Between the years 2007-2009, actor Abhay Deol starred in some of the most memorable films of that time, even if they weren’t monster box office successes. He supported new filmmakers who had original voices that didn’t fit into mainstream cinema. Think, Dibakar Banerjee’s Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! or Navdeep Singh’s Manorama Six Feet Under. In the case of Anurag Kashyap‘s Dev D, Deol was instrumental in developing the concept and finding takers for it. His goal was to support fresh, independent creatives forces. He says a big actress once called him a ‘lone ranger’.

Since that phase, Deol has had a bit of a confused career graph. There have been hits like Zindagi Na Milegi Dobaara but also long periods of absence. On April 20, he has a film called Nanu Ki Jaanu up for release. His last release was Happy Bhag Jayegi 2 years ago. Here he talks about how the industry has changed in the last decade, his disillusionment with studio heads, and his upcoming projects.

You’ve constantly reiterated that you’re not cut out for mainstream Bollywood – it has to be a little left of centre for you to be interested in a film. Has that changed at all?

No, not at all. As they say, if at first you don’t succeed, try again. I try and do the middle of the road film – neither is it sell-out formula, nor is it isolatingly artistic. I think it’s the toughest film to make.

Where would Nanu Ki Jaanu fall?

In the middle. It’s slightly more in the mainstream side in the way that Happy Bhag Jayegi and  Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara was. Or even Socha Na Tha. So maybe centre right? So my work can either be centre right or centre left. I’m also doing a Tamil film that’s bang in the middle!

There is a lot of originality and experimentation going on today than back when I started. When I was making Dev D and Oye Lucky it was tough to come by those scripts. In fact, I pretty much got Dev D developed so one still has to create the kind of work one wants to do. But there are a lot more people supportive of it today than they were in 2007-2009.

You said then when you were pitching Dev D a lot of people said that these kind of films were great for Europe, but no one in India would watch it.

I was not pitching it to studios as such – I was pitching it to friends and colleagues. And yes, their opinion was it was too arty farty to have ever been made into a film. Studios, I would not have bothered with. They entertain you when you’re already making money, when you’re already a winning proposition. They do not have the vision to see a creative person, they can only see a businessman.

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Still?

Oh yes, yes. Don’t be mistaken. Even if they make off beat films they are pretty much still suits behind the desk. Trust me they weren’t behind those off beat films, but when they do well, they try taking credit for it. That’s a studio executive for you.

So making a Manorama Six Feet Under or Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! wouldn’t be any easier today? 

Perhaps it would be. But even then it wouldn’t be the studio executive who would get them green lit. It would still be an old school traditional Bollywood producer who would ironically more than a studio take a chance or people willing to stick it out and stay true to their creativity. It would still not be easy but possibly easier than 10 years ago.

When I see a Nawaz do well I’m like ‘yay thank god’ at least we can have a community of actors who don’t conform to the mainstream because before this all we had is conformist stars. Now at least they may not be stars and but they’re not conformist either.

Today you have actors like Rajkummar Rao and Nawazuddin Siddiqui who are products of the indie world and they managing to get eyeballs for the kind of movies they do. Does that make you hopeful?

Oh yes! When I see a Nawaz do well I’m like ‘yay thank god’ at least we can have a community of actors who don’t conform to the mainstream because before this all we had is conformist stars. Now at least they may not be stars and but they’re not conformist either. We need that to continue growing into other areas of storytelling.

Producer/director Aanand L Rai, who’ve you’ve worked with in Raanjhanaa, Happy Bhag Jayegi and now Zero, has called you a lazy, talented actor. Is that true? 

I don’t know about the talented part but I can be lazy. But this he said many years ago. You should ask him now if he still sticks by it. I’m never the same person in any given year, I’m constantly changing. I could have a year that I’m lazy and a year where I work my ass off. The past year has been one of those where I’ve worked my ass off. Looks like this year too will go the same way.

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A lot of actors now talk about the importance of visibility – whether it’s through social media or brand endorsements. They probably fear an out of sight, out of mind situation. You were out of sight for a while. Do you think you might have lost out on work because of that?

It’s possible. It’s a very insecure industry. They are looking out for someone who is already coming in with their own success – whether it be studios taking on a project or managers and agents taking on an actor. You get yourself work and then they come after you – this happens in Hollywood too. So in that sense visibility helps. We live in an age where the Kardashians are famous for making a porn video. Narcissism is at an all-time high right now. A Donald Trump gets elected! So this is all about being visible and being heard and that’s creeping into all aspects of our life, whether it’s in the arts or politics or business.

I was pitching Dev D to friends and colleagues. And yes, their opinion was it was too arty farty to have ever been made into a film. Studios, I would not have bothered with. They entertain you when you’re already making money.

Would you do anything differently? 

I don’t know. I mean if you were ever given a chance to go back and change some things in the past, I’m sure I would. But how much would that be to do with visibility, I don’t know.

What’s the one thing you’d like to see change in the industry? 

I wish it was more transparent at every level.

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