Abhay Deol: Industry is no longer at the mercy of four or five producers

abhay-deol-netflix Abhay Deol | via Netflix

Unlike his cousins, Bollywood actor Abhay Deol, made his film debut with an unlikely independent film, Socha Na Tha. Somewhere in the middle of our recent conversation, he says he would not change anything about his entry or his journey. “I love my first film,” he says. He, in fact, even after the ups and downs and struggles of being an actor who does not want to fit in, is in quite a happy place.

Abhay has a production house now, and a line-up of five films including Chopsticks on Netflix, directed by Sachin Yardi. In a candid chat, he speaks to THE WEEK about his interest in philosophy, the state of the Hindi film industry, his distaste for fame growing up, the perils of belonging to a famous film family, and why he would continue being a part of independent films.

Edited excerpts:

You introduced me to Chuck Palahniuk almost 10 years ago. Have you continued with your exhaustive reading?

Unfortunately, I haven’t been reading a lot lately. I have been, though, listening to a lot of lectures of (American-British philosopher) Alan Watts. I love him. You can find his lectures on YouTube. But that just randomly begins and ends, so I bought all his lectures online. He is a scarily clear, independent and inspiring mind. And the way he will describe Buddhism and Hinduism to you, you would never have picked it up from anywhere here. He talks just about anything—from Confucius, Christianity, politics and everything in between.

So, the shift has been from dark novels to somewhat spiritual preaching?

I think dark is spiritual, too. There are dark forces and there's light. They go hand in hand.

Since we are talking about a period spanning 10 years. The journey has not been too linear for you. How would you describe it?

Oh. It’s been quite the ride—up and down, like a roller-coaster. But most of all, it’s been enlightening, informative. I have learnt a lot about myself. I suppose when you put yourself out there and you are vulnerable enough, realisations come to you a lot faster. I am really in a good place. I am really happy that I am able to be aware enough and be objective. Something that took a long time for me to be.

You still, however, seem very attracted to quirky stories as the trailer of Chopsticks makes it evident. What attracted you to the project?

Always. Chopsticks is really well-written. It is hilarious. I found myself laughing at every few pages. Talking to the writer and director, Sachin (Yardi), I found him very down to earth and humble, very driven and passionate. And those are the things that make me want to collaborate with someone. And top of that, it’s Netflix. I mean who could ask for more—a script you love, a platform you admire.

Does it make a difference—the platform?

Of course. I learnt it the hard way. I was making independent films back in the day in 2006, 07 and 08, when nobody else was. And some of them took a beating not because they were not good films, but because nobody knew they released. And, I still hang on the notion that they were good films even when the industry turned around and said, “See, we told you, experiment does not pay your work.” I used to be like, “No, nobody knew this was coming out.” And, so I learned that one has to have that distribution, that marketing, that platform in place. Because you make a good product, but what is the point if it is released in a place where nobody goes and released in a way which nobody know. So yes, what platform you are on and who is distributing you is important, whether it is theatrical or digital.

Since you belong to a family that has been in films, is there something you wish you had not known about the industry when you finally decided to enter?

When I reflect on it, I do feel I knew too much. See, people think that if you are from a film family, you have a silver spoon in your mouth and you get a red-carpet entry and all. While a lot of that is true, that may not be the thing that will certainly give you an advantage. For me, I think I have seen fame ever since I was a kid with regards to my family. They were written about in the papers and magazines. Back in the '80s, as a kid, it was not very respectable to be from a film family, people thought. Whatever led to that thought – either they thought they don’t have any morals, or their jobs are very easy. So, I think I kind of had distaste for fame. And I resisted that.

I did not know how to be an actor and not a star in an industry where it is all about stardom. We do have to have talent to be a star, no doubt. But you need to invest a lot in marketing yourself and pushing yourself for being a star. I didn’t like that at all. I think I went to the other extreme where I reacted a little over-the-top to that phenomenon where I completely shut it out. I was not able to balance myself. I think if I did not have the knowledge before, perhaps, if I came from a more grounded background outside, I would have been able to see the merits of giving a little and holding back a little. I just held back because I thought that fame and money and all of that is corrupting. I was left of left of left of centre. I realised you cannot be a communist either.

Bobby (Deol, Abhay’s cousin) in one of the interviews sometime back spoke about his struggle to find work in an industry driven by star-power and money. You have stuck to the kind of work you like. But does that struggle, somewhere, resonate with you too?

Honestly, I think everyone has to struggle. Even the person at the top is struggling to hold on to his or her position. I was looking for that secure individual and I never found him or her. So, whether they were ruling the box office or they were trying to break-in, I found insecurity everywhere. That was enlightening for me. At least for me, success is not what gives me security. For me, the fact that I am being able to continue on with my vision, continue on with saying, “Hey, let’s raise the bar. Or, hey let’s go out of formula”, or taking a back seat where nobody was necessarily willing to go that far, feeling people’s love, getting their respect, I think that made it better for me. Yeah, sure it has been hard at times. Yeah sure, the industry does not support you and the work goes away. You don’t have a platform with which to express yourself. That can be quite crazy, no doubt.

But then I look and see outside my window and see kids outside with nothing, begging. I see old people working, trying to survive and somewhere there I feel like I almost don’t have the right to complain because things can be much worse. I just play the waiting game. Now things have paid off because we are not at the mercy of four or five producers who control the industry. Now we have a much bigger industry with all these various digital platforms coming up, and they are allowing artistes to be individuals. They are allowing these artistes to have a voice, going against the formula. I am glad I found my security before they came in.

I have been in a good state of mind for a few years now. I have five films in different stages of production and none of them belong to any industry – Bollywood or Hollywood. They are Indian films funded by international producers. As far as I keep on making the independent stuff I am making, I really don’t care about numbers. I never have. I have never been a competitive person. I don’t think what you can do, I can do. Similarly, you can’t do what I can. We all have our individuality to give. I just hope to keep getting the opportunities to express myself. That’s important.

You also started your production house, Abhay Deol Presents. You mentioned about the industry being run by five or six producers till a while back. How do you want to take it forward?

It is yet the same. Even now Bollywood is controlled by the few. Power isn’t distributed, still. There isn’t a variety. But they will have to change as audiences reject traditional ideas and embrace new ones. They are looking for an audience that accepts so that they know what to make, whereas I have been the opposite where I want to create my audience. That is a much tougher thing to do. Right now, the industry is resisting the inevitable.

And, you have a series, The Odds.

Yes, we have that show, which premiered at IFFLA (Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles). I am also getting into a film that I cannot talk about right now. But I am having a lot of fun.