"For me, these tags don't matter. I know that I have done it on my own. If I had to prove something to someone, then, of course, it would matter. But I don't have to do. My biggest critics are in my house and they are proud of me," quips Abhimanyu Dassani flaunting his confident smile as he recalls how he has been constantly tackling questions related to the infamous N-word over the last few months. We are sitting in his swanky Juhu abode.
After winning many awards and accolades at various international film festivals, his debut film 'Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota' released last week and has been receiving love and appreciation from all nooks and corners.
As we talk, Abhimanyu opens up about his life post Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota, the kind of films he wishes to take up, his thought process, the impact of social media in today's times.
Excerpts from Filmibeat's exclusive tête-à-tête with the 'new crush of the town'.
'I Have Come Out As A Much Stronger & Level-headed Person Than What I Was'
Q. You are one-film-old now with Mard Ko Dard Nahin finally making it to the theatrical screens. There's so much of love pouring in for the film from all the corners. What phase are you currently in? Are you very happy that the film has finally released or does it leave you with an empty feeling since you lived Surya's life for more than a year?
A. "Fortunately, I have not had the chance of having that empty feeling because we have been travelling for film festivals for the last six-eight months. Nobody posts my airport looks but I have been travelling for film festivals (laughs). I have been with Surya throughout for the last eight months including the promotions.
Now after the film's release, people recognize me as Surya which is lovely. Before this diminishes, I will be jumping onto my next film. So, I don't think I will have time for that, but it will be a great switch for me because my next project is very challenging. I will be shifting into something which is 180 degree from what I have done."
Q. Does that mean the process of switching on and off a character comes easily to you?
A. "No, it isn't easy for me. Fortunately for this, I didn't have any in-between time because I had to immediately jump onto my next film. If I had three months where I wasn't working, then yes, I might have been struggling to find Abhimanyu."
Q. What was the best part about playing Surya and what's that one thing about him which you believe will stay with you forever?
A. "The best part of the film was Vasan Sir. Just connecting with him and the brilliant people on the sets was so much learning for me. I am really fortunate and lucky to have such a passionate team working on my dream project which was my debut film.
The most exciting thing about Surya which impacted me and my life were the three months before the film where I went into isolation. During that period, I went through a lot of introspection where I could touch upon what my insecurities are and what my purpose for films are.
I realized what I am, what I need to do and what I am not. I think that was very important and I have come out as a much stronger and level-headed person that what I was."
'The Only Thing That I Have With Me Is My Hard Work'
Q. You mentioned you never aspired to be an actor. Instead, you wanted to be an entrepreneur. However, once you began assisting on films, you started enjoying the creative process. Now that you have finally made your debut, has your perception about the acting profession changed?
A. "No, I knew what I was getting into when I decided to be an actor. My parents had warned me a lot. Taking everything that they said with a pinch of salt, I knew what I was getting myself into. For me, acting has been a passion. In 29 years of my life, I have lived a large life. I had more experiences than a normal 29-year-old boy would have had.
Having said that, I know what I want from it and because of that, it makes it easy for me. I like the grind and I like getting dirty. I still love giving auditions. I don't mind getting rejected. Losing is fine because it helps you to grow and there's so much to learn.
People have a misconception about Bollywood where you hashtag Bollywood and see these fancy photoshoots, airport looks etc. But actually what hashtag Bollywood is, is sleepless nights, insecurities, not knowing what your next job is and that acceptance of yourself.
I accept myself and my fate as things have to come. The only thing that I have with me is my hard work."
Q. What were the kind of films that you grew up watching and do you think that's going to influence you when it comes to the choice of films which you will be making from here on?
A. "They wouldn't influence my choices. I am a big fan of animated films because I think no one does emotions like how they do. Even for the reference for my character of Surya, I went to Kung Fu Panda and Pooh. Speaking about the kind of films I grew up watching, I used to love watching 'Main Khiladi Tu Anari'.
But with the kind of film-making that has transformed from that age to now and also I have grown with the different experiences in life, my tastes and choice are much more different now from what they used to be.
The kind of films that I watch or am inspired by now are going to influence me rather than what I grew up with."
