As actor Ajay Devgn sits with hitlist over a unique conversation that deep-dives into his mind, life, and times — meaning 27 years of continued Bollywood stardom — the story that piques our interest most is from about a decade-and-half ago. It's set in Diu, where journalists had once travelled to cover Devgn's film shoot — a song sequence with Ameesha Patel, on a sea-side fort. The much loved, old-world publicist in safari-suit, Rajendra Rao (now no more), was to take care of reporters, except he needed some taking care of himself. The airline had misplaced his bag at Mumbai airport, which he kept complaining about, Devgn recalls, as if some catastrophe had struck him.
While the shoot was on though, Diu's superintendent of police (SP) entered the location, looking for Rao. Rao's bag had in fact been traced back in Mumbai, but with bags of cocaine, the SP said — instantly accosting Rao to the cop station. Several hours passed, with Rao trying to reach out to journalists (such as me in the lot), if anyone could help. There was much tension in the air. While frisking, we heard, cops had even discovered a packet of coke in his pocket.
Eventually, around late evening, Rao finally returned to the shoot; howling, almost. The arrest, he said (much to everyone's relief) was actually a prank played by Ajay Devgn on him. Many years later, Devgn laughs, "At some point, I'd dipped my fingers into Rao's pocket to get paan masala he used to chew, and slipped in a sachet of salt, that the cops (in on the joke) tasted, and confirmed was coke. Eventually, when the SP felt Rao might get a heart attack, he asked me to let him go!" It's only fair we start the conversation with:
The above was a prank that could've gone wrong. Is there a prank you've played on a set that went horribly awry?
Years ago, there was this actor, who had just gotten married, and brought along his wife along for an outdoor shoot. The girl was from outside the [film] industry — a simple girl, from a small town. We used to shoot at night. She would obviously meet her husband in the mornings. We would keep feeding the wife that her husband is having an affair. And that, in the night, he goes off somewhere. There are no night shoots! I'd tell her that I return to my room at 10.30 [pm]. She'd tell me that she's heard all about [my pranks]. That she trusts her husband. This carried on for eight days. On the ninth day, we woke up and learnt that she had actually taken pills, had to be rushed to the hospital. She'd been fighting with her husband over this, throughout, checking with him on what the hell he'd been up to!
That's crazy! I've heard you say that after being convinced by a script, if things aren't going right [with a film], you realise it on the first day you land on the set. Is that when you start playing pranks?
No, that's when I stop playing pranks [on the set]. As people say, you still have to go on [with the shoot]. But, you really can't [be having as much fun], then I can't even play pranks.
But you can really tell on Day One that things aren't working?
This has happened [with me] with a lot of films. By the evening of first day, I've called my office, and said, "Gadbad ho gayi!" When you read a script, you start imagining your own film — the idea is nice, so this is how [you presume] the director will visualise it. You become over-intelligent. When you reach the set, you realise that he [the director] is not looking at the film the way you are. You try to rationalise, or talk to them. Either they understand, or they don't know what the hell you're talking about! Then, you give up.
Back when you were shooting the [rather tough] remake of I Am Sam — Main Aisa Hi Hoon (2005) — I'm told that's exactly what you were telling your close friends: "Idhar kuch nahin hone wala". True?
I won't take names. But you do get to know [at the beginning of a shoot].
More recently, did you get to know that about Action Jackson (2014)?
You can't ask me [to name] names! But yes, with Action Jackson, we didn't have a script. I don't blame anybody for Action Jackson. We'd put up a set, and then we got to know that the film's script is quite similar to Aamir's [Khan] Dhoom 3 (2013). So we were like, let's not start shooting, and work on the script again. In about a month, they worked on another script, and I said, this [new script] isn't happening [working] either. So he [Prabhudheva, director] said, "Trust me, we are under pressure." The set had been put up. Eventually, I had to give in. We got into the film knowing that it wasn't perfect.
As for scripts, you couldn't have asked for something better than [Ram Gopal Varma Ki] Aag (2007), no? It was Sholay (1975), after all!
Yes, Aag was something that took one a lot of time to realise it's going downhill. Everybody had their individual [separate] scenes [being shot]: mine, Amitji's [Amitabh Bachchan]…. You had no idea what the others were doing, and hoped that it [the scenes] would connect well. But things didn't fall into place.
Back in the '90s though, you did so many films at one go...
