In a quiet lane in Bandra is the office of John Abraham’s production house JA Entertainment. In an outhouse made of glass, overlooking a lush garden, the actor and producer is animatedly describing how he got stuck inside an MRI machine just before our interview. “I have a tennis elbow and after weeks of ignoring it, I went to get it checked. Inside the machine, they asked me to lie on my stomach and keep my arms up. Only my shoulder didn’t fit,” he says, bursting into laughter. Who knew there’d be a downside to being built like a tank!
Thankfully, the MRI technician figured out another way to scan John’s elbow, so an hour after that appointment, the 45-year-old sat down with t2oS to chat about his new film Parmanu — The Story of Pokhran, being an actor for 15 years and why he doesn’t mind being an outsider in Bollywood. Parmanu, which is based on real events leading up to India’s first nuclear tests, is directed by Abhishek Sharma and also stars Diana Penty. This is John’s fifth home production and has been enveloped in controversy for some time, because of a legal wrangle between KriArj Entertainment and JA Entertainment. Now that the Bombay High Court has ruled in favour of the actor, the film is all set to release on May 25 and John couldn’t be more excited.
Why is Parmanu a story you wanted to tell?
When Abhishek narrated 12 pages of an idea he had, I was shocked that a film like this had not been made before and we decided to do it. I think it’s the biggest case of nuclear espionage in the world — the way the Indians hoodwinked the Americans is something we’ve shown in this film. And I didn’t want to tell a jingoistic, patriotic story; I wanted to tell the story the way Argo was told. It’s an edge-of-the-seat thriller.
The road to release for Parmanu has been a bumpy one. What are your learnings from this experience?
Do a background check on the people you work with, understand where their funds are coming from — that’s the biggest lesson I’ve learnt. It’s a slap in my face because I consider myself as someone who’s discerning and understands this process; I did my background checks and still went wrong. So, choose your partners well. Thankfully, the high court validated exactly what I said.
Parmanu, Satyameva Jayate and RAW (Romeo Akbar Walter), there’s a nationalistic theme that seems to run through your recent films.
It’s coincidental and in the case of Satyameva Jayate, it’s just the names. SMJ is Shootout at Wadala to the power of 10. It’s crazy, commercial and fun.
You complete 15 years as an actor this year. Before Jism came your way, you were a media planner and then you modelled. Was acting a natural progression?
No. I only wanted to be the top model in the country. For most of us back then, I don’t think modelling was a means to enter films. You wanted to model because you wanted to get to the top and become a supermodel. Films happened by accident. I give credit to Vikram Bhatt and Mahesh Bhatt. Bhatt saab called me and said his daughter’s (Pooja) making a film, and he needed a “younger Sanjay Dutt” — someone with Sanju’s body but also vulnerability in his face. He said he saw that in me. Around the same time, Vikram Bhatt offered Aetbaar. Unfortunately, Aetbaar got delayed and Jism was my debut film.
The critics weren’t very kind in the early years. Do you remember the worst review and how did you deal with them?
There was a critic, who I won’t name, but he had watched Jism and Paap and told me, ‘You’re beautiful and you’re wonderful in this’. He offered me a film he was making back then, and I refused. In his next review, he said, ‘John’s probably the ugliest thing around with earth-shattering close-ups’. I kind of laughed and realised where this was going.
I draw comparisons with Sunday school that I went to when I was four years old. I got bored and walked out and saw my father standing there. He asked me why I was outside and I told him it was boring. He said, ‘Son, to be a good person you don’t need to go to a temple, church or mosque’. And I never went after that. Similarly, I never took critics seriously after that incident.
Of course, criticism did hurt, but I knew my own trajectory. I knew that all the male models before me had failed, from Deepak Malhotra to Milind Soman to Dino Morea. Arjun Rampal was doing okay, but he was getting his fair share of criticism as well. I told myself that I’m a marketing man. Either I go down that road where I accept defeat, or I use what people see in me as my USP and build on that, which was motorcycles, my body and my fitness, and I started using those to build my image and doing the films I wanted to.
I think one’s career is like a game of chess, which happens to be my favourite game as well. You need to structure your moves in such a way where you don’t just know what your next move is but you also know what your 300th move is and the different permutations and combinations for how to get there. When I did my fourth film, I knew I would eventually produce but it took me 20 films to get there. The reason for wanting to produce was that I wasn’t seeing the kind of films I wanted to see as part of the audience.