Q. Do you discuss films with your parents now that you have stepped into the showbiz?
A. "Their choice of films and mine are very different. But I watch all animated films with my mother even till date. If there's an action film releasing, I have to catch it with my father or else he gets upset."
'For Me, Acting Is Pushing The Envelope Of Conversation; It's Not For Fame'
Q. We live in times where content-driven cinema is the king and actors are ready to experiment with their roles. But unfortunately, we still see them getting type-cast in some way or the other.
Say, for example, a Ranbir Kapoor. We all know that he is a brilliant actor who has done some phenomenal work. But there was a phase where many felt that the actor was overdoing his 'man-child' act and getting repetitive in those terms. Do these thoughts ever cross your mind?
A. "Not at all. The best way you can give your best in acting is to be yourself. I am very surprised to hear what these people had to say about Ranbir Kapoor. I think his range of acting and the scripts that he has chosen has been the most varied. So if he can be questioned that who am I?
Even now after my film has released, people still don't know Abhimanyu. I had to introduce myself when I recently attended the Filmfare awards. But they knew Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota.
My character is much larger than me. So, no one knows Abhimanyu so they can't typecast me. I am very happy that my character is much bigger than I am."
Q. So, are you okay with people identifying you with the characters that you play instead of the real you?
A. "Absolutely. I think it speaks volumes of what I have done on screen. If you can forget the actor and only remember the character, then the actor is brilliant. Recently, I was very touched and almost had a tear in my eyes when few kids on a beach recognized me as Surya. That is what I live for.
For me, acting is pushing the envelope of conversation; it is not for fame. Otherwise, I would have been doing red carpet looks and spotted outside restaurants. But I chose a film like Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota. For me, acting is having that conversation of moving people.
People are leaving the auditorium and going home and saying 'Paani toh peete rehna chahiye'. They are saying, 'Paap ko jala ke raakh kar dunga'."
Q. But for that, an actor also needs to reach a larger audience. That's where mass-centric films come into the picture.
A. "There's nothing wrong in commercial films. I think they are fantastic. There's a line that you do where you mix both aspects- content as well as commercial. Films like Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani, Maine Pyaar Kiya, Vicky Donor, Munnabhai films, 3 Idiots are great examples where you remember them for the great characters and dialogues. They have pushed the envelope of conversation.
I want to touch those standards. I want people after one year to go and say they want to do action scenes which they watched in Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota or they talk about the writing and music of the film.
That is why I say that I am so thrilled and fortunate because this team was so talented and passionate. I hope they get much more because they deserve so much."
'I Am Going To Take Up Films Which Challenge & Redefine Abhimanyu Dasaani'
Q. Many feel Mard Ko Dard Nah Hota could become a cult film over the years. For example, a film like Andaz Apna Apna failed to work when it released. But today, it has its own cult following.
A. "Do you know Andaz Apna Apna released with another film on the same weekend? Without revealing the name, I will tell you that the other film had a big star and made a lot of money back then. But, do you remember the name of the film? You don't. On the other hand, you remember Andaz Apna Apna. Even years after its release, that film is still relevant and makes you laugh.
I am hoping, touch wood and keeping my fingers crossed, that five years down the line, people talk about Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota in a similar way."
Q. So, that's going to be your criteria when it comes to picking up films?
A. "I am going to take up films which challenge me and redefine Abhimanyu Dassani every time he comes on screen. I want to challenge myself and break myself down every single time. It's going to be hard physically and mentally. But that doesn't mean I won't do commercial cinema. I think it's extremely tough to do them.
When I recently saw Simmba, I went and saluted Ranveer Singh because I enjoyed the film. In India, 70 to 80 % of the population goes to the cinema to get away from the struggle in their real lives. So, I think escapist cinema is a huge part of Indian culture. Escapism redefines or reconstructs Indian culture as we move forward."
Q. But then, there are also a few actors who look down upon escapist cinema.
A. "I agree. There might be. But then, there's no running from it. You should accept it. This is the kind of cinema which people enjoy. Why will you run from it?
