Spotlight: Ajay Devgan

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“Honestly speaking, I’ve got my share of adulation. People have appreciated my work. I only want to do better work. That’s the focus of my life.” ~ Ajay Devgan

When you think of Ajay Devgan’s characters, you perhaps think of brooding intense roles aka “dark angry young man,” but this incredible actor excels at all genres of film. He has romanced some of the biggest stars, has had mad, hysterical capers with many others, and has stunned audiences with his dramatic roles: truly a stand out among the many actors in Bollywood. With the release of his directorial debut U Me Aur Hum, which he also stars in with wife Kajol, we though we should shed some light over the distinguished career of this gifted thespian.

Ajay was born in Delhi to Veeru and Veena Devgan. Ajay grew up around films since his father Veeru was in the film industry as an action/stunt coordinator and was considered one of the best in his field. Ajay would often attend shoots with his dad and, even at a young age, was involved in the process of making films. In fact, it has been said that at the age of 10, he was editing his father’s sequences. Ajay attended Silver Beach High School in Juhu and graduated from Mithibai College.

His first foray into the film industry, besides helping his father, was directing short films. Directing interested him, but the role of an actor was calling him and he started to land parts in films. Ajay said, “I assisted my father in his directorial ventures several times and both of us knew that I have the flame in me to develop an idea and give it a shape. But then, I became an actor and didn’t get the time to direct.”

His debut film was Kuku Kohli’s Phool Aur Kaante in 1992. Being the son of an excellent stunt coordinator, it isn’t surprising that his first film should have a stunt never seen before. No one will ever forget when Ajay came riding into the scene, standing on TWO motorcycles! The film was a big hit with audiences and for his role, he won the Filmfare Best Debut Award.

After this outstanding introduction, the actor went on to star in many films over the next several years; he was portrayed as an action hero in many of them. He performed many dangerous stunts for the films and he was known for his dramatic and sometimes violent movies. He had much success during this time, but if I were to go through every film Ajay has done since his outstanding debut, you would be reading until I write my next spotlight and my editor would likely have a fit. So in order for you to continue on with your life (and she to stay calm) I will just write about some of the highlights of his past 10 years.

Many of Ajay’s early films were darker in nature, but he broke the mold when he starred in 1997’s Ishq. The film also starred Aamir Khan, Juhi Chalwa and it was the first time he starred opposite Kajol. This out-and-out romantic comedy showed Ajay in a new light and his chemistry with Kajol was there for all to see. He proved with this film that he could play a romantic character and audiences loved the new Ajay.

His romantic hero streak continued with Pyaar To Hona Hi Tha in 1998. The film, again co-starring Kajol, was one of the biggest hits of that year and the chemistry between the two exudes from the screen. Of course, there had to be an amazing stunt. In one sequence, Ajay is seen riding on top of a car that is racing toward a moving train. When the car and train collide, he jumps and lands on the train, waving bye-bye to Inspector Khan. It has the same story as the Hollywood film French Kiss, and to me, it has many scenes that are even better than the (fantastic) original. They managed to take a wonderful story and make it even better. This is one of my favorite Ajay movies.

One of Ajay’s best performances was in Mahesh Bhatt’s Zakhm, which released in 1998. The film was critically acclaimed and his performance was singled out. Nominated in the Best Actor category at the Filmfare awards that year, he won several awards, including Star Screen Award for Best Actor and the prestigious Silver Lotus National Film Award for Best Actor. The film also won the 1999 Nargis Dutt Award for Best Feature Film on National Integration.

1999’s Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam established Ajay as an actor who could bring emotional depth to a romantic role. Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s brilliant film co-starred Aishwarya Rai and Salman Khan. Even though he made his entrance later in the film, Ajay’s presence made an indelible mark and his performance is the one you remember the most. One review said, “Ajay Devgan excels in a role of a serious, introvert as he has often with such roles.” While another praised him saying, “I think out of Ajay Devgan, Salman Khan and Aishwarya Rai, that Ajay had the best performance amongst them. He could be venerable and lovable to his wife; he could play hurt and angry. The character of Vanraj could have easily looked like a simple fool but Ajay manages to combine the venerability of Vanraj but also insert strength and dignity in the character where he doesn’t look like a total idiot for what he does.” For this he was nominated as Best Actor at the Filmfare awards.

