He is not your average Bollywood hero. His looks earned him much criticism, but this did not deter Ajay Devgn from becoming an actor of repute. With 20 awards in his pocket and 89 films under his belt, he has earned a place for himself at the top. He gets candid with SHIBAJI ROYCHOUDHURY during the shooting of Satyagraha in Bhopal
He doesn’t spread his arms to romance, he doesn’t take his shirt off or karate down the bad guys; he doesn’t perform at award functions or dance at weddings and birthday parties. But he has challenged and changed the concept of a conventional (fair and good looking) hero in Bollywood movies. And, in doing so, he has delivered many blockbusters for over two decades. Be it his debut film Phool Aur Kaante, his national award winning films Zakhm and The legend Of Bhagat Singh or his comedy venture, the Golmaal series, Ajay has three things in common in most of his films; his entry, his powerful performance and the box-office success.
Born in Punjab to Veena and veteran action director Veeru Devgan, who has been the stunt master with Hindi cinema for decades, Ajay too, always wanted to be associated with films even in his childhood days. In fact, his entry into Bollywood actually happened with the 1985 film Pyaari Behna, where he played young Kalicharan (Mithun Chakraborty’s childhood character). “I think, my father was the action director and they needed someone to play the teenage version of Mithun da. Since I was always loitering around on film sets with my father, they opted for me,” Devgn says.
However, Ajay had to wait for his big break until 1991 when he finally got to be a Bollywood hero in Phool Aur Kaante. “I was apprehensive being the lead actor when this film was offered. It was during college days. I was happy chilling out with my friends and working as an assistant director in films. My father had always wanted me to become an actor, but I was confused about it. One day, Kukuji came and told me, ‘Tu mere liye film kar raha hai’. He was very close to my father. I told him it was too early as I was only 19. May be, we should wait for two-three years, I told him. But he insisted. So, I consider myself lucky because unlike most aspiring actors, who have to run around with portfolios to production houses for years, I got the opportunity on a platter,” the actor tells you. Fortunately for him, the film went on to become a huge box-office hit and tagged him as an action hero.
Originally named Vishal by his parents, Devgn changed his name to Ajay before the release of his debut film. “It was my father’s idea that I should opt for a screen name. There were three actors by the name of Vishal who were being launched around the same time and he felt that there would be too much confusion if I too had the same name,” he reveals.
Even though the actor has made a place for himself in Bollywood, he faced a lot of criticism — not for his films or his performances but for his looks. Trade pundits wrote him off even before his film was released. legendary filmmaker Yash Johar, veteran actor Naseeruddin Shah and many other Bollywood personalities criticised his looks and claimed he wouldn’t be able to survive as a hero. “I had heard about these comments. But there were also a lot of people who had faith in me. Some of them were very positive and reassured me that I was doing the right thing. I remember Anil Kapoor was the only big star who came for the premiere of my film. He appreciated my work and advised me that I shouldn’t release the film on the same date as his film lamhe. This, he said, was because Phool Aur Kaante had a new star-cast and lamhe was a YRF film with Sridevi as his co-star. In all probability, it would sabotage my film. However, a year later, when we met again, we laughed together as my film went on to become a hit while lamhe bombed at the box-office,” Devgn recalls with a smile.
After Phool Aur Kaante for which he bagged the Filmfare Award for Best Debut Performance, the actor went on to give hits like Jigar (1992), Dilwale (1994), Suhaag (1994), Vijaypath (1994), Najayaaz (1995) and Diljale (1996). But just when he was being classified as an established action superstar, Ajay switched to comedy with Aamir Khan in Ishq (1997) and played an emotional character in Zakhm (1998) and Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (1999). Both went on to become blockbusters. Devgn won his first National Award also for his performance in Zakhm and ensured that he was known for his versatility as an actor and not as an action hero.
“None of it was a conscious effort. Again, I was lucky because I got the right scripts and characters with the right directors at the right time. This made sure that I didn’t become repetitive. Now, I can play characters in any genre. I get bored easily, so, if I had been made to do only comedy, only action or only drama, I would have quit by now. I would have hated to go to work and do the same kind of movies again and again,” he says. With his upcoming film Himmatwala, Devgn is attempting not only to break all box-office records but also give generation next audiences a taste of Bollywood in the 80s — which he grew up watching.