There's a big shift in cinema as well. You see the kind of films that have been doing well. Films like AndhaDhun, Badhaai Ho, Stree, Gully Boy, Raazi have made money. If films are marketed well then people go to the cinema halls and watch these films. They are appreciating the cinema and talent that the actors, directors and the rest of the crew bring to the table.
I am very happy that I am acting in the times where I have the opportunity of juggling both the brands of cinema."
'If A Role Demands Me To Go Bald Or Put On Or Lose Weight, I Will Be Ready For It'
Q. Is there any genre which you really wish to tap into?
A. "Sports films in India are very limited and personally, I am inspired and motivated when I see international sports films. I would love to be a part of a sports film that could lift up spirits of other people and bring a feel-good feeling. Definitely, that's one thing I am looking forward to."
Q, We also have a lot of real-life stories being portrayed on screen. Is there any real-life story which you think you could portray on celluloid?
A. "If something comes up then I think it would be a great challenge to play another human being which is a real-life character. I would love to justify it to being as honest and truthful to the person and the real story as much."
Q. Do you have any inhibition as an actor?
A. "No, I don't think I have any inhibitions. If a role demands me to go bald or put on or lose weight, I will be ready for it. I am okay with absolutely anything that the director thinks is necessary for the character to do in terms of the script."
'I Am A Big Fan Of Ranbir Kapoor'
Q. Which was the last film that you felt you could have pulled off as well?
A. "I watched Arjun Reddy a year ago and I was like, I would love to do this in Bollywood. It's a fantastic film. Well, I think Shahid Kapoor is great and a supremely talented actor and I am looking forward to him doing justice to the film (Kabir Singh)."
Q. You earlier said that you don't socialize much. Have you made friends in the industry now since you are a part of it? Also, are there any actors whom you look up to?
A. "I mean there are quite a few actors who I can call my friends. Vasan Sir is one of them. He is a friend-guide-mentor.
I worked with Ayushmann Khurrana during Nautanki Saala and I am waiting for him to watch my film. He has been busy shooting. His wife Tahira watched it but I am waiting for Ayushmann to see it. I look up to him. He is a very humble, well-mannered and a beautiful natured boy. I hope to imbibe that from him.
I knew Ranveer Singh even before he got his first film. Obviously, we are not much in touch but he is still so warm every time he meets me. His energy and super-stardom are unbelievable.
There's so much to learn from Ranbir Kapoor. I am his big fan."
'It's A Reality Check'
Q. What was the feeling like when Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota got showcased on the international platform?
A. "Normally, you would expect a limousine to drive you to the world premiere with bodyguards surrounding you and the paparazzi clicking your pictures.
We traveled in Uber. I got down the car, paid the fare, told Radhika to step out of the car and helped her in adjusting her hair. We crossed the road and the bodyguards refused to let us inside the venue. We told them that we were the actors of the film. But they simply denied us entry. Then someone comes out running and called us inside.
Post the screening, we left the same auditorium with 1200 people giving us a standing ovation and 1400 people waiting outside to meet and greet us after the film. This happened in Canada and not in India."
Q. Do you believe it's these small things which keep you grounded?
A. "Absolutely, it's a reality check. The thing is if for me it was about fame or that is what excited me then it would hurt me that 'yaar main jaata hoon par koi mera naam nahi leta'. But that doesn't matter to me. It's okay. You saw and loved my work naa, that's important. You can forget Abhimanyu if you can remember Surya.'
'It's My Thought Process That Is Keeping Me Going So Why Would I Let It Go'
Q. Don't you think it's very tough for an actor to have that thought process to survive in the industry in the long run. Especially in today's times when everybody is so competitive and running after fame?
A. (pauses) "It's an idealist scenario which I have in my head and I understand that. Maybe, the bright lights will affect me. But I will grow with it. I won't lose the hold of who and what I am because of the people that I am surrounded by. Normally, you have a friend on whose shoulder you cry on, my friends slap me instead.
I will try and hold myself to true and responsible to all my actions and everything that comes out of my mouth. In the long run, for me, it's about being honest to myself.
Everyone will have a different opinion about me. I can't control them. Someone or the other will dislike me or question me. So, if I go to please everyone, I will be finished.
