He’s self-confessedly uncomfortable around people. There’s no obvious attempt to stay in the news or play to the gallery either. Nor is there any insecurity about competition. He’d rather let his work do the talking. Three decades in the industry and Ajay Devgn continues to enjoy the trust of filmmakers and the loyalty of his fans. His latest film, director Akiv Ali’s romantic comedy De De Pyaar De, minted money at the box-office. A story about a 50-year-old man, who falls in love with a 25-year-old girl, this Luv Ranjan production was lapped up by the audience. Ajay had no qualms about playing his age in the film. “I try my best to play my age on screen. You’ll never see me playing a 25-year-old,” he says adding, “Also, the age of us actors is no longer a secret in today’s time. Our birthdays are celebrated by the media and fans.”
He debuted as an action star in Phool Aur Kaante (1991) and since then many films have cashed in on his rugged appeal. But even when he attempts romance, he has a million hearts melting. Like in De De Pyaar De. Says he, “The story is new-age and in sync with the times. The women characters are strong. The film has a good message and is entertaining.” Tabu and he go a long way beginning from the musical Vijaypath (1994). “With Tabu, there’s a comfort level. We understand each other and we can say anything to each other. Our chemistry works on screen too,” he claims. He praises his young co-star Rakul Preet Singh for doing justice to her modern character, someone who’s both intelligent and indulgent.
Ajay’s glad that mature characters are written in cinema now. “Trust me, be it Akshay (Kumar) or Salman (Khan) or whoever else, none of us have a problem with our age. Earlier, whatever the age of the hero, he had to sing and dance and romance a young girl. All that has changed today,” he observes. In Golmaal Again, where he was paired with Parineeti Chopra, a lot of digs were made at his age too. “I was comfortable with it. Otherwise I’d have asked them to change the scenes,” he smiles.
Through the years, Ajay’s consistency at the box-office has been commendable. His last few films including Raj Kumar Gupta’s Raid, based on a real-life income tax officer and Indra Kumar’s Total Dhamaal, a whacky comedy, were runaway hits. “Quality and content is supreme,” he insists adding, “We’re now conscious of good scripts. Earlier, even when we did eight films… woh filmein chal jaati thi. Now the audiences don’t accept just about anything. So, we’re concentrating on working in one film at a time and creating a quality product.”
It was alleged that friend Rohit Shetty had moved on to Ranveer Singh (Simmba) and Akshay Kumar (Sooryavanshi). But Ajay has a line-up with the hit director. “No one has moved on. We’re working together. I was part of Simmba. I’m part of Sooryavanshi. Rohit and I’ll be working on the Singham and Golmaal franchises again,” he informs.
There’s also Om Raut’s biopic, Taanaji: The Unsung Warrior, in which he stars wih Saif Ali Khan. Ajay plays the valiant Subedar Taanaji Malusare, who fought alongside Chatrapathi Shivaji Maharaj. “Taanaji is an action film. The idea is that both the masses and the classes should like it,” he says adding that grand sets have been built for the same. Being a combat-based film, the shoot is excruciating though. “Just yesterday, I was on a horse for eight hours. It takes a toll on you but it’s exciting too.” The son of the late action director, Veeru Devgan, Ajay credits his ease with action to his enhanced fitness levels. “Today, we actors take care of ourselves. Everyone has become health conscious. I’m feeling as energetic as I was at 25.”
He will also be seen in Amit Sharma’s sports biopic on Syed Abdul Rahim, the Indian football team coach, whose tenure is regarded as ‘the golden age of Indian football’. The biggest high under his guidance came at the 1962 Asian Games, where India beat South Korea to bag the gold medal. Another fascinating project is Chanakya to be directed by Neeraj Pandey. The film, based on 4th century BC scholar, advisor, economist and political strategist will be made in two parts reportedly. Ajay’s also said to be part of S.S. Rajamouli’s tentatively titled film RRR.
Despite quite a few 100 crore movies in his kitty, the box-office magnet doesn’t bite into the bait. “It’s just become a term,” he emphasises about the 100-crore tag. “Also, it’s relative. If a film is made in 15 crores and earns 80 crores, it’s a more profitable venture than a 150-crore budget film, which collects 120 crores,” he reasons. The actor cautions that the quality of the film can suffer if you’re concentrating only on the box office figures.
He seems keen to venture in the OTT platform as a producer. As an actor, he’s keeping his options open. “When I come across something great, I may take the plunge,” he says. He believes both the OTT platform and films are here to stay. “What other entertainment do we have? The only outing an average middle-class family can afford is watching a movie in a theatre. Eating out is expensive,” he adds.
He completes 30 years in the industry this year and has been part of defining films. Amidst potboilers he also won acclaim for his roles in avant garde cinema like Zakhm and Raincoat. He finds it difficult to pick out his favourite work. “You work hard in every role. Some are appreciated, some are not. But that does not mean you didn’t give your best. Of course, it’s satisfying when a film works, because it proves the hard work has paid off and many people have watched it.”
He values the relationships he’s formed with colleagues over the years. “We’ve all mellowed down but the rapport is the same. With the new generation and the corporates coming in, the atmosphere has changed though. But a handful of us share the same bond with each other,” he claims. As an afterthought he adds, “There was a warmth earlier whereas relationships today are just professional.”
He denies that he’s perturbed by competition from his peers or the new generation. “Where’s the competition?” he asks. Everyone’s got his own place. The younger generation is doing well too. That’s good. It’s keeping us on our toes. So that we don’t get lazy and continue to give our best.” How would he define his success mantra? “I have no idea. I believe it lies in your intention to do good work,” he smiles.
Recently, the #MeToo movement unearthed uncomfortable truths about the industry as well. Is it ethical to work with those accused of exploitation? “There’s a difference between ‘accused’ and ‘proven guilty’,” he points out. “One must definitely not work with those proven guilty. But those who haven’t been… we can’t be unfair to them. What about their families? I know an ‘accused’, whose daughter was so traumatised, she stopped eating and going to school.”
He’s known to be a devoted family man, someone who cherishes his time with daughter Nysa and son Yug. He strongly condemns the scrutiny and trolling that star kids have to undergo. “Leave the kids alone! It’s ridiculous,” is his refrain. A fiercely private person he sums up his relationship with wife Kajol with whom he recently celebrated his 20th anniversary, saying, “She’s remained herself and I’ve remained myself. Both of us have not changed. That’s the most important thing. Also, we’ve stuck together through thick and thin.”