If the actor sounds blissfully content, he is. Everything seems to have fallen in place for this affable hunk. He has inched his way up the ladder of success. Women drool over his brawn. Directors approve of his sincerity. Producers like his work-comes-first attitude. He’s got the big banners. Big-money endorsements too. (“As a male model I lost endorsements to actors, so I decided to become an actor and take it all back for myself!”) And he has one of India’s sexiest women by his side, cheering him every inch of the way. No wonder his smile stretches as far as the view from his apartment.
But start talking and he treads very, very carefully. “I am very cautious in my approach. It is a visual thing for me—I imagine myself crossing a stormy river by walking over pebbles. One false step and I’ll slip and be washed away. Each pebble is a film for me. I can’t afford to slip and make a mistake. In my book, I’m not yet a star. I’m a consistent actor waiting on the periphery and wanting to get there, inching towards it. I need to work that much harder to get there.” (You can see why his directors like him.)
He admits, “Yes, there is a definite change in the price I command. But let’s face it, I still haven’t given a solo hit post-Jism and the credit for that film should go more to Bipasha (Basu) than me. Where I’d give myself due credit is the fact that I didn’t have a big banner launch.”
Surely his fan-following tells him something? No, he claims. “For 12 to 16 hours I’m literally within the confines of a studio. So I really don’t know how the outside world perceives me. All I know is that I’m on a safe wicket. I focus on doing my work quietly and getting out. I believe everyone has a right to his opinion but I choose not to voice mine.” But he does admit, “I’m loving and cherishing every moment of being an actor. Financial security and recognition are by-products of the sheer pleasure of assuming different roles in front of the camera. But yes, I like the recognition. Any actor who says he does not is a bloody liar.”
Then why the caution? His explanation: he has big, very big goals. “I am relatively successful vis-à-vis some other actors; I can command more monetarily. But I think the benchmark I’ve set for myself will take me another two or three years to reach. I want to go global. I want to be a known face worldwide and I want to help put the Indian film industry on the world map.
“And I don’t mean through crossover cinema. Nor do I mean working in projects made by foreign directors on Indian soil with Indian actors and claiming to do crossover films. I think that’s a sham. I am talking about Indian actors going there and doing a film. Or doing a film here and marketing it internationally. Right now I’m nowhere close to doing this.”
Another reason why John is not going overboard is because he has seen some very tough times in the early days. Acceptance hasn’t come easy. “First it was my name. Then it was my Hindi because I come from an English-speaking background and I didn’t dub for my first three films. From there to now, to being the sutradhar in Viruddh is an achievement I’m proud of.” Besides, he points out, “Of the 11 films I have done, eight have been with new directors.”
It was the success of Dhoom and Kaathat that took him to another level. “These films were made by two of the biggest producers in the country. Once they touch you, the world looks on you as a golden boy. That’s the effect working with these two banners has had on my career.
“But I’m willing to take chances and experiment. For instance, I had a completely deglamorized role in my last release, Viruddh. There were no low-angle shots, the film did not show me with a super body and I wasn’t projected as a superhero.”
Deepa Mehta’s Water provides further proof of his willingness to veer away from the beaten track. The film will have John in a dhoti, speaking Sanskrit and, among other things, playing a flute. Director Mehta promises that John will be a revelation in the film.
Talk of John in a dhoti reminds me about his well-toned body that sets a million fans drooling. It is so overpowering that John could be in danger of it overshadowing his acting abilities. But he has few problems with that. “I am very comfortable with my body and have no inhibitions about going bare-chested,” he dimples. And adds for good measure, “I have no qualms about being a sex symbol.” He admits he enjoys the fact that girls think of him as a fantasy come true. “When a woman appreciates you in any way it should be taken as a compliment. It is beautiful. And thank God for it!” he grins.
Have women propositioned him? He flashes his dimples yet again, “Yes, in some way or the other. You have to be polite and know how to bypass the topic. It is called selective distortion. Select what you want to or don’t want to hear. That’s exactly what I do. Sometimes I think they’re helpless when they say those things. But I am never rude. These are the people who are responsible for my being where I am and I believe in giving every fan the respect she deserves.”
But then his streak of caution kicks in: “Actually, it’s the package that is presented to the audience that builds this kind of image. Honestly, I have never thought of myself as sexy. There may be people who find me nice and there may be others who disagree. You must learn to accept both.”
Among those who find him nice is girlfriend Bipasha Basu. And if you were to listen to the rumors, there are problems on that front, with the John-Lara Dutta and John-Esha Deol rumours doing the rounds. Naah, says John. “Bipasha is an intelligent, dignified girl. She is also honest and believes in calling a spade a spade. She does not hold back her thoughts or feelings. If she has a problem with me, she will tell me. And trust me, there’s no problem. I know it’s inevitable that I’m going to be written about and I share a great rapport with all my co-stars, including Lara and Esha, even today.”