In today's times, if I didn't have this thought process then I would have been shattered by now. The thought that people failed to recognize me on the red carpet even after my film released would have broken me down. It's my thought process that is keeping me going so why would I let it go?"
Q. Apart from acting, what do you enjoy doing the most?
A. "I think music can change your mood and make you travel without leaving your room. I am a huge foodie. Not just eating, I also love cooking. I think it distresses me. Whenever I am home alone, I go shopping for groceries, come back home, play loud music and cook food for myself.
Also, I am a big fan of Arsenal football club. When they win, I am in a superb mood for three days. On the other hand, if they lose then my mood turns bad for sure."
'If I Am Being True To Myself Then I Don't Think Anyone Can Replace Me'
Q. What do you think is the biggest misconception people have about the industry?
A. "Glamour. There's a lot of hard work, there's a lot of struggle required to remain consistent in the industry or in these days to stay relevant in the industry."
Q. So, what extra efforts are you going to put in to stay relevant in the industry?
A. "I will be myself. There's no other Abhimanyu in the industry. If I am being true to myself then I don't think anyone can replace me. If I am trying to be someone else then I will always be second and chasing.
I believe anyone who works hard has a place in this industry and their time will arrive. In the age of the internet, if you have the talent and you work hard, there's no one in the world who can stop you.
There's no excuse to not make it if you are not hard-working. You can show your talent on the internet and get picked up. People want talent and hard-workers.
'I Don't Want To Be A Role Model; I Want To Be A 'Real' Model
Q. How important do you think social media is in an actor's life today?
A. "It's extremely huge again to stay relevant. I think the only person who does without it is Ranbir Kapoor and that's because he's Ranbir Kapoor. Nobody apart from him can do this."(laughs)
Q. There was a time when actors used to have an aura and a sense of mystery around them. People used to be excited to watch them in theatres. But today because of social media, the distance between the actor and the audience is becoming lesser and the novelty factor is slowly weaning off. What do you think?
A. "Very well-said, but I will also tell you the other side of the story. Our attention span has decreased so much because of the information and the number of screens available to us. If you are not in front of me, I will watch someone else. There's no loyalty factor.
If you are not in front of people's faces or not on social media or not being available to people, you are less relevant.
The only way to be less relevant is to be that talented. The only person who does it that well is Ranbir Kapoor. That's why you and I are fans of him. I don't think I can never reach that space. (laughs).
I think social media is extremely important in terms of staying relevant. In terms of what I would tell someone else or I would tell myself repeatedly is to be myself.
Whether I am being on social media or I am being real or I am meeting you, that's my novelty factor. I believe your superpower is to be you. If you are yourself then you are unique.
It's very important to me that I will always control my own social media. I will not put up an image of what I want Abhimanyu to be seen by people. I don't want to be a role model; I want to be a 'real' model.
If I make mistakes then it's fine. Because if you meet your hero one day and he's not the person what his image is, you will be heartbroken. I don't want anyone to be heartbroken when they meet me.
I am who I am. I am a human being. I make mistakes every day. I have flaws like you do. I am not here to change your life; I am here to be a part of your life.
For me, it's not important to stay relevant. I don't want to be the next hot thing because everyone is striving to be that. For me, it's about pushing the envelope of conversation. It's always about five-ten years down the line.
I want people to remember Abhimanyu for his films. I am trying to kind of understand how do I reach that."
'People Are Taking Back A Little Of Surya; That's My Biggest Take-away'
Q. Finally when you look back at the years behind, how do you view your journey?
A. "For years even after I signed the film, everyone close to me asked me what the film was about but I chose to remain tight-lipped. Everyone was playing blind on me that Abhimanyu should be trusted because he will do something. Even my family didn't know the story of Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota.
I wanted people to come with no expectations or inhibitions about the film. I wanted them to come with a blank space of mind because that's the best way to visit art.
I am very happy that people have trusted me especially Vasan Sir to select me as Surya. They thought I could convey his sense of innocence. So, it's great that people are looking at Surya without any apprehensions.
They are going to theatres to watch the film because of word-of-mouth. I am very thrilled and happy that they are taking back a little of Surya. That's my best takeaway. Somewhere Surya will live a longer life than I have."