As Bollywood heart-throb John Abraham wolfed down his egg-white omelette and steamed cherry tomatoes — his lunch for the day at 4pm — he let us in on the curse he has been carrying around his sculpted shoulders all his life.
"You know, John Abraham has always worn an albatross round his neck," Abraham said, alluding to the phrase from English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. "However good I'm in the film, it's always about the way I look."
Though his gripe didn't have us reaching for our tissues, it was clear that being constantly referred to as "just a pretty face" has bothered him.
"Dustin Hoffman said this about Robert Redford too — he said, ‘The problem with you is that you have an albatross round your neck.' And finally Robert Redford came into his being.
"I know my physicality is always going to be a talking point. But with Shootout At Wadala, it's all about the character and people are going to forget about John Abraham," said the actor, referring to himself in the third person again.
In Shootout At Wadala, tipped to release in December, Abraham plays dreaded gangster Manya Surve who was shot down by police in an orchestrated encounter in Mumbai.
His bid to shrug off the beefcake tag has also seen him venture into production. Billed as one of the hottest men in the industry, the self-made actor, born to a Malayali father and a Parsi mother in Mumbai, will debut as a producer with Vicky Donor — a love story set against the backdrop of sperm donation and infertility releasing in the UAE tomorrow.
"Many actors when they turn producers cast themselves as the lead hero in their film to power the production and to make it centric towards them. I have often been asked — is it a safe proposition?"
In a rather unconventional step, Abraham — who made his debut with the racy thriller Jism in 2003 — has chosen to showcase new faces in his debut production: TV anchor-turned-actor Ayushmann Khurrana and soap queen Yami Gautam. Even in his second production venture, Kala Goda, Abraham plays a supporting role. The spotlight will be on Kunal Roy Kapoor of Delhi Belly fame in the satire about two policemen.
"I want content to be the hero. Let me give you the best example — if you see George Clooney's The Ides of March, who's the hero in that? It's Ryan Gosling and it's a brilliant film. So I believe that you should support the casting process and you need to support the script."
His ultimate aim is to marry content with commerce: Enter a shirtless Abraham — his nod to the commercial aspect of filmmaking. In Bollywood, inserting a titillating song-and-dance number with a big star has proven to be a major box office draw.
"I see nothing wrong with it. When we heard the song, it was so male in its DNA. We knew instantly that we need a male rather than a female to drive it. So everybody was like, ‘When you have someone in-house, why not use him?'"
Abraham added that his war cry is all about making commercial entertainers and not documentaries. In his item song, Abraham is splendidly commodified and is seen writhing and gyrating with dozens of unknown but dazzling girls.
"If I have to drive the film forward in the capacity of an item boy, then why not? And if I have to drive it with my MBA background, then why not? The fact that I was a media planner, if I have to drive the production forward with that, then why not? I am using all my facets here — I am getting my entire arsenal out there," said Abraham.
In the run-up to the release, Abraham has been touring with Khuranna to bolster the film and entice people into theatres. Surprisingly, the new kid on the Bollywood block has no qualms about sharing the spotlight.
"I am not a star kid and I don't have a godfather in the industry. So I waited for four years to get a film in which the subject was the hero. I wanted a film in which the topic would entice them and not me in particular," said Khurrana with endearing honesty.
Unlike his swoon-inducing producer, Punjab-bred Khurrana is no alpha male and is loaded with guy-next-door appeal.
"It's great to have somebody like John backing the project. He's like a friend and a brother to me and right now my focus is on the film. There's a thin line between funny and caricature. Shoojit [Sircar, director of Vicky Donor] has handled the subject of infertility and sperm donation with incredible sensitivity," said Khurrana, who plays the title character Vicky — the spermtastic one.
Meanwhile, Gautam — who has acted in TV shows including Yeh Pyar Na Hoga Kum — says there's nothing sleazy about Vicky Donor.
"You need to ask the item girls this question. They are more well-equipped to answer that. I am a producer. I am just not a pretty face... I don't mean to sound condescending towards women."
— John Abraham when asked whether there are any dos and don'ts in being an item boy
"I am an authentic sperm donor. For MTV Roadies [a reality show], a task given to us was that. Out of the five boys competing, three samples were selected. I was one of them."
— Ayushmann Khurrana
Don't miss it
Vicky Donor releases in cinemas across the UAE Thursday