The poster for the Bollywood film Shanghai, opening this weekend, might look like a casting call gone horribly wrong. Why else would a filmmaker pair a classyactor such as Abhay Deol with the populist Emraan Hashmi? Throw actress Kalki Koechlin, a bohemian Indian-raised French actress, in, into the mix, and it’s even more puzzling.
“Yes, it’s an unusual choice,” said director Dibakar Banerjee of his political thriller, which premieres at the glamorous International Indian Film Academy Awards in Singapore on Thursday.
“Before Shanghai, I don’t think anybody could ever imagine Abhay Deol and Emraan Hashmi in one frame. Although there is no conscious attempt to break any stereotype, I don’t like sticking to conventions,” said Banerjee, who adds that throwing a mix of talent together makes an ensemble come alive.
While Deol has stayed away from popcorn, run-of-the-mill Bollywood romances, Hashmi has made a living out of blockbuster material. Deol is a respected actor, even if he doesn’t always fill multiplexes. Has not dancing around trees enough cost him in his career?
“I have paid the price in the sense that people have opened up very slowly to my and my style of acting,” said Deol. In 2005, the nephew to legendary actor Dharmendra made his debut with the romance Socha Na Tha and proceeded to showcase his skills in unconventional films such as Dev D and Manorama Six Feet Under.
“For me, it’s not about networking, meeting the right director or working with the right production house. That approach only works for a short term. For me the subject is king. I am here because of my hard work,” said Deol, who was last seen the blockbuster Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara set in Spain.
In a career spanning seven years and 10 films, this award-winning feature has been one of his biggest hits. Deol, 36, shared the screen with Bollywood A-listers Hrithik Roshan, Farhan Akhtar and Katrina Kaif
“Here’s the way I look at it. There was a time when bigger people didn’t have a role for me. But now, these big people want me in their films and they want me on my terms. I have already done the time. I am quite thankful because today I am still working with people whom I want to work with,” said Deol.
Unlike other conventional Bollywood heroes, Deol doesn’t throw himself into heavy promotion prior to a film’s release, go on an interview blitzkrieg or, interestingly, seeing as his latest film is premiering at one, attend awards ceremonies. His open shun of awards becomes radical stand, especially since ZNMD is a strong contender in the IIFA race.
“I don’t ever look at nominations. I don’t really give a s***. It may not win or it may win. Awards in India are largely marketing and politically motivated. I don’t really believe in them. It’s sad but true.”
He may be skeptical about award ceremonies in Bollywood but he’s thrilled about showcasing his film to a wider audience at this year’s IIFAs. His film will be a mirror to contemporary India, said Deol.
“Shanghai is about truth and progress in India… When a country makes progress, there are people who win and those who lose. It’s set in a time when India had just opened up it’s economy. The genius that Dibakar is, he takes something out of that era and makes it relevant in today’s time. He does all of that without being controversial or simply pointing fingers at anyone,” said Deol, who plays a high-ranking bureaucrat in the film.
Describing himself as a spontaneous actor who doesn’t carry a “blueprint of his role in his head”, the only method acting he did was to ensure that the Tamil accent he took on did not end up as a caricature.
“Speaking in an exaggerated Tamil accent would be the easiest thing to do. I have kept it subtle,” said Deol.
Based on the novel Z by Greek writer Vassilis Vassilikos, the whodunnit revolves around a murder at night witnessed by an outspoken girl played byKoechlin.
“There are some things that I can relate to,” said the actress in a separate interview over the phone from India. “I have grown up here [in India] and yet people look at me as if I am an outsider.” Born to French parents, who settled in India owing to their deep devotion to Sri Aurobindo, an Indian nationalist and philosopher, Koechlin took a leaf from her own personal experience.
“People just think I don’t have Indian values. I have grown up with the frustration of all that. But I don’t think I am half as idealistic as Shalini … She is young and white, so people don’t take her seriously. That angers her and she lashes out in public,” said Koechlin, who has a knack for dark and brooding roles.
Hashmi plays an equally shady character: an adult filmmaker who claims he has proof that will bring down the ruling government.
“He’s a multi-talented guy … not just a porn filmmaker,” said Hashmi. “He’s also a small-time journalist, model co-ordinator, shoots shaadi [wedding] videos. He carries around four or five visiting cards. He agreed to be a part of Shanghai even before reading the script.”
“It took me five minutes to make up my mind. Also, the way Dibakar makes a film , it will be out of the box, entertaining and commercial. Expect some fantastic performances from all of us”.