Despite playing a hero, Devgn has also played negative characters in films like Malik Bhai in Company (2002), Tarang Bhardwaj in Deewangee (2002), Yashwant Angree in Khakee (2004), Kaali Pratap Singh in Kaal (2005), Arjun in london Dreams (2009) and Sooraj in Rajneeti (2010). “I won’t call them negative roles. To me, they were character roles. I did them and will continue to do as long as I find a character interesting and different. A lot of heroes have played negative characters in the past. Take Shah Rukh for instance. He has played negative characters and has been appreciated. I don’t think audiences find it strange if their hero plays a villain as long as he manages to entertain them,” Devgn tells you. After all SRK’s role in Bazigar with Kajol went on to become a super duper hit.
And while Kajol-Shah Rukh’s jodi is much loved by the audiences in reel-life, it is Kajol-Ajay’s jodi which has been one the most concrete marriages in Bollywood. They met first on the sets of Hulchul (1995). “I had met Kajol once before we started shooting for Hulchul. Honestly, I wasn’t very keen to meet her after that. When you meet her for the first time, she comes across as a loud, arrogant and a very talkative person. Moreover, we were very different from each other in terms of personality. But, I guess what is meant to happen, happens. We didn’t rush through it. As a matter of fact, we said ‘I love you’. An official proposal didn’t happened either. We fell in love, grew with each other. We took our time until we were sure that we wanted to spend the rest of our lives together. Marriage, too, was never discussed, but was always imminent. It has been more than a decade now. And I owe my success to her. For a man to be successful, it is important that he is at peace at home,” Devgn says, adding that Kajol has supported him through thick and thin. He is a big believer in the joint family system. The good part of all this is that Kajol, too, wanted the same and blended beautifully with his family. “Nowadays, she is closer to them and I, at times, feel like an outsider,” Devgn says. The couple is blessed with a daughter and a son. Their daughter Nysa is 10-years old and son Yug is about two-and-a-half. “Kajol has been a wonderful mother to them and she chose to take a break from films to raise them up. Nysa is completely daddy’s girl. We do a lot of stuff together, like watching movies and hanging out. Yug is very young to have that father-son bond.
My life changed after Nysa was born, in-terms of my role in the household. There was additional happiness and I was even more excited to come home from shoots so I can spend time with them,” Devgn says.
Workwise, things were going great for the actor who started his own production company in 2000 with the film Raju Chacha. It was claimed to be one of the biggest budgeted films of Bollywood ever (above Rs 50 crore). Unfortunately, it crashed at the box-office and managed to recover only Rs 8.5 crore. But that didn’t put him down and the actor continued to not only produce films but also ventured into writing and direction of his home production U, Me Aur Hum (2008) which became a hit and collected Rs 31.25 crore at the box-office. “Every person makes mistakes and learns from them. Raju Chacha was the only film that bombed at the box-office but I learned a lot from it. In fact, I was in a lot of debt after it’s failure. Hence, I worked twice as hard to repay the loans as quickly as I could. I have produced a few films since then like U, Me Aur Hum, Atithi Tum Kab Jaoge and Toonpur Ka Superhero. All have done well at the box-office. Son of Sardar has broken all records,” he tells you.
Though the actor may have been critically acclaimed and won awards for several performances, he refuses to attend award functions to receive trophies. “I don’t agree with these awards. Honestly, awards in Bollywood are like a manipulated reality show and everyone knows about it. It’s no longer a secret. They are given to the people to perform in these functions. There will be a time when actors will be paid to attend these awards. There is a lot of pressure on the awarding committee and the organisers. It’s all become a business. Hence, I stay away from it. In fact, I couldn’t receive my first National Award for Zakhm because I was shooting in Ooty and there was just one flight that went to Delhi and it got cancelled. My mother had to fly from Mumbai and collect it on my behalf. But, I went for the second one,” he reveals.
While most of the A-league actors these days are seen attending and performing in high-profile marriages, corporate parties, functions, birthday bashes, Devgn has stayed away from this money making exercise. “It is a personal thing. I don’t judge anyone for doing it but my conscious doesn’t allow me to do these things. I feel my place is in front of the camera and not dancing at a random place for money,” he insists.
