Abhay Deol, The Actor Who Survived Despite Bollywood


Abhay Deol, The Actor Who Survived Despite Bollywood

Illustration: Reynold Mascarenhas

It’s easy to forget that Abhay Deol has been around in Bollywood for 14 years. It’s even easier to forget that in the first five years of his acting career, Deol managed an acting coup of sorts. He starred in almost back-to-back films directed by Imtiaz Ali, Reema Kagti, Dibakar Banerjee, Navdeep Singh, and Anurag Kashyap – filmmakers, who almost a decade later, have gone on to become institutions. Yet, even in 2019, it’s hard to slot Deol as an actor.

It’s not that Deol hasn’t been versatile enough: The actor debuted as a romantic hero in Ali’s Socha Na Tha, transformed into a goofy Parsi husband in Kagti’s Honeymoon Travels Pvt Ltd, a small-time thief in Banerjee’s Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!, a detective father of a five-year-old in Singh’s Manorama Six Feet Under until playing the definitive role of his career. In Dev.D – Kashyap’s modern retelling of Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s Devdas – Deol famously played Dev, the privileged, indifferent, alcoholic son of a rich Delhi businessman torn between two women: Paro and Chanda. These early films resemble the slate of an actor who peaked even before his career took off.

But Dev.D was 10 years ago. Today, Deol’s impish charm has uncharacteristically weathered down. His filmography is now littered with peculiar outings that primarily serve the cachet of being Abhay Deol rather than doing justice to his acting skills.

The patterns are unmissable. The actor backs new filmmakers – all the above-mentioned directors formed their distinctive styles in the movies they did with Deol. He nonchalantly stars in middle-of-the road cinema – devoid of larger-than-life song and dance. And he continues to seek pleasure in acting in the kind of experimental films that you might just not end up watching.

Like Rahul Khanna, Milind Soman, and R Madhavan, Deol has joined the ranks of actors exploiting social media currency to create a brand-new image.

Deol’s last release, Faraz Haider’s Nanu Ki Jaanu, was over a year ago. The movie, an uneven romantic comedy, underperformed at the box-office. This week, the actor makes his Netflix debut with Sachin Yardi’s Chopsticks, another low-stake comedy in which he plays Artist, a professional cook, and conman of refined taste.

“Comedy is all about tragedy,” Deol tells me, when we meet at a suburban five-star hotel room in Mumbai, where he remains cooped up in between promotional interviews. I’m immediately reminded of Kabir Dewan from Zoya Akhtar’s Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, inarguably Deol’s most mainstream – and commercially profitable – outing. In the road-trip film, a grown-up, existentialist version of the cultish Dil Chahta Hai, we see Deol as the affable, mild-mannered friend whose life invariably gets sidelined while he is busy meditating between his two emotionally handicapped best friends.

On paper, the actor is the film’s comic relief: a future bridegroom on a bachelor trip that is threatened by his uptight fiance. Deol even dials up the histrionics – his face is perennially scrunched up in expressions that evoke pity and hilarity in equal measure and his body-language is unbelievably fluid. But more importantly, he single-handedly lends ZNMD’s central theme of adult cluelessness an urgent dignity with his vulnerable act of an escapist who slowly unravels, revealing just how scared he is to even hear himself think. It’s poetic that it is perhaps one of the befitting examples that fit Deol’s definition of comedy.

The 43-year-old actor is undeniably charismatic. When we meet, Deol is lounging on the sofa, his eyes peeled on his phone, a dimple on his face. His face is now tempered with a beard that seems almost sculpted to precision. “Comedy is also easier to sell,” he says, when we start talking about Chopsticks, a film that instantly appealed to him because of how much the script made him laugh. By his own admission, filmmakers approach him for a “lot of comedy” – although most of it is not particularly to his liking, “The comedy I personally like is dark comedy. Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! hit the nail with that.”

But the trouble with being that Deol in Bollywood, who is disinterested in fashioning a hyper-masculine image that is in line with the myth of his uncle and his two actor cousins, is that no one goes out of the way to see him in the more serious author-backed roles. He has to then, not only constantly work toward clearly defining the peculiar position he wants to occupy as an actor but also, to an extent, keeps creating roles for himself.

“No one imagined me in Dev.D. Not even Anurag,” he admits, even though it was Deol who came up with the idea for the film and approached Kashyap to develop it. Naturally, the actor frequently brings up the very film that expanded the scope of mainstream filmmaking, in conversation. It eventually leads up to his nine-month long absence following its release. With the comfort of hindsight in hand, Deol terms that period, when he packed up and went abroad instead of reaping the accolades of the movie’s unpredictable success, as “commercial suicide”. Does he sometimes feel like his career hasn’t profited off Dev.D enough? “It would have helped more if I was there to capitalise on the success. The narrative was in my control, I could have owned that film.”

Perhaps, that explains Deol’s chosen route of re-emergence in the public consciousness: Instagram. Like Rahul Khanna, Milind Soman, and R Madhavan, Deol has joined the ranks of actors exploiting social media currency to create a brand-new image. His Instagram, for instance, is unbelievably “thirst-friendly”, splattered with generous shirtless pictures and photogenic selfies.

The branding – a touch below being a sex symbol and slightly above being relegated to just a harmless crush – is evident even in the very forgettable Chopsticks. The actor spends most of the film’s proceedings in a white shirt, armed with his infectious smile, existing as a stylish reimagination of an attractive male lead. The aloof Abhay claims his accessibility on Instagram isn’t a case of selling out and aggressively projecting himself as a specific kind of artist. Instead, it’s about making it work for him,“I am still here. I survived, despite Bollywood,” Deol says. Maybe it’s also a little about finally owning a narrative.