For someone who likes to play larger than life characters, was it a risky proposition to play a realistic role?
Shoojit was very clear from the start. He said that if people expect the hero of 'Force' or 'Shootout..' to be in this film, this is going to be really different. It isn't like John Abraham taking his shirt off and running on the streets. At the end of the day it's a very real film and it's a commercial film and not a documentary.
We believe that there are so many events that happened in the mid 80s, the late 80s and early 90s that actually changed the course of Indian history. If you go back to school and see your textbooks Indian history ends in 1947. America could have 9/11 in their history books, they can have JFK in their history books; we don't have Indira Gandhi in our history books and her assassination. I just believe that there's phase in the Indian history that changed a lot including the politics of this country and the rule in this country and a lot happened in the mid '80s and '90s so I just really feel that our audience of today, I am talking about kids between 20 and 30, they shockingly don't know anything that happened during that phase so it's important for us to present that in a commercial format and tell them, "hey though this is the story of Major Vikram Singh, it's a political thriller it also has the backdrop of a Jaffna conflict that happened. Even though our film is a work of fiction we have been provided with a lot of inspiration from true life characters and incidents and we have been very honest with that. What was the challenge with us is to - simplify it for the audience hopefully to make out audience understand and Shoojit has tried his best to make it simple and present it to the audience. You'll enjoy this as a political thriller but also when you get out I would like you to sit at a coffee table and discuss this part of history. That's what we hope will come out. I say hope because it's very presumptuous to say it's a good film because I don't even know how it will be accepted. We hope people like the honest effort that's gone into making a very honest film.
You mentioned at a press conference that you won't be flaunting your abs in this film, were you taking any dig at any actor?
Not at all. I think it's really sad that's the job of contorted media minds to make an assumption of out of that. I really feel bad about it because the only person at that time I really spoke about was I because I have done it in my earlier films. And I said that because it doesn't have over the top and larger than life action. It's got realistic action so when I said that I really meant myself and I was shocked when I read reports. I have complete respect for Salman, I have complete respect for the films he has done. but not only him, I have complete respect for the films I also have done in the past because they have garnered commercial success. The only point I was trying to make is that this is a very different film and in this we have tried to portray military personnel in late '80s early '90s like they actually were. At that time the concept of RAW did not actually as much of exist as military personnel who are sent into foreign countries for covert operations. So I play Major Vikram Singh who is sent to a foreign country for covert operation. Now if Major Vikram Singh suddenly took off his shirt then I'm defeating the purpose of this film. Yes, it is a risk because people want to see the John Abraham of Shootout, they will see that too. At the end of the day it is also important to tell a good story and to be honest to the story. I know I will find my audience. If I don't find them on a Friday or Saturday, maybe I will find them on a Monday. Shoojit and I both believe that we have made a film which is smart but yet easily understandable by the youth and we want the youth to know what's happened in the late '80s and early '90s but the story is a commercial story and it's about this one character.
You do larger than life characters but at the same time speak about content driven films; do you consciously want to establish two identities for you?
I am trying to create two different identities of John Abraham the producer and an actor in his own production but more so the producer and John Abraham, if I may say so that I am very easily accepted in a commercial format that set formula pieces that I have to do and I know the audience will like it. But how important is it to tell a different story, and if I want to tell that different story I use my commercial standing so I can drive the kind of cinema I believe in. I had to actually use my commercial standing to get Vicky Donor on floor. There was a newcomer, no one wanted to meet Ayushmann Khurrana, when I went to London they said don't get him, and you come. So I went as a producer and I marketed Ayushmann Khurrana. But finally didn't he validate it? He was beautiful, he was amazing. So it's important to use your commercial standing to make cinema that you believe in will make a difference and we hope that Madras Cafe makes that difference.
Conflict in your mindset to do larger than life characters and yet produce content driven films?
I have done an MBA and I have positioned myself differently in the minds of the audience. When I got into films, I was very clear that I want to positioned in the minds of an audience as a biker, as a fitness guy, as a guy who loves football and I have done exactly all that in all my films be it Dhoom, be it Dostana, be it Force, be it Shootout so it's come across. Also in all my interviews I say I love bikes which I do. Similarly as a producer, I strive for content driven cinema, because I think it's important for people to know that I mean and hope to make good cinema. So if I have to use my use my commercial standing yes. Is John Abraham the hero of Madras Cafe? No, I am a character and so is Nargis Fakhri or any other actor. We hope the hero of the film is story.
You had said Madras Cafe is Argo of India...
We have not tried to make a Hollywood film we have made a film that is Indian. We have not tried to ape the west. We have made a film that of a completely different structure and language and never seen before here. So the only example I could draw was of Argo as it was fresh in our minds of people. I could say this film is like 'Body of Lies' or 'Serena' which it is a combination of everything. We did not make 'Vicky Donor' for awards either, we were fortunate it won. We are not making films thinking after 'Vicky Donor' we will get awards for every film. I am only one film old as a producer, I need time to learn and breathe. I am trying to make different kind of films. I hope to get support to make different kind of cinema as people like to see different kind of films.
