Ajay Devgn's first film, Phool Aur Kaante, released on November 22, 1991. He was 23 years old then. It platformed his machismo (he makes his entrance standing on two bikes), and evoked the audience's pity (he plays an orphan), ringing the cash registers. His place among the constellations of Hindi cinema stardom was being etched.
But Devgn's story is not just of ascending stardom. He would stumble along the way too, doing films that even for its time looked and sounded awful. After the release of Rascals, a favour-film for his producer friend Sanjay Dutt, in 2011, he apologized publicly on multiple occasions, promising to not promote misogyny in his films again. In an interview with us, he confessed that many of his film choices were dictated by emotions:
"Somewhere our generation is more emotional… When we decided to do Action Jackson, it was for Govind-ji. He had worked with us a lot; I decided to do a film for him. I heard the new script and it didn't work out and they had put up a set… By that time there was so much pressure, the producer was losing money, so we decided to just do it. I am not saying it is right. But we think emotionally."
His range as an actor too is visible- histrionic rants, and emotional breakdowns don't bode so well. When he hams, it rarely works. (Main Aisa Hi Hoon comes to mind where he plays an autistic father)
But stardom is rarely about range. It's about the stoic brilliance and ability to cast dialogues in posterity. It's about the voice that is instantly recognizable, and the gaze that pierces the object of its scorn. Perhaps it is also about not taking yourself too seriously.
With Tanhaji, he will have completed 100 films. To commemorate the decades spent creating cinema, we dig through his filmography to curate a list of 10 Devgn moments, or Devgn-isms, that endure the test of time- the ridiculous, the righteous, and the rad.
Devgn plays Ajay in his debut film that begins with him busting a drug distribution chain in his college days and ends with him rescuing his son from dons. (He would rescue kids from the evil clutches of their uncles in Raju Chacha, and his daughter from a child trafficking cartel in Shivaay. The saviour complex is a large part of his stardom) This is a film that has aged poorly; the first two of six 'love' songs in the movie are dedicated to harassment. Here's a sampler
'Ji chaahe uske lab choom loon, hans ke churalun uski hasin.'
But what has endured is Devgn's persona- he makes an entrance standing on two bikes- one for each leg. He performs a split as the distance between the bikes increase. It's bonkers!
Structurally, this is a very interesting film, much of the love songs and action sequences are concentrated in the second half, as opposed to the first half. Here too he plays Ajay, a man who has been falsely accused and imprisoned on charges of rape. He comes out trying to find out who actually committed the act, uncovers the rape-ring, and metes out justice by violently killing them, one-by-one.
In the pre-climactic battle sequence, a bunch of women throw the tape recordings of the villain's rapes into a fire that is prepared for the villain's funeral.
Devgn's first (and only, so far) collaboration with Bhansali came at a time when Bhansali himself was trying to find his voice and aesthetic. Bhansali made the stoic silence on Devgn's face into a character itself. In this scene he is heard singing 'Chingari Koi Bhadke', like he normally would. He isn't trying to sing badly, he just sings badly. No qualms about it, he remains shy, but receptive to criticism. It's a great moment.
Devgn won his first National Film Award for Best Actor portraying Ajay in this film about post riots Mumbai. It's a slow burn film, and possibly one of the most poignant uses of Devgn's deadpan, piercing eyes. In the song 'Hum Yahan Tum Yahan', it peaks as he looks at Sonali Bendre, his wife in the movie, with both melancholy and hope for their life in all its beauty to resurrect.
In this film he plays the antithesis of his Gundaraj character. Gangaajal here refers to acid. The mob believes that justice for kidnappers, and murders means having acid thrown on their faces and having their eyes gouged out. It's surreal. In the end we have Devgn trying to calm a violent mob that wants extra-judicial justice. He gives a rousing speech about the importance of law in a civilized state. (In a fight sequence later, he would end up killing the villain anyway.)
On the heels of Yuva, his early 2000s Kanhaiya Kumar act, a very obvious, stated performance, is his performance in Raincoat, perhaps his most under-stated, quiet performance. Devgn's desire to be part of both genres- the obvious and the metaphoric- is testament to his versatile determination. Imagine, for a commercial actor in ascent to do a movie which is only conversation based (no "dialogue" moment, bespectacled, awkward), set indoors in murky lighting and mood rains. This was back in 2004.
Look at his face as Aishwarya Rai sings 'Meri Jaan, Mujhe Jaan Na Kaho' behind the glass panes as she is brewing chai. There's such longing, and such happiness to be in the company of whom one loves.
In 2000, Devgn set up his own production and distribution company, then called Ajay Devgan Films. (Over the decade Devgan would become Devgn, and Films would become Ffilms) U, Me, Aur Hum, Devgn's directorial debut, failed but there was a refreshing beauty to the film and his acting, specifically. It's about him, a romeo figure who falls in love with a woman who gets afflicted with alzheimer's. Vishal Bharadwaj's score that highlighted both the beauty and doom of falling and forgetting in love still haunts. Devgn's stoic sadness, throwing it back to his Zakhm days, didn't fade through the decades; it's still effective. The scene where he is first confronted with the idea of Kajol's alzheimer's is sheer gold.
We were under the impression we left the angry-cop genre films as we moved into the new millennium. The ones we were getting, like in Gangaajal, seemed to be tethered to law and order, however heroically. Rohit Shetty brought it back, and how. Trademark dialogues ("Aata Majhi Satakli") and action sequences became so entertaining, that with every new film being added to the franchise, we wondered what new thing will the Shetty-Devgn synergy come up with this time. It's something we rarely do, and for action films, rarer so.
In the first installment we saw him chase down the eve teasing gundas, getting off a speeding vehicle, standing rooted, and that's that. No questions needed, all answers given. (He would do this again in Simmba; truly a lot of Devgn's oeuvre is self-referential because he now dabbles in universes, not characters.)
When the Shivaay trailer dropped, at 3 minutes and 50 seconds, I was dumb-struck. Much of the trailer (like the film itself) was a montage of impressively shot action sequences, gutted and edited to a rousing background score and the nothingness of his verbose monologue.
Mid-way through the film comes one of the most exciting chase sequences in Hindi cinema, where he chases the van his daughter is kidnapped in, through the gullies, and highways of Sofia, Bulgaria. It's an 8 minute-long sequence with impressive shots of Devgn, who also directed this film, in full-form, jumping onto and off moving cars, cartwheeling through the city with an ease of climbing a staircase. He was in his late 40s when the film was being shot over a period of a few years; his zest for cutting edge action sequences hasn't left him since his Phool Aur Kaante days. Today he remains one of the enduring action heroes of his vintage.
For his 100th film, Ajay Devgn chose to play Tanhaji Malusare, the military leader of Chhatrapati Shivaji. This isn't the first time he is playing a larger than life historic figure; he has played Bhagat Singh (for which he won his second National Film Award For Best Actor). But the language and tone of Tanhaji, about "the surgical strike that shook the Mughal empire" is more political. The trailer with its references to the bhagwa, the saffron flag, cannot be looked at without the socio-political context in which the film is releasing. He is introduced in the trailer, and I assume in the film too, by jumping off cliffs on ropes. At one point, in the battlefield he merely shrugs at a horse for it to fall sideways. Part of me chuckled, but a part of me also was convinced. Such is the enigma of Devgn.