Sunday, December 09, 2007

John Abraham: Beating Bollywood's odds

This outsider made it big ... without a 'godfather'

Weekend • December 8, 2007

Zafar Anjum

EVERY year, thousands of young men and women flock to Bollywood with stars in their eyes. Most end up as debris on the footpaths of Bollywood's dream factories.

It seems you either have to be the child of a star or a well-heeled model to get a break in Bollywood. Shah Rukh Khan and Akshay Kumar are perhaps the only outsiders who have it made it to the top in the last 20 years or so.

Among the dozens of struggling models-turned-actors, it seems only John Abraham (picture) got it right. Today, he is a Bollywood A-lister, working with the industry's biggest names.

How did this 35-year-old Mumbai-born actor buck the trend?

John had been a supermodel and was runner-up in the 1999 Manhunt International. But this was no guarantee of box office success — as many models who tried the transition would testify.

Though he started his career with steamy roles in films like Paap, he realised his sex-symbol image was not helping after a string of box-office duds.

John began choosing films that were offbeat. Films like Dhoom (where he played the villain), Water (an Oscar-nominated picture for Best Foreign Language Film by award-winning director Deepa Mehta), Viruddh ... Family Comes First (a small role playing the son of Amitabh Bachchan), Kabul Express (as an Indian journo in war-torn Afghanistan) and No Smoking (as a chain-smoker in one of Bollywood's most bizarre films) helped John carve a niche for himself.

Playing these roles — some meaty, others less so — has endeared John to the public. Most critics would not consider him a serious acting talent but his performances have kept improving. In an industry where star appeal still matters more than acting prowess, this was a leap of faith for the model-turned-actor.

Though his last release, No Smoking, bombed at the box office, Indian cinephiles have appreciated his gutsiness for acting in this crazy, genre-defying surreal film which was so dark that superstars like Shah Rukh Khan and Amir Khan turned down the role. But John was confident in his choice. "After No Smoking, films will be called No Smoking kind of films. It will create a genre," he said.

He now wants to tread the path of doing meaningful cinema, despite the risk associated with such films. He said: "You start doing different kinds of films when you start believing in them. I did Water because I loved her (Deepa's) films, 1947, Earth and Fire … I selected No Smoking when it didn't have a producer."

John's forthcoming films testify to his new commitment. His most important new project is Exclusion, again to be directed by Deepa Mehta.

The film centres on the real-life drama of 375 asylum-seekers from India, who were fleeing British colonialists and arrived in Vancouver aboard the Komagata Maru, in 1914. Most were forced to return to India to face the British. Their plight became one of the most notorious incidents in the history of exclusion laws in Canada designed to keep out Asian immigrants.

John is also slated to act opposite Hollywood actress Rachel Weisz in Deepa's Luna, based on the life of American environmentalist Julia Hill, who lived in a small shelter atop a 180-foot tree for 738 days to protest tree felling.

Choosing to do such challenging international projects bodes well for John. Take the Pepsi commercial he has done with Shah Rukh Khan — the cool duo share the same frame, as if screaming to viewers: Here's your next superstar!

So, is he the next superstar?

British academic and film buff Lord Meghnad Desai certainly thinks so. He wrote, in his review of Shah Rukh Khan's biography: "... a new generation is already crowding the Khans out — Hrithik Roshan, Abishek Bachachan and John Abraham."

Yes, this one-time sex symbol is indeed very much in the reckoning.

Published in The Weekend Today dated Dec 8, 2007.


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