John Abraham started out in the entertainment industry as a media-planner and model. Soon after, he established himself in Bollywood as an actor of fine repute. And now, as the owner of a successful production house, he has made his mark as a film producer. He speaks to Priya Singh about his multifaceted career.

 

Q. You started your career as a model, then you moved on to acting and now you are also a producer. How did these transitions in your professional
life happen?

A. In days gone by, we became models to become supermodels and not to become actors. But today modelling is just a means to get into acting. I was the last supermodel that existed, at least that is what I have been told. After that, all the work was taken away by actors. Today the concept “supermodel” does not exist. Before me, there were Arjun Rampal, Milind Soman, Marc Robinson. But you see after me there was no one. Modelling happened to me by accident because I tell people that I am an accidental model. I am an accidental actor and an accidental producer as well.

Why am I an accidental model? Because I was a media-planner and one day when a model didn’t turn up, my boss told me to go ahead, and I did that. It was a jeans campaign and that was my first campaign ever.

I became an actor because one day Mahesh Bhatt called me, saying he needed “a younger Sanjay Dutt”, someone who had a sense of vulnerability on his face and the body of a man, for his next film. He told me he saw that in me. That’s how my first film, Jism, happened. There was no plan to act in the film, I was just a model and the best there was at that point of time. That makes me an accidental actor.

And then I became an accidental producer. Because I didn’t get to see or do the kinds of films I really wanted to. I started to produce them when I got commercially capable of doing so. I think life paved this way for me and all these accidents made my paths clearer. I think it was the turning point of my career when I became a producer because I became most empowered then.

Q. You have spent a long time in the entertainment industry now. So as an actor and producer, what factors do you think contribute to the success or failure of a film?

A. From my experience as a producer and an actor, I would bifurcate this answer into two. As a producer, the type of content that I create for my films makes them stand out. My films are different. Also, with J.A. Entertainment [Abraham’s production house], people expect different kinds of films that are also commercial. So I think there is a certain audience that accepts commercial films.

As an actor, I still believe that even though there are good films in which the content is the real hero, this remains a hero-driven industry. I think there are certain actors who do have a command on certain audiences.

So you have to understand your role both as an actor and as a producer. Also, I think there is a different audience for different genres. I have been a media planner and I know that audiences are getting more and more segmented, they are getting more and more dissected, and there is an audience for every kind of film. Whether it is our film or an adult comedy that released before or after us, or there are films from similar genres that are released around the same time, I think each film has its own audience and one must respect that.

John Abraham with director Abhishek Sharma on the set of Parmanu.

Q. In Bollywood, big-budget films that are supported by multi-crore promotion campaigns often overshadow content-driven films coming out of smaller production houses. What are you views on this?

A. A lot of people from the industry have told me that Parmanu has set a new benchmark for promotion because no one could have spent lesser in a promotional campaign. But we also did it by default and not by design. There is a saying in advertising that “half of money in advertising goes to waste, but you don’t know which half”. I am a media planner so I do understand the nuances of advertising. I believe that mindless promotion is a complete waste. So when you are taking an actor with a team of 10 people to five different places, you are spending like a crore, and you have to earn two crores or more at the box office to cover up for the expenses on the publicity tours. Does that really value-add? Well, each film has different answers for that question.

Still from Parmanu.

Q. Your latest film Parmanu, which you produced as well as acted in, is about the nuclear tests in Pokhran in 1998. What challenges did you face while working on it? Did you expect such an immense response from the audience?

A. Parmanu is based on an incident that no one actually was aware of. That incident was something that really made India proud but was never really spoken about. People were not aware of what exactly happened on 11 May 1998.

With every project, I always go by my gut and ask myself if it is very difficult to do. If the answer is yes, I smile and think, “Then I definitely need to do this.” The film is about a secret mission and it was difficult to get information on it from different departments, like the IB, ISRO and so on. So it was all about collating information from different sources and then simplifying the subject that was so complicated, and making it palatable for a general audience. The toughest part for me was making such a complex subject simple. I didn’t want to make it a noir film or a film that is dense with information. I did not want a certain elite audience to turn and say “What a fantastic film!” I would rather reach out to everyone with a film that says, “This is what happened on that day.” A film that will make the story really simple, because I want you to know that if as an Indian you are proud today that your country is a superpower, it is because of that day.

Honestly, I did not expect such a massive response to the film. I thought it would be appreciated, but getting 8.5 rating on IMDB, and unanimous acclaim from film critics, media and especially the general public, was just overwhelming for me.

Nargis Fakhri with John in a still from Madras Cafe.

Q. Parmanu was your fifth film as a producer. All the five films that you’ve produced are about serious issues. Don’t you get apprehensive about whether or not the audiences would like such films?

A. When the film is not in my creative control that is the only time I feel apprehensive. That is when I am worried. Most of the time—or at least these three times in Vicky Donor, Madras Café and Parmanu, when the films were completely in my control, as my directors were quite collaborative—I know exactly the process that we are going through. As for Parmanu, I was involved with the film in every stage—right from the conceptualisation to the drafting of the script, from the edit to VFX shots, from the background music to the distribution of the film.

Q. What criteria do you have in mind before accepting a film?

A. Sometimes it’s the director, sometimes it’s the production house and sometimes it’s the script. But most importantly it should be a combination of all three.

Q. It has been a rollercoaster ride for you in Bollywood. How do you deal with failure and criticism?

A. I think success is transitionary. I have been here long enough and I am smart enough to not smile with my teeth wide open when I accept the bouquets, because I know I could anytime get a brick straight into my mouth that I could swallow. I am always very cautious and at the same time, I am not condescending towards appreciation.

Failure—it heartens me. I know this sounds crazy but this is how it is with me. Someone asked me how I feel after success. My answer to that question was: you learn a lot more from your failures. He asked, “Is it because you are a sucker for pain, because you do action and you break your bones all the time?” I told him it was because I learn a lot more from failure. Otherwise, you sit back and relax and think that you know it all when you actually don’t. Success makes you complacent and the idea is to understand what you could have done better. I am one of those people who like to take a jab on the chin.

 

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