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He’s not your average Joe from Bollywood. On the contrary he could be considered Bollywood royalty if you paid attention to his surname, Deol. Yet Abhay is one of the most grounded actors out there and isn’t afraid to speak his mind at all
Words Aninda Sardar
Photography Aditya Bengali
Styling: Neha Verma
Hair: Nandkumar Tipukade
Makeup: Sukanya Manerikar
Location Courtesy: Radisson Goa Candolim
Hospitality Courtesy: Radisson Blu Resort Goa Cavalossim
Outfit: Shirt and pants by Arvind | Jacket by Don & Julio

Are you a bawa?” he asks. “No. I’m a Bong. A Bong with a funny surname,” I say. “What’s your surname?” “Sardar.” “Oh!” he responds, voice full of surprise. “Chances are you’ll never meet another one,” I tell him. “Ya, probably not,” he laughs. And with that the tone is set for what would be less of an interview and more of a conversation between two real people, shorn of all screens and masks and covers. Between yours truly and the immensely gifted actor that is Abhay Deol.

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My first memory of Abhay is from a movie that few care to talk about when it comes to one of the youngest scions of the influential Deol family. Yet, it was his performance as Aspi in the 2007 romedy Honeymoon Travels Pvt. Ltd, especially the poetic tango sequence with Minissha Lamba (Zara) that took him two weeks of rigorous dance training to learn, which got my attention. “It’s funny how you have called me Aspi. By that what I meant was, people tend to remember the characters I have played. Most often I get called Dev or Lucky but I’ve never had anyone call me Aspi before you. Maybe one person,” he tells me. Which in turn leads to the question about my origins.

My reference to Aspi clearly tickles him, and even though he is happy to admit that people don’t tend to remember that particular character, he is quite proud of his role in the movie. To him, when people remember a character rather than Abhay Deol the actor and the star, it’s a direct recognition of the work that he has done. It’s a validation of his acting and his effort. “What I really like about people’s reactions to my work is they tend to remember the name of my characters. To a lot of people I’m Dev, to a lot of people I’m Lucky. To a lot of people I’m Nilesh even from Ek Chalis ki Last Local. To you I’m Aspi. So I like that because it means you are all remembering the person I played,” he tells me before adding, “They remember my work. I never wanted to play the star game in any case. So this was a good way to get that validation.”

At the mention of the “star game” my scribe’s ears immediately stand up but I leave that for later and stay with his characters instead and ask him if there is a character he is closest to. The answer isn’t original, as he himself tells me but the logic is completely out of the left field and far too difficult to argue with. “Well they’re all kinda close to me. But you can’t...it’s the only logical answer.

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Unless you’re not connected to the character, how can you not be close to the character you’re portraying on screen? You have to, in order for you to build that character into someone you can relate to, someone you’re attracted to, someone you would remember. So each one is close to me. But none of them are me. But in order for me to convince others that they are me, I obviously have to find something in those characters that is me. Something that I have to relate to.”

I mull over what he has just said for a moment or two, find nothing to corner him with and move on. Are there bits of these characters he plays in him or is it more like a little bit of Abhay going into each of these roles? “I think I’d put a bit of me in those characters,” he tells me and a part of me is cursing in my head for even asking a question the answer to which is so obvious. And then, bam! I’m hit with a level of candidness that is totally unanticipated. 

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“Ummmm...I think for example with Dev, the self-indulgence. You know I have been pretty self-indulgent and I can be. I think we all can be, we have our moments. It’s just finding moods or moments that one has through the day. One goes through all moods in the day. Anger, sadness, happiness. All of that, right? So, when you play a character every personality is different. Some people are happier than others, some people are more depressed than others. What do they focus on? You know, you go by that. I have all the attributes of happiness and sadness and obsession and indulgence and fatalism that Dev has but I don’t indulge in any of them. Once in a while…I mean I’m in the film industry. It’s a vain, narcissistic field to be in and self indulgence is a risk we all have. We fall into it without even realising it. And that self indulgence is something I went through, and Dev has a lot of that. Ya, so you find that one trait. With Aspi it’s, I suppose, it’s the grounded, happy-go-lucky, chilled vibe. I can be indulgent and moody as much as I can be light and easy. You know, just someone who’s properly behaved. You know one goes through every emotion. So Aspi is very much that grounded character who conducts himself in a way that’s proper. And I have that as well.” 

