Abhay Deol Aced Indie Before Indie Became Mainstream. So What Went Wrong?

Dimpled and outspoken, Deol defined a new type of the Hindi film hero. But the actor, who often played parts that challenged the establishment, knew only too well that the system can only be mocked, not conquered.

Growing up in a family of stars, Abhay Deol hated stardom. Having intimately witnessed the success of his cousins, Sunny and Bobby, and the outsized shadow of their father, Dharmendra, around which they orbited, Deol internalised the idea that being a star, ironically, came at the cost of sacrificing individuality. In India, where movie stars are often deified, stardom can mean standardisation of a product, stripped of its idiosyncrasies and carefully sculpted to fit a narrow idea of heroism.

“I was affected by that hate,” Deol, 44, remembered. “And hate is also not a good place to come from. It’s a strong and a violent emotion. Not that I was wrong.”

In the 15 years that he’s been an actor, Deol has acted in over 20 films, the most promising of which released before 2013. The best of Abhay Deol, at least so far, can be bookended between Viren in his unconventional debut, Imtiaz Ali’s Socha Na Tha (2005), and the upright IAS officer T. A. Krishnan in Dibakar Banerjee’s Shanghai (2012).

In between these, he played a government engineer in Navdeep Singh’s neo-noir Manorama: Six Feet Under (2007), the drifter Lucky in Dibakar Banerjee’s Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye (2008), the feckless Dev in Anurag Kashyap’s Dev D (2009) and the commitment-phobic Kabir in Zoya Akhtar’s Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (2011). In between, he also acted in films as tonally varied as Reema Kagti’s Honeymoon Travels Pvt Ltd (2007) and Sanjay Khanduri’s Ek Chalis Ki Last Local (2007).

Most of the parts he chose mirrored his disdain for the establishment. By the climax of an Abhay Deol movie, his character would be firmly in opposition to the system, having gotten rid of the weight of participating in it in the first place. Much like Deol’s career itself.

In February 2009, after Dev D released and Versova found a new deity in Anurag Kashyap, Deol left town, a seemingly uncharacteristic move for an actor who was finally getting recognition from the so-called mainstream.

He flew to New York and rented an apartment close to the Art Students League of New York, an art school in Manhattan. There, he signed up for a course in welding and metal work.

“Melting metal at 60,000°F is very therapeutic. It’s as cathartic as living out the anguish of Dev D,” he said.

His colleagues were surprised when he told them he would be shuttling in and out of Mumbai, but people who knew him well weren’t. Before becoming an actor, Deol had a ‘hippie phase’ when he would earn money by drawing on T-shirts and selling them in Goa’s flea market with his then girlfriend.

Deol never became the typical Hindi film hero—he preferred eschewing love songs for a sardonic expression and a smart quip—which suited him just fine. It helped that the directors who made films with him—Zoya, Reema, Dibakar, Anurag, Navdeep—also rejected established norms. All of them entered the industry at a time when streaming was yet to clog our collective bandwidth and television was churning out - and still is - unimaginative, hackneyed soap operas.

But while the others found success within the broader paradigm of Bollywood, Deol stumbled, ironically, just as the kind of movies he specialised in began finding larger audiences through multiplexes and pirated sites.

After playing JNU’s student leader in 2013’s Raanjhanaa, a film that offered its stalker protagonist (played by Dhanush) a romanticised narrative and treated his acts of alarming aggression with kid gloves, Deol’s other notable success was Happy Bhag Jayegi in 2016. Since then, till his most recent work, What Are The Odds, there hasn’t been a memorable film that starred or was produced by him.

“I could have played the game better. And I could have secured myself in a bigger manner,” Deol says over a Zoom call from North Goa where he has moved for good. “But I did not. And that was my choice. I don’t have any regrets.”

NEW DELHI, INDIA - MARCH 4: Abhay Deol, a bollywood actor, photographed on March 4, 2010 at Taj palace in New Delhi, India (Photo by Pradeep Gaur/Mint via Getty Images)
NEW DELHI, INDIA - MARCH 4: Abhay Deol, a bollywood actor, photographed on March 4, 2010 at Taj palace in New Delhi, India (Photo by Pradeep Gaur/Mint via Getty Images)

Deol’s own assessment of why his career slowed down revolves around a clash between his idealism and the pragmatic demands of the industry.

“Since I was much younger, my idealism was also very strong. I actually believed that if I prove to them that experimentation works, then they’ll continue to experiment.”

By ‘them’, he refers to the major producers in Bollywood, an industry which, he says, is controlled by a “handful of families.”

“When I made my first five to seven films,” Deol recalls, “It was a given that they weren’t going to work so nobody powerful was paying any attention to them. They’d say—how can you make a movie without songs! And I responded like a freaking idealist, you know. That was considered sweet and endearing but I was never taken seriously.”

