A couple of incidents from Anurag Kashyap’s life, as revealed by a blog he wrote at a time he was going through what he calls a ‘motherf…ing jinxxx’, offer an insight into the mind of John Abraham. In the first, the director is trying to make No Smoking. Actors and producers have unanimously written it off as an absurd movie. And hence, in a moment of complete desperation after a night of getting drunk, Kashyap calls up John Abraham who asks him to come over to his house in half an hour. On the way, Kashyap, in the light of past experience with selling the plot and in his desire to somehow direct any movie, cooks up another plot which he thinks will be better received. John Abraham does not receive it well. ‘..he said tell me something more intelligent (he really said that)… i took a deep breath and told him the smoking story… he fucking loved it… i told him i have no producer… he said he will find me one,’ Kashyap writes.
The next incident is when No Smoking is being shot. They are just returning from Bhuj when their cellphones get connectivity and everyone gets talking. John looks happy, but suddenly a shadow crosses his face. Kabul Express has released to critical acclaim, but there has been one particularly bad and personally offensive review. And so later that night, Anurag Kashyap writes a defence of John Abraham. He is almost certainly drunk while writing it. It’s laced with expletives and seems disconnected in parts. But it is a rare honest analysis in public by a Bollywood personality of a Bollywood personality. Kashyap rates John a lesser actor than some others, but someone who understands his limitation and works on it. Who sometimes fails as an actor, but only when the director fails him. A middle-class boy who made it in Bollywood, and then decided that making it was not enough. Who therefore chooses movies which are risky, and by doing so opens up an avenue for untested directors like him to experiment with new forms of filmmaking. ‘People like John go out of the sheltered secure atmosphere and make choices which if not immediately but slowly will change cinema and henceforth change him,’ he writes.
THE MAN AND HIS GUT
Last Thursday, in a hotel hall in Juhu, while he munched dry fruits from a plastic can, I asked John Abraham if he agreed with that character sketch and whether it held true after four years. “I think it’s an absolutely correct reading,” he says. “I am as good as my director makes me out to be. As an actor, I am not the best in the world. But the point is, I am an underrated actor, a highly underrated actor. Which I don’t think is fair to me.”
There is no reasoning to how John chooses a movie. For his upcoming release Jhootha Hi Sahi (produced by Saregama, Open Media Network’s parent company), the director Abbas Tyrewala, like Kashyap so many years earlier, had gone to John with another story. “After Jaane Tu… Ya Jaane Na, I wanted to make a slightly more edgy film, like a date flick with a pool hustler,” says Abbas, “I thought John would be interested. I went to him, but he didn’t react strongly to the idea. Later, while talking casually, he asked me about my wife Pakhi. I told him she’s writing a film. He asked me the story. When I told him, he said ‘I’ll do it.’ I asked him, ‘What do you mean ‘I’ll do it’? There’s the entire script to be narrated.’ He said he was on. Just like that.”
“It’s very narcissistic to say I get a lot of offers, but I do get a substantial number. However, I select a film on gut,” says John, “Because whenever I have selected a film that I have refused in the first place, or it’s a so-called proposal with big actors and actresses, then either the film’s failed or I have failed in the film.” I ask him for an example. “Babul is the best example,” he says, “It’s a film I did with Mr Bachchan, Hemaji, Rani Mukherji, Salman Khan. It was a big proposal, and after Baghban, the safest possible project. Ravi Chopra, great director. Somewhere, I failed the script. I didn’t do a great job. I am responsible for my own demise in it. Elaan, I was not completely convinced about what I was doing. And I failed.”
PRE-SCULPTED FOR SUCCESS
Soon after Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak, Aamir Khan was in a car when he suddenly noticed strangers smiling at him. It was his first realisation that something had changed in his equation with the world—stardom had arrived. In John Abraham’s case, that moment never happened. When he got into films, he was already India’s highest paid model. Modelling had happened by accident. He had finished his MBA and was working as a media planner at Enterprise Nexus. He started on a salary of Rs 4,800, and then got a jump to Rs 13,000 (take-home: Rs 10,800). There was a campaign for a jeans brand that his colleague was planning, and the model hadn’t turned up. It so happened that John had to give his boss some papers; the photographer saw him and told the boss their model was right there. “I really had no serious modelling experience. For fun, I had modelled once or twice before. At college (Jai Hind), I remember, a choreographer asked me to do the catwalk. I asked, ‘What’s a catwalk?’ Everyone there burst out laughing. That was my level of ignorance.”