Lajja (2001) starred Rekha, Madhuri Dixit, Manisha Koirala, Mahima Chaudhry, Jackie Shroff, Anil Kapoor with Ajay in a supporting but very important role. The film did fairly well at the box office and critics were very appreciative of all of the performances, especially Ajay. For his wonderful turn as Bulwa, he was nominated as the Best Actor in a Supporting Role at both the Filmfare and Zee Cine Awards.

2002 was an outstanding year for the actor: it was a year that saw three of his career defining performances. One was in Rajkumar Santoshi’s Legend of Bhagat Singh. About that role, he said, “I was nervous in the sense that there was a constant lurking fear that we shouldn’t wrong a leader whom history had wronged already. Bhagat Singh was an extraordinary character and this is apparent in the small and big things he accomplished. He fasted for 83 days and inspired his colleagues to do the same. When we had to shoot the starvation scenes, my colleagues had not eaten for three days to get into the mood, as a result on the day of the shooting, they were breaking down!

I didn’t even attempt to starve. I told you I am not a method actor. I have to feel hunger not become hungry. But let me tell you playing heroes like Bhagat Singh isn’t easy. I felt inadequate all the time because it’s when projecting their strength one realizes that one hasn’t accomplished even a fraction of what they strived for his countrymen.”

About his portrayal of Bhagat Singh, Taran Adarsh wrote, “Ajay Devgan has lived the role. To state that he is excellent would be an understatement. His performance is bound to win admiration from cinegoers everywhere, besides fetching awards.” Ajay was nominated at the Screen Weekly Awards for Best Performance by an Actor and won his second Silver Lotus Award at the National Film Awards for Best Actor and the Filmfare Critics Award for Best Performance.

His second masterful characterization was in the film Company, directed by Ram Gopal Varma. When asked how he prepares for any role, he said in an interview in 2003, “ This may sound strange but the only way I can prepare for a role is to switch off. I have to be completely blank and absorb the character like a sponge. It is a silent process for me. If the director is competent, he can trust me to give a competent performance. If not, I have to rely on my instinct. All actors talk about instinct but there has to be a method of delivering the expression too. There is and the rhythm differs from performer to performer. For me, I’m anxiety ridden for the first few shots. Then gradually, as the scenes progress, unconsciously one hits on the right chord. The trick is to recognize the signal.”

Adding that the signal while shooting Company was, “For Company, we began shooting with my introductory scene with Vivek Oberoi, where I ask him Kitna lega? That’s my first meeting with the young boy and I knew that I had to convey my superiority through body language. Ramuji had insisted that Malik’s character would under no provocation get aggressive. He had explained that the character would talk less and listen more… He reads people’s faces and makes decision. I remembered that and this comes through in my performance particularly the scene where Antara Mali pleads me for Vivek’s life.”

His performance as Malik was lauded, and one critic wrote, “Devgan has finally found a role worthy of his intense talent. Not since Zakhm and Thakshak has he been given a role that puts his dark and brooding tendencies to full use. One wonders why he produces films like Pyaar To Hona Hi Tha where he plays candy floss roles when he can give such hard hitting performances. Company might just grab him his second National Award — he certainly deserves it for his excellent performance. Ajay Devgan’s role in Company suits him perfectly. He looks dashing and deadly playing the underworld don.” Though he did not win a National Award that year, Ajay was nominated for a Filmfare Best Actor Award and earned his second Star Screen Award for Best Actor.