According to him, he was only taken seriously when nearly 7 of his films, released year after year, all did well and made a powerful statement: you could subvert conventions and still get people interested. That was also the time when multiplexes were expanding at a galloping pace in the Indian entertainment market. Deol’s idealism was rooted in the collective faith that multiple screens in one venue would trigger a cultural shift where independent cinema could thrive and coexist alongside more commercial fare.

That the multiplexes, concerned with bottom lines, didn’t quite deliver the content revolution many had hoped (oops, who could have thought) only came into sharper focus when arthouse releases were given an early send-off with morning or late night shows while primetime slots were monopolised by the Big Stars.

What Deol thought was an entrypoint to get studio financing for the films he wanted to make didn’t turn out the way he envisaged it would.

“After a bunch of conversations, I realised that they wanted to mould me in an image they saw of me. And here I was, trying to break any kind of image. I could never be put in a box because that’s exactly what I wanted to run away from.”

Deol’s plea with the power brokers was simple. “If I have done a Manorama, I’ve also done a Zindagi, for a Socha Na Tha, there’s also a Dev D—so consider that.” But his determination to stick to his guns and refusal to do potboilers was, he says, misinterpreted as ‘arrogance.’

“I was too bullish on the success behind me. I deluded myself into thinking that now the big players would put their money on me and experiment. Maybe the very expectation that they’d see things my way was my arrogance.”

So wait, how did the Abhay Deol who had, in his own way, defined a new kind of protagonist—one who didn’t feel the pressure of wearing his masculinity as an embellishment—and if anything, detoxified the Hindi film hero, fall from the wave he rode with such striking consistency?

People who worked with him have differing assessments.

Abhay Deol in a still from Anurag Kashyap's 'Dev D'
Abhay Deol in a still from Anurag Kashyap's 'Dev D'

“It was painfully difficult to work with him. I don’t really have great working memories with him. And haven’t talked to him much since I finished shooting,” recalls Anurag Kashyap, who directed him in the actor’s breakthrough hit, Dev D.

Kashyap and Deol became friends through Vikramaditya Motwane, who had known Deol, or Dimpy, as he’s fondly called, for years. The actor hung around on the sets of Kashyap’s yet-unreleased Paanch and helped with the storyboarding of Black Friday as he drew well.

Kashyap pointed out that in 2008, Deol was confused, a thought echoed by filmmaker Navdeep Singh too. “He wanted to do artistic movies but also wanted the mainstream benefits. The benefits and luxuries of being a “Deol.” He would stay in a five-star hotel while the entire crew stayed in Paharganj for a film that was made on a very tight budget. Also the reason a lot of his directors went away from him.”

On his part, Deol maintains that “there was no support, no infrastructure, no clique for the indie/alternate community.” The actor alludes to infighting within the indie fraternity that, he says, created an atmosphere of professional rivalry instead of a system that could sustain their careers.

“There were different cliques for the mainstream but the independent filmmakers did not band together to support one another to create a movement of their own. One of them even told me upfront that I was a fool to believe that there could even be an organised movement.”

Kashyap, however, remembers that time differently.

“He always was a fish out of water. A beautiful guy. We were all there when Socha Na Tha and Manorama happened. All of us were one circle. We at Passion For Cinema (a blog that a lot of independent filmmakers would contribute to) would applaud him and his choices and champion him. But something happened to him around the time he did Oye Lucky, Lucky Oye! I didn’t expect that from the Dimpy that had arrived on my set. Then, right after we finished shooting Dev D he escaped to the US because he was dissatisfied with work or perhaps himself.”

Deol says that after Dev D, people wanted him to replicate what he did in the movie. “And I said look, the only thing to replicate from Dev D is the idea of taking the risk.”

But as per Kashyap, Deol consciously distanced himself. “He wasn’t there to promote Dev D. He dissed the film and crew a lot. He was gone a long time. It was because of something he was grappling with emotionally and personally and never talked about. He also felt betrayed by me about which he has never spoken to me ever.”

Kashyap isn’t the only filmmaker to have encountered issues with the outspoken actor after the film’s shooting. In 2010, after the release of Aisha, a much-anticipated but unsuccessful adaptation of Emma where Deol played the Delhi high-society version of Mr Knightley, the actor was quick to disown the film, upsetting its producer Anil Kapoor.

In November 2010, Deol said, “When I was shooting, I realised that the film was more about clothes than actual acting. I even read reviews of the movie that praised the clothes. I would like to say today that I will never ever be part of a film like Aisha in my lifetime. It’s not the kind of film I’d like to do.”

