“India’s biggest superstar, Rajinikanth, moves around without hair & doesn’t care. But on screen he’s completely different. You just need to be right on screen”
Ajay Devgn is in a happy place right now. His last film Drishyam was a hit. His co-production Parched was premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival 2015. And he is currently working on his most expensive film till date as a producer, Shivaay, which he is also directing and acting in. It’s enough to get him talking although, as he says in this exclusive interview, he does “not like to talk too much”.
By Anna MM Vetticad
Congratulations on the success of Drishyam. Before the release you had described it as a small film. How did you arrive at that categorisation?
Thank you so much. I called it small only in terms of the budgetary requirements of a film of that nature. A family drama with very strong content but without action scenes, locations and songs is a small film budgetwise, not contentwise. You can’t expect a Rs 200 crore business from it. The masses are not ready to accept it in a way, so the business is slow. If the costing of such a film is in control it’s easier for it to succeed financially. Such a film won’t easily get a great opening but of course in terms of content it may be bigger than many of my other films, which is why it lasted in theatres for so many weeks, a phenomenon that is unheard of in this day and time when the trend is for films to be over and done with after two weeks.
Outsiders assume that the industry sees a film as big or small based on whether the star in the film is big or small. So you’re saying that’s not true?
Yes. It’s always based on the content and its budgetary requirement. Of course when you cast a star, that star comes with a certain price so the budget becomes higher. As a star then you have to decide how much you should be taking for such a film.
Kamal Haasan told me in an interview, “I’m constrained by the size of my stardom in the kind of movies I can do… Sometimes I’m told not to make a small film. I’m told: It will shrink your market.” Does this happen to you too?
Yes, all stars have these pressures. A lot of people who are not very sensible and who are just business-driven tell you you should not do small films because the industry expects a certain kind of collection from your film. I tell them, “Look, it depends on what I feel like doing.” Sometimes you want to do a content-driven film. They told me this before Drishyam but the film attracted the kind of audiences who have not seen Hindi films for years because of the word of mouth it received for its content. It’s not that in the first week it did great business and then it dropped. It just remained steady for weeks on end. So in the eyes of the audience, the film is not small and the actor has become bigger.
But these so-called trade people always say, you should do bigger films because your image is larger than life. I agree my image is larger than life and I knew that a certain kind of audience, which is technically my audience, I would say the masses, will not come for Drishyam because they don’t want to see Ajay Devgn getting beaten up.
If you look at it literally your character may have been getting beaten up in the film, but in truth he beats everyone including the system without raising a fist.
This is what I kept saying in my interviews, that the character is not weak, he is much stronger than a Singham because he fights with his brains, not his hands. That is why I think the film has worked. A certain kind of audience which likes just action and high drama hasn’t come in for sure, we do face that problem as stars, but it’s not very difficult to break it.
See, in any industry people will tell you that the right way to do things is how other people did it and made it. But you find your own path and when you succeed, those same people turn round and say, “We always knew this film would work.”
So in that sense, does stardom give you more freedom or does it place more constraints on you?
Both. It gives you more freedom in the sense that you can do big films that are also not bad cinema. Nowadays a balance between great content and big action is what works big time all over the world. Like Iron Man. Even Bond is not the same Bond who was at one time just about gadgets. They’ve made even Bond very real. Big entertainers these days need to have sensibilities that go with today’s times. A star can afford to do such big films.
Is it true that you’ve taken a year-long break from acting to prepare for your next film Shivaay?
Kind of, yes, except for 40-45 days of shooting for Drishyam in between.
Why did you feel the need to take this break?
I needed to prep for Shivaay because I’m directing it myself. It’s a difficult film to make. We’re shooting in very difficult terrain. The kind of action and drama it has requires a lot of detailing. There’s huge action in the Balkans in minus 15 degrees temperature. It is not easy preparing for it.
So you acted in Drishyam, which is an understated thriller. You are producing, directing and acting in Shivaay, which is a big-budget commercial venture. And you’ve produced Parched, which was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival 2015. That’s a lot of departments of filmmaking and a lot of genres of films. What kind of mix are you trying to achieve in your career right now?
I think a good-cinema mix. Shivaay is a commercial film but it has strong content too. That’s the path I’m taking. That is the only way to show the world we make films that have brilliant content and are technically strong. Russell Carpenter, the cameraman of Titanic, has done Parched. We could afford him only because he cut down his price for passion, for the script. There too they do some films out of passion for the project and some for the money. That’s what I’m trying to do too.
What is your personal style?