Is the film Anti or Pro LTTE or Tamilian?
This film is not anti-Tamil or anti-Sri Lanka it is not definitely anti or pro IFKF (Indian Peace Keeping Force). We have researched from the Jain commission report and every possible report to say a story that is meant to be told. So it is not anti or pro any country we are just telling a story and like we say, it is based on the work of fiction. My character is fictitious. The backdrop of this story is inspired by true events that have happened in late 80s and early 90s.
Has the film being dubbed in Tamil?
Yes it is very important..when I saw the film it was my insistence to the studio this film has to be dub in Tamil. I am going to Chennai as there are groups who had asked to ban this film. I don't think this film should be banned I think every Tamil should see this film, it is a great film. Every youth in the age group of 18 to 28 who still does not know about this.
Were you aware about the real political scenario before working on this film?
We are working on this film for six years. I am politically aware about what is happening around the world, I am interested to know about politics but there is no inclination to join politics, I don't like politics per se. But from Naxals issue to what is happening in North East to Jammu and Kashmir to Sri Lanka or in Serbia or Bosnia as that is my area of interest. And that I why I did this film 'Kabul Express' because of interest. I am aware about what happened in the late 80s and early 90s the whole Tamil conflict, I know the names, the politicians and who all were involved and not, the back story. I know more as we did lot of research for this film. But this film is not a documentary it is very commercial film. But it is difficult to market such films, there is original soundtrack in the film, there are four songs but they are in the backdrop. There is no Laila any of these item songs. I am taking examples of my films only. I am being very careful. It is a difficult film to market. I am hoping I find my audience as my only faith is in my audience that they would come and see the film.
Releasing Madras Cafe overseas in North America, Europe with Paramount?
A: We are tying up...I am not principally supposed to mention the name of the distributor..with an international distributor to release this as a foreign film in non-traditional markets completely. So it will get a wider release overseas because of the nature and texture of the film.
Written off initially when you came in the industry?
I was written off every year my obituary is signed every year (he laughs). Before 'Force' I was written off - 'Saath Khoon Maaf', 'Jhoota Hee Sahi', 'Aashayein'..I was written off after my first film. A numerologist came and said John Abraham's number is so much so he is gone after 'Jism'. But thankfully I survived for ten years. It is nice to be written off so that you can come back stronger with vengeance. I don't take it negatively; there is no anger in me. I put my head down and do my work and do something better.
I am trying to improve with every film. Fortunately 'Shootout at Wadala' really opened everything for me where people said finally it is not just about the body but about John Abraham, power packed performance. With Madras Cafe Shoojit Sircar feels it is my best film till date. People who have seen it are finding it brilliant. Each film brings something to your table. I am subtle performer and I believe in that. India has gone through the phase of early 80s and 90s where it is all about when I came into this phase where I my performances were too subtle for the rest of them. But I am happy in my space. I have been fortunate to get right film at the right time. John Abraham grew his hair and rode a bike for 'Dhoom' so everybody did that, walking in yellow trunks out of water flaunting your body, then masculinity came in. I have been fortunate and smart in positioning myself. I have been careful. A big producer had told me my smartest choices are those films that have failed like 'No Smoking', 'Kabul Express', 'Water' etc. As audience looks at you doing something different, even I have always tried to do something different, I have tried to balance myself with failure.
Nargis was the first choice for the film?
We had initially approached someone who had loved the script. It was absolutely in the start, Frieda Pinto was our choice. She had loved the script and expressed her interest to do the film. But she had Woolly Allen's film so she couldn't do it. She called me and said it is courageous of me to make a film like Madras Cafe because India needs to see more films like that. So I took that as a compliment it is nice to hear that. But then Nargis was our only choice.
What kind of preparation you do as an actor in a script driven film?
A lot but for this film Shoojit guided me. From how intelligent agents to how military people work for covet operations, how they sit and talk. He only wanted subtle performance, he did not want over the top heroism. I have followed Shoojit Sircar blindly
Shoojit as a director?
I think I have worked with good directors like Milan Luthria, Sanjay Gupta, Kabir Khan, Shoojit Sircar, Mahesh Bhatt. He is super fast, he knows his cut point. He is a genius, he is superb. I don't know how much business this film will make RS 200 or 100 Crore or Rs 50 lakh but I will always standby that Shoojit is genius. He has it in him. He is amazing
Investments got to do with investment banker you have in your life?
She is a complete stability factor in my life. I used to invest even before I met her. But it does make a difference as there is a perspective. I am cautious about money. For me one rupee is 100 paisa. It is important to be cautious about money. I will check about the mileage of the car, I fill fuel I calculate everything till date; I know my ration and everything. It is important to know. And it is from before only in me and not specifically because of her. But yes the stability factor comes out from her.