These can only be the words of an actor who doesn’t shy away from stepping out of his costumes and his makeup and putting himself out there in the harsh glare of the spotlight without any masks.

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But that’s Abhay for you as I’m beginning to realise over the course of the lunch that he has no qualms about offering to me. “Have some please. There’s just too much ya. It’ll go to waste,” he tells me. I’m taken aback a little because that’s not the level of reality you expect from an actor whose public image could make or break him. In fact, most would be happy to keep their guard up and stay just a little aloof. Not Mr. Deol. In fact he admits that he isn’t really good at “playing the game.” He just loves his work and while he can see situations being difficult work is never difficult for him because acting isn’t work. The rest of the associated stuff is, but not acting. 

So would it be fair to say that Abhay Deol has not worked a day in his life, I joke. “Yes, of course I’ve never worked a day in my life. Obviously, you know in context when it comes to your projects being a certain kind and positioning yourself…the game, which I’m not good at playing at all. All of that is…that’s work.” He admits that had he played the game, life might have been different and that there have been lessons along the way on account of his inability to play the game. “As far as the game is concerned, I suppose I was coming from a more privileged background which I wasn’t able to see. I was slightly entitled and I didn’t think I needed to play the game. I thought I could be a straight shooter because that’s what I was taught to be. But I have come to realise that people don’t really want honesty. They want a little bit of play. That was hard.”

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What about stardom? I mean, an actor’s job is about being in the public eye. Not like that of the producer or the director. How can a man who doesn’t want to be in the star game be in the most visible part of an industry that thrives on public attention? “I was lucky that I was exposed to it very early on in life with my uncle and my cousins and everything. People think you have an advantage if you’re born in a film family. You can get launched. Sure, you can get launched but for me the advantage was of seeing fame up close and the consequences of being a public figure. We’re all different people and I’m an extremist so I grew a distaste for it. Which is also wrong. You can’t hate it but I don’t want to be in love with it either. I have come to appreciate it a little bit.”

Having spent a good 20 minutes threading our way through the lanes and bylanes of the great game that is stardom, I hang a U and swing back to his work. “I’ve tried to put you in a box as an actor this past one week and I have to say I failed miserably at it. I just couldn’t put Abhay Deol in a box,” I tell him only to be greeted with a full throated laugh.

 “It’s amazing you use those very words because I’ve used them in my own head. And that’s just my life generally and that reflects on my work. I don’t have any definition of me…because…it’s so boring. Why would I wanna limit the potential I have? As soon as I’ve put myself in a box then I’m committed to that,” he tells me. I wonder if it’s difficult to stay out of the box in an industry that has built itself around stereotypes and putting people in boxes and relying on time tested formula. “Oh yeah. It is. You’re the odd one out and you don’t fit in,” he says with what I now know is his signature candour.

But it would be a mistake to assume that his candour and his critique of the industry he is such an integral part of is devoid of belief in its potential. It’s just that he evaluates his world against a global benchmark. “My standard is the world and not India. My people should be able to stand on the world stage. They should be able to reach out to people in Nigeria as much as in the Netherlands. I think we have that potential.”

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With all these lessons behind him, would Abhay Deol have done things differently given another shot at the whole gig? “No. I wouldn’t have come to the same conclusions as I have. Had I played the game I might have been arrogant right now. Perhaps not having the lessons of having put yourself out there, and I have put myself out there,” he replies without even blinking. So he is happy with the way life and career has turned out, I say. More a question than a statement. “Yeah yeah. I have no complaints. I did exactly what I wanted, spoke truth to power…ok, I didn’t play the game but I’m still here today and I still get a lot of work. There are films that I wanted to do 10-12 years ago, which are now being looked at today by OTT platforms that will do every kind of content. It was nice to be hailed as progressive or as someone who’s been part of a movement. But if the movement is not going to carry on then I’m happy that I threw in a couple,” he says. 

I search for signs to see if he is being entirely honest but there is no sign of regrets at his choices. He seems to have read my mind. “You have to understand that nothing I have said to you is a complaint. They are observations,” is his parting shot as he heads back to the shoot.