A still from Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara
A still from Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara

Not everyone who worked with Deol has felt like they were given a raw deal, though. Zoya Akhtar, who worked with Deol on two films, Honeymoon Travels Pvt Ltd (on which she was an executive producer) and Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, says that she only has the most pleasant memories of him.

Asked what she thinks is Deol’s strength, she says, “I don’t find him posturing. He’s never drawing attention to himself. He lets the co-actor take it. He is very easy in a frame. Never goes overboard, always stays pleasant, always fit. He’s unassuming, you can put him into very different things.”

She also agreed that there was a certain subversiveness in the way Deol defined masculinity. “He never felt the pressure of being an alpha. Instead, he has a disarming sense of vulnerability, far from the convention macho-ness. And it’s so attractive.”

No actor since the ’70s had an influence on indie cinema the way Deol did, Akhtar said. “He consistently pushed different kinds of films. Projects got made because of him.”

Navdeep Singh, who directed him in Manorama: Six Feet Under agrees and says that Manorama itself got made because Deol convinced Shemaroo, a production and distribution company, to put money into the film.

“It was supposed to originally feature Irrfan,” Singh recalls. “We had finalised everything. But soon ran out of money. Abhay knew of the script and was interested in it but I felt he was too young for the role. Months later, he reached out again. This time, he said he could get producers. We got double the budget!”

Singh says that Deol was a committed performer, who workshopped diligently, agreed to incorporate several physical changes that were expected of him. “I mean, at that time, these things meant a lot given what we were used to dealing with.”

Asking an actor to reassess their creative decisions always involves walking on emotional eggshells. Often, stars, used to reading lines from a script that has been moulded to fit their image, expect journalists to burnish their own myths instead of poking at them. Deol, however, appears to engage with me. It’s a mix of both: a self-aware, critical eye as well as a defensiveness where he prefers to outsource some his failings onto the ‘system’.

“When you judge one actor’s career, you’ve to see the careers of others too, for context. There are enough stars who’ve given flops after flops before a hit, but, boom, all is forgiven. How? You’ve to see their associations. Who are they working with? What brands are they endorsing? There’s a system in place. Your film flopped? We’ll get you another gig to keep you visible. Oh, your second film flopped, let’s leak a few stories to the press. Now I didn’t do that because I had some grand ideas of idealism that my work will speak for itself. Unfortunately, that was not enough. You’ve to speak for yourself. You’ve to own it. I thought it’d be selfish to take credit away from others but no, that’s how it works. I didn’t do any of that. Because I hated stardom. I didn’t want the light. So I threw it on other people.”

While it’s easy to diss stardom after having witnessed it, Navdeep Singh’s (his Manorama director) reading is that Deol perhaps finds it a lot more romantic to be the ‘wounded outsider’ despite being a ‘total insider.’ He calls it ‘weirdly self-destructive’ comparing it to Deol’s turn in Dev D and to a phase “that’s basically prolonged teenage rebellion.”

Singh feels Deol should have ideally owned the space that’s presently occupied by Rajkummar Rao, Ayushmann Khurrana and Vicky Kaushal. “But he just disappeared. Now, I think he feels the insecurity of having been ahead of the curve but not quite getting to reap in its dividends.”

Lingering on the what-might-have-been scenarios can often be unpleasant. When probed about what bothers him so profoundly about popular aesthetics, especially now when the lines between the two cinematic sensibilities have become increasingly blurry, Deol unspools into a stream of consciousness, almost as if he’s repeating a dialogue he’s been asked to deliver too often.

“Every actor looks like a clone of the other. Every actress looks inseparable from the other. They all have to conform to the same look, the same stories.”

Still?

“I mean you could be making a horror movie but there will be an item number, the male actor will have a six-pack, the actress will be gorgeous, the colours will be bright. It doesn’t matter if it’s a romantic movie or an action film or a thriller.”

Come on, that’s surely changed.

“It’s about upholding tradition. Because we, as a culture, are craftsmen not artsmen. We’re good at following orders. We’re bad at countering the culture because it’s thought of as disrespectful. But art inherently is provocative. So what do you do?”

Disrupt?

“It’s easy to be provocative through sex and violence so now I am looking at being provocative through more original means. Unfortunately, sex and violence is what sells in Bollywood. Even in Hollywood for that matter although they’ve a lot more variety. So that’s the crux of it and I’m glad I didn’t compromise.”

He goes back to his previous beef with the standardisation of art, a practice he finds Bollywood guilty of. “Now if you were allowed,” he pauses, “within the film industry to express yourself outside of one formula—because come on, there’s really only one—there would still be conformism but with a wide variety. Just how many Irrfans and Nawazes do we have? Sure, you’ve an Ayushmann Khurrana, but you can still package him as a hero. At the end of the day, isn’t that what they do with him?”

The talent is there, he says.

“All these guys have it, including your stars.”

