After delivering two hit films last year, John Abraham is back with RAW – Romeo Akbar Walter. The actor, in conversation with Bhakti Mehta, talks about his connection with the script, the experience of working in the film and how he has changed after turning producer
From an army officer, to a vigilante, a RAW agent, and then a police officer… Is this a phase where you explore all the law enforcement roles that there are?
Someone recently pointed this out and asked me whether I am only doing roles that relate to the country. I want to clarify that this has happened by accident, not by design. When RAW came to me, Robbie (Grewal) narrated the script to me and neither of us expected very much from each other. Robbie did not expect me to do the film and I agreed to hear the narration because I found the title, ‘Romeo Akbar Walter’, very interesting.
But after I heard the complete narration, I was blown away, I was completely amazed and I said that I really wanted to make this film happen. It was just so fantastic. Then, in the midst of this, I heard the script of Batla House. And again, Batla House blew my mind. I said that fact is stranger than fiction, like RAW and Parmanu: The Story Of Pokhran, and since this fit the bill, I said yes to this film.
When I was working on Parmanu, it was my pet project just like Madras Café was. I believe that somewhere down the line, I have gravitated to this space and scripts like these have gravitated towards me. But, as I said before, it is definitely not a conscious decision. In fact, I am doing Pagalpanti next, which is a comedy with director Anees Bazmee.
You are breaking the trend with Pagalpanti.
Yes, I am but it was not deliberate. I am doing whatever makes me happy and what I can entertain the audience with. That’s all.
It is interesting that you are doing so many films of this genre but are you apprehensive of crossing the line and becoming jingoistic in any of your roles?
I don’t want to be jingoistic or overly patriotic. I don’t want to wear nationalism on my sleeve. The first and foremost thing is that I want to make films that will entertain people. However, when you walk out of that cinema hall after watching the film, you should get a feeling that I did not know this particular thing about India or its history. This is what people felt after they saw Parmanu last year. They came out thinking that they didn’t know about the nuclear blasts that had happened in Pokhran 20 years ago.
So, if the film is of this genre, if it talks about stuff relating to events like these, it has to have an impact on you. And I can say that RAW will have that impact. I am the producer of films like Madras Café and Parmanu, and I am confident that RAW will spearhead my show reel. I do not know about commercials or the level of success that this film will achieve but it will definitely have such a huge impact on you that you will feel that you’ve got your money’s worth. And it is important that people feel this way, more so because when people watch films with their families, they end up spending a huge sum. So, keeping that in mind, I can say that this film is worth your money.
You said that the main purpose of you doing a film is to entertain. But where does this film fit in, in the content versus commercial battle?
Honestly, I love comedies. I love Anees bhai a lot. And when I am doing Pagalpanti with him, I enjoy every day on the set. I don’t make a conscious decision to do a ‘commercial’ film or a ‘content-driven’ film. The fact is that what is working is films that are different.
I am doing films that I would enjoy watching as a member of the audience. When I read a script, I do it from the perspective of a viewer. If I laugh, then I think it’s very funny and if it touches me then I would say that it has a damn good plot. I think each film brings a certain value to the table and that is how I pick my projects.
There are some films that I do out of pure passion because I know there is a community out there who wants to watch them, like my motorcycle film. It is sheer passion. I feel that I can ride better than I can walk (Laughs). I live, sleep, eat and breathe motorcycles. I can smell fuel, I can hear the sound of a motorcycle and these things make me smile. For someone who lives that life, whatever he does on screen with a motorcycle will look right.
You are turning your passions into your projects.
Yeah. My passion was also telling the story of the assassination of my ex-Prime Minister and I made Madras Café. My passion was also the Pokhran nuclear tests and my passion is also motorcycles.
Another passion of yours is football, which is the theme of your film 1911.
1911 is being written as we speak. Nikkhil Advani is directing it and I am acting in it. There is another hero in the film. It is a co-production between JA Entertainment and Emmay Entertainment. Nikkhil and I are making a lot of films together.
Is there a certain comfort level that you share since you have been working together since 2007?
Oh yes! We did Salaam-e-Ishq together back then. But when I was doing Satyameva Jayate last year, which Nikkhil produced, he was there on set and there is a sense of connection between us which is unspoken because Nikkhil is also a workaholic like me. All he is concerned about is what the script is and how he is going to do it. Then Batla House happened and, as I said, my mind was blown after I read that script, and we decided to do the film. The rest is history.
After one film, we wanted to do one more and then one more and so on. I think it is a very healthy working relationship. And we want to work as co-producers who want to take other actors on this journey as well. It is not about John Abraham doing the film and Nikkhil Advani directing a film, we want to develop a lot of content together.
1911 is a damn good subject. I doubt that one could go wrong unless I play with one foot (Laughs). This is not overconfidence; it is a very strong subject and I think people will really enjoy this. It is a sports film and by the time it releases, I think football will be the new cricket.
When you read a script, is there a difference between your instinct as an actor and as a producer that helps you take the final decision?
Yes, absolutely. I work with a very tight team. I have a head of development, Sanyuktha Chawla Shaikh, whom you have interviewed. She has written Neerja, Parmanu and is writing my next. Then there is Meenakshi, who manages my work and is also a creative producer today. Together, we deliberate subjects that we come across.
One of them is completely focused on content and one is completely commercial, and I am absolutely in the middle! So, when we deliberate, we kind of suss out what we want to do. Sometimes, there isn’t even a script, sometimes it is just an idea that I have or we have, which we think about and say, hey, should we work on this? That’s how we work on our subjects.
RAW is set in the 1970s. To make it authentic, how did you ideate and what did you bring to the table in this regard?
Fortunately, Robbie and I connected very easily with each other. Robbie sat in front of me and told me about my characters, and I say ‘characters’ because there isn’t just one, there are many but primarily it is Romeo, Akbar and Walter. And it was good for him that I understood the character progression. Sometimes, it is hard for a director to get this across to an actor. But we didn’t face any problems there and then it was fun. It was a smooth sailing after that discussion.
Then it was him briefing me about a particular scene and I knew my character progression at that point, whether it was Romeo six months later, or Akbar two years later, or Walter six years later. I was aware of how my character progressed. Then it was easy to fit into that character because I had to slip in and out of certain characters.
Surely that could not have been easy.
Yes. You have to do workshops to make the transition smoother. And you will be a better judge of this but if you see my performances after I have become a producer, they have taken a quantum leap. They are not the same two people. It’s like today, the focus is not on physicality. Of course, I still keep working on my body but the questions that were asked of me before were, how did you lose weight? How did you gain weight? Then they used to ask me stuff about my abs. But, today, the questions are about my character in the films and what I did for them. There is a certain graduation that has happened. I think with Robbie, he understood my gut feeling on the characters and we took it from there.
During Parmanu, you were able to predict the numbers of the first day and determine whether the film would be a hit or a flop even before its release. Do you have that kind of instinct for all your films, RAW, for instance?
I know exactly what numbers RAW will do, which is something I should not be saying right now. (Laughs). I also know how Batla House will do. I know what numbers Pagalpanti will do too. I am confident about how my films are going to fare. It is not because I am overconfident but it is just that I understand the space that I am operating in now.