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Cannes 2014 Roundup: Films on our must-watch list #SundayGuardian #Films

– Nikhil Taneja (@tanejamainhoonfor The Sunday Guardian

We may not hold it against you if, on the mention of ‘Cannes 2014’, the image that pops into your head is that of a jaw-dropping Aishwarya Rai on the red carpet. We may hold it against you a little bit if you recall Freida Pinto and Sonam Kapoor’s alleged BFF rumours. But heaven forbid, if Mallika Sherawat is all that you can think of, especially in a year she *gasp* covered herself, you should take a deep look inwards and examine your choices in life.

INDIA AT CANNES
Because at the Festival de Cannes 2014, India had more to be proud of than the assembly line of fashionistas it churns out yearly.

  1. TITLI Chief among India’s growing presence at Cannes was first time director Kanu Behl’s TITLI, about the youngest member of a family of criminals in the ‘badlands of Delhi’s dystopic underbelly’ (according to the synopsis), who teams up with his newly wed bride to try and escape the family business.Produced by Dibakar Banerjee and distributed by Yash Raj Films, the film was featured in the prestigious Un Certain Regard category at Cannes and opened to glowing reviews with Hollywood Reporter calling it “an enjoyable, character-driven Indian yarn” and Variety calling it “a grittily impressive noir debut.”
  1. GRACE OF MONACO Yash Raj Films had even more glory come their way, as they unveiled Nicole Kidman-starrer GRACE OF MONACO, their first ever film produced under the banner of their Hollywood-based division, Yash Raj Entertainment (YRE), headed by Uday Chopra. The film, distributed by indie powerhouse The Weinstein Company, got the honour of opening Cannes, and despite dismal reviews, it was probably the first time Uday Chopra was a sight for sore eyes, as he proudly represented YRE and India alongside director Olivier Dahan, Kidman, Tim Roth, the very hot Paz Vega, and several other international names.
     
  2. TRUE LOVE STORY Another proud achievement was the selection of filmmaker Gitanjali Rao’s 18-minute animation film about a coming-of-age Bollywood-fantasy romance that was selected as one of the 10 short films at the Cannes Critics’ Week. Rao’ silent film won her well-deserved accolades at Cannes.


BEST OF THE FEST
Of course, no matter how much the Indian media tries to showcase Cannes as the sister-festival of the International Film Festival of India, Goa, the hard truth is, Cannes has a lot more to offer than Sonam, Freida, Mallika and Jacky Bhagnani (YES, HE WAS THERE TOO!). So here’s a look at the most-talked about films at Cannes 2014:

  1. FOXCATCHER Moneyball director Bennett Miller’s swan song that won him the Best Director, Foxcatcher features a non-funny Steve Carrell as a creepy, schizophrenic millionaire, Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo as wrestlers, and recounts a real life tragic story set around the 1996 Olympics.
  2. MOMMY Canadian indie film prodigy, Xavier Dolan, 25, continued giving everyone an inferiority complex, with his fifth film in as many years. Mommy, about an Oedipal relationship between a single mother and her son, won the Jury Prize.
  3. WINTER SLEEP At a runtime of 196 minutes, you’d think the film’s name would be a sign of its outcome. But Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylon took home the Palme d’Or and had critics and fans mesmerised about the brilliance of the class-divide drama.
  4. TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT The name may suggest otherwise, but the French film directed by the Dardene Brothers, is not a romcom, but a character-study about a woman fighting depression. Two words: Marion Cotillard.
  5. LEVIATHAN The Andrey Zvyagintsev-directed drama, about an ordinary man fighting against the system, took home the Best Screenplay award, and is said to be the best Russian film in years and thankfully, comes with subtitles.
  6. MAPS TO THE STARS The scandalous take on the Hollywood film industry through the eyes of two former child stars, the film, being hailed as David Cronenberg’s return to form, won Julianne Moore the Best Actress Award.
  7. MR TURNER Director Mike Leigh’s biopic of controversial 19th century British artist, JMW Turner, won Timothy Spall the Best Actor Award for his portrayer of Turner.
  8. IT FOLLOWS An indie horror film that is actually scary! David Robert Mitchell got everyone talking about his film about a teenager who has nightmarish visions after a sexual encounter.
  9. WILD TALES ­The following words have been used often in reviews of Damian Szifron’s comic thriller, a multi-story revenge saga: Dark, noir, comic, outrageous, twisted and violent. Yes, it’s an ode to Pulp Fiction.
  10. THE TRIBE A film without a single dialogue would sound exactly the kind of arty film you’d be likely to avoid, but Ukrainian director Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s thriller, set in a boarding school for deaf students, is being hailed as a masterpiece. It also has graphic sex, by the way.


Note: 
An edited version of this article first appeared in The Sunday Guardian on June 7, 2014
Link: http://www.sunday-guardian.com/masala-art/festival-de-cannes-2014-films-on-our-must-watch-list

Picture courtesy: Google. None of the pictures are owned by the author all rights belong to the original owner(s) and photographer(s).
© Copyright belongs to the author, Nikhil Taneja. The article may not be reproduced without permission. A link to the URL, instead, would be appreciated.

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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.”