Pausing for breath he adds, “The down side of being a star is that your relationship, your private life is pried into. That’s a miniscule price compared to what you are getting in terms of financial security, adulation, and respect. In my case, the media has been greatly responsible for what I am today. But sometimes they technically nip me below the waist and though it hurts, I take it in my stride.”
He refuses to react to talk of a showdown between Bipasha and Esha, in which his girlfriend is said to have asked Esha to lay off him. “Esha comes from a conservative family. I don’t think they would like to read these false stories,” he says tangentially. Then continues, “Honestly, Bipasha and Esha get along really well. They genuinely like each other. From the little I know of Esha, she is blunt and very honest, just like Bipasha. It is awkward for me to be put in a situation like this. You know, they met at the Sarkar premiere and were chatting away. I was standing somewhere else and didn’t even know they were catching up.”
We hear Bipasha had put a stop to your kissing other heroines on screen; tell us, is it true, I ask him. Here, John admits, “Initially she did have reservations about it. She did tell me, ‘John, people are going to ask you to do it at the drop of a hat whether it is required or not.’ She voiced her opinion because I was new then. I completely agreed with her. It was not a question of her stopping me; I was the one who stopped myself. If it is not required, I won’t do it.”
And the flip side of the coin: what does he feel when he sees her doing intimate scenes with other heroes? “You have to know Bipasha to understand her. I am not insecure about her at all,” says her boyfriend. “She is a very mature girl who knows how to handle herself. And she can handle men better than I do. She tells me, ‘John, most of the other heroes are shorter than me and I can handle them. The day I can’t handle a hero taller than me, I will call you.’”
Another Bengali actress John makes no bones about his admiration for is Rani Mukerji. In fact, much has been made of the Koffee With Karan episode in which he picked Rani Mukerji over Kareena Kapoor. While his fondness for Rani is well known, many viewers believed he chose her because Kareena and Bipasha have had a public war of words. “No,” says John, “I was given two options: did I find Rani attractive or Kareena? I chose Rani and it had nothing to do with Bipasha. I stand by what I said.”
Plus, he clarifies, “Rani is very sweet and a very good actress, and those qualities are very attractive about her. But I don’t have a crush on her. In fact, before Rani, I thought Kajol was the most beautiful woman. I still think she’s the best thing to happen to the industry.”
Okay, so who does he find really hot? “Most of our Indian actresses are attractive in some way or the other. I can’t pinpoint anyone but Bipasha is up there in terms of being attractive and physically imposing. I know she can scare men away just by standing there, because her physicality and sensuality are so overpowering. Besides her, well, it would be Rani, Kajol, Sushmita (Sen)—I know, they’re all Bengalis,” he laughs.
Talking of physicality, is he a very physical person? “Yes,” he nods in agreement. “I show my affection physically. I discipline people physically. But I do it with an element of subtlety and sweetness. I’ve never got into brawls nor have I ever harmed anyone in my life.”
Uh-oh, you’re sounding too good to be true; haven’t you had any wild escapades, I ask him. He chortles, “I’ve done a lot of wild things. I am not as sweet and calm as I look.” But that’s as much as he will reveal.
Instead, he tells me that behind the macho image is a very soft heart. “I cry very easily. I get depressed easily. I’m very emotional; I react to people emotionally, I am not gullible, though. I ask a lot of questions, I double check. I know I have the power to say no as easily as I have the power to say yes. I decide what makes or breaks my life; I’ve started taking control of it a lot more. In fact, people have gone to the extent of calling me a control freak!”
If there’s one area where John is a true control freak, it would be his beloved motorbike. Bikes have been his abiding passion and Dhoom was a dream come true for him. And now that he’s endorsing Yamaha bikes, he’s getting paid to do what he loves most. “You know, the line I say at the beginning of the commercial—that my brother didn’t allow me to touch his bike so I decided to buy my own—is very true. The Yamaha guys decided to incorporate it in the ad when I told them my cousin brother had refused to allow me anywhere near his bike. Boys will understand this because it happens to most of them—dads, uncles, brothers or cousins won’t let you touch their prized possessions. They feel just the way I did.”
With a huge grin he continues, “Guess what—I’m going to meet Valentino Rossi (the world motorbike racing champion) at the Motor GP coming up in the Czech Republic. I’m the Asian brand ambassador for Yamaha and he’s their world brand ambassador. I’m going to watch him racing from the pits and I can’t tell you how excited I am about it.”
There you go. One more dream come true for John Abraham.
Copyright © 2005, Filmfare. All rights reserved.