Film festivals have a vibe about them that makes most actors, filmmakers, cinephiles and entertainment journalists feel instantly relaxed and undone. Perhaps, it’s because it’s a glorious platform where they all unite to celebrate their common passion: cinema and the power of good storytelling.
Bollywood actor Ajay Devgn, a man of few words in interviews who has always kept a low profile in his 31-year-old career, wasn’t immune to a film festival’s charms either. Gulf News met him for an exclusive interview on the sidelines of the 53rd International Film Festival of India in Goa ahead of the movie premiere of his latest blockbuster ‘Drishyam 2’. He was refreshingly candid and personal. We were at the sea-facing balcony of his hotel villa, his lush nest for a couple of days — the same place where he met the legendary Malayalam superstar Mohanlal, the original actor who kicked off the ‘Drishyam’ series.
“We met him right here in Goa when I was shooting for ‘Drishyam 2’ and he was shooting for one of his films and he said: ‘get ready for ‘Drishyam 3’! We are already writing it, he said,” Devgn explained.
“Lal sir is something else! He’s a good human being and I have worked with him in ‘Company’. So, we have always been on and off in touch,” added Devgn.
Now for all the ‘Drishyam’ groupies, this is huge news. The riveting thriller and monstrous box office hit ‘Drishyam’, originally written and directed in Malayalam by consummate director Jeethu Joseph and led by Mohanlal in superb form as George Kutty, has spawned several remakes in other Indian languages and is one of those rare franchises that’s getting better with each instalment.
Devgn steps into the role made famous by Mohanlal, a seemingly ordinary man who’s crafty enough for a murder cover-up to save his beloved family. George Kutty, a cinephile and cable TV business operator, becomes Vijay Salgoankar based in Goa in the Bollywood adaptation.
“The way they write is simply brilliant. The first ‘Drishyam’ was fabulous and when they were making ‘Drishyam 2’, I was wondering what more will they say in ‘Drishyam 2’ and now I am thinking — what can they do more in the third part now? But in all fairness, the writers of the Hindi film also did a beautiful job of adapting it. They introduced new characters as well,” said Devgn.
In the Hindi-language version directed by Abhishek Pathak, actor Akshaye Khanna’s character was inserted, and the original was tweaked. It’s not a blind copy-paste, maintains Devgn.
The ‘Drishyam’ series is one the rare franchises that doesn’t get old or tired. The second was as good if not better than the first part. Interestingly, Devgn didn’t watch the original deliberately.
“When I did ‘Luther’ [the British crime series that was remade in Hindi as ‘Rudra: The Edge of Darkness’], I made it a point not to revisit it. I had watched it a couple of years ago and I remembered the story vaguely. I loved it back then, but I didn’t want to revisit it because I didn’t want to step into the role with preconceived ideas,” said Devgn, who took on Idris Elba’s role as a gifted detective.
While we understand his thought process, Devgn — with his hefty body of work and versatile acting choices that saw him play the quintessential lover in his debut ‘Phool Aur Kaante’ and master the art of playing cops of various shades in films like ‘Singham’ — needn’t have worried.
This 53-year-old talent is truly one of the last few superstars in Bollywood, whose star-power alone has the clout to draw people into cinemas. The gala screening tickets to the ‘Drishyam 2’ premiere at IFFI in Goa — usually patronised by cerebral film enthusiasts — sold out in 60 minutes. In India, ‘Drishyam 2’ had a bullish run at the box office in its opening weekend as it collected over Rs640 million. The film’s success makes you want to believe that the fading era of superstars in Bollywood has been given a well-timed jolt.
“But I don’t believe that this is the last era of superstars in Bollywood or that era is over. Apart from me, a couple of us like Akshay [Kumar] and Salman [Khan] have been here since the past 30 years,” said Devgn. He has an interesting theory (conspiracy?) around the chatter about superstars who are given rock star status in India and have their own army of blind and beloved adoring fans.
