Since his acting debut in 2005 with Socha Na Tha, Abhay Deol’s choice and journey – professional and personal – have been anything but conventional. Films like Ahista Ahista, Honeymoon Travels Pvt Ltd, Ek Chalis Ki Last Local, Manorama Six Feet Under, Oye Lucky, Lucky Oye, Dev. D and Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara followed. His more recent work, including Nanu Ki Jaanu, JL50 and 1962: War in the Hills is less impactful.
In the upcoming Jungle Cry (Lionsgate Play, June 3, 2022), Deol plays Rudra, the coach of a team of 12 underprivileged children from Odisha that wins the under-14 Rugby World Cup in the UK in 2007. Directed by Sagar Bellary, the sports drama is based on a true story. Deol spoke about his latest film, future work and more.
What did your role as Rudra, the coach of a rookie rugby team, require of you?
I don’t play the game. I just have to make the kids play. I just had to blow a whistle and crack the whip. Most sports films are about the underdogs and this story was quite inspiring and enlightening for me, especially getting acquainted with the work of the Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences and its founder Dr Samanta. The children in the victorious rugby team of 2007 were all tribal kids from the Institute. The choices, and sacrifices of the people behind the team really come through in this film. The story is as much about the team that plays as it is about the team that makes them play.
What do you think it is about underdog stories that makes for good cinema, and what attracted you to this part?
They are relatable and an underdog story is rife with conflict - you have to lose before winning. That is by nature the format for a film with sport in it. It is relatable because we are all underdogs in some way, competing in our own spaces. We may not be playing a match, but we are definitely playing, or are thrown into an environment where you have to overcome the odds. It's simpler to illustrate that through a sport where competition really raises the stakes and you root for your team. This relatability, the underdog story, overcoming conflict, bringing attention to an event that did not get the recognition it deserved in our country, and respect for Dr Samanta are all the reasons for me doing this film.
You said in an interview a few years ago that there are fewer opportunities for someone like yourself. Why do you say that?
When I was making the films I was making, there weren’t so many opportunities for me, but today there is more space, more distribution, more exhibition avenues. OTT platforms didn’t exist when I was making Oye Lucky…, Dev D, Manorama, Ek Chalis, etc. It was tough to make these films and tough to release them.
Now, as I look back, I can see that it was true but it didn’t have to be so. I was young and trying to make a space for myself, to be authentic, so in that sense there were fewer opportunities. But it was by choice. Post Oye Lucky and Dev D, I had a lot more choice, but then I was like why do you want me to conform now? If anything you should allow me to continue expanding the way I am. But had I seen it another way – as in do a bit of this and a bit of that - then the opportunities would have continued to open up. So you create that space for yourself. I am not saying that with any regret, but with perspective as an older more mature self. On the other hand, mainstream content these days is not very consistent. There is greater desire to experiment and people had to change because it was getting repetitive.
So are you open to both independent/ offbeat and mainstream content now?
Yes, even more so now, because I am a lot more easygoing. I am open to something mainstream that’s fun. But the truth is that I have not built any bridges with the mainstream world for them to be convinced that I would actually do it. So, ironically, for me to do something mainstream now would be an experiment and experimenting is anyway what I do.
You mentioned perspective. What’s the view like in the rearview mirror?
As time passes, I get more and more shy of watching my own work. I am happy and grateful to have got the diversity of subjects, but sometimes I am amazed I still get work. It’s hard when you are outside the system. The irony is that I am an insider, yet an outsider, and that conflict drives me and defines me in some ways. I was being primed for stardom and the numbers game. I had the opportunity to play that game and I didn’t take it. I opted for freedom. When you are a star working the system, there is very little freedom and image becomes all-important. Collections become all-important. Whereas in my space, you take a risk that you may not get work, because some projects were not marketed or distributed well. So I will never be satisfied, but always be greedy for more experimentation, bigger scale, more dialogue, but I am grateful.
What else have you got coming up?Jungle Cry will be released on Lionsgate Play on June 3. I have shot for a show which is in post-production. It's called Trial By Fire. I have executive produced two films in Los Angeles - a horror film Son, which came out, and Pep, which is based on the true story of a boxer. There is a new shoot that is likely to start.