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Interview: Rahul Khanna #OpenMagazine #Profile

Rahul Khanna: The Internet’s Gentleman Boyfriend

The crossover star of the 90s, Rahul Khanna plays a Pakistani intelligence officer in an Emmy-nominated drama and becomes the internet’s latest boyfriend

Note: This piece was written by Nikhil Taneja (@tanejamainhoonfor Open Magazine. An edited version of the piece can be found here: https://goo.gl/BkCbDA


Tucked away in a lane a few hundred meters from Mumbai’s iconic Haji Ali Dargah, you are likely to miss The Royal Willingdon Sports Club, if you aren’t aware of it. Founded in 1918 by Lord Willingdon, the then Governor of the city that was once called Bombay, the club is cited as Mumbai’s “most exclusive”, with its membership closed to outsiders since 1985. It most famously denied membership to Padmashri Dr. DY Patil, in 2010, while he was the governor of Tripura, and is especially known for its snobbery towards all things ‘Bollywood’.

So the elite club is the last place you expect to meet an actor for an interview, least of all an actor who purportedly counts his allegiance to the Indian film industry. But then again, Rahul Khanna is no ‘Boutique Bollywood actor’, even though his Twitter bio irreverently claims otherwise.

Khanna, the son of the legendary ‘70s superstar, Vinod Khanna, India’s first de-facto sex symbol, and former model Gitanjali Taleyarkhan, could well be the living and breathing personification of cinema’s popular ‘fish out of water’ trope. Stylish to a fault and impeccably well-mannered, the actor has the grace and poise of a gentleman more suited to the era in which the Willingdon Club flourished, than the hasty, unruly world of today.

His filmography has been measured and unhurried, his anchoring appearances have been select, his press interactions have been few and far between, and there’s painfully little known about his personal life. And then there’s that paradox: for someone who’s self-confessedly reserved, he is a rage on social media, not so much because he tries to be, but particularly because he doesn’t. His social media profiles are a picture of effortless wit and old world charm, and have led to a collective following of over half a million followers.

It is of little wonder then that the 44-year-old Khanna – who looks at least a decade younger – has been rediscovered by an entirely new section of the audiences, mostly excitable, frenzied millennial girls who have filled the internet with posts declaring that they can’t have enough of his naughty, suggestive Snapchats (he once posted a picture titled ‘morning wood’ that had him standing in front of wooden logs one early morning) or his tantalizing Instagram posts, filled with ‘ovary-busting pictures’, as one listicle site put it.

Is he the internet’s new boyfriend? Ask him and he bursts out laughing, “It’s all a bit of fun, really. You know, I don’t have a publicist or a PRO, and I’m a classic introvert, so when the social media phenomenon came out, I thought this would be a nice way to connect with people who are interested in me. The idea is for it to be a part of your personality and to use it to express yourself. I don’t want to share my opinions or be political, I’m only there for a positive experience. But I never thought anyone’s even paying attention to this!”

And when he did realise that there was rapt attention from female fans, it gave him the license to be a bit sassy, leading to everyone from Buzzfeed to MissMalini  declaring him ‘sex on legs’. “I would be lying to you if I said I don’t love the attention,” he chuckles, “especially since it’s not lascivious, it’s fun and flirty. But now that I know people are watching, there is this temptation to be a bit creative and be a little cheeky.”

Not only does Khanna have fun with his accounts publically, he also stays playful with his rather sweet habit of personally replying to anyone who tags him in a post through a personal, intimate direct message. Once, the actor responded to tweet from a female fan who had asked him to marry him, by messaging her, “Certainly. Is Saturday good for you?” The internet discovered her screenshot recently, driving hordes of female fans ecstatic that the eternal bachelor is now a DM away from marrying them, and he soon started trending for the same. Everyone wanted a DM from Rahul Khanna, and Khanna was only happy to oblige most.

“It was quite bizarre when that happened,” Khanna chuckles. “I didn’t understand that. I feel if someone has taken the trouble to tag me or say something nice, it’s only polite for me to reply. I want my profiles to be happy so I just started using them in the way I would chat with a friend on SMS or Whatsapp. I just want to be authentic.”