“Social media is killing the superstardom and this new generation is trying to kill it by just being everywhere and everything they do,” said Devgn. He has a point. The newer of breed of Bollywood actors thrive on social media engagement with their fans and are notorious for giving minute-by-minute updates of their personal lives with Reels that talk about what they eat in a day, or what’s in their bag, or what brand of toothpaste they lean towards. They don’t as a rule believe in being enigmatic or mysterious.
“I believe that when I am playing a character, it’s best they don’t know too much about me or the kind of person that I am or how I behave, what I do in a day … It becomes tough for the audience to accept me in that role then,” said Devgn. While he may sound old-school, this man — who is rarely seen hobnobbing in star-fuelled parties in Mumbai — Devgn may have a point. Relatively newer actors like Varun Dhawan, Kartik Aaryan, and Ranveer Singh are hyperactive on social media, especially when their film release is round the corner. Their every move in a day is chronicled and documented, but Devgn doesn’t subscribe to being overfamiliar with those who admire and enjoy his work.
“Social media is killing superstardom because every second or third day, they declare a so-called new superstar in their block. It’s all so premature to declare that such and such new star has arrived … During our times, out of 100 good actors, there were just five stars and out of that only three were spoken about … We have served our time … So I don’t think superstardom is over. There are just [lots] of them now. Social media and the media should stop declaring everyone as superstars,” said Devgn with a laugh.
The Indian film industry is one of the most prolific movie industries in the world and is known to churn out at least 1,000 films in all regional languages every year, and Hindi-speaking Bollywood is the largest one of them all. Since Bollywood churns out stars and spits them out with equal ferocity and speed, it’s known for being a conveyor belt of talents. Those who stand the test of time are rare.
“So now we don’t know who’s staying and who’s gone anymore, thanks to social media,” said Devgn. While it may be unfair to pin all the blame on virtual platforms, Devgn has a valid point. He also called out all those who wrote obituaries of Hindi cinema when a spate of films after COVID-19 tanked spectacularly at the box office.
“Just because three films in South India did well, it doesn’t mean that they aren’t plagued by the same issues as us … Just like how ‘Drishyam 2’ has done the amazing box office numbers, we need at least two more of such releases to be back in business. I hope ‘Bhediya’ [starring Varun Dhawan and releasing this Friday] also does well like ‘Drishyam 2’,” said Devgn.
His last sentence is a very telling one of Devgn — an actor, producer and director — who isn’t narcissistic or myopic in his vision. This multi-hyphenate is one of those rare Bollywood actors who are confident enough to speak about another actor’s release and film, while he’s promoting his own film ‘Drishyam 2’, out in UAE cinemas now.
While he dreams big, he’s surprisingly less focused on the kind of impact he hopes to leave in cinema.
“I don’t know if I am taking films to a global level or not … I am just trying to be honest with my work. I am not overthinking it or planning on how my films can be brought to a global level because that should happen organically and automatically. My aim is to do good work, and everything else like success, recognition will follow.”
His life and career are a testament to how this cool-cat philosophy works. And guess who are his biggest teachers when it comes to life lessons?
“I learn a lot from children and this new generation … Otherwise, how can we evolve and stay relevant. We must adapt to what they like and don’t like … Their emotions are so evolved, and they are far more mature. They process things faster and I am constantly learning from them. They cry for a minute over disappoints, and we spent hours or days,” said Devgn, who’s married to actress Kajol and has two children Nysa and Yug.
So, will his daughter Nysa follow in her parents’ footsteps and mentor her? He was surprisingly ambivalent.
“No, she is studying in Switzerland right now and is here on and off … We have not spoken about that at all … As of now there are no plans, and she has never said: ‘I want to be an actress. But it may change tomorrow because they do their own thing. And I get that.”
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‘Drishyam 2’ is out in UAE cinemas now.
“My boy is a good, sweet boy. But he turns around and say: ‘girls, don’t like boys like me. The bad boys are the ones that they go after,” Devgn said about his son Yug.