Ajay also appeared in Deewangee in 2002, playing a role that earned the Filmfare Best Villain Award. He remarked, “The role was so fascinating. I had never been offered an evil character like this earlier and I just could not say no. The interesting bit was after I said ‘yes’; no hero was willing to do the positive role. Four leading men were signed and backed out of the project after saying yes. Ultimately Akshaye Khanna said ‘yes’ and he was perfect for the part.” He also won the Star Screen and Zee Cine award for Best Actor in a villainous role. (Well, would YOU want to play opposite an “evil” Ajay?!)

About Bhoot (2003), Ajay said, “Bhoot is my first supernatural thriller. And performing in it was real difficult. Bhoot is a horror film and will shock the audiences. They will be really afraid. People think that the film is a remake of some Hollywood film but it’s not. It’s as original as it gets. Ramu has come up with a great story, which is very attention-grabbing, very unusual. As far as my experience with the supernatural phenomenon, I don’t have any. I don’t really believe in ghosts. Nana Patekar plays a cop and he’s too good. Urmila who plays my wife is real good, too.”

He was also seen in Gangaajal in 2003 and director Prakash Jha said about him, “Ajay is an amazing human being. It’s a privilege to direct a first rate actor of his stature. This is our second film together after Dil Kya Kare and we enjoy working together.” He was once again nominated for Best Actor at the Filmfare, Screen Weekly and Zee Cine Awards for his role as Amit Kumar.

I have to mention Chori Chori, which also released in 2003. This is one of my all time favorite movies ever in any “wood,” be it Holly or Bolly. Ajay is so sensitive and is first-rate in this film and his chemistry with Rani Mukerji is just perfect. I have watched this one over and over and over again.

2004 was another banner year for the actor and he took on some rich characters. In Khakee, he portrayed Yashwant Angre and was nominated for the Filmfare Best Villain Award and the Screen Weekly award for Best Actor in a Negative role. This will go down as one of the most underrated performances of Ajay’s career as he was truly menacing in the film and grabbed your attention every time he was on the screen. This is saying a lot, considering that he had big time co-stars such as Amitabh Bachchan, Akshay Kumar, and Aishwarya Rai sharing screen space with him! That year also saw Ajay in two more superb performances though the films did not do well at the box office. Yuva, which had an all-star cast including Abhishek Bachchan, Vivek Oberoi, Rani Mukerji, Kareena Kapoor, Esha Deol and Om Puri, and Raincoat that had Aishwarya Rai as Ajay’s co-star. About the two films Ajay said, “The sad part is when a good film like Yuva doesn’t do well. But what can you do? You pick up the threads and move on. It’s all a part of the game. But given a choice, I’ll still certainly do a film like Rituparno Ghosh’s Raincoat again, regardless of its box office performance.”

In 2005 Ajay appeared in 8 films including Insan, Blackmail, Zameer, Tango Charlie, Kaal (for which he was nominated for the Filmfare Best Villain Award), Main Aisa Hi Hoon, Shikhar, and Apaharan. About the latter he said, “I’m just finishing Prakash Jha’s Apaharan and it has turned out to be even more hard hitting than his Gangaajal. I’m very, very happy. Prakashji is in his element.” Taran Adarsh said of his performance in the film, “His transformation from a simpleton to a criminal is amongst the high points of his performance.”

Ajay, in 2006, portrayed roles completely opposite each other and in two completely different genres. Golmaal: Fun Unlimited was an out and out comedy and he was great in his role as Gopal. One review mentioned his performance saying, “Ajay enacts the big bully part with gusto. The actor has worked not only on his looks and physique, but also on portraying the character differently.”
It must be noted that one scene certainly stood out and that was his entrance where he once again rode in standing on two motorcycles. This scene was done in honor of his debut film and it definitely brought back nostalgic memories.