The word ‘happiness’, along with ‘joy’ comes up a lot during the course of our conversation. And every which way you look at Rahul Khanna’s story so far, whether you casually google him or speak at length with him, you’d see why authenticity is just as important a trait for him.

As a bespectacled ‘nerdy’ kid with an affinity for pinstriped shirts and khaki pants (“I had a connection with pinstripes that made me feel good about myself”), Khanna grew up with his kid brother, actor Akshaye Khanna, in South Bombay, distinctly away from the heart of Bollywood that resided in and around Juhu and Andheri.  His parents split up early in his childhood, and with it, so did most of his connections with the film world.

“It’s strange that we, as kids, were perceived as belonging to that world,” he reflects. “I sort of equate myself as being an outsider with inside access. All we knew is that our Dad was an actor and people knew who he was. So as a kid, there was a time I wanted to be a vet because I love dogs, and another time I wanted to be an artist because I loved cartooning. I knew it would be something creative but didn’t know it would be film. I ended up here… but I still kind of feel I don’t know which world I belong to.”

It was the opportunity to go to New York along with his interest in the creative arts that inspired him to enroll in film school at The School of Visual Arts, New York. Along the way, he also did an acting course at the Lee Strasberg Theater Institute.

“The end game wasn’t to get into Bollywood, it was only to explore the craft,” he says. “I was very influenced by the new sort of burgeoning Indian independent cinema coming out of the west. There was this little theater in New York called The Angelina that would play only independent, foreign films. I saw a film called Masala by a filmmaker called Sreenivas Krishna from Canada, and it was spectacular to see English language films about India.”

Although his brother, Akshaye, made his Bollywood debut around the same time as he was studying filmmaking, with Himalay Putra, a film produced by their father, Vinod Khanna, Khanna just couldn’t relate to what Bollywood was in those days. “There were no scripts!” he chuckles. “When people would offer me stuff and I’d ask for a script, it would be inconceivable to them that I didn’t understand the Bollywood way of working, and it was inconceivable to me that they wouldn’t have a script.”

Bollywood did happen a few years later, but it was in the early 90s, when Khanna first burst on to the scene as the Indian face of MTV Asia, even before MTV India was launched. After enjoying immense adulation and being hailed as a metrosexual Indian icon, at a time leading Bollywood actors were more famous for their chest hair than their acting skills, Khanna became one of the first young leading men to star in crossover Indian cinema with Deepa Mehta’s 1947 Earth and Bollywood/Hollywood.

It was this experience he had on the film set, along with a 8-shows-a-day, 11 week stint on the off-Broadway stage, with “theater royalty” Scott Elliott-directed play, East is East, that made him believe acting was his calling.

“Earth and East is East were incredible first acting jobs for me. I picked up so much about teamwork and they set the bar really high in terms of the kind of people and crew you could work with. I find acting to be a very intimate process, so it helped me, as an introvert, to connect. And those environments made me realise that if I could continue to do this, it would be a really good thing.”

So post his early days as a crossover star, the reason Khanna only did a handful of films over the next decade was not due to lack of offers, but because for him, relating to the team behind the film was just as important as the scripts he was getting.

“I want to be working with people I respect and who respect me back, because that’s the only way you can enjoy work and get a good result out of it” he emphasizes. “What’s the point of taking on something, when it would seem that you’d be miserable during the process? So when I look back at films of mine that haven’t been received well, if I had a good time on them, and if I’ve made friends, I feel they were worth it.”

He points out that there were times he wasn’t sure of a project but went ahead and did it anyway because he liked the people. “It was also important for me to prove wrong people who believed that I had some sort of prejudice against Bollywood,” he says. “Whenever I’d meet people, it was always implied that I perhaps felt that I was better than Bollywood, and hence hadn’t done so much of it. To them I would say, how could I have anything against Bollywood if I worked with Raj Kanwar!”

That would explain some of the misfires in the early part of his Bollywood filmography, but when he started taking up character-driven roles in films like Ayan Mukerji’s Wake Up Sid and Imtiaz Ali’s Love Aaj Kal, he saw another exasperating side of the same industry.

