Fresh of the box office success of buddy-cop comedy Dishoom, which just about managed to hold together, I’m assuming John Abraham must be feeling pretty good about himself right now. Lord knows the actor needed a win after the disastrous Rocky Handsome which he starred in and produced. Abraham is the same man who some years ago talked about making meaningful cinema having produced unforgettable gems like Madras Café and Vicky Donor. Yet his recent slew of film choices suggests a man lost in the comforts of commercial potboilers, far removed from the visionary his debut as a producer, might have suggested. So given his somewhat mixed messaging in the kinds of films he is choosing to be a part of, I find myself asking the cinema gods – will the real John Abraham please stand up?
Looking at the actor’s earlier filmography, it is clear that he’s been a part of a range of different kinds of films, with commercial entities such as Force, Dostana and Dhoom (which many consider his breakout role into the mainstream). As well as some more intriguing and thought-provoking choices such as No Smoking, Water and Kabul Express.
Most mainstream stars witness a fundamental turning point at a specific juncture in their career, a game-changer if you will, where they finally come into their own with a newfound freedom of sorts, to do the kinds of films they want to do rather than those they feel they have to. The obvious examples that jump to mind are Homi Adjania’s Cocktail which is widely considered as Deepika Padukone’s breakout role, and similarly Queen for Kangana Raunaut, which completely overhauled the actor’s status, image and prominence as a performer, resulting in her being one of the most sought after leading ladies today. For John Abraham this was no doubt in the period from 2012 to 2013, which was his era of rebirth as such, when he turned producer for Vicky Donor and Madras Café, both times teaming up with director Shoojit Sarcar. Both films were fascinating in their own right and shook up mainstream cinema in different ways. The 2012 Vicky Donor starring Ayushman Khuranna and Yami Gautam was one of those delightful contradictions we typically see once a year, where a film challenges what is considered mainstream and steals the hearts of the audience. The upbeat, heartwarming comedy about the topic of sperm donation went against all sanskari-sensibilities, yet the merit of the script and endearing characters meant it was the surprise hit of the year. Abraham followed that up with the 2013 Madras Café, a political thriller about the Sri Lankan civil war which many consider one of the most iconic and political films of the last decade. Aside from their acclaim, impact and success, both films saw Abraham launching some incredible talent with the likes of Ayushmann Khuranna, writer Juhi Chatruvedi, as well as bringing director Shoojit Sarcar to the fore, who is undoubtedly one of the most exciting and dynamic filmmakers we have today.
So all in all, that’s a pretty solid legacy from two films alone, both pushing the envelope and becoming path-breaking successes in their own right. This gave us a whole new John Abraham, one we could really get behind and whose future projects became instantly exciting. But again I ask, just where has that man gone?
But Abraham’s recent role choices are anything but balanced, but rather of the same massy, exhausting variety. In fairness, he has always openly discussed his inclination towards the more commercial, slapstick space which is understandable given stars face the pressures of being commercially viable as well as pushing the envelope, something that Deepika Padukone and to a degree Akshay Kumar, seem to have mastered. Examining his choices post Madras Café we’ve seen him in Welcome Back, one of the worst films of last year, a guest appearance in Wazir, Rocky Handsome which was a disaster on par with his daily protein intake, and the marginally more competent Dishoom. Rather than memorable, content-driven stories, his new USP seems to be fluffy commercial messes or hollow, testosterone-driven action flicks.
These films coupled with some of his recent interviews are suggestive of some sort of adrenaline junkie, hell-bent on making cinema of the muscle-pumping-bicep-bulging variety to broadcast his male bravado. He recently declared that he would love to do an action movie with Tiger Shroff, which to me sounds like it would be a massy-masala-mess of Herculean proportions. Abraham’s preference for his recent string of flashy action entertainers are indicative of someone clinging desperately to their star image and is almost reminiscent of Hrithik Roshan’s recent disappointing choices, who seems to be a man going down the same road. Suffice to say this seems to be the Abraham of today: clinging so strongly to notions of image and physique, that the exciting filmmaker is all but lost.
I remember an interview of his on Anupama Chopra’s The Front Row where he discussed his journey of making Vicky Donor and Madras Cafe, and the meaningful cinema he now hoped to be a part of. He detailed the often hilarious encounters he had with various producers who saw no merit in backing either film, given their view was that a film needs a star cast and item song, with everything else falling in the background. To quote him:
“I feel we’ve underestimated our audience. Running after these numbers, we’ve stopped creating films, we’ve only created proposals. Get an A-list hero, the heroine will jump on the bandwagon, create five songs and you create your proposal. Where is the film?”.
Where indeed Mr Abraham.