he stammers a little. But once he gets into the groove, he speaks with an urbane and informal eloquence.

He’s mastered the art of conversing with journalists. You’d be prudent to think of it as part and parcel of the media game rather than as mere likeability. But even if it is a rehearsed act, it’s refreshing to meet an actor who is evidently aware of the trappings of Bollywood and doesn’t hesitate to say say so—without naming names or insulting an individual or a sensibility.

“I’ve become increasingly aware of this PR bubble that all of us—from the actors and directors to the editors and journalists—inhabit,” says Khan, off the bat. “We’ve all stepped inside this plastic bubble, and all of us are bouncing these crazy balls around, and we’re getting hit by them (chuckles). All of us are starting to behave and react based on what we see other people doing.”

“For example, I read an article in Bombay Times about an actor getting so many crores as a signing amount and I think, ‘Bhenchod! Mujhe kyun nahin mila?’ Or someone gets a big opening and my friend says to me, ‘Bro, tujhe aaj tak nahin mila!’ These articles may have been paid for by that guy to build up his image, but I go and sign a film with a director whose films I may not otherwise like so I can beat that guy. What I’m really doing is responding to a mirage. And I’m now working for a dishonest reason. That’s an easy trap to fall into, and you can’t fall into it.”

Khan employs another analogy to explain the bubble further: “Everyone’s life on Facebook is awesome! There are photos of the best coffee you ever had, of your shiny new sunglasses, the best Saturday morning ever. When you are looking at that, you think, ‘Yaar, kya zindagi hai iski. Why is my life so boring?’ Now all they’ve really done is gone to a Costa Coffee and taken a picture, but they’ve made it an event, and you start reacting to that. But you have to pull out of this bubble and this rarefied air and get some actual air. The PR machinery needs to be fed and you will be amazed how most of it has sweet fuck-all to do with being an actor. So you have to follow your motivations and let go of these distractions.”

Khan’s own motivations are quite elementary: do the work that satisfies you and lets you sleep at night. Perhaps that sounds a bit too simplistic coming from an actor who commands crores for endorsements and stars, along with Akshay Kumar and Sonakshi Sinha, in this year’s potential Independence Day blockbuster, Once Upon Ay Time In Mumbai Dobaara!, aimed steadfastly at those mythic ‘masses’, replete with action, item numbers and dialogues like ‘Agar main hero ban gaya, toh meri pehchaan bura maan jayegi (If I become a hero, my identity will take offence)’.

But then again, it may well be that simple, since Khan insists he stumbled into acting by chance. “It was always a short term plan,” he says. “It kind of snowballed. I’ve always wanted to be a writer-director, but I kept getting interesting offers, and I like this work too. So I’m choosing scripts based on straightforward logic—will I watch it? For me, it’s just about doing work that I like with people I like. There is no grand strategy.”

Around 2005, Khan came to India from Los Angeles, where he studied screenwriting and direction at the New York Film Academy, looking for work as an assistant director or writer. He landed himself a meeting with a TV channel that produced an hour-long thriller once a week and narrated a story to them that they seemed to really like.

“After much back-thumping and hand shaking and finger snapping and ‘Awesome to meet a young guy like you, bro’, they said ‘thanks’ and promised to call back,” Khan recalls. “Two months went by, but they never called back. And then one day a friend of mine who was acting in that same project told me that one of the stories sounded similar to [the one] I had gone to them with. When I saw the script, I was shocked. They had converted my story into a full-fledged script and, forget giving me credit, they hadn’t even called me!”

Khan tried to get in touch with the gentlemen from the production house, but to no avail. Livid and frustrated, he didn’t know how he could possibly work in such a messed up system. When Abbas Tyrewala offered him a lead role in his youthful, indie-ish romantic comedy Jaane Tu… Ya Jaane Na, he agreed so that “my name would have some recognition and nobody could ever steal a script from me again”.

It was always going to be difficult to pull out once he got into acting. Especially for a cinephile like Khan, who got into the field just for the love of movies. “I remember sitting in this very room with my best friend and being blown away on so many different levels by Guy Ritchie’s Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels,” Khan reminisces, referring to the study-cum-lounge of his ancestral home, Nasir Hussain bungalow, named after his grandfather, the late legendary filmmaker.

“So when the script for Delhi Belly came into my hands, my heart started going, ‘dhak, dhak, dhak’… I couldn’t believe it was happening,” he laughs. “I was getting to be part of a movie that was emotionally and spiritually like Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels. But I swear to God, when we were making it, not for a moment did I believe it was going to see the light of day. I believed in the movie, and I hoped it would find an audience, but I really didn’t think it would release. And then it did, and it worked. So when these things happen, you continue your journey and keep experimenting.”