“After these films, I’d only get offered ‘the other guy’ roles!” he laughs. “People started telling me how brave I was for doing such a role in these films but I never knew these rules. No one told them to me when I was taking up the films! (pause) It did get a bit frustrating that I wasn’t getting to do more of what I love, but it’s not a vanity thing for me to see myself on screen ‘x’ number of times. Besides, isn’t the whole point of it to have fun?”

Having fun has been the driving force behind taking up the cameo in season one of Anil Kapoor’s 24, and also a scene-stealing role in the international drama series, The Americans, that has been nominated for an Emmy Award for Best Drama this year. What started off as a one episode cameo, was turned into a full-fledged arc in the following season, even if that meant coming to terms with the graphic sex scenes he had to indulge in as a Pakistani spy with a keen eye for American women.

“My friends haven’t stopped tormenting me about that,” he chuckles. “From screenshots to Whatsapp group profile pictures, I’ve seen it all. The good thing, acting wise, is that after you spend 16 hours naked in a room full of strangers, there’s nothing you can’t do. It’s no longer an unknown beast.”

The Emmy nomination would certainly give the show a big boost and Khanna will perhaps come to benefit it too along the way. At the moment, even as he hopes to be called back for another arc on the show, he’s looking at scripts in both countries to figure his next steps. He’s got a travel show coming up on NDTV Good Times that will see him on the whiskey trail in Scotland, and while there’s been serious talks and negotiations for a men’s clothing line, given his tremendous style credentials, it’s yet to be worked out.

All of these things are an important part of what he calls, ‘the pursuit of joy’. “I feel that life is really short and if you are not doing stuff that brings you joy, then you are wasting your time,” he smiles. What gives him joy on a daily basis, you ask him? Reading, food, gymming and meeting friends are high on his list. He also has a certain fondness for antique furniture and collects boarding passes, although he’ snot sure why. But it’s not about individual things, he says, but the way you live your life.

“I feel we, as a people, have become a little bit less considered. So everything I do or own or like has been considered. So, if you say, I have nice manner, it’s because it’s a nice thing to have, it’s nice when someone smiles because of you.”

“It’s a horrible example, I know, “he continues with a laugh, “but I see people who may have an amazing car but they’d treat it really badly. My car may be 300 times more modest but I appreciate it and keep it well. I’m not saying my way is right, but I see people who have a lot more than I do, but nothing brings them happiness.”

It’s almost strange to see the Zen-like attitude, especially coming from someone who is a part of an industry fundamentally built on desire, and with a first name that has come to be synonymous with a period of Bollywood that reflected upward mobility and aspiration. But where everyone likes to fit inside little brackets of stereotype and cliché, Khanna’s refreshingly alright about standing out. “I have always been a round peg in a square hole,” he explains through an idiom that’s almost as peculiar as he asserts he is.

“I was uncomfortable about it when I was younger, because there was an emphasis to fit in and be a certain way, but now, I feel it is one of my biggest strengths, that I don’t fit in anywhere. So I’m also really attracted to people who are odd, who don’t play by the rules, and whom other people call weird. I really like those kind of people, and I feel it is a wonderful quality to have: in a world so standardized, to have people who are themselves. I love that!”

That’s perhaps, then, the best way of defining Rahul Khanna, connoisseur of the good life, pursuer of joy, and the internet’s current boyfriend: A gentleman of his own, in a world that is standardized.

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Note: This interview first appeared in Open Magazine on August 5, 2016
Link: http://www.openthemagazine.com/article/cinema/rahul-khanna-the-internet-s-latest-boyfriend
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: GABRIEL ‘HARVEY SPECTOR’ MACHT #PROFILE #SUITS

Looking for the real man in Suits

Gabriel Macht interviewed by Nikhil Taneja (@tanejamainhoon) over phone for Man’s World India. Original article: http://goo.gl/wTYJzo

According to Comedy Central, over three million Indians watch the hit television legal drama, Suits, every day. And, its central character, the rule-breaking lawyer Harvey Spector, is fast emerging as a role model for men across the country. As the show enters its fourth season, we go looking for the real man inside him

 