However 2006 also had him playing the epitome of the angry young man character in Vishal Bharadwaj’s adaptation of Othello, titled Omkara. Ajay portrayed the title character and he was absolutely outstanding – the role seemed tailor made for him. Noted critic Taran Adarsh was nothing but praise for him and said, “ Ajay makes a stirring and powerful interpretation of a man haunted by uncertainty about his lover’s faithfulness. The serious look that Ajay carries suits him to a T. Of course, Ajay is exceptional in the film and looks every inch the character he portrays.” Our own reviewer, Razeen Shameem, who gave the film 4 stars said of his performance, “Ajay Devgan (Omkara – Othello) has played roles like this effortlessly in the past, so it was expected that he would do a great job. As usual, Ajay knocks one out of the park again. He was at his best yet again. There is no one who could do justice to the role of mafia leader Omkara the way Ajay did. The man deserves some respect. I never quite understood why his name doesn’t come up when people talk about the best in Bollywood. It’s the Khans and that’s it. It is not fair to a man of Ajay’s caliber. He deserves better. Hopefully this film will open some of those closed eyes.” Ajay was nominated for the Star Screen Award Best Actor, Bollywood Movie Award – Best Actor and the IIFA Best Actor Award among many others.

2007 was not such a good year for his films, but 2008 saw him critically acclaimed in his two releases: the comedy Sunday and the drama Halla Bol.

On Friday, his highly anticipated debut film as a director will be released. He not only directed the film, he also stars in the film and the cast also includes Kajol, Divya Dutta, Karan Khanna, Isha Sharwani,and Sumit Raghavan. About U Me Aur Hum, Ajay said, “I had a thought which I felt was beautiful and I worked on the script. I found it positive and relevant in today’s life. I have tried to put forth those beautiful thoughts through humour, emotions and drama. I thought that if it is my thought, then I might be the best person to visualise and portray it.” Adding, “It is a story about being positive and falling in love. No problem in life is big and there is always a solution. And the problems would gradually give way to happiness and laughter.” Next in the pipeline is a return to his role as Gopal in Gomaal Returns.

“I agree I’ve been getting some terrific roles. I guess I’m lucky. I just hear scripts, and go ahead and do what I believe in. I don’t regret making mistakes. I learn from my mistakes. I never see any role as a risk.” Throughout his career, Ajay has portrayed a range of roles that not only keep him interested as an actor but also entertain the audience. His ability to shine in every type of character is quite amazing and he has only gotten better as the years have gone by. He is truly one of the finest actors in Bollywood and it will be interesting to see what brilliant performances he will bring us in the coming years. We look forward to seeing each and every one!

Fun Facts:

His name is really Vishal Veeru Devgan.

He and Kajol dated for five years before they got married on February 24, 1999. The happy couple has one daughter, Nysa Mukherjee-Devgan, who was born on April 20, 2003.

The Devgans won Rs. 1 crore on the TV show, Kaun Banega Karorpati 2005, they were the first Bollywood pair to do so.

Favorite actor: Mr. Bachchan.

Once dated Karisma Kapoor.

1995 nominated for Filmfare Best Actor for his role as Jay Bakshi in Naajayaz.

Originally neither Santoshi nor Varma saw Ajay as their Bhagat or Malik; they wanted to use newcomers but then changed their minds.

He is the master prankster of Bollywood and on every film pulls at least one prank on his co-stars! “I have my share (of) fun. If you take life or your work too seriously then you won’t be able to enjoy it.”

Though he is a prankster, he is also very much an introvert.

He is the brand ambassador for an organization that is working towards educating 1 million children called Round Table India.

He is a car enthusiast.

He directed the Pyaar To Hona Hi Tha song video.

On a chat he was asked: “Which do you think has been your best performance?” And he answered: “I hope it is yet to come.” At the same chat he was asked what is his favorite hobby? “Right now spending time with my daughter”.

Though he loves acting, directing is his passion.

In 1997, when asked how many injuries he had gotten performing dangerous stunts he said, “Well, it’s a bit difficult to pinpoint how many, my ankle has been broken twice, my hip bone, all my ribs, practically every bone in my body has been broken.”

Once said, “As a performer, I would like to present every colour in my life, everything that I could do as an actor.”

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