on the actor's trail

The best thing about turning producer for John Abraham? The power to say, ‘I told you so’

The actor-producer has backed his new movie ‘Parmanu’, about the 1998 nuclear tests, to the hilt. It will finally be out on May 25.

John Abraham jokingly compared the process of releasing his new movie Parmanu: The Story of Pokhran to a nuclear test at the trailer launch. Directed by Abhishek Sharma and starring Abraham and Diana Penty, the movie revisits the 1998 nuclear tests in Pokhran, which signalled to the world the country’s increased nuclear capability.

Parmanu will be released on May 25 after weathering a spat between Abraham’s company, JA Entertainment, and KriArj Entertainment over stalled payments. The film’s release sealed after a Bombay High Court order ruling in Abraham’s favour. “I am just relieved that the film is finally releasing,” the actor-producer told Scroll.in.

After a successful career in marketing followed by modelling, Abraham made his screen debut with the erotic thriller Jism (2003) and his credits include Dhoom (2004), Zinda (2006), Kabul Express (2006), Dostana (2008) and Force (2011). He turned producer with Shoojit Sircar’s comedy Vicky Donor (2012).

You have often called yourself an accidental actor.
Sometimes, accidents happen for the best. I am happy that I am here, and now that I am here, I cannot think of being anywhere else. I want to create stories, make cinema, act in films. It is a fun combination of being hungry as an actor and hungry as a producer. I am happy with where I am. The home is where the heart is and this is my home.

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Parmanu (2018).

You made your screen debut with ‘Jism’ in 2003. How has the Hindi film industry changed since then?
Thankfully in terms of acting, what was considered the loud and garish, overtly expressive acting is now a thing of the past. The subtleties that I used to bring to the screen very early on are now being appreciated. It is a case of me saying, I told you so. The case in point being Madras Cafe. Directors have told me it was one of my most mature performances.

It makes a huge difference when the audience perception changes. Because the ’80s and ’90s had the worst kind of cinema in the Hindi film industry. When that percolated down into the 2000s, I wasn’t the biggest beneficiary initially because over-expressiveness was considered to be great. Thankfully, that is over, and thankfully half of them are married by now.

Between ‘Dhoom’, ‘Dostana’ and ‘Force’, you have played villains, comic characters and action heroes. You also picked uncommon roles such as in ‘No Smoking’ and ‘Taxi No. 9211.’
I have always thought of scripts in a particular way. I like picking out something that is not normal and not typically formula-based. I still remember when a producer asked me about the kind of films I liked to do. I said, a film like Memento. He laughed at me, saying no one was going to see that film. And then Aamir Khan did Ghajini three years later.

I could have easily gone down the path of being a plain hardcore hero. But that never excited me. I have to connect to the story personally. I am a very innocent and honest viewer. I love Golmaal 3, Housefull 2, No Entry and Rowdy Rathore. They are typically commercial films, but I connected with them somewhere and they worked.

For me, Zinda worked in my head¸ and Taxi No. 9211 worked instinctively. Taxi No. 9211 is my favourite. The films that did not work for me were the films I was not convinced about. It is as simple as that.

I feel empowered to do something differently now that I am a producer. I now have the courage to pick up a script and say, I can pull this off.

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Dostana (2008).

What drew you towards ‘Parmanu?
Parmanu is based on a true story. The character names have been changed, but the only fictional character is mine, just like it was in Madras Cafe. Because you need to tell a story through someone’s eyes. About 15 to 20 per cent of the film is fictional. What you see is what actually happened, and you will understand that when you see the postscript.

It must have been challenging to make a nuclear test look interesting on the screen.
There is so much of technical overload of information. The most difficult thing to do was taking such a complex subject where you are talking about hydrogen, fission and fusion bombs, the Taj Mahal shaft, Kumbhkaran shaft and the White House shaft.

And then, the most difficult part was getting all this information together and simplifying it in the first 20 to 25 minutes of the film. The minute you simplify it, the film rolls after that. All credit goes to Abhishek Sharma. He has done a fantastic job.

With Madras Cafe, I learnt that it is nice to do a great film, but it cannot be niche. Let every audience member see it. Let the lowest denominator see it. That is what we have done with Parmanu.

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Madras Cafe (2013).

You have said that every Indian should be proud of ‘Parmanu’. Was there the fear that the film would take a jingoistic turn?
As an audience member and as a producer, I want to make an engaging, entertaining film that is also commercial. The audiences should primarily enjoy it. What is Avengers? It is a commercial film. When I am setting out to make a commercial film, I am not going to make a documentary.

So what I did was I showed my team Argo, Eye in the Sky and Zero Dark Thirty and I asked them what they had inferred from the films. They were all edge-of-the-seat thrillers. I told them that is what Parmanu should be.

When you walk out, your by-product should be the fact that you feel proud to be an Indian. But that should not be the intent with which you go into the film. There might be people who are not interested in the Pokhran tests. But still, when they watch the film, it should be nail-biting.

How did you manage to deal with the setbacks you faced as the film’s co-producer?
As a producer, I can only advise my fellow producers to choose their partners rightly. Please see where their money comes from or does not come from. That is important.

Honestly, I am thankful to the honourable Bombay High Court for passing a judgement in my favour. The court order is in the public domain, and you must see it to understand exactly what I have been saying for the longest time.

I am relieved and happy. So today, it is not even important anymore that I am supposed to have butterflies in my stomach about how the film will be received. I am just relieved that the film is releasing.

Among your upcoming films are Milap Jhaveri’s ‘Satyamev Jayateand Robbie Grewal’s spy thriller ‘Romeo Akbar Walter.
For the next three months, I am in Gujarat, Nepal, Kashmir and all over India to shoot for Romeo Akbar Walter, because there are eight different looks. It is probably the most challenging movie that I will be doing, so I am a little nervous. But it will be fun.

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Jitni Dafa from Parmanu (2018).
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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.