Hollywood has a very precise idea of what it takes to be a man; rather, what it takes to be the man. The quintessential man, the manly man, the man’s man, the stuff of legend. A man must be able to woo ladies without having to try; ladies must want a man for what he is naturally. James Bond is a man. So is Shaft. A man must be silent and brooding; ideally, a man must not feel at all (and if he does, no one should ever know). Batman is a man (the Christopher Nolan version).  So is Rambo. So is Clint Eastwood in every movie ever. A man has honor; he has a code that all men must live by, but only real men ever do. The Godfather, King Leonidas, Tyler Durden and Maximus Decimus Meriduis are all men. A man can throw a punch when he needs to; and there is always need for a man to throw a punch. John McClane is a man. So is Liam Neeson (and not merely his character in Taken).To top it all, a man is handsome, suave and stylish, but ruggedly; a man is definitely not meterosexual. Gordon Gekko is a man. So are Frank Bullitt and Ryan Gosling’s Driver in Drive.

If Hollywood is right, then there are few who fit the description of a real man better than television’s Harvey Spector (played by Gabriel Macht), from the lawyer drama Suits, which has quickly mushroomed into somewhat of a phenomenon among American TV addicts in India. With a reach of 3.3 million viewers (stats provided by Comedy Central India), Suits is currently the highest rated English language show in its genre and its central character, Spector, is exactly the kind of man ladies want, and men want to be. But who is Gabriel Macht, the man behind the character?

Gabriel Macht is an accomplished man. At 42, the drama graduate from Carnegie Mellon College of Fine Arts, is happily married with a daughter, to fellow actor Jacinda Barrett (The Namesake, The Last Kiss), has a great job that keeps getting better – Suits is in its fourth season now and considering its popularity and ratings, likely to continue for more – and some solid indie acting credits along the way. In a career spanning 36 years from the age of 8, when he played his first role as a child actor in ‘Why Would I Lie?’, just some of the Hollywood legends he’s acted alongside include Robert De Niro (The Good Shephard), Al Pacino (The Recruit), Anthony Hopkins (Bad Company), Gene Hackman (Behind Enemy Lines) and John Travolta (A Love Song For Bobby Long).

Gabriel Macht is also a man of his word. When I call his hotel room in New York at the designated time of the interview, the reception desk tells me there’s no one by the name of ‘Gabriel Macht’ staying there. I try ‘Harvey Spector’ and the reception desk laughs me off. As I put the phone down and mail Macht’s publicist and the minutes fly by, I assume the worst, when I get a tweet from the verified account of Macht, @GabrielMacht, “Call me again and they shall put you through. Apologies”. Macht has somehow hunted me down on Twitter and when I call him, he profusely apologises for what was, essentially, the hotel’s fault: the personnel at the reception desk had changed and Macht’s instructions hadn’t been passed on to him. Not many celebrities of his stature would do such a thing, so I’m definitely impressed.

Gabriel Macht is a gentleman, alright, so I ask him if he is also similar to the Hollywood definition of being a man? He pauses for a bit and then says, “I think that a man is somebody who is responsible for his actions and lives his life with integrity, care and respect for others. When something important is asked of him, he follows through. But Hollywood’s version of what a man is, I believe, is just a little superficial.

“In real life, we can go a little deeper than that guy, you know? We can show weakness a little bit more and I think we can be a little bit more vulnerable. Because, I think, Hollywood’s version of a man’s man can become a bit too serious for its own good. If men can poke a little bit more fun at themselves, and listen a little bit more to the women around them, I think the world would be a little better place.”

So Gabriel Macht is also a ladies’ man, but in all the right ways. I prod him to elaborate on the last line and he chuckles, “Well, I think what makes a man complete, and happy, if he’s in a relationship and if he’s married… is a happy wife. I think when you get down to it, if your partner is happy and fulfilled, I think that’s all that matters.

“You know, when I married my wife, that’s when I fully became a man,” he continues. “When I owned my first property with her, and everything that goes into owning a home, and keeping it in a livable condition (chuckles), and of course, the next stage, when I had my daughter; those are all tests for life. And I think if you seal it in those tests by being there for your family, it’s the most important thing. We can all go to work, and of course, we have to make a living, but at the end of the day, I am living for my family.”