If I attend a function where it’s not compulsory to wear a tie, I would not. (Laughs) I would wear something like jeans and a jacket. I’m in that zone where I want to be comfortable. I’m not much into suits and things like that.
Would you agree that even looking casual can take a great deal of effort?
It does. The bottomline is that if you stay fit anything sobre works on your body because it falls right. Even the most expensive clothes won’t suit you if you don’t have a toned, fit body.
Has your attitude to style and styling changed over the years?
I have everything in my cupboard, but you know what I wear when I go off to shoot in the morning? Shorts or jeans, a T-shirt and my chappals. Because I’ve to go there, dress up for the film, pack up and come back home (laughs) so I don’t really care about what I wear.
Have you not become more style-aware after you married Kajol?
She’s never bothered. (laughs)
She’s also been known as someone who is not overly conscious of how she dresses. Would you agree that that typifies her style?
Ya, she is also casual about it.
Is it possible for a person to be a film star in this day and age without being at least slightly conscious of their style and styling?
You are conscious only when you are in front of the camera. That’s why you have designers and others to dress you up according to the character. Apart from that I don’t think it makes any difference. Look at the biggest superstar in the country, Rajinikanth. He moves around without hair and he doesn’t care. But when he comes on screen he’s completely different.
Then why are so many stars so conscious of what they wear on red carpets and at other public appearances?
They want to compete and I’m not saying it’s wrong. It’s good to dress well. If I’m walking on a red carpet I would be also wearing something decent, I just wouldn’t be very very conscious and going mad over what to wear. I guess for some there is an insecurity too as a result of which they feel they have to look good all the time. I just feel that once people have accepted you and like you, they like you the way you are. You just need to be right on screen.
Your daughter is 12, an age at which today’s parents have to be vigilant about the use of gadgets and the Internet because of all the information out there. How are you handling that?
We’re trying our best. It’s very tough because they have access in school and at home, and there’s wi-fi everywhere. We have blocked a lot of things, we talk to her and – touchwood – she does understand what she should and should not be seeing but the fact is that at 12, today’s kids know as much as we knew when we were 25. You can’t change that. All you can do is explain to them what is right and wrong. You can’t sit on their heads for 24 hours looking at what they’re doing on their laptops, computers and telephones. So the best way is to talk it out.
So is the key then to be the kind of parent they feel they can always speak to?
Yes, and that’s what my daughter does. Even if she sees something stupid, she would come and tell me that she saw something by mistake or she went to the wrong site. She’s very sensible that ways. Talking really really helps. And talking not at the age of 12, you need to start at the age of five or six.
But in most Indian families, if a child told her parents that she ended up seeing something she knows her parents wouldn’t want her to see, parents would say “tumhe aisi cheezein nahin dekhni chahiye (you shouldn’t see such things)” and end the conversation.
But you need to explain to them why. If any parent today thinks that at the age of 12 or 13 your child does not know what sex is and how they were born, they are just shutting their eyes to facts. Kids know everything these days so it’s better that before they come to know from outside in a different manner and in a negative manner, you talk it out with them.
You have Twitter and Facebook accounts. How comfortable are you with the social media?
Not great. I try to do a little bit of whatever I can, but I’m not very active.
Is that a reflection of the kind of person you are, who tends to want to keep to himself?
Ya ya that is the kind of person I am. I do not like to share too much, I do not like to talk too much, I don’t have anything to say when I have nothing to say. (laughs)
When stars first started taking to Twitter and FB, many from the older generation felt the social media is killing stardom as we know it because it destroys the mystique once considered essential to stardom. What’s your take on that?
I also somewhere believe in that. That is another reason why I maintain a distance.
Do you absolutely have to be on the social media to be successful these days?
Not really. I don’t believe that.
In that case, considering the kind of person you are, why are you making the effort at all?
Some things are required for film promotions because film promotions have gone haywire. It’s also a means through which fan clubs can stay connected to you. Earlier there were letters and fan mail, but things have changed. So if you are on social media, it makes them happy. But I’m not there to say, “Okay I just had a shower and just now I’m out doing this and that.” You will see one tweet from me in 2-3 days. So for instance, if they all wished my son a happy birthday I was moved and I thanked them.
Do you consider yourself tech-savvy?
Where technology about films is concerned, if you talk about CGI or how to operate a camera, I can beat anybody hands down. But where computers or other gadgets are concerned, I’ve never bothered.
I have enough on my hands. So if there’s something that I don’t know how to do on my I-Pad, I ask my daughter, “Can you do this for me?” (laughs)
Do you learn more from your failures or successes?
