Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Side Role

How John Abraham survives in Bollywood, with a combination of hard work, canny marketing and average acting skills, and why he has never endorsed underwear.

He traded his dream of playing football at the national level for the safety of an MBA degree. In that, John Abraham perhaps made the best decision of his life. The actor's decade-long career is built on a series of smart marketing moves that have made him into a brand largely unaffected by his stock at the Bollywood box office.

Brand consultant Ramanujan Sridhar says, Abraham's image as an Everyman is his greatest asset. "What he lacks in superstardom, John makes up in endorsements. He comes across as a regular middle class guy who is successful today, which makes him an aspirational figure among young urban Indians," says Sridhar, who believes this image has been carefully worked on for years.

Signs of this continuous brand-building exercise are visible everywhere. In his modern, swanky office that is a contrast to the opulence of Bollywood, his staff works on soon-to-be-launched John Abraham signature merchandise relentlessly; the calendar on every desk has Abraham posing against one of his superbikes; the actor wears a custom-designed T-shirt with 'Workoutaholic' printed across when he meets us for an interview.

Currently in the process of promoting his next release, Sanjay Gupta's Shootout at Wadala, he does not deny that he has been working on brand John Abraham for many years. "It helped that my character in my debut film Jism (2003), was appreciated. A well-built man in linen trousers, straightened hair and loafers was urban and not over-the-top," he says.

But it was Dhoom (2004) that established his credentials as a style icon. As a brooding, good-looking man who pulls off heists for thrill and treats superbikes as an extension of himself, Abraham suddenly found himself with a strong following among the youth. "As the anti-hero Kabir, his bike stunts and a decision to jump off a cliff rather than get caught made me a rebel icon of sorts among urban youngsters," says Abraham. He went on to make this space his own. His endorsements — a motorbike brand, engine oil, cosmetics for men, travel gear — have been an extension of the same. "I have chosen campaigns that are classy and don't overexpose me. After Dostana, I was offered to endorse every underwear brand in the country that other top stars are doing today. They can afford to because it will not affect their image. I, in contrast, am hugely brand-sensitive and so, it is important for me to choose wisely," he says.

Likewise, Abraham has chosen film roles that portray him as an alpha male, but one who is metrosexual enough to care about his appearance. In Taxi No 9211, he essays the role of a short-tempered rich brat, while in Dostana he plays a fashion photographer in Miami, USA, sharing an apartment with his friends. 

These careful choices, says an industry analyst, is what has sustained the model-turned-actor in the industry for a decade. "He isn't known for his acting skills and fails as a solo hero, but John is a package," says the analyst who doesn't wish to be named. "He is good looking, hard-working, sincere and smart. That he lacks a trademark acting style works to his advantage as it allows directors to mould him into any character without dealing with the baggage that stars such as Saif Ali Khan, Shah Rukh Khan and Hrithik Roshan come with."

Director Kabir Khan acknowledges that Abraham is a director's actor, which is why he cast him in New York after working with him in his directorial debut, Kabul Express. "Most Bollywood actors are good with melodrama but fail when it comes to playing a regular character; they don't even know what to do with their hands. John fits right in with such roles. It is up to a director to get the best out of an actor and we saw a nuanced performance by him in New York," says Kabir.

Abraham believes that he came into the industry ahead of his time. "I underplay characters, something that was never acknowledged as acting, until the line between Bollywood and offbeat cinema began to blur. This is my school of acting and if it were not good enough, why would Steven Spielberg mention my performance in Deepa Mehta's Water in Variety magazine? More importantly, how would I have survived in the industry for so long?" he says.

The actor complains that critics have been harsh on him, ignoring the efforts he has put in. "Had I wanted to play safe, I could have stuck to big-budget glossy ventures like Garam Masala and Housefull 2. But I have taken risks with films such as Water, Zinda and Aashayein at a time when such films didn't work. I have worked with filmmakers who are critically acclaimed today, with Anurag Kashyap in No Smoking, Vishal Bhardwaj in 7 Khoon Maaf and Milan Luthria in Taxi No 9211."

Mahesh Bhatt seconds him. He remembers Abraham, the son of a Syrian Christian father and a Zoroastrian Irani mother, from his modeling days. A sincere worker, he strove to succeed and was willing to take calculated risks. "He is still the same," says Bhatt. "He has to prove himself even after all these years in an industry where outsiders rarely become leading men and male models have repeatedly failed." Where other models like Dino Morea and Kelly Dorji who made their Bollywood debut around the same time as Abraham, haven't survived the rigors of Bollywood, he has held his ground.

The criticism, says Abraham, 40, eventually took its toll on him. A series of failures after New York, such as Aashayein and Abbas Tyrewala's Jhootha Hi Sahi, alongside talks of cheating on his girlfriend of nine years, Bipasha Basu, for another woman, hurt his image and demotivated him. That is when the Nishikant Kamat-directed Force was offered to him.

The actor took eight months off to work on the movie, a remake of the critically and commercially successful Tamil film, Kaakha Kaakha. "I had to look like a killing machine. So I worked hard on my body as well as the character," he says. With debutant Vidyut Jamwal, a trained Kalaripayattu martial artiste playing the antagonist, the actor reinvented himself in the action space. "With the big stars doing larger-than-life, superhero-like action, I have the real action hero space to myself."

Since then he has delivered back-to-back hits with Desi Boyz, Housefull 2 and Race 2. After the success of his debut home production, Vicky Donor, which bagged the National Award for Best Entertainer, the industry looks at him as a smart producer with an eye for content.

His next two films — Shootout at Wadala and his third home production, Madras Café — are action films too. In the first, Abraham portrays dreaded Mumbai underworld gangster Manya Surve who was shot in an encounter in the 1970s. As the man who challenged Dawood Ibrahim, the character allows him scope for action, which has come to be his forte. As does his role as a spy in Madras Café. "It is a thriller, but it also makes a political statement," says Abraham.

Actor Ayushmann Khurrana, who has found success on the big screen after his film debut in Vicky Donor, says Abraham is a secure actor who has steadily kept the cast and crew at the forefront at various award functions. Abraham says he has never been one to participate in award functions, "neither as a performer nor as a nominee". "I am, instead, focussing on promoting new talent through my productions and expanding my brand," he says.

Apart from plans of launching a chain of gyms under the name JA Fitness, Abraham is investing in real estate and in art. The actor, who now owns several Chintan Upadhyay paintings, confesses to the lack of artistic inclinations but adds that he is exploring that world with help from a gallery owner friend in Kochi. But the biggest advantage, says Abraham, is his middle-class upbringing. "Watching my parents live a regular life, travelling in trains and autos, struggling to build a career has taught me how to work hard and deal with failures till I succeed," he says.

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