Bobby Deol on the huge success of 'Aashram' and his first Best Actor award
The actor reflects on 25 years of ups and downs in Bollywood and his new-found OTT success.
Bobby Deol, scion of a famous acting family and by default forever in the spotlight, has proved that success in the film industry is not time-sensitive, even though in this often age-obsessed world we tend to dismiss actors if they haven’t racked up the required amount of conventional accomplishments (read hit films) during the span of their youth.
It couldn’t have been easy for the handsome 52-year-old star of films like Gupt and Dostana, to keep the faith when his career that went through several hits and misses also experienced a lull between 2013 and 2017 — a period when he was completely absent from the big screen.
But it seems Bobby is having the last laugh, rising like a phoenix from the ashes to make the transition from Bollywood hero to OTT superstar, with his web series Aashram being one of the top streaming series of 2020. Revolving around a manipulative Indian self-styled godman Kashipur Wale Baba Nirala (played by Bobby), part one and two of the first season proved a huge hit and fans are now eagerly awaiting Season 2.
With fresh commercial success came critical acclaim and Bobby recently picked up the coveted Dadasaheb Phalke International Film Festival Award for Best Actor in a web series for his role in Aashram. Humble in his approach to winning the award, his first since getting a Best Debut gong in 1995 for Barsaat, Bobby credits his fans in a Zoom chat with City Times, saying, “The amount of people who saw my work, my fans, my new fans — I think it’s their love and appreciation that made this possible for me to get this award so I am truly grateful to them and very honoured.”
What drew him to his Aashram character which has turned out to be one of his most memorable roles? “I was in search of something which was totally different from what I’ve done before. I heard the subject and was told I was playing Kashipur Wale Baba Nirala’s role, which was so exciting because I was consciously trying to play parts which were totally out of my comfort zone, and I had never played such a negative character so it was very challenging.”
He also admits that the opportunity to work with filmmaker Prakash Jha, renowned for his penchant for films that spread awareness about socio-political issues, excited him. “I’ve been wanting to work with for many years; I knew that he is very good with these kinds of subjects — he brings out things that have to be spoken about and he makes people understand them.”
Did Bobby — known for playing mostly quintessential Bollywood characters in romantic, action and thriller films over the course of his career — ever imagine that his dark turn in Aashram would go on to have such widespread appeal? “On the whole I thought it was a very interesting subject which would engage people. I never imagined it would become such a huge success because you never know how big a film or a web series becomes, you can never think about that. On top of that when I was working on it I never thought I would get an award so you know, things just happen when they are meant to happen.”
Bobby hopes Aashram, Season 2 which is expected to release this year, is watchable not only for its entertainment value but also for its message of being wary of conmen. “Not just in India but the world as well, there exist so many conmen who take advantage of innocent people. So I think the series in a way makes people aware of situations and issues which exist in our society. I hope people understood through Aashram that you should be very wary of people around you, never take them by face value. At the end of the day we are all human beings, we all falter, we always give in when we are in desperate situations to things, believing that will bring you happiness. Human beings are very weak creatures and they can easily be conned.”
The actor is well aware that after the unprecedented success of Season 1 of Aashram, the public’s expectations for Season 2 have skyrocketed. “Obviously now the pressure is definitely more to write the best script, do the best as actors. People expect the world out of it.”
He spoke of how fans turn up at unexpected places to ask him about Aashram whose popular dialogues and catchphrase ‘Japnaam’ have also spawned many memes. “If I am parked at a red light on a street people will bang on my window, and ask me when Aashram Season 2 is coming out! So I think it has become a big craze and now there is a lot at stake — we have to work harder and do our best.”
When asked how he felt about being named the top OTT star of 2020 alongside Sushmita Sen in a recent poll, Bobby downplays the adulation, saying all he wants is to be respected as an actor. “You can never imagine the things that will happen to you. I’ve seen ups and downs in my life and career and to get this kind of appreciation is really nice, it’s something we worked so hard for last year. This year again I am hoping things work the right way. But it’s more about being appreciated and being loved by people — being number one or number ten is just a number.”
The medium of OTT only boomed during the pandemic and Bobby believes it will be a while before Bollywood catches up with streaming networks as far as content and engagement is concerned. “I think it will take a long time for films to be made in that manner because when audiences sit and watch something on OTT they pause in between, they talk to their friends, they go grab something from the kitchen, they take a washroom break… viewing is at your leisure, you can watch it accordingly. So people tend to enjoy it more.
“But when you go to a theatre and you have to sit and watch everything at one go, you (sometimes) don’t give a new film a chance — if it gets a little slow somewhere people will get irritated, but when it comes to OTT even if people are getting a little bored, they will still keep watching it and (eventually) enjoy it. At the same time I think things are changing, audiences are changing, they are younger and more open to different kinds of subjects; I think even films coming up will be made with content that was never made earlier.”
And he could definitely be part of them! After 25 years in the industry Bobby is thankful for the new opportunities that are coming his way and looks back on his hits-and-misses journey as an “enriching” one. “I think as an actor I have learned a lot. All these situations kind of enrich you as a performer. They make you feel emotions you would not have felt otherwise. 25 years is a lot of experience on this planet, and I think it has given me a lot of understanding about myself and about how to play different characters. It’s always easy to play the same kind of character — a hero — but I have decided after 25 years of being in this industry that I want to do different kinds of roles which are totally out of my comfort zone. I am getting the opportunity right now and am really excited about it.”
On his upcoming projects: "You might have seen the Instagram post of Love Hostel, I am again playing a negative character — a mercenary. Apne 2 is a film which is about family which has boxing as a backdrop. Animal I can’t really talk about because script work is still going on but am really excited about it because of the opportunity to work with Sandeep Reddy Vanga, an amazing director who thinks out of the box. I am looking forward to working with Ranbir for the first time; I think he is an awesome actor so it’s going to be exciting. Even my Love Hostel co-stars Vikrant Massey and Sanya Malhotra are such nice, young, talented people. So I think it’s going to be a fun, exciting and challenging year as an actor and I am very grateful to God for giving me this opportunity and making me so busy because all I ever prayed for was to get up every day and go to work. Obviously Covid slowed things down for a while but I know that I am going to be working for the whole year and I am going to be very busy.”
On the pandemic and the lessons he learned from it: “I think everybody was sailing in the same boat. Everybody was feeling the pain, the suffering of what it is to be in a situation like this so I think people either lost their minds or became stronger mentally. There were definitely moments where I felt the frustration of the lockdown because I had to still step out and do work and meet people and I could not come back home and sit next to my family. I had to sit at a distance with a mask on; I couldn’t hug my kids, and I am a very affectionate person, I need that connection with my family. At the end of the day I am working for them so I would tell that to myself and feel better. But I miss the normalcy of life and I am hoping that now that the vaccines are out, things will change.”
A message for his fans in the UAE: “I love you guys — it is all of you put together, the energy you all give me is the source of my strength and I will always forever be grateful for that.”