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Bollywood Star Ajay Devgn on 25 Years of Challenging Industry Expectations

The celebrated actor is now a filmmaker, but the journey to that point took longer than he expected.

Ajay Devgn

Ajay Devgn

JINGO Media

The trailer of “Shivaay” opens to Ajay Devgn’s trademark piercing gaze, lingering there for a moment before lurching into three minutes of continuous movement as he hurtles, untethered, through Himalayan avalanches and between cartwheeling vehicles. His distinctive baritone cuts through the visuals as he narrates “shlokas” (verses) from Vedic Hindu scriptures describing the transformative capabilities of the deity Shiva, the destroyer of evil and the inspiration for the film’s lead character.

Despite some of these reference points, “’Shivaay’ is not a religious or mythological movie,” Devgn told press during a recent trip to New York, the first of four cities in a U.S-wide promotional tour for the October 28 release, which marks his second as a director. “However, it is firmly based in the idea of faith, and the main character draws heavily from Lord Shiva, both in terms of his spirituality and his superpowers.”

The result is unmistakably Indian, and yet, from its globe-spanning cast and crew to the unprecedented scale of its stunts, “Shivaay” is also a relative anomaly for Hindi cinema—much like Devgn himself, who has managed to at once be a quintessential Bollywood movie star while consistently challenging industry conventions throughout his 25-year career.

It’s a considerable feat for someone who was boxed into the “action hero” category even before he made it on screen, thanks to being the son of prolific Bollywood stunt coordinator Veeru Devgan. “Growing up, I was so exposed to films, and knew that whatever I would do in the future would relate to the industry,” Devgn told Indiewire.

But whether it was dabbling in editing at the age of 12 or assisting directors on set between college classes, his ambitions were concentrated behind the camera. “Somewhere along the line, I was simply pushed into an action film,” he said, referring to the spontaneous, almost flippant nature of the casting process in early-90s Bollywood. “Because of my father, people just expected me to excel in that genre and do my own stunts. The movie [1991’s ‘Phool Aur Kaante’] was a hit, and all of a sudden, I was an actor.”

“Phool Aur Kaante” launched a filmography that most actors dream about — one that built a solid fan following and yielded enormous box office successes. It also led him to meet his would-be wife, actress Kajol, on the set of 1995’s “Hulchul.” Kajol is a Bollywood icon in her own right: She cemented her status as India’s sweetheart with some of the most beloved films in the history of Indian cinema, most notably, 1995’s “Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge,” which to date continues daily screenings at a Mumbai theater. With almost 50 years in the business between them, the two remain among Bollywood’s most sought-after talents.

Devgn’s accidental stumble into the film world may be exactly why he could approach his career with a refreshing lack of trepidation. Unobstructed by aspirations for mega-stardom, he peppered his resume of action and romance films with roles straying off the mainstream path. Of course, he hasn’t been above enjoying the lucrative advantages of commercial cinema; starring in film franchises like the “Golmaal” or “Singham” series over the last decade has brought immense monetary returns. But during the late 1990s and early 2000s, when most of his contemporaries preferred to remain brand ambassadors for the genre that proved most profitable for them at the box office, Devgn embraced roles that others fled.

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In 1998, he won a National Award for “Zakhm,” a mother-son tearjerker set amidst Hindu-Muslim riots. He followed it up with work that continued to challenge the action hero stereotype: family-friendly comedy in 2000’s “Raju Chacha,” historical drama in 2002’s “The Legend of Bhagat Singh,” art house fare in eccentric Bengali filmmaker Rituparno Ghosh’s “Raincoat” in 2006. “Commercial actors didn’t touch cinema like that, fearing they would fail,” Devgn said. “I didn’t share their insecurities because I was very clear that I would eventually be a director. Since acting wasn’t my end goal, it was easier to accept films based purely on the heart of their stories rather than how ‘safe’ they were.”

His choices paid off. By the mid-2000s, when the rest of Bollywood had only begun to applaud artists stepping outside their comfort zones, Devgn was already considered among the most versatile actors around. At that time, 17 years after his on-screen debut, he decided to try his hand at directing. Here, too, he opted for a riskier screenplay than most would expect.

Starring Devgn himself along with Kajol as the lead pair, “U Me Aur Hum” nixed the typical, frothy Bollywood song-and-dance formula for a lower-budget, unflashy romantic drama addressing Alzheimer’s Disease. “Again, it was the emotional angle of the film that made me want to make it.” Devgn explained. “It also got people talking about a condition that’s usually swept under the rug or misunderstood in our country.” Though the film’s reception was lukewarm, praise for Devgn’s direction both validated his long-held aspirations and encouraged him to continue pushing the envelope as a filmmaker.

Five years later, he’s pushed it so far that it has taken a 400-person team from around the world to realize his vision. While he remains tight-lipped about its narrative, “Shivaay” is unmistakably Devgn’s most ambitious project to date, using a stunt team from Germany, Bulgarian locales in sub-zero temperatures, Russian extras, and leading actresses from Poland (Erika Kaar) and the United Kingdom (Abigal Eames) in addition to the Indian cast and crew.

Shooting overseas is far from uncommon for Bollywood films, but the unprecedented international collaboration for “Shivaay,” and the extremity of the action sequences in particular, have drawn comments of it being on par with the likes of Hollywood action films. Devgn’s, however, isn’t that keen on that company.

“Those comparisons have always bothered me,” he admitted. “‘The script for ‘Shivaay’ and logistics just happened to demand that we shoot outside the country and cast non-Indian actors. But all the action was designed in India…We may not have Hollywood’s budgets, but technically, we’re as strong as anyone in the west.”

Rather than living up to Hollywood’s technological standards, Devgn’s interest remains rooted in something much less defined by geographical or industry boundaries: emotional resonance. “I had to design a certain, heightened style of action for the purposes of the plot,” he said. “But that’s not why I made ‘Shivaay.’ What drove me to it were the characters and their journey, as with everything else I’ve done.”

If Devgn’s unorthodox decisions as an actor and director haven’t made that anchoring principle evident, his endeavors as a producer are likely to do just that. In 2013, he became one of a small subset of Bollywood personalities who support non-commercial films when he partnered with the Los Angeles-based Brillstein Entertainment Partners to establish Shivalaya Entertainment, a production company aimed at bringing independent cinema to global audiences.

The company’s first feature, Leena Yadav’s “Parched,” was a daring confrontation of misogyny in rural India. Premiering at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival, it screened at over 20 other festivals before opening in its home country a year later, which was a source of both pride and disappointment for Devgn. “’Parched’ is a film celebrating women, and we don’t see enough of that from India. That’s why I decided to back it,” he said. “But the sad part is that it didn’t get any attention at home until it got worldwide acclaim first. Maybe audiences at home weren’t ready to watch a film like this, but that’s just further confirmation that these stories need to be told, these conversations need to be started.”

And yet, lofty plans to change the world aren’t on his agenda; his objective, he said, is simply creative satisfaction. “Directing is part of it. Supporting films like ‘Parched’ is part of it. It can’t just be about acting for me,” he said.

“Shivaay” might be the ultimate test of the success of that dimensionality; after 25 years and 103 films, Devgn is hopeful that the audience will recognize the soul and story behind his new film’s supernatural strength. After all, he added, his commitment to sincerity is largely the reason for his longevity in the business. “It’s not about having predetermined goals or strategies to stay relevant,” he said. “The only thing I know I’ll be doing tomorrow is following my heart, because if there’s one thing I’ve learned over a quarter of a century, it’s that if I’m not doing my job with honesty, it just won’t work.”

 

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