John Abraham has had an interesting journey and it’s one he seems to have come to terms with. Whether it was his early days as a model or advertising man or his long but fated relationship with Bipasha Basu and his checkered career as an actor, Abraham seems to have found his groove. And the corner of Bollywood he happily seems to have crafted for himself, as a commercially successful star who backs content-driven offbeat films as a producer. Abraham didn’t rest on the success of his maiden production Vicky Donor. He quickly teamed up with director Shoojit Sircar for five more films, the first of which, Madras Café, releases on August 23. Abraham plays an undercover agent in his political spy thriller set against the backdrop of the Sri Lankan Civil War of the 1990s. For his part as Vikram in Madras Café, Sircar asked him to pare down that same beefy body that went a long way in ensuring his action image in Force and Shootout At Wadala (SAW). It meant Abraham had to give up his body sculpting routine for over six months. Currently, he’s busy promoting his second home production, finalising a slate of new films, prepping to act in three other commercial films and regaining his bulked-up body.
Doesn’t your image as a normal guy who has to blend in, such as Vikram in Madras Café, clash with your popular image as the action hero of Force and SAW?
In Madras Café, you will not see the John Abraham of Force or SAW. But that’s the risk. If the audience want to see me do something that is in a realistic action space and is offering so much more depth in terms of content, then this is the film. It’s like giving my audience cupcakes all the time and then suddenly presenting Royce chocolates to them. Vicky Donor was never meant to win awards. I made it because I thought the subject was its USP. In Madras Café, we are in love with the Tamil conflict that existed. I am enamored by political situations, which is why I did Kabul Express and New York. But this is a work of fiction based on true-life incidents and characters.
You seem to take greater risks as a producer than as an actor.
I took a risk doing Vicky Donor and now I am doing Madras Café. Many 18 to 30-yearolds, our target audience, don’t know what happened in the mid-80s and onwards. They have no idea how the crisis unfolded. Our approach is to educate them through the backdrop of this conflict. I am looking at projects like these, which are a sound investment but that do justice to a budget. As the producer, of course, I cut my actor’s fee for Madras Cafe. Yet people who have seen it says the trailer makes it look like a `50 crore film. And that’s where the strength of a producer who wants to make a qualitative film comes across. We have been smart with the budgets. I don’t want a loss on my books either as producer or a flop on my books as an actor, but most important is to make a good film. And that’s what we have tried to do.
Which roles challenge you more as an actor, Madras Café or Shootout at Wadala, especially since the perception is that action roles do not require much performance?
If I go by set pieces and formula, I know how to be a commercial hero without trying hard. I am doing a Welcome Back, a Dostana and I can do another SAW or Force and I know I’ll work in that space. But, is that what I want to get up every morning thinking about? No. I want to broaden my spectrum and I feel this film has helped me a lot. Shoojit loved my subtle performances in several films and he wanted me to maintain that subtlety. Unfortunately, in our industry overacting is considered good acting. In this film, he said, ‘I will deconstruct you completely. You have to mingle with the crowd as intelligence officers blend into the crowd’. So I had to stop working out, which was tough psychologically but it helped me look more real.
How different will the films you act in be from the ones you produce?
They will be completely different. I am doing a Welcome Back, which I know is going to be a blockbuster. It will work! But as a producer I want to attempt sensitive, different subjects, the kind of stories that I tried in the past and failed, like No Smoking, Kabul Express and Water. These were socially relevant films but they failed somewhere. I don’t have a problem with that, but as a producer I want to use the success of commercial films to garner support for these films. I am happy I am producing because I am getting to make the kind of films I want to.
Are you still pursuing that elusive stamp of acceptance as an actor?
We all strive for credibility and I want to be accepted as someone improving with every film. But then when you hear a comment like ‘outside of Aamir Khan you are the only one doing films like this’ it’s so nice. I am a big Aamir Khan fan too. But I am only one film old, so should be allowed to make mistakes. As long as I am creating content that is different, I am happy to keep producing. As an actor, I know John Abraham is accepted — “body dekha hai” — in that commercial format, people want that.
What are your future projects?
With Nishikant Kamat’s next film and Sanjay Gupta’s next, which will be Force or SAW to the power of 10, I will reinforce my action hero image. But then there’s also Anees Bazmee’s Welcome Back, which I enjoyed hearing and I am going to enjoy doing it. At some point, Karan (Johar) will announce Dostana. I will also produce a football based film directed by Shoojit Sircar. I love football. Our next production will be Hamara Bajaj. So besides Nishikant and Shoojit, we are also producing films by Sajid Ali and Arshad Syed plus developing a couple of other films also. I want to work on subjects that resonate with my audience, which is a young audience that even connects with my interests like fitness, motorbikes, etc.
And what about your personal life and rumors of an impending wedding to Priya Runchal?
(Abraham smiles cheekily and only shakes his head, suggesting there are no such plans afoot).