That was the system earlier. We'd sign films, just go ahead, and do them. [As a result], even the films then would take two-three years to finish. That was not only the actor's fault. The producers also enjoyed that [timeline]. Their kitchen used to run [smoothly] as long as their film was on [floors]. Their instalment [from the investors] would come before the beginning of a schedule. So they would not be in a hurry, if say [moneywise], for the next six months, if they were sorted. Once a film is complete, they would have to start a new one, which isn't easy. So they used to stretch [the schedules]. The whole system was warped. Eventually, the [producers'] association came up with a law, that actors can't do more than 11 films at a time! You can imagine how many we were doing [at a time].
What's the maximum number of films that you've done at one time?
Must be 15 or 16. We would do three shifts, which is [effectively] three hours of work on one film [in a day]. Toh jo jeans pehni hai subah, wahi teenon ki teenon film mein; kaun change karega yaar? (The pair of jeans I'd start my day's first shoot in, I'd end up wearing for all three films' shoots; who's going to change?). Those days, there would be no place to change on an outdoor shoot. You just had to go [to the set], and start work.
So you did Jaan (1996), Jung (1996), Jigar (1992), Diljale (1996), Dilwale (1992)… Do you think films get lost in that quantum, any that you may want people to watch now?
There are lots. Some that you've mentioned, for instance. Dilwale was actually a very good film. Did very well too. But if you're talking about a specific film that they [audiences] should revisit, then there's Zakhm (1998), which got appreciated a lot. Did decently well. Not great, because those kinds of films didn't really do that well then. And, honestly, in the '90s, I must've been the only actor who started doing what is now no more called parallel cinema — Zakhm, Thakshak (1999), Raincoat (2004), nobody used to touch those films. I never bothered about risks. My mindset has always been towards good cinema. I also learnt a lot from directors. [Director] K Vishawanath, for instance, I think, is one of the best actors in the country. He would perform every line for you with four different expressions. Aisa lagta tha ki inhone toh kar diya; ab hum kya karenge?
But Zakhm, you mention quite often.
That is also because of Bhatt saab [Mahesh Bhatt]. The way he would narrate a scene was just amazing. Vishawanathji was a great actor, but Bhatt saab is a bad actor — but he can make his actors act, that's his beauty. He would talk about the scenes, [I would absorb], and we would shoot, that's how Zakhm got made. [Likewise] thank God, I worked with Govind Nihalani.
Thakshak is one of your most underrated films. Everyone should revisit it, no?
Yes. In my case, these films came at a right time. Govindji was just too good. I can never forget this story from the sets — it's a scene, where my father is lying dead, murdered, and my character comes home. Govindji wants me to emote completely, but says he doesn't want to see any tears: "I want to see the pain in the eyes, but my hero will never cry." He believes in it. In all his films, heroes have never had tears. It's very tough to do this. Otherwise, glycerine lagaya aur ho gaya!
You've spoken about your craft before, and it's simply that two-three minutes before a shot, you just get into the role. When you worked on three films a day, going from one set to another, you'd have no choice, right?
I'm doing one film at a time right now. I still don't know how to 'get' into a role. Even if I sit down and say, "Let me work hard on my acting", it doesn't happen. This is how I am. I can do it only spontaneously. My directors know that I will not be able to do a rehearsal, or remember my lines there. I cannot. It's just that when the camera starts rolling, you start feeling and thinking like the character. And that's my only preparation — to know what my character will do, or behave, in a situation. That's the only system I follow. In between shots, as soon as it's a cut, we have fun, even when the most emotional scenes are happening.
Let's take Ram Gopal Varma's Company, and Rajkumar Santoshi's The Legend Of Bhagat Singh, both released in 2002. Two roles — Malik, and Bhagat Singh — couldn't be more distinct from each other. You could spontaneously switch…
I also had good directors. I'll give it to them. I like to follow my directors, and if I enjoy working with them, I want to trust them. Talking about Ramu, he recently sent me a message: "Hi, need to talk to you. This is Ramu of Aag fame." I replied, "I don't know Ramu of Aag fame. I know Ramu from Company. Are you the same?" He said, "Yes." You know how I did Company? It'll help you understand what Ramu is, or was, and can be again. He came down to my office to narrate a script, which I heard and [found it] very nice. He wanted to start the film the next year, which worked fine, because I didn't have dates, and he was doing some other film called Company. Next morning, he called to say there was something urgent to talk about, came over again, and said, "When I was narrating to you yesterday, I wasn't there mentally. The way you were sitting, listening, I could only see Malik. Will you hear [the script of] Company?" That's how Company happened.