Both. And from other people’s failures and successes. Sometimes a film has worked but you know there was something wrong with it, so you tell yourself it should not happen again. Every day you learn. Even when it comes to films for which I’ve got national awards or people have appreciated my work, I don’t want to watch myself. I feel like, what shit work I’ve done yaar, I could have done it better. So I get embarrassed.
What did the box-office fate of Action Jackson (2014) and Himmatwala (2013) teach you?
To follow your heart. In the past, when on the first day of shooting I’ve realised a film is not going the way I thought it would, I have not stopped the film there itself because it harms the producers. I don’t know if I can do it in future, but I would like to. Because I do realise in the first one or two days whether the film is going to work or not. That’s also why I’ve become very wary. I’m done with these kinds of mediocre films, doing films for the sake of doing films. That’s why I’m doing films like Shivaay, Parched and Drishyam. Now I’m doing films I really believe in and for which I don’t have to depend much on others.
But when you read the scripts of Action Jackson and Himmatwala were you convinced?
With Himmatwala (a remake of the 1983 film of the same name starring Jeetendra and Sridevi) I was convinced in the sense that Once Upon A Time In Mumbaai (2010) had worked big time so I thought the director of Himmatwala (Sajid Khan) is going to the same zone. I thought he’s picking up the base from the original and he’s going to make it contemporary. But on the first day of shooting, looking at the way he asked me to perform and the way he put up the set, I was like, “Why are you doing this?” and he said, “Let people see what was made in the ’80s” and I was like, “Okay we’re screwed ya.” I won’t blame anybody much for Action Jackson because just as we were about to start shooting we came to know that our script completely resembles Dhoom 3 which was about to release in the next three months. So I delayed the film by a month, they started reworking the script, I still wasn’t happy but the set was put up and it was costing money to the producer, so I went ahead and did it. There I wouldn’t blame Prabhu (director Prabhudheva).
What about the fact that he made you dance a lot in Action Jackson?
I kept telling him that people do not expect this of me, but he had this issue that “Okay I want to show the world that I can make you dance”. (laughs)
Is it just that people don’t want to see you dancing or that dancing is not your strength?
It is not my strength. I also got a lot of flak for Rascals (2011) from people who told me very nicely: “Look, we don’t expect vulgarity from you. We like to see you in films like Gangaajal (2003), Singham (2011) or clean comedies like Golmaal (2006). We connect with you not as a star but as a person who’s just right on screen.” That was when I decided not do anything vulgar or which kids can’t watch. That is also when I realised that I should not try to be somebody else, I should be me because that is what people like. That’s where I knew an Action Jackson was going wrong because I knew people don’t like to see me dancing, they would like to see me doing what I’m good at. So now I follow that. That’s why I did Drishyam.
You seem to have great clarity about your strengths and weaknesses. Where does that come from?
From being honest to yourself?
When you are a big star, do you not get surrounded by people who are…
I never let them. My second line after “from being honest to yourself” was going to be, and from knowing why people are around you. You should know why people are around you, what they want and why. If you are sensible enough to know what is not working but they’re saying it’s working, that means they’re lying to you. You should know who are the right people and who are the wrong people. I think I know. I have a lot of people around me who are very honest and critical about what I do. They don’t have to bother if I’ll feel bad or good. If you see me on film sets, I would be sitting alone, I wouldn’t have 20 people surrounding me and chatting because I don’t have time for that. If the shot is done and I have time, I go to my van and do my own thing. From the beginning I’ve been very grounded that way. I give my father (action director Veeru Devgan) the credit for this, because when I’ve visited him I used to go on the sets and I’ve seen all this happening to other stars. I understood from my father, so I’ve never let that happen to me.
So one of the rules of stardom for you is no sycophants, no chamchas?
Ya. That is how it has always been.
Give me more rules of stardom from your book.
(Long pause) I don’t know. I don’t even think of myself as a star. I mean I just get up and go for work, as insecure as anybody else.
Maybe that’s one of the rules?
Ya, maybe that’s one of the rules. Even today, after 25 years of being in films, before giving a shot I don’t know if I’ll be able to pull it off. That insecurity helps you to grow.
And always be aware of what is happening in the world around you. That too will help you to grow, and to know when you’re being fooled and when you’re not.
(A shorter version of this interview by Anna MM Vetticad appeared in the November 2015 issue of Maxim magazine)
Photographs courtesy: https://www.facebook.com/AjayDevgn/
Note: These photographs were not published in Maxim