There is something to be said of Ajay Devgn, the director. For all his wooden heroism — one that cannot distinguish expressionless indifference from gruff machismo — the three films he has directed, U Me Aur Hum (2008), Shivaay (2016), and the recently released Runway 34, display a penchant for refreshing artistry. There is a reach for visual and muscular ambition, even if they fall short of cinematic greatness. As critic Baradwaj Rangan notes, despite the hamming and the jarring narrative shifts, "You somehow know you're in safe hands."
All three films are technically challenging and the production has been pioneering for the industry. He brought the heli-cam, a helicopter-like camera controlled remotely, to Hindi cinema for the first time with U Me Aur Hum. He shot a thrilling action film like Shivaay with a relentless and economical comic book-like frenzy. Cinematographer Aseem Bajaj described this shoot as one where his heart was always pounding in his mouth. "I remember operating a camera hanging from a wire," he says.
With Runway 34, Devgn radically reconceptualizes space. The first half of Runway 34 takes place, for the most part, inside a claustrophobic, ticking cockpit. In order to capture the space as comprehensively as possible, he made sure that, along with Aseem Bajaj, he placed seven cameras in that cramped set — certainly a logistical triumph. It allowed for the odd angles as much as it did the extreme close-ups on the actors' faces, which pull your awareness towards the texture of human skin and the landscape of facial features.
Last year, Devgn celebrated 30 years of being in the film industry, during which he won two National Film Awards and cemented his unique brand of the mass hero that would occasionally be punctured by arthouse and gritty films like Zakhm (1998), Raincoat (2004), and Omkara (2006). But even as he found fame as an actor, acting was never his first calling, in the same way directing was not something Devgn fell into as a convenient, logical progression of his career.
Before his debut film Phool Aur Kaante (1991) made him an overnight star and a formidable icon, he was contemplating direction as a career. His father, the action director Veeru Devgan, used to make him edit action sequences when he was all of ten years-old, making him aware of both the glamour and the labour of cinema. This was followed by years of assisting his father and other film directors. "My mind was always working on the other side of the camera," he told Anupama Chopra at the recent FC Front Row session. Both the affection for and attention to filmmaking is clear.
In all three films — critics have pointed out similarities of each film to a Hollywood hit, be it Notebook, Taken, Flight — he plays the lead role, as though the instincts of an actor and that of a director to choose a project are indistinguishable. Note how in all three films, he is a father, and in all three films he insists on burnishing the image of the alpha male from within the boundaries of fatherhood — placing the fuck-boi vibe alongside doting paternal affection. In the flashback in U Me Aur Hum he is described as "smart, sexy, sensitive, sensible, single psychiatrist". In Shivaay, a side-character swoons over him, "Oh he's so hot and sexy". In Runway 34 the background score that invites him on screen croons, "He's the one, he's the alpha man." These are men without backstories, emerging from nothing towards blinding, sexualized heroism. But even within these conventional frames of stardom, Devgn mounts something singular and striking.
Runway 34 begins with a long shot. The camera slowly moves towards the air traffic control tower as it is pouring, and when it reaches the glass facade of the tower, in a seamless lunge, it continues inside the tower as though the glass weren't a barrier, further moving towards the men in the control room looking out at the rain with panic-struck faces. This isn't radical or pioneering. In fact, Ship Of Theseus did this way back in 2010. But the decision to have a continuous take to establish tension instead of the short and quick cuts that introduce movies and moments, shows the visual pitch at which Devgn wants his films to unfold. Besides, these long shots are also a preoccupation. In his first film, U Me Aur Hum, the heli-cam glides across the sky following symmetric gulls to then swerve, catching a glimpse of the whole cruise-ship perched in the middle of the ocean, then slowly drifting over the ship till it rests its gaze on a bickering couple at the deck. In the film, to show the disorientation of Piya (Kajol), who is slowly losing her memory, he keeps her silhouette steady and turns the background upside down in a whirr. (Like anything inventive, however, this striking visual freshness can come across as showy, sometimes — the stilted angles and flat, bright colours yanking you out of a moment.)
Bajaj, who has shot all of Devgn's movies, notes that he is not merely passionate but incredibly discerning about how light falls and the logistics of cinematography. He is a cinematographer's director. "In my first commercial film, Zameen, Rohit Shetty wanted an extreme close-up of Ajay's eyes as he is walking across the room. We kept trying but it would always go out of focus. I was very perplexed. Then he came up to me and said: What if I don't walk and you don't have to operate the camera? He asked if it's such a tight close-up of the eye, what else do you see in the frame? There was an out-of-focus wall with paintings . So he suggested that if both of us are totally static, but we move the painting in the background, it would produce the same effect. He was absolutely right."
With the same editor (Dharmendra Sharma) and the same cinematographer, each film tackles a separate landscape — U Me Aur Hum begins in the luxurious liner, Shivaay tints the mountains with an icy menthol blue, and Runway 34 leans into cabin fever. Narratively too, he is on different altitudes, always finding ways of re-thinking drama and dramatic intensity. He will insert a Mithoon-composed romantic croon in the middle of a life-threatening snowstorm, he will insert a Jasleen Royal lulling song in the middle of a turbulent scene, as a melodic respite, as the flight is about to crash land into a cyclone. In U Me Aur Hum, the marriage ceremony becomes a framing device to explain to the friends how the lovers ended up finding each other. What would have been a somber, sentimental moment in any other film becomes a frothy scene showing the camaraderie between friends as much as lovers.
When trying to describe his heroism, Devgn had said, "I'm not going to break the law. But I don't mind breaking rules." This distinction between laws and rules — things that are sacred and things that are negotiable — is something that his directorial hand constantly teases apart. Some laws of storytelling will be unchallenged, while the rules that gird it — the set up, the visual evocations, the song inserts — are shaken out and dusted to newness, a little.