Let's go back further to 1991. Akshay Kumar told us this story on Sit With Hitlist, about a film — the music sessions of which he'd sat on, he was packing for the first day's shoot, when he was told that he wasn't in the film anymore. You shot for the film the next morning instead: Phool Aur Kaante, your acting debut.
I don't know what really happened there. Akshay and I have never spoken on this. I was told something else. And there are always multiple versions. When I was signed on, I was told that Akshay was supposed to do Phool Aur Kaante, but he's signed up for a bigger film, so he isn't doing it anymore. I don't know which version is true, and I didn't even know Akshay back then.
What was your story leading up to the debut? Struggling, as it were, for long?
I never had to struggle. Work hard, sure, but never struggle as such. I was in [Mithibai] college, and early on, realised I loved making films. I was 8 or 9, when I started helping my father with editing movies; and action were the most difficult sequences to edit back then. By 12-13, I had started making my own films. My father had bought me a camera. I used to do a lot of special effects, create my own sets, by the time I was 15. Later, he would even send me to shoot for certain portions [like in Rekha's film Madam X, 1994]. Once, while I was shooting at home on a Sunday, Shekhar Kapur dropped by, saw me take some shots — [I had] created a crane shot by taking the camera up at a certain angle, which he thought was quite innovative — and he had me over as his assistant [in Dushmani, and a few commercials]. I was also enjoying college, after which I would go and work with Shekhar. One fine evening, I came home to find [director] Sandesh Kohli sitting with dad. My father had always wanted me to be an actor, train in action. He told me that Kohliji was doing a film [Phool Aur Kaante] and he wanted me to be in it. My first reaction was, "Are you mad? I am 18, enjoying life." I flatly refused it. This was in October, 1990. By November, I was shooting — practically pushed into it. I did my debut film with the attitude that if it works, good. I will work very hard. But if it doesn't work, I won't roam around with a portfolio. I'll go back to filmmaking. But the film worked. Ever since, there hasn't been any time to sit and think.
Take us through your iconic introduction shot [the leg split between two running motorbikes]. You didn't just show up for that scene!
I was always training in action, so that's how it happened. My dad would send me to acting classes, which I would mostly bunk; but action, I genuinely enjoyed. He had his team of fighters, who were fun to hang out with. I would wake up and train with them daily. Kohliji and my father had planned that introduction [scene]. There were no cables, or CGI. It was tough and dangerous. I didn't know how it would happen. In that moment, it just worked out! A lot of such historic moments have no story behind them: Sab galti se ho jaata hai!
Let's look at a pantheon of Bollywood's top stars: Mr Bachchan's mother was an actor [on stage]; Shah Rukh Khan's father had auditioned for Mughal-e-Azam (1960); Salman's father was in Bollywood to be an actor…
Even my father. When he came from Punjab, he wanted to be an actor; but he ended up being a fighter. Maybe that's why he wanted me to be an actor. My father was very close to Manoj (Kumar) saab, and was also second unit director with him. Manoj saab gave dad his first break as an action director.
That's a recurring story with big stars, isn't it? [As second generation], they were essentially fulfilling their parents' dreams?
Yes, but I don't think any of us were doing it [with the idea of] trying to fulfill our parents' dreams. If they wanted us to do that, of course, we would. But at 18-19, none of us cared much. Like I said, I was forced into it.
Were you a gunda in college?
Full-on. I have been behind bars — twice inside a lock-up; even sneaked out my father's gun. And guys, that's illegal.
Also, why did you change your name from Vishal [that you were born with] to Ajay [for the screen]?
I'll tell you why. In 1991, a couple of actors with the name Vishal were being launched. One of them was Manoj (Kumar) saab's son. There was major confusion. One of us had to change our name. So I did!
It's also interesting to understand how your love for films has kept you driven [in the industry] all these years.
If people ask me what I would do if not in the movies, I have no answer. I don't know anything, besides movies. I am also in other businesses [solar power, theatres], only because of what I have learnt from the movies [business].
And because you have a lot of money now.
Yes, to invest. You can hire people, because you have the money.
From what we hear, you are the only Bollywood star to own a private jet.
That's not entirely correct. I did buy one. But the deal didn't go through. I didn't take the delivery eventually.
Speaking of business, 10 years ago, India had around 12,000 cinema screens, which has now dropped to 8,000. Clearly, the crucial place where you can show cinema in itself is disappearing.