The first time John walked at a fashion show, he asked a senior model what he should do at the end of the ramp, turn left or right. “Shall I put a traffic policeman in front to show you directions?” replied the model. “I realised that I am welcome in the modelling industry,” says John, “But the strange part is that the film industry was far more welcoming.” His turning point was winning the Gladrags contest. He’d almost missed it. There was a last date for applications, and he went at 8 o’clock that night with an issue of the magazine he had bought from a raddiwallah. “The watchman said ‘time khatam ho gaya’ (time is up). After some pleading, he let me in,” he says.
By 2002, he was the best known male model in India when Mahesh Bhatt cast him in Jism. The film was a hit. It was easier to enter Bollywood than remain there, though. Once three films of his flopped in a row, attitudes changed. One producer who had signed him on said that he was not sure whether the movie could be made. “I said ‘Chill, take your signing amount, carry on with an established actor.’ Then after Dhoom became a hit, the same person came back to me. I said I’d love to work with you, but unfortunately I’m busy now. So everybody’s got a time and place and you should never disrespect or demean anybody. People are opportunistic because everybody’s out here to make good money, and why not? So, if you are not selling, you are not selling; if you are selling, you are selling.”
Long before it became fashionable to do offbeat movies, John consciously kept one foot in the experimental and one foot in the commercial camp. During periods when he is not shooting, he gets up, has a massive breakfast—“ equivalent to half this hall’s lunch”—goes to the gym, comes back, has a protein shake, a massive lunch after that, and then sits down for script narrations. There’s one almost every day. “I listen to everyone. One of the best directors in the industry, I worked with just on gut,” he says. That was Kabir Khan, who came to him with a documentary on Afghanistan that he had made. “I was blown when I saw it. He told me about Kabul Express. I asked him whether we would shoot in Afghanistan. When he said yes, I said then I will do it.” The night before they were going, RAW intercepted messages from Pakistan’s ISI, and John’s name kept cropping up. “I still went there. Because I believed that I was the most dispensable actor around. Heh Heh. There were a couple of bombings and a couple of rockets being launched around where we lived. Apart from that, everything was fine,” he says.
Experimental or commercial cinema is no agonised toss-up for him. “I have always chosen experimental films. Always. And my trade said that you’ve made the biggest mistakes of your life. Because you are a commercial hero, you have commercial appeal, do commercial films. And they are right. But as an actor, it’s very important to satiate your appetite and do the kind of cinema you really want to.”
In Bollywood, while female supermodels go on to become stars (Aishwarya, Priyanka, Deepika, et al), male models mostly fall by the wayside into character roles (Dino Morea, Milind Soman, Rahul Dev). John cracked the switchover code to stardom, and this he attributes to risks he’s taken. “My audience is as much for the fact that I have the guts to experiment as it is for my body,” he says. It’s an audience he cultivates. And so, you have John Abraham’s public affirmation of middle-class values—talking of family, about growing up in Mumbai’s suburbs, about eating right, about not smoking or drinking. Soon after my interview, he has a Q&A session with winners of a radio show contest. He addresses each questioner by name. One girl says she’s an aircraft maintenance engineer. She has no question. She just likes him and says so. Since there is no question, there is nothing to answer. And so John says he wants to get a commercial pilot’s licence someday. “I want to fly my own plane, but I can’t afford a plane, that’s the problem,” he tells her. He then starts discussing the price of Cessnas with her. Another questioner, he invites over for a bike ride, giving his address. Then comes the turn of Vandana, a middle-aged woman. She says that whenever she feels sad, she watches Garam Masala. She has seen it again and again. John Abraham starts talking TV serials with her. There are about 50 of us in the room, but even from a distance it is clear that for Vandana, housewife and mother, there is no one there but him.