Of course, all of this is easier said than done, and Khan has tasted as much failure as success. After the successful Jaane Tu.. Ya Jaane Na, Luck and Kidnap flopped miserably. Other risks he took down the road, like the quirky romcom Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu, in which—spoiler alert!—the girl and guy don’t end up together, or the political satire Matru Ki Bijli Ka Mandola, in which he plays a Haryanvi activist, didn’t quite pay off. Critics’ reactions to his acting have, more often than not, been unflattering, to the extent of being hostile.

But Khan has learnt to be undeterred by box office results and critical flak, as long as he’s constantly working on improving himself. “Imagine if a film of mine fails, and I go on the sets of the next one I’m filming and ask the director to make it a comedy instead. Or if I read a puff piece in Cosmo in which a girl says my eyes are dreamy and I tell the director, ‘Bhenchod, eyes ka close-up le, I’m telling you, chicks dig my eyes!’ Here, of course, it’s very important for the director to be strong and tell the actor to hold course,” he laughs.

“NK Sharma, who trained me for Matru…, turned life coach to me in the middle. He told me that for one critic who writes bad [things] about me or my films, there are a hundred people who watch and like me and my films. So if I’m giving weightage to the critic, I should give the exact same weightage to a member of the audience.”

“At the same time, without being overly critical of myself, I keep asking, ‘What could I have done better?’ I mean, forget as just a creative person, but in any field, the day you pat your own back and go, ‘Bro, well done,’ you are screwed. That is the day you stop any kind of growth. For example, I love cooking and I cook a lot. After I’m done, I’m always asking everyone, ‘What do you think? Enough salt? Too spicy?’ That’s part of the entire process, man. You’ve got to keep doing that. You can’t sit back and be satisfied.”

Khan admits that, apart from training specifically for a movie, he’s learning to act by trial and error. He watches playback of his takes to see if he did alright, he watches other actors he’s working with and even actors on screen to understand the nuances they bring to their roles. He learns gestures from directors or picks them up from actors onscreen and pieces together his performances by working hard. “It’s like walking down a maze,” he says. “Something doesn’t work out, and you hit a bump, so you go another way. As long as you keep learning.”

For this reason, despite being acutely aware of his limitations, Khan says he never lets his fears or doubts interfere with taking on a challenge or treading outside ‘the box’. “I feel, very often people limit themselves by imposing restrictions that no one else has imposed on them. ‘I’ll only do this type of film.’ But for God’s sake, why? You’re bloody building a wall. As a creative person, it is your job to stretch your boundaries, and hence stretch the boundaries of other people. If you voluntarily restrict yourself, how will you show the audience something they may not have seen before? If you don’t take risks, how will the taste of the audience evolve?”

It seems important to him to be able to contribute to the evolving tastes of the audience—even as his own sensibilities evolve. He compares the exposure of audiences to new kinds of cinema to eating sushi for the first time. “At first, you go ‘Yuck! It’s raw, and old and clammy.’ And then you reach the point where you love it. But for that, you’ve gotta try it first. So for those of us who’ve seen different kinds of cinema and have had more exposure, it’s important that we create an appetite in the audience for such movies. That’s the way I look at it. You bet on first time directors, small-budget but content-driven films and try to get audiences interested, movie by movie. But you don’t back away from what motivates you and what you like just because the box office isn’t a hundred crore.”

If there’s one thing Khan doesn’t like, it’s “pandering to the audience”. This is why he doesn’t watch television; he believes it assumes the worst in the audience. “It assumes that you are dumb, that you are shallow. And then it reaches out and it finds that, somewhere inside you, there is dumbness [and] shallowness, and it finds that point [in you] and massages it. When you’re actively believing the worst in people, and then encouraging the worst in people, I think you are directly contributing to the decline of society. This phenomenon has seeped into the movies as well, and I can never stand for it.”

That sounds like a paradox, in light of his forthcoming masala flick, but Khan laughs and tries to convince me it isn’t. “It’s a very classic movie. I mean, I watch movies to be entertained. I don’t view cinema as a high art form. I view it as something that is meant to make people laugh, to thrill them, or move them emotionally in some way. My romcoms have generally dealt with first world problems like, ‘She doesn’t understand me, bro,’ and the directors I’ve worked with like Shakun [Batra] or Danish [Aslam], who are my friends, shy away from making a scene too emotional because they think it’s melodrama… When I read the script of Once Upon Ay Time…Dobaara!, it had heightened drama; it made me cry and it made me laugh. These were life and death situations. I found it very satisfying. It came with jeera powder and masala on top. It was just very tasty… Obviously, I was full of doubt when I took it up, but then, it was another way of pushing my boundaries. And I love doing that. I can’t hope for anything better.”

Interview: John Abraham #OpenMagazine #Film

“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.”