The actor has also not been seen in a intimate/love-making scene since Omkara. Is it a conscious effortIJ “It is a conscious effort, in a way. I intend to do films which a family can see together and not feel embarrassed. I was recently watching a Hindi film and my father got up and went away. When I asked him why he walked out, he said: ‘They were wearing small clothes. I thought you would be embarrassed watching it with me’. My father is from the film industry, if he can walk out, you can imagine the scene in the movie,” he tells you.
Due to intense and emotional roles, there is a dichotomy in the way he is perceived and how he actually is in real life. Devgn is a prankster on the sets. “A little fun is essential during such tedious work schedules. We end up spending 70-80 days working constantly. Pranks and masti help break the monotony. I played a prank on Kareena during the shooting of Golmaal. I convinced her that there was an aatma in her room. God! she was so freaked out that she refused to sleep in her room that night,” the actor reveals.
And his favourite movieIJ The legend of Bhagat Singh. “I did the maximum research in my life to play Bhagat Singh. When an actor plays a real life hero, the responsibility to portray him right and do justice to the role becomes twice as much. I had to grow my hair to get the perfect Sikh look. It was an amazing experience and one of the closest films to my heart,” he tells you. Among his favourite directors, Devgn loves working with Prakash Jha. Kukuji gave him his first break and he went on to do many more film with him. Rohit Shetty is a good friend and so is Sajid. In fact, back in his college days, Devgn was his cigarette financier. Salman Khan, Sanjay Dutt and Abhishek Bachchan are all close too. Among the actresses, he is friends with Kareena Kapoor, Asin and a few others.
Devgn may be one of the biggest movie stars in India, but it is a little known fact that he is an excellent cook. “I love to cook Mughlai food though I can cook Chinese, Continental and Mexican as well or at least my family seems to think so. Sadly, my busy schedule means that I don’t get to cook that often. But I do cook once or twice a fortnight if I am in town,” he says.
Talking about erasing certain aspects or events from his life, Devgn says it’s not the events but certain people and habits that would fall in this category. “Smoking is a habit I know I have to kick,” he says. The actor has once been booked for smoking on a train with Salman Khan. “This one is true,” he admits and recalls how the two had reserved the entire compartment and didn’t think that anyone would catch them. “We weren’t disturbing anyone but then rules are rules and we broke them,” he says.
Known for his acumen for action and comic timing, Devgn has always struggled when it comes to dancing. “I am no good at it despite what Sajid may say. I was too lazy to take dancing lessons and most of my roles were so powerful in terms of acting and intensity that my dancing got sidelined,” he tells you with a smile.
Talking about new-age cinema, Devgn feels it has evolved over the years. “There is a wide variety of cinema being made and appreciated today. One can see this in small budget films, intelligent films, topical films, films on social causes and films on personalities not only getting critically acclaimed but also doing well at the box-office. Previously, parallel cinema was for critics and commercial films were audiences. But both have evolved now,” he says.
Considering that he has been in the industry for 22 years, Devgn has kept himself away from controversy. “Controversies start at Bollywood parties. Since I never go to these parties, I don’t get dragged into controversies. Fights and controversies only happen when people meet very often,” he says. The only two instances wherein he has made headlines are for talk around his rivalry with Shah Rukh Khan and the more recent Jab Tak Hain Jaan (JTHJ) vs Son of Sardar (SOS) monopoly battle. “Shah Rukh and I have never had any animosity. I don’t understand why people perceive it so. Just because we aren’t close friends, do we have to be enemiesIJ He is Kajol’s close friend and we are cordial with each other. That’s that,” he adds.
He, however, comes out all guns blazing about the second point. “Sometimes right and wrong is like black and white. Manipulating and monopolising single screens is a wrong practice and I will fight against it no matter who it is against. I have always done what my heart tells me to. It was never about me losing out on money. By God’s grace, we are doing well. It is about principles. It may have started as me defending my turf as an individual but now I am fighting on behalf of all those producers who are bullied by big banners and don’t get the true reward for their hard work. The next hearing is due in a few days and I am ready for it. By the end of it, more than half the industry will end up thanking me for changing a wrong practice and it will be a better and fair place for everyone,” Devgn concludes.