Which was the film where you finally thought, “I’m an actor and a star”?
Both never came together at the same point of time for me. One of my favourite films is No Smoking; I really enjoyed doing the film and working with Anurag (Kashyap). I’m very proud of that film because there was a lot of the actor in me that came out. Madras Cafe was a culmination of being a producer, an actor, a star all rolled in one. What came out was a very mature performance because I believed in the subject, my director (Shoojit Sircar) and the script.
I realised I had a certain resonance with youth when I did Dhoom and knew that my trajectory will move up. But I didn’t want to repeat myself, so that’s when I did films like No Smoking and Kabul Express. One person I respect the most, apart from Mr Bhatt, is Aditya Chopra; I love him to death. Adi told me once that my most intelligent choices have been the ones that have failed, because I chose to do something differently.
Like you mentioned, you have a very diverse filmography — from Water, New York and Madras Cafe to Dhoom, Dishoom and Housefull. Do you think you’ve got the credit and recognition for your choices?
Not at all; nobody gives me credit for any of it. Even now, after I’ve done a shot wearing a military uniform, the first comment I get is ‘You’re so hot in a uniform’. I laugh at it. I understand that this is a visual medium, and if someone finds you attractive, it’s good — live with it and stop being apologetic about it. Dustin Hoffman told Robert Redford that he’d always wear an albatross around his neck, and it would always be about the way he looks — live with it. I know there’s a certain way the audience perceives me and I’m okay with it but I’m never going to give up the fight. I’ll always try and give them something different, something that will take them and me out of our comfort zones. That’s what Parmanu and RAW will do.
Is there a genre that you haven’t tried yet and would want to?
I’ve never tried adult comedy, and I never want to try it. There is one genre, however, that I’ve never done because I haven’t got the right script, but would love to try; and that’s horror.
Your physicality has always overshadowed your work…
…I’m not a narcissistic person at all; to a point where I get embarrassed when someone compliments me. I’m very contrary to the Dostana John Abraham. I’m a shy person generally. I think health is very important and I propagate that, but looking good is not really important to me. I want to age gracefully, I want my greys to show. I, unfortunately, still get pimples. I went to a dermatologist and he asked if I wanted something done to the lines on my face. I told him not to touch them! I want people to see my face as natural and that would be the best compliment.
Even after all these years, you describe yourself as “the perennial outsider”. This is obviously a choice you’ve made.
I guess so, I don’t get invited anywhere (laughs). But it’s a conscious choice I’ve made. People don’t call me for things because they know my interests in life are very different and I’m not into socialising. They won’t call me for something that will go on till 4 in the morning because they know I go to bed by 9.30pm-10pm, and would rather go for a bike ride. This way, nobody feels bad. It’s my arrangement with the industry and that’s fantastic.
You’ve been a star for 15 years and yet you continue to live a large part of your life away from the limelight. There’s not a single photo of your wife Priya Runchal on your social media accounts or no ‘airport looks’.
A fancy dress competition at the airport or posing at a media event, these things don’t work for me. I’d like to stay away from things that I think are pretentious, and hard to keep up with — you do it once, you have to keep doing it. Hats off to some of these guys who can keep giving you the airport looks and the poses for social media; that’s a movie in itself. I don’t have the energy, willpower and strength to do it. I can show people a bit of my healthy lifestyle, how to strip a motorcycle and put it back together. I can show them my injuries maybe, but I can’t do more than that.
And, Priya is even more private a person than you?
Absolutely… way more than me. What I admire about her is that there’s no hunger to be on the red carpet or desire to be in the public eye. She’s ten times smarter than me and she prefers to stay in the background.
You are a successful actor, producer and businessman. Is there anything you can’t do?
Right now, I can’t do pull-ups because I have a tennis elbow. (Laughs) On a serious note though, there’s genuinely a lot I need to pull my socks up on. I think I need to be a better producer, a better actor, a better partner and a better person. As much as I can sit in front of you and create an impression, at the end of the day, we all have our shortcomings, and I do have a lot of them.
JOHN ON JOHN I THINK ONE’S CAREER IS LIKE A GAME OF CHESS, WHICH HAPPENS TO BE MY FAVOURITE GAME AS WELL