But, he says, you have to have monetary investment to become a star.

“Become a part of the circus. That’s where individuality gets drowned because before you know it, you’re selling toothpaste as doing ads is a big part of being an actor right now. When you’re not seen endorsing anything, the message is: you’re not hot. You know, it could be that I want to go easy on it? Maybe because I am an actor, and not a salesman?”

This isn’t a critique of late capitalism, he assures me. It’s an indictment of a system that rewards money and not ideas. “Wouldn’t it be great if there was more state funding? When NFDC was active, talents like Naseer and Shabana came out. There was a vibrant culture of independent cinema. During our time, this was taken away. Countries like France and Canada have subsidies and incentives. But here, there’s still this misguided perception that the film industry has a lot of black money so hey, let’s tax the hell out of them.”

He’s disappointed in the media that emphasises a film’s box-office records over its artistic merit, his voice reflecting a quiet resignation.

“Nobody talks about breaking stereotypes or formulas or creating a new language. You are not rewarded for nudging a movement into a different direction, you are rewarded for making money. We as a culture are capable of so much more. But we’re restricted by our own obsession with wealth,” he says, going back to his train of thought as if something he’s known all along has just occurred to him.

“Maybe because we’ve just become a capitalist democracy from a socialist one. It’s only been, what, 30 years? We’re the nouveau riche right now. Still into cars and bags and flash. Maybe the generation that grows after will be less taken by it.”

After all these years, haven’t directors he worked with earlier reached out for collaborations? Deol says he’s remained friends with Zoya and Navdeep but there is no project on the anvil for now.

“I don’t reach out to them. If a director wants to work with you, they will seek you out. If you look at their filmographies, you’ll see that they too had to work with the stars to get somewhere. I was standing on my own shoulders saying, no, I should be enough, but the smart thing would have been to associate. Which is what they did. They’re not above the system, they’re part of it. Even if they’re making a film outside the formula, they’re still joining the system. And there’s nothing wrong in that.”

The directors who made some of Deol’s best films may disagree on some specifics, but are united in saying that the actor should get back.

Says Singh, “There’s a bit of pride and resentment in him which I think he should get over. Ultimately everybody is connected to everybody, I think he should just get back here because he’s incredibly gifted.”

Kashyap maintains that Deol still has it in him.

“He is a brilliant actor. He deserved and deserves so much more than he has got. What I hear of him today is different. He has become a better person and easy to collaborate with. See, you can’t take away the acting talent he has and the mind he has and the potential he has. I wish him all the best. He is going to matter a lot to cinema in a few years. He still has it in him.”

Akhtar agrees. “He just needs to stop being this pissed off and to do that one correct film. That’ll happen when he gets back and spends some time here in Mumbai. You don’t like certain things about the system, say, award ceremonies, don’t go. But you must still engage with your audience. His talent has remained irreplaceable.”

While the reception to his recent film not be what it used to, Deol still makes news when he goes against the grain, like when he criticised the hypocrisy of fellow celebrities who mourn the death of George Floyd but stay quiet on injustices in India.

On Instagram, he wrote: “Now that “woke” indian celebrities and the middle class stand in solidarity with fighting systemic racism in America, perhaps they’d see how it manifests in their own backyard?” posting a picture that said #MigrantLivesMatter, #MinorityLivesMatter, #PoorLivesMatter.

In his latest post on the platform, he called out the double standards of global companies that use euphemisms such as “skin brightening” and “HD glow” to sell fairness creams, an obvious dig at those who have been posting on #BlackLivesMatter while still profiting from India’s own racist preferences.

It isn’t a sudden shift—even back in 2010, he spoke out against actors promoting fairness creams, saying these advertisements were “trying to make people what they are not”.

Unsurprisingly, Deol hasn’t even been part of the clique that flies off to Delhi to click selfies with the nation’s most powerful. Does he believe a film as critical of the establishment as Shanghai could be made and released today without threats of nose-chopping by the fringe that enjoys tacit support from the centre?

“It takes a bit of courage to walk away from the mainstream. It’s tempting to conform because there’s just so much to gain and a lot to lose if you go off on your own. What I don’t understand is going all out with the pandering. That has really surprised me. I get why you won’t be vocal and speak against the powers that be, but how are you jumping so blatantly on the other end? But well, these are the times we live in. It’s a choice. Do you want to focus on hate? Or compassion? Because if you focus on hate, you will be taken advantage of.”

While Deol doesn’t act as frequently, he’s producing a lot more and says he’s in a ‘happy space.’ He admitted to some flaws of his latest, What Are The Odds, saying he was proud that he supported the film. “It was an experiment,” he says. adding that he wants to do with streaming companies what he did earlier with multiplexes. “That’s what I want to do again. I want to take chances.”