Gabriel Macht is a family man. And that’s as far a cry as can be from what Hollywood’s ‘real men’ are, and certainly from what Harvey Spector is. Spector is a man with a single-minded focus: to succeed, whatever be the cost. He doesn’t need a family; he doesn’t even have time for one. Spector’s a lone wolf, who knows what he wants; he’s essentially the grown-up, corporate version of a bad boy, and that’s perhaps what makes the character so appealing. So does Macht think Spector’s a quintessential man?

“I don’t, actually,” Macht says. “I think Harvey’s got a very solid character and integrity, but I don’t think he’s in touch with his emotions. He’s got a lot of demons inside and (chuckles) some anger management issues, and the way he talks to people under him could be refined. Harvey’s certainly learning to be a man, but he’s got a lot of growth in there, and that’s what makes him interesting. If he was a perfect man, it would be just so boring to watch… because no one’s perfect!”

“But I don’t buy Harvey’s idea of success. I do think there’s something to finding success and feeling worthwhile, but, you know, I don’t think it really matters what everyone around you thinks. If you feel like you’re doing good work, if you think you’re making a difference, if you feel like you are coming to work and giving it your best, I think that’s what real success is.”

Gabriel Macht is a successful man, by his definition or by any other. But this success has taken almost 15 years to come, from his first adult role in a 1991 episode of Beverly Hills, 90210. Even with strong performances in credible indie movies and a much-coveted lead role in Frank Miller’s directorial debut, The Spirit, opposite Eva Mendes and Scarlett Johansson, in 2008, it was only until Suits happened in 2011 that Macht’s charisma as well as acting chops gained worldwide recognition. For an actor who dabbled in movies for so long, did television ever feel like a step down?

“To be honest,” Macht says, “I made the leap to television because I wasn’t finding the roles to sustain myself in films. I I wasn’t getting the ones that guys I really looked up to, like Christian Bale, Matt Damon, and Leo (DiCaprio) were getting. And the movies I had made were not 100 million dollar movies, and so I thought, ‘You know what? Is it really about a successful film or is it really about just finding a character or finding a story that you can tell?’ And so, when Suits came along, I was like, ‘You know what? I just want to work now.’ And there was something about Harvey Spector as a character, that I thought would be fun to play.

“And I think Suits works on so many levels. It’s cinematic, there’s a ton of wit, all the characters really care about what they are upto, and most importantly, women have a really, really strong voice on the show. A bunch of the guys are huffing and puffing on the show (chuckles), but it’s the women of the show that are its spine and the backbone. I think that’s really well done. I always believe that things happen for a reason. Suits has become fruitful in so many ways. There are a lot of great things about the show that I see are really touching a nerve with people. And people from all over the world are really enjoying this show, it’s just fantastic.”

Gabriel Macht is indeed a popular man. If you’re in doubt, ask the ladies who follow Suits in India! Unsurprisingly, Macht is aware of this, “You know, when we shoot Suits in Toronto, and we’re on the streets maybe one or two days out of the episode, we’ve got hundreds of people that come out. And they’re predominantly Indian women, I find. I mean, there’s a huge Indian culture that loves the show! You know, please tell Indian women out there that I love them, and also to everyone else who watches the show, that I’m very thankful.”

So Gabriel Macht is, ultimately, a good man. A man who’s seen failure but come back stronger. A man who’s struggled his way to the top but doesn’t take success for granted. A man who loves his craft but who loves his family more – a man who could take up multiple projects in his five months off from the show but ensures that time is only to “fill up the Daddy well: spend time with the wife and daughter, take her to school, and be there for both of them as much as possible”. A man who has his priorities right. And, of course, a man who looks excellent in a suit! A quintessential man’s man? Hollywood’s found its answer right here.

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Note: An edited version of this interview first appeared in Man’s World India in the June, 2014 issue.  The unedited Q ‘n’ A and the audio interview will be put up soon.
Link: http://www.mansworldindia.com/style/looking-for-the-real-man-in-suits/

Picture courtesy: Comedy Central India. 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.

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.”