John Abraham: I can't be part of the crowd...
Reinvented and reinvigorated, John Abraham on the most gratifying film of his career, Batla House, and surviving, despite rejecting Bollywood camps
The first thing John Abraham notices are my colourful sneakers. Over the years, we've bonded on our collective love for shoes, as much as movies. There's something to admire about Abraham's repertoire, an example of how a gorgeous hunk of a man, most talked about for his looks has managed to evolve himself into a credible actor. "For the longest time in my career, I was called wooden," he admits but that never deterred him from exploring new ground till he found his beat. As his recent outing, Batla House, opened to steady numbers and much critical acclaim, John and I settle for a chat in his office about his newfound affinity for the patriotic brand of cinema, his trysts with the effort to be taken seriously and the way forward for his production house.
Edited excerpts from the interview.
Is there a sense of validation in the fact that you've managed to stir debate with Batla House?
From day one, Nikkhil [Advani, director] told me that it's not only about an encounter, but we are narrating the story of a man and his experiences post that encounter. We wanted to make it a human story which I am glad has been appreciated by the audience. In fact, DCP Sanjeev Kumar Yadav's wife Shobhana Yadav called me three days after the film released and said, 'You have shown everything about my husband exactly the way it is, including the pauses. It felt like I was watching him on the big screen.' Sanjeev was so thankful because there were times when I could go overboard to play to the gallery but I decided to play him. He told Nikkhil, 'I am proud of me.' For me, that was my biggest validation. Priya (Runchal, his wife) loved the film. My father wanted to congratulate Nikkhil for making a beautiful film, an acknowledgement he has never made in the past.
A still from Batla House
Do you feel the big battle you've always had to fight — that of being taken seriously as an actor - has been won?
For the longest time in my career, I was called furniture or people would comment that models cannot act while talking about me, but those people have now either left the industry or are on the fringes. I always had to prove myself at every point. There is a new set of audience and media that have come in, which is the generation I am catering to. The content and my performance are being appreciated. The idea is to take criticism constructively and improve. I am confident about the content I am creating. But I won't disagree that I've never seen such a large wave of appreciation from the audience and the critics unanimously for a film, in my career.
Has the approach within the industry altered?
People who I have worked with have always stood by me. They never had any doubts [thinks hard]. Actually, there are several who woke up from their graves and called me after watching Batla House to say, 'This is a new actor we are watching. You have new energy'. These are the same people who rejected me at some point. But I take my work seriously and don't pay attention to those who have suddenly changed their approach. I don't have any 'aspirational' list of directors. I'd rather work with someone who has the guts and heart to work with me, my production house and become the kind of person they want to.
You've often mentioned that the content from your production house is non formulaic. What is the process of selecting projects?
I choose scripts with my gut. I decide what films I'd like to produce, and then we ponder on the casting. There are many films where I am the third option [as an actor]. I am clear about what I want to do because I am not scared of failure. For, a person who has had no godfather, and faced endless criticism, has been written-off and still managed to hang around, has only himself to thank. I follow the management rule—higher the risk, higher the return. And these are calculative risks where I ensure everyone makes money. I believe in the Monday of the film. Your film is only good if it lasts two or three weeks. That's what, we as actors, producers and directors shy away from [risk] because we are scared to accept failures.
Is there then a sense of vindication with the success you have garnered in the last three years?
There would be if I gave importance to others. I don't pay heed to detractors. When the chips were down, the only person who convinced me was myself. I don't know how to follow people or belong to a camp. Hence, I do my kind of films and create my own content. I am not saying it is going to be the best, but at least it is something I will enjoy doing, and the audience will enjoy watching.
Won't people then consider you selfish?
People who know me are aware that I need to be left alone. Karan [Johar] is one of my closest friends. I don't go to his parties but we are still friends. I like being by myself, attending to my motorcycles, cars or simply reading. Does that mean that it will be difficult for me to approach an actor for my home production? Not at all. I get along with everyone but it has to be a personal interaction. I can't be part of the crowd.
You have six films lined up. Do you ever feel exhausted?
I am on auto-pilot mode. My team keeps telling me that I will burn out one day, but I fear that it will happen if I am not working. I am not mindlessly doing multiple films. I am content with each script. Rensil D'Silva's film on biking and Attack [directed by debutant Lakshya Raj Anand] has been in development for almost two years. Both are well thought-out projects. These films are being produced by JA Entertainment. I never followed trends because they change every minute. So, as far as I am concerned, the idea is not to be opportunistic with a certain trend, but to do what you believe in.
John Abraham's last three films Parmanu: The Story of Pokhran (2018), Satyameva Jayate (2018) and Romeo Akbar Walter have centred around patriotism. But he claims he would voluntarily do another one. "It is all about what you project. I'm secular and would like to make films that reflect the true nature of this country. If tomorrow there's [another] great patriotic film, I would love to do it. But I would not opt for jingoistic films. I am not anti any other country, I am not anti any other religion."
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