The idea of Abhishek Bachchan starring in a film directed by Anurag Kashyap is enough to spark curiosity. Bachchan plays Robbie in Manmarziyaan, Kashyap’s attempt at a love triangle that also stars Vicky Kaushal and Taapsee Pannu. Manmarziyaan, produced by Aanand L Rai and Eros International, will be premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival before being released on September 14.
It has taken Bachchan 16 years of being before the camera and a two-year absence from a movie set to reinvent himself. Eighteen years after making his debut in Refugee, followed by some hits and many misses and gambles, the 42-year-old actor says he has “figured out” what he wants to do “better late than never”.
Why did you step away from acting for two years after ‘Housefull 3’?
I had reached a juncture where I felt I needed to stop, change perspective, re-evaluate and re-energise. I felt I had become complacent with how I was doing my work. It was not that I was unhappy with the kind of films I was doing. I loved each and every film. Before the sabbatical, I was going through a golden phase. But it was easy. With ensemble films, there was no pressure on me to deliver.
I didn’t like the complacency. That’s not what I came here to do; it’s not what I came here to be. I wanted to be challenged. I wanted to feel uncomfortable in the films I was doing. I had been feeling this for quite some time, and taking a sabbatical was the first step of the plan.
What was the plan?
I changed the way I thought about my career. Actually, I started thinking about my career, which I had not really been doing before. I was just happy to be an actor and to be getting jobs. Here is a great script, it’s a Mani Ratnam film, great. Ram Gopal Varma? Also great. Karan Johar – let’s do it! But I realised that there needs to be a plan and goalposts, because your audience expects stuff from you. You have to fulfill that expectation. One cannot be aloof or arrogant behind the garb of being a creative person. Because if you buy a ticket, I owe it to you. Whether I am doing solo hero films or whether I am part of an ensemble cast, I must have something to do in them. Something that an audience, which might have come to see me, can take away from.
Having said all this, I have a lot of other work including sports [he co-owns teams in the Pro-Kabbadi League and the football Indian Super League] and managing our investment portfolio. So over the last two-and-a-half years, I worked hard on all this.
So what made you accept ‘Manmarziyaan’?
On Aanand’s suggestion, Kanika Dhillon, the screenwriter, gave me a narration in January 2018. I liked her and her work, and we had a long discussion about the script. Then I asked, who is directing? Anand said Anurag, and then it clicked. When I met Anurag, I knew it was the correct decision, because his perspective on the script was just brilliant. I saw how he added even more to what Kanika had written. It just felt right. By February, we were shooting in Amritsar.
Your association with Anurag goes back to ‘Yuva’ (2004), where he wrote dialogue and which gave you one of your most acclaimed roles as Lallan Singh.
Yes, it’s like the circle of life. I had worked closely with him during Yuva because we had done a lot of readings and Anurag had really toiled on Lallan Singh and me. Subsequently, I don’t think he was impressed with my performance. In fact, he was one of the two people who didn’t like my work in Yuva.
Who was the other?
My father. By and large, I got a lot of positive feedback for Lallan, but now I realise that as the writer, Anurag had a different vision which, maybe, I didn’t fulfill or live up to, or he felt I could have done better. He is not easily impressed, and one of the reasons I thought it would be good to work with him was because I thought he would push me.
What can you tell us about Robbie, your character in ‘Manmarziyaan’?
Robbie is a banker from London who comes to Amritsar to have an arranged marriage. Robbie is written as a quiet and reserved person, but we also made him decisive. I liked the fact that he is an immensely strong person. The challenge here, and I was especially panicked about this, was when you have a film predominantly about three characters, of which two are exuberant, flamboyant and wonderful who are up there in their energy levels and the third is subtle, subdued, introverted, strong, resolute. It’s easy to classify him as boring. The challenge was to ensure that Robbie is not boring, and he isn’t.
You are quite the opposite of Robbie. You can give your Twitter trolls a run for their money with your sarcasm and dry wit.
As a public figure, you are fair game, and people will take potshots at you. When I am up for it on a particular day and decide to have some fun, then I find someone who is trying to be sarcastic or witty or rude and then I respond. If after that, their response is just weak or if they are abusive, then they are not really on the same wavelength and you let it go.
Often their agenda is something else, like wanting attention. But more importantly, we have to learn to laugh at ourselves more. We take ourselves far, far too seriously.
What’s next in your game plan?
Aishwarya [Rai Bachchan, his wife] and I have been approached for Gulab Jamun, which is a beautiful film written by Sarvesh Mewara. He met us a year ago and we both really want to do to the film, but it is still being developed. I am also starting another film right after the release of Manmarziyaan, but I can’t speak about it right now.
Production is next too. I want to actively focus on production on a larger scale with dedication. We hope to have a film on the floors before the end of 2019.
What about the sporting interests?
It has been so rewarding to work on sports, but one of the things I did during my acting sabbatical was to set up the sports business verticals so that they are now self-run. Emotionally, I am with my teams, and physically, I will try and be with them as and when I can, but right now, the priority is films.
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