No, I don't see a dip. Earlier to see a certain amount of business, a film would've to run for 25 weeks. Today, that gets covered within three days. We don't need more theatres.
You clearly do. You'd filed a case against Yash Raj, when Son Of Sardaar (2012) was releasing, on the sharing of screens with Jab Tak Hai Jaan (2012).
Maybe the number of screens is a problem, but it is nobody's fault. There are only 52 weeks. Of which there are many weeks when a film can't be released. With the number of films releasing on the rise, clashes are bound to happen.
Another aspect from back in the day was the conspicuous split between classes [multiplexes] and masses [single screens]...
That's surely narrowing. Because people are also sitting up, saying, "Arey waisa thodi hota hai [questioning the logic of movies]."
I remember travelling in the interiors of India once, noticing the poster of your madcap comedy All The Best (2009), except everyone was holding guns!
When a film starred me, it had to be an action film. That has changed a lot now. Distributors in the interiors, back then, would even put a bikini-clad woman's picture on the poster of Hum Aapke Hai Koun (1994), to sell tickets.
Although times have changed, you are clearly hopeful of the future of films.
I am not someone who feels big screens won't exist in the future. But people also need to know what they are making. Digital is making the content-game tougher. There are great small films, but I look at them and say I can watch them at home. Then there are movies made for theatres — the big screen experiences! Which is why Baahubali (2015) was a game-changer, and it could happen because there were men who had the vision, and they saw it through till the end, without thinking about how much money they could have made in the years they put into one project. They didn't think: What if it doesn't work?
You seem positive enough about the future to have invested in the theatre business yourself.
We've started a chain of theatres, already have about 27 screens, and are looking at 100-150 screens all over India, which has a big population. But there are more screens in Andheri than some major Indian cities. So I can't grow my theatre business by opening one more in Andheri. I have one in Raebareli. That place doesn't have any theatres. There are places in India where people travel for almost 60 kilometres to watch movies. Theatres in these towns shut down due to certain issues. I have taken over some of them, to convert them into multiplexes, providing a basic and decent hall, so I can maintain a good ticket rate. I have to go to places where audiences are there, but theatres aren't. Only then will footfalls grow. Apart from that, we will expand to big cities, where we think we can bring in audiences.
As for future, you have two kids. You're a second generation actor. Your wife [Kajol] is a third generation actor, after Shobhna Samarth, and Tanuja. Raising children in such a family, is it almost obvious that the kids will enter showbiz? Do you even imagine them as doctors, engineers instead?
My daughter is in the ninth grade, in Singapore right now. It was too early to let her go away, but she wanted to, and she is happy. She never talks about being an actress. Right now, she is contemplating law. My son is seven, really can't say anything about him.
Speaking of family: How did you and Kajol meet?
On a set. It's a very boring story. Actually, there is no story. I was the quiet one. She thought I was a snob. At first, we would hardly talk, but gradually started talking, and that's how it began.
There was no proposal! We became friends, and then realised we are seeing each other. One day, we decided to get married. I didn't want to make a big issue out of my marriage. So, I came out of my bedroom, got married on my terrace, went back to my bedroom!
While male actors of the '90s still dominate the scene, actresses who started out during your time, like your best friend Tabu, a powerful actor, seems to be grappling with problem of ageism.
No, she [Tabu] isn't. She has done roles that even young actors won't get to. I can come on record and say this, because she is a friend of mine, that she is mad. She just doesn't choose films, and likes to sit at home. She is choosy, which is also good. But I don't think there is any lack of work for her.
Tabu's example aside, would ageism not be true for other actresses still?
Not anymore. Things are changing. I'm sure in the '90s, we (male actors) would have been struggling at 48 or 49 [years of age]. That system has changed.
But [even at late 40s, early 50s], all you guys look incredibly young, as against say, Rishi Kapoor, in his 40s during the '90s, in lead roles…
I think they just never bothered to take care of themselves. Who used to work out at that point of time? I don't think Chintuji [Rishi Kapoor] or anybody ever worked out. They had an attitude like, shooting kiya, khaya, piya… They enjoyed life, which was also good. We have started becoming careful — proper diet, hitting the gym. I guess that's the difference. Also, there was lack of education about maintaining a physical regimen back then.
So you don't go out, or drink anymore?
I am not the person who ever went out often. I drink every day. But I also work out. For the last 25-30 years, there hasn't been a day, when I have not had a drink.