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Low profile award winner

Ajay Devgan recently bagged his second National Award for Raj Kumar Santoshi's "The Legend of Bhagat Singh," though it was a box office failure. Devgan has proved his versatility after going through a lean period, and dabbling in direction and editing in a junior capacity, writes V. GANGADHAR...

Ajay Devgan received his first National Award for "Zakhm".

A STRING of hits. All top directors at his feet. Two `Best Actor' National Awards at the age of 34. Domestic bliss in the form of wife Kajol and daughter Nysa. Ajay Devgan is certainly on Cloud Nine. But the low-key actor who shuns publicity may say, `Make it Cloud Seven, that's enough for me!"

Raj Kumar Santoshi's "The Legend of Bhagat Singh" failed at the box office but fetched Ajay his second National Award (the first was in 1998 for "Zakhm" directed by Mahesh Bhatt). "We all worked very hard," recollected Devgan. "And this time, I hoped and expected such hard work would bear fruit." Santoshi had wanted a new face to play the role of Bhagat Singh who was executed by the British when only 23. Ajay was his second choice and though 34, the director was impressed by the `fire in his eyes'. Sunny Deol wanted Santoshi to direct brother Bobby in their production of Bhagat Singh, but the director stuck to Devgan.

Ajay Devgan's success has broken the hoodoo over the plain looking actors becoming successful. Ajay was never the fair, chocolate hero. Son of famous fight director, Veeru Devgan, he dabbled in direction and editing in a junior capacity before being lured before the camera for Kuku Kohli's "Phool Aur Kaante," which was a box office hit. "Phool", "Jigar", "Vijaypath" and "Divya Shakti" were all action films, which had their own audiences.

But the actor went through a lean period when the chocolate and cream heroes kept him out. "Ajay was displaced by the fair-skinned aristocracy," observed director Mahesh Bhatt. "His very place among the top stars was questioned because he was the son of a stunt director and was supposed to be good only in stunt roles. Ajay was patient and proved them wrong." The actor was slightly miscast for certain roles and could not shake a leg like co-stars like Aamir Khan and Juhi Chawla in "Ishq". But he found his feet in the romantic comedy, "Pyar Tho Hona Hi Tha", "Lajja," despite the film's woman-oriented theme, and the big hit, "Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam" where his portrayal of the low-key, understanding husband was acclaimed.

"The Legend of Bhagat Singh ... a much applauded performance.

Audiences applauded his versatility in the gangster film, "Company", the negative role of a killer in "Deewange" and the troubled, helpless husband in Ram Gopal Verma's "Bhoot".

It is difficult to make Ajay Devgan talk about acting skills. "I am a lazy guy," he admitted. "I leave everything to the director, I listen carefully to his instructions, go before the camera and emote. It is that simple."

It was his good fortune to work with some of the most talented directors in Bollywood. "An actor should be able to choose his directors," observes Ajay. "The director makes all the difference to a film and its actors". Yet, directors are not complaining. Naturally, Santoshi is repeating his favourite actor in "Khakhee," the story of a cop with a dark past.

Devgan again plays the cop, this time a clean one, in Prakash Jha's "Ganga Jal" and the director cannot stop singing his praises. "He is the complete director's actor," says Afzal Khan, who directs Ajay, Sunjay Dutt and Manisha Koirala in "Mehbooba".

Afzal Khan, one time assistant to Veeru Devgan, is close to the actor's family. Ajay also enjoys total support from Ram Gopal Verma; they agree on a common approach to the art of acting.

Ajay Devgan is happy not only over his personal successes but the fact that Hindi cinema had registered some much-needed hits. This was due to the fact, says Ajay, that filmmakers had realised that the taste of the audience was changing and could not be taken for granted. The audience in the metros and the smaller towns had different preferences, and needed to be catered to differently.

As for his own successes, while attributing the same to the directors' skills, Ajay said an actor needed to be versatile. The success of his most recent release, "Qayamat," proved that action films were still popular, and he could continue to do them; but the action should fit in with the overall story and screen play.

Ajay Devgan did not regret making his own films like "Raju Chacha" which flopped badly.

He said he was planning to make more films after his present lot of commitments was over. "One has to be more careful with the script, I guess," he said. "We have to target our films to specific audiences".

The actor keeps his private life away from the media. His wedding to super star Kajol was strictly private, and the press was not invited.

On the sets, he does talk to the media, but only about films, their techniques and so on. Star status has robbed the actor of privacy, but he has accepted it.

Amitabh Bachchan once called Ajay Devgan the `Dark Horse' of the film industry. Yes, the Dark Horse is now winning races with regularity, leaving the more favoured glamour breeds way behind.

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