MUMBAI — He has not taken any sabbatical but was still away from the marquee for a good while — it has been over two years since his home production “One by Two” bit the dust in 2014. Completely unlike his famous uncle Dharmendra and cousins Sunny and Bobby Deol, Abhay Deol’s image has always been one of a rather offbeat film actor known more for films like “Ek Chalis Ki Last Local,” “Manorama - Six Feet Under,” “Road, Movie,” “Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!” “Dev.D” and “Shanghai” rather than his (flop) mainstream films like his debut “Socha Na Tha” (a hit on television now) and “Aisha.” Of course, he has had successes like “Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara” and a brief role in the successful “Raanjhanaa.”
And it is the last film’s director, Aanand L. Rai, who approached him for his latest release, “Happy Bhag Jayegi.” We chat up the actor at the producer Eros’ office late on the pre-release Saturday evening. For some reason, he has put on a heavy European accent; otherwise he remains the same actor we have known for years now.
Excerpts from the interview:
Q: Most of your characters have this humorous streak. And this is a comedy. Do you make a special effort to choose such roles?
A: I love dark comedy in particular. I also think that in a serious or dramatic film, humor always adds that relief and also makes a character relatable. It also adds a bit of the entertainment quotient.
Q: How relatable is your character in “Happy Bhag Jayegi?”
A: I play Bilal, a guy who’s studied abroad just like me, is open-minded but at the same time is submissive, especially in front of his father and is a quiet and charming man. Between the differences and the similarities to me, I find him completely relatable. In fact, the only difference is that he speaks Urdu, as he is from Pakistan, whereas I speak Hindi!
Q: Did the fact that Rai worked with you in “Raanjhanaa” help you accept this role?
A: Well, pretty much! When he told me about this film and said that the director had written this role especially with me in mind, I thought, “Oka-a-ay!” So I asked Anand, “Who is the director and writer, and what has he done before?” The best part is the director had himself written the script, and that helped me judge him creatively. He had directed one flop film, “Dulha Mil Gaya,” but you cannot judge someone on one movie. There are so many circumstances that can make a product go wrong. And that’s happened with me too in so many movies.
Creatively and at the marketing level, films can go askew, and though people are happy with many of my films and my role in them, I have issues about some in my own space, though I prefer to keep quiet about them.
Q: Is it also because most of your films have been successful at a critical level and not commercially?
A: Every actor wants his films to recover investment and at least make a small profit. India’s economy opened up 25 years ago, and, as capitalism takes hold, it is natural that business dominates over the creative side.
Today, more so than before, I am a bit cautious about the films I choose. Yes, over here, unlike in the West, a flop, especially an offbeat film, can put you on a back-foot. It can make your mainstream cinema suffer and also affect your longevity as an actor.
Then, many of my films may have been appreciated later on home videos and satellite channels, but had issues at the time of release like marketing again and did not do well. But, in this case, for starters, both Aanand and Krishika Lulla of Eros were backing the director and had put their faith in him. That was reason enough to know that the film would shape up well.
Q: Is all this pressure on you?
A: In a way, pressure is always there, though I love what I do. In the beginning, the pressure was about whether someone unknown like me could deliver. Now that I have shown a certain consistency in my work, it is more about whether I can continue to deliver, and better what I have done. So instead of someone thinking, “Why the hell is Abhay doing such films?” it is now, “We understand why you are doing these movies!”
Q: So what is your criterion or criteria for choosing a movie?
A: Well, I have always chosen scripts that are not necessarily only about my character, but are coherent — with a clear beginning, middle and end — and definitely relatable. Good writing even takes care of the way I can internalize my characters, which I have to do, over and above the external trappings like moustaches or even the accents. The external trappings are important, but superficial, like the South Indian origins, the moustache, glasses and accent of the IAS (Indian Administrative Service) officer I played in “Shanghai.” So besides the geography and social status, we also have the character’s ambition as well as his other emotional side. Nothing else supports all this as much as a well-written script.
Q: How different is it doing a solo lead film from a multi-hero movie?
A: See, I have never kept myself in a box. I have done solo lead roles, supporting roles and multi-hero films. The responsibility is greater when the story is being told through your character’s perspective and you are the only hero. But even in such films, a good supporting cast is a support system, and that only adds to your work.
Q: Your co-star, Ali Fazal, said that he does better work rather than feel insecure when there are other talented heroes, as in this film.
A: I have always been secure as an actor. I believe that what I can do, you cannot, and the reverse too is true. Everyone has his own special place.
Q: In “Happy Bhag Jayegi,” Jimmy Sheirgill dances to “Yaaro O Yaara,” your cousin Sunny Deol’s popular song from the 1996 “Jeet.” Shouldn’t it have been you doing that instead?
Q: Has Sunny watched it?
A: No! He is abroad. But he’s a big sport. He will have a good laugh!
Q: Will the gap between your next film and this be as long as it was this time?
A: I have one script that I love, and I am waiting for it to take off, and I am reading another one. But I am not shooting anything at the moment.