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Sunny Deol is in the Bay Area publicizing his home production of the film 23rd March 1931, Shaheed. A Dharmendra production, it is directed by Guddu Dhanoa. The patriotic song “Mera rang de basanti chola,” plays in the background as film star Sunny Deol walks briskly into the room full of folks who have gathered to hear him pitch his upcoming film. “He’s not so tall,” I think, surprised. After all, he does project larger-than-life in his movies. Well built, fair complexioned and with his hair colored brown, probably for the movie he is currently shooting, he sits down and talks to us.

Deol spent about an hour with us and spoke on a variety of subjects and here are excerpts.

“Namaste, sat sri akal,” he says. “I didn’t expect that there would be so many apne log here. I am here to tell you about our film Shaheed which is releasing on June 7 and which is a groundbreaking film. Papa (veteran actor Dharmendra) said that we have to make this film because it is very important. The story of how great Bhagat Singh was should be brought to our people around the world. As you know, my brother is playing Bhagat Singh and I am playing Chandra Shekhar Azad in this film. I feel that these characters are not being spoken about, or portrayed in our films. Earlier it had been done by Manoj ji (Manoj Kumar) who had done a great job. And my dad and all of us feel that it is high time that we make films that have so much of positiveness about them. Rarely do we come across real characters like Bhagat Singh, who were real heroes. Although such people don’t exist today, they did at one point and we wanted to be reminded of it. That is the main reason we are making this film.”

The Making of Shaheed

Some of your recent releases like Indian, Champion, and especially Gadar have focused on action first and on drama second. Is this by design or it is a result of caving in to how audiences want to see you?

“See, Shaheed is a true story. Whatever will be in Shaheed will be what basically happened. Regarding me doing action roles—movies are made by producers. And producers want to make films that are popular, and those are the kinds of films that seem to be popular these days.

I made Dillagi, which was not action. I have made other films that were not action oriented. But they were not good on the financial side. But Shaheed is not being made because of action possibility. Remember, at the end of the day they all died.

Shaheed was very expensive. Because it is a historical film, we had to recreate all the sets. Those places no longer exist as they did in those days, so we made everything. It turned out to be rather expensive.”

There were concerns that the character of Bhagat Singh’s fiancée is not historically accurate. Also there were rumors that Gracy Singh wanted that role and was denied.

“The character is true. There was no denying of roles. We approached Ash (Aishwarya Rai) and Amrita (Singh) who both accepted the roles.

International Audience

The success of Lagaan and Monsoon Wedding in traditionally non-Indian markets recently has sparked debate about the crossover potential of Hindi films. Aamir Khan has said that Indian films do not need to seek out crossover markets since Indian films already dominate the half of the world where Hollywood does not rule. Were the Deols hoping to do the same thing with Shaheed?

“No, we are not, basically because we have such a big market to cater to—which is our own Asian market. To cater to the international market we would have to compromise on the subjects and the way we make it.”

What did Sunny Deol think of movies like Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, which seem to be targeted specifically to the NRI audience. Did he aim to do that?

“No, my films are targeted to the Indian audience. Indians overseas are looking for different things, a way for their children to stay in touch with their culture. Hindi movies, to them, are like the “feel good drug.”

Family Ties

Sunny Deol said that he is close to his family and likes to spend time at home with his two kids. After the hectic pace at work all day, he likes to relax at home. No party animal, he is rather shy he said. He is very close to his brother Bobby. “I feel that he is more like my son, than my brother. I like to advise him. Help him in whatever way I can.”

“Have you seen a picture of Bhagat Singh? Bobby looks a lot like him.” That was partly why Bobby got the role. The other part? After all it is a family production!

When asked if he was willing to play an equally supportive role in his sister Esha Deol’s (Hema Malini’s daughter) life, Sunny declined an answer saying that he would like the questions to be focused onShaheed and not other aspects of his personal life.

Maturing As An Actor

“As an actor you mature as time goes by. You learn a lot from the actors that rub shoulders with you. We try to go as much as possible into the depth of the character. But when I am playing Chandra Shekhar Azad, he is a man whose depth cannot be explored in a three-hour movie. In those days the whole community worked together towards one goal of independence. There was no difference of Hindu and Muslim, halal meat or no halal meat. It used to be one community. No religious differences. The religion was basically “country.” There is nothing beyond humanity and your country, people should remember that.”

The actors that had their film debuts around the same time as you did, like Jackie Shroff, have taken on dignified father-figure roles recently and yet you continue to thrive in the role of the Angry Man of a Certain Age. Do you have plans for slowing down anytime soon?

The audience bursts into laughter. “You have to slow down when you have no more choice,” he says laughing out loud himself. “At this time I am still getting roles like that to play.”

How has the role of the Hindi film hero changed from your father’s time? Is there much more of an emphasis on body culture today? Look how buff people are, like Salman and Hrithik.

“What we see in the films today is the way things are in the world today. As the world changes, we mold ourselves in that way. When my dad was a hero, they had great directors then and only a handful since then.”

So you think it is the director who makes or breaks the movie?

“Oh yes definitely. It is his vision and how he translates that on the screen. The director and the actors have to come together.”

“Roles have changed because the circumstances have changed. When my dad was a hero things were not so tough all around. It was much softer. In fact it started changing even from the time my dad did Phool aur Patthar. My dad has done so many different kinds of roles, that I have not seen other actors doing. They usually do one kind of role and stick to just doing that. My dad has done serious roles like inAnupama, Satyakaam, comedy in films like Chupke Chupke, action inPratigya. According to me he is the only actor in our industry who has done so many kinds of different roles. Sometimes he was working on two or three different kinds of roles at the same time and not just doing them, but doing them successfully. But nobody talks about that.”

The Bay Area

What was he doing here? There were rumors that Dharmendra was buying land in this area to set up a studio of some kind?

Sunny denied knowledge of this. “My dad is talking to a few people, but it is only at the talking stage right now,” he says. “I’m shooting a film, Hero, in Canada. The shooting is happening in Toronto and Calgary. It is a love story with the background of a spy-thriller.”

When asked if he was aware of the other films on the same subject of Bhagat Singh, being made at the same time, Deol said, “We were aware of the film being made by Raj Kumar Santoshi. At one point there was talk of making the film together, but somehow that didn’t work out.”

How was his approach different? “I’m going to say nice nice things about the film. It will be releasing soon and you can see for your self,” he smiles.

Signaling the end of the questions, Sunny Deol poses patiently as fans rush to have their picture taken with him. Smiling and waving to all, he leaves a charmed audience behind.