Unconventional. Original. Individualistic.
Conversations with actor and producer Abhay Deol are liberally peppered with these adjectives and it is no surprise for anyone familiar with his filmography. His next release, SonyLIV’s JL50 is a series based on a plane crash that’s discovered decades after it went down. The whodunit that also stars Pankaj Kapur and Piyush Mishra has elements of time travel. While the show is the 44-year-old’s first attempt at serialised storytelling (“though it was shot like a film”), it is experimental and high-concept enough to fit right in with his past work. “It doesn’t pander to the mainstream or a formula. It has got its own originality,” is how he describes the show on a Zoom call from his home in Los Angeles.
In the early noughties, the buzzword in Bollywood was ‘multiplex films’ and Deol was the undisputed poster child of the indie film world. He might have debuted with Imtiaz Ali’s sweet but predictable rom-com Socha Na Tha (2005), but his choices after that were anything but. He played a North Indian migrant in Mumbai who misses the last train home in Sanjay Khanduri’s black comedy Ek Chalis Ki Last Local ; a government engineer and wannabe writer in Navdeep Singh’s neo-noir film Manorama: Six Feet Under (2007); and a West Delhi con man in Dibakar Banerjee’s Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye (2008). In Anurag Kashyap’s retelling of the age-old tale of tragic defeatism Dev D (2009), his performance as the scumbag Dev only cemented his position.
The words ‘starring Abhay Deol’ were soon seen as an ISI mark for those looking for more than what mainstream Hindi films were offering at the time. Such was the power he wielded that his presence in films like Manorama and Dev D even helped green light them. Just when he was getting pigeonholed, he joined the cast of Zoya Akhtar’s Zindagi Na Milegi Dobora (2011) for a cinematic romp across Spain, followed by Banerjee’s Shanghai (2012), and continued to cock a snook at the Bollywood establishment who couldn’t figure out how to peg the youngest Deol in the business (Dharmendra is his uncle, and Sunny and Bobby his cousins).
MIA in Bollywood
In the last decade, however, though Deol tasted commercial success with Raanjhanaa (2013) and Happy Bhag Jayegi (2016), he took a wrong turn and has been mostly missing from our screens. The few releases — such as Nanu Ki Jaanu (2016), Chopsticks (2018) — were duds. His reputation of being “painfully difficult to work with” could have contributed to his stumbling in showbiz. Navdeep Singh reminisced with Huffpost India recently about how the actor had “wanted to do artistic movies but also wanted the mainstream benefits... of being a ‘Deol’. He would stay in a five-star hotel while the entire crew stayed in Paharganj for a film that was made on a very tight budget. [It is] also the reason a lot of his directors went away from him.”
- What waslockdownlike for you?
- I tried to be productive. I was in Goa through it. I live in a forest, so I was cycling and swimming. I’m privileged and blessed. I’ve been painting — that's a new skill I’m trying to develop. If you go on my Instagram, you can see a few examples.
- Were you always interested in painting?
- I could always draw. I think it is an art you’re born with. I could do the human figure even as a kid. [Then I] moved to cartoons, caricatures and characters. So I think I am just revisiting my past, but this time with an adult brain as opposed to a child’s.
- Have you also consumed a lot of OTT content?
- It is funny but through the lockdown I was working on my skills, so I didn’t get into watching anything. I did see Dark on Netflix, which I really enjoyed.
But Deol explains his absence as a function of industry mechanics. “My career really picked up when multiplexes were brand new. Just for a brief moment, there was more exhibition space and fewer products.” As the advent of OTT has brought about another paradigm shift in the industry, he believes the tide is in favour of those like him who want to continue pushing the envelope. “OTT, unlike multiplexes, is an endless exhibition space. And they’ll experiment more than what traditional Bollywood producers would do,” he adds.
In the last few years, he’s been trying to get his career back on track. He’s turned producer (with films like Netflix’s 2020 release What Are the Odds? ) and now divides his time between Mumbai, Goa and LA. “I have executive produced a horror movie. It is an American film that releases at the end of the year. There’s a project I’m working on as an actor as well, which will be announced by the studio. I’m also developing an Indo-American film where the script’s already been written, and I produce and act. I’m just having fun,” he says.
The last 15 years might have been a roller coaster, but Deol is not sure if he’d want to change anything if he gets a do-over. “Maybe five years ago I’d have considered it. Today I don’t because of the freedom I have. I don’t have the pressure of being in the Top 5. A lot of being a star is just holding on to that,” he explains.
This freedom has meant that he has never been afraid to stand up to the powers-that-be. Even if it has meant that people in the industry became wary of working with him. “If you want to continuously work in this business, then you should be friendly and approachable; you shouldn’t come across as somebody with too many strong opinions because it is just going to be seen as arrogance,” he says. In the past he has been vocal about issues like the wage gap, sexism, patriarchy and colour-ism. Last month, he addressed nepotism on Instagram (where he has over 7 lakh followers), stating how it is prevalent everywhere and “we need a cultural revolution”. Most recently he shared a fan’s observation that his film Raanjhanaa glorified sexual harassment, writing, “History will not look kindly at this film for its regressive message”. But he understands why fellow celebrities aren’t as vocal as him. “You have to be more wary, because you get trolled and attacked on social media. Our actresses get death and rape threats. Sanjay Bhansali got slapped, right? What was the threat against Deepika (Padukone)? And they didn’t even file an FIR, which just shows how scared they were.”
He’s also carried the freedom, and his penchant for going against the grain, into his work as a producer — working with newcomers when even “big name directors rarely work with newcomers [except star kids]”. His Netflix film, What Are the Odds? , starred newbie Karanvir Malhotra who recalls Deol having a “very mentor kind of vibe”.
Whether it is on- or off-screen, Deol isn’t afraid of challenging his audience. “They need to be led towards spaces that they’ve never seen before because film is a form of art and art can be provocative very easily. As a culture, we have the ability to be as provocative as anybody else in the world. But we are limited by the powers around us. I don’t have to censor myself as much on OTT platforms as I would have had to in theatricals. At the same time, I still feel like if I would have pushed 70% provocation with a theatrical, with OTT it might be 80%. It is never a 100%. That would be too scandalous,” he says, signing out with a laugh.
JL50 is now streaming onSonyLIV.