Tanaji Malusare, the celebrated seventeenth-century warrior in Maratha ruler Shivaji’s army, is the subject of actor-producer Ajay Devgn’s new film. Tanhaji – The Unsung Warrior recreates Malusare’s campaign to capture Kondhana in what came to be known as the Battle of Sinhagad. Directed by Om Raut, the January 10 release marks 50-year-old Devgn’s 100th film. Saif Ali Khan, Kajol, Sharad Kelkar and Luke Kenny complete the principal cast.

Devgn’s next production is The Big Bull, starring Abhishek Bachchan. Devgn is headlining Bhuj: The Pride of India as Indian Air Force Squadron Leader Vijay Karnik, who defended the Bhuj airstrip during the 1971 Indo-Pak war. Devgn is also in the midst of shooting the sports drama Maidan and has announced a new Golmaal movie and a biopic of Chanakya, the fourth-century scholar. His plate is full, but not overflowing, Devgn told Scroll.in.

You have taken on an ambitious project for your 100th film.
I did not even realise that it is my 100th film and, honestly, it does not matter to me. I was reminded towards the end of the shooting. But whether it is your first film, your 99th film or your 100th film, you have to work just as hard, put in as much effort and you want it to do well, or maybe even better than the previous one.

What drew you to Tanaji’s story?
As filmmakers and performers, we need to create content that will really engage the audience, where they will enjoy the drama, action, heroism, emotions. When you hear a true story that has all that and more than you can even imagine, it’s a good reason to make a film.

Tanaji did so much for the country, he and his family made such great sacrifices. They were different people. You and I cannot think of doing these things. But unfortunately, he’s not so well known known outside of Maharashtra. It’s just a paragraph in school textbooks. The story needed to be told. This is also why we started this series called Unsung Heroes.

Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior (2020).

What did you enjoy most – the action, the drama, or producing?
Both acting and producing, but I really felt the character. I don’t rehearse too much, but when I start playing the character, I start thinking like the character and stop behaving like myself – at least on set. And as soon as “Cut” is called, I am back to being myself.

What was it like working with Kajol and Saif Ali Khan after a long gap?
Saif and I share the same mindset. We did some crazy things in the past – things that are too embarrassing to share with others. They were fun times. Now we both are grown up, or maybe we just behave like we have grown up.

For the part of Udaybhan Rathod, I wanted somebody strong, quirky and evil with a personality. My character is very straight and righteous, which also gets boring after a point. So I wanted someone whom people would enjoy. Saif is very quirky and he has performed very well.

Kajol has a very tough character. Tanaji’s sacrifice is not just his but also his wife Savitribai’s. It’s one of those performances where you have a smile on your face but you are feeling the pain inside because you don’t want your husband to go. I explained this to Kajol and said, I need somebody like you. Fortunately, she agreed.

Historical movies based on real characters lead to questions of authenticity and the balance between fact and fiction.
You have to get from point A to point C to point E, but the points in between are not written. So this is what you have to imagine and that’s where the screenplay comes in. Walking that is a fine path. Not only do you have dramatise incidents, but you also need to entertain the audience. To achieve this, you add background music, camera movements, close-ups. As filmmakers, we need to engage you, otherwise one would be making a documentary.

These days, biopics tend to court controversy. Would you agree?
That’s part of our country and that will go on. There are 10 history books and each one has something different recorded. I don’t know which book you are following. So we have to pick them all up and get the right balance, take references from all, make a coherent thread and move ahead.

O More Saiyaa, Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior (2020).

Are you affected by hits and flops?
Not too much, but when you work hard on something and you expect it to do well and something goes wrong, then it takes a couple of days to recover before you can move on. However, if you know the film is not so great before the film’s release, then it doesn’t affect you much.

Do you still work on your craft?
Of course. You can never stop working on it. I learn something every day – from others, from myself, from my mistakes. You keep watching, talking to people, analysing what you have done. You continue to grow. You cannot stagnate. The day you think you know everything, you should quit.

What are some of the changes you have noted in your three decades in the industry?
The working style has changed; technology has changed. Before we didn’t have monitors to check if the shot was right or wrong. The way action is done has changed. And comfort – we didn’t have make-up vans and rooms. We had to change costumes in the middle of the road and if you wanted the loo, you would look for a discreet corner. It was worse for women.

Things are more professional now. The audience has also evolved. They are quality-conscious. As for the younger directors, they are confident and clear. We had worked and learned. They have come prepared. That’s the difference.

Ajay Devgn in Bhuj: The Pride of India.

You have quite a full plate. How do you balance work and life?
Yes, there’s a lot. I am really enjoying Maidan. It’s a fabulous script. It is shaping up way beyond my expectations. Then there’s Bhuj, Chanakya and the next part of Golmaal. Rohit Shetty is also developing his cop universe. You need to give enough time as an actor, maker and producer. It’s not tough because I don’t do too much. I have a team that can execute very well.

The Rohit Shetty cop universe of ‘Singham’, ‘Simmba’ and ‘Sooryavanshi’ is unusual for Bollywood, where star egos often get in the way of collaborations.
Rohit has pulled that off very well and maybe in the future all three will be in one film. Next is Akshay’s [Kumar] film and Ranveer [Singh] and I will come in at some point, like we did in Simmba. It works because ego is not an issue among like-minded people. Akshay and I have worked together so much in the past and we got to work together after a long while. We had a great time.

What about direction?
I am planning to get back to something, but it won’t start for another year at least. It’s a different film that needs a lot of pre-production.