Ajay Devgn on Bhuj's delayed release, donning multiple creative hats, and taking liberties with OTT

Ajay Devgn on Bhuj's delayed release, donning multiple creative hats, and taking liberties with OTT

Ajay Devgn on Bhuj's delayed release, donning multiple creative hats, and taking liberties with OTT

From The Legend of Bhagat SinghLOC: Kargil to Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior that met with stupendous success, Ajay Devgn who has always struck the right notes in a patriotic film. His latest is Bhuj: The Pride Of India, which released on Disney + Hotstar on 13 August.

A patriotic take on the 1971 war between India and Pakistan in the backdrop, star-studded with heavy-duty dialogues — Bhuj traces the journey of IAF Squadron Vijay Karnik (played by Devgn) who is known for mobilising women to aid the Indian army during the war.

Undoubtedly, one of the busiest actor-filmmakers with production ventures, a big directorial project (Mayday starring Amitabh Bachchan and Rakul Preet Singh) and multiple releases, Devgn’s list of projects seems to be never-ending. It includes: Rohit Shetty-directed Sooryavanshi, Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Gangubai Kathiawadi, Baahubali fame director SS Rajamouli’s magnum opus RRR, biopic of football coach Syed Abdul Rahim Maidaan, and Thank God, a slice of life comedy written and directed by Indra Kumar. Devgn is also foraying into the digital space with his first-ever crime-drama series Rudra-The Edge of Darkness on Disney + Hotstar VIP.

Below are excerpts from a chat with the multifaceted actor-filmmaker

What attracted you to Bhuj - The Pride Of India? What went into playing Vijay Karnik?

Bhuj is a great story to tell, it is not just about Vijay Karnik. It is a true story based on real-life events. I am playing a Squadron Leader. It is a big-scale film. The film is about a lot of heroes. Bhuj is about those women who had nothing to do with the army, navy or air force...it was an impossible task for them and without those women, it was an impossible task for us. It is a story about a lot of people. It is a story of a battle and there were 99 percent chances that we would have lost, and if we had lost India would have been divided. Bhuj and that whole section would not have been part of India.

The film is releasing on an OTT platform, why didn’t you decide to go for a theatrical release considering it’s mounted on a huge scale. Why didn’t you wait for theatres to open up?

It was already committed one-and-a-half years ago. We were supposed to release the film in August 2020 but the process got delayed due to lockdown as we couldn’t shoot but it was already committed. For me, of course, theatres are theatres but the fact is that when you make a product as an actor, or director, or producer, or any technician you want maximum people to watch it, you may like the product or not but at least it should be watched, and OTT is a great platform where people are getting opportunities. Why wouldn't you want that platform?

Your next, Sooryavanshi, is also delayed.

Hopefully, if everything goes fine and theatres open up next month or so it will get a release.


How has your life got affected due to the lockdown? Has anything changed?

I always watched a lot of shows but now I watch a lot more. And I have been working in some way or the other, so my life has not changed much. We have been scripting, editing in-house... Offices were shut but we have been working from home. Bhuj took us nearly one year, the entire CGI team put in a lot of effort, thank god it gave us time to finish and get this quality.

You recently made your OTT debut as a producer with the Netflix original Tribhanga and now you are making a full-fledged digital debut with Rudra – The Edge of Darkness. I guess you feel it is the medium of the future..

It is about balancing the two mediums. Along with films, I want to go digital once in a while. If there is a great show, why not? I have seen Luther and since I loved it I decided to adapt. I have played cops before, but this one attracted me because of the characterisation. This one is a lot more edgy and dark. I am thrilled to embrace a new form of storytelling with OTT now.

Is there a difference between films and OTT?

There is not much difference. The shooting process is the same, time taken is the same. But as an actor, you can take some liberties. The duration of films is usually around two hours, so when you are performing a scene you have to finish your lines fast. You can’t take your time in grasping things, whereas, in web series you can have your pauses during the performance, you can create a character arc, so this is a nice difference. But now web shows and OTT are also becoming very fast, otherwise you will switch off in 15 minutes because there is so much content out there.

Since last year, India’s OTT streaming platforms have become one of the fastest-growing markets. This has certainly changed the definition of a star, perhaps leading to fading star culture in Bollywood. There have been a lot of debates around this..

But on OTT also when a star’s film is released the numbers are completely different from a non-star film which was also happening in theatres. A good film even without any star power worked in theatres. If such a film is made at the cost of Rs 20 crore and the recovery is Rs 60 to 70 crore in theatres, it is considered a super hit. But at the same time when a film with a huge star is released, it does Rs 200 to 250 crore. The same thing is happening on OTT today as the price of a film with a big star is totally different as compared to a film without one. It is the same situation.

But what is good (with the advent of OTT) is that people get an opportunity to showcase their talent and performances. On OTT, you can make projects with newcomers and if the product is good it gives second lease to actors which was also happening in films but it is very difficult to make it for theatrical release because producers were depending on selling it. So that is the only difference but again when you talk about the star power and if you compare the numbers there is no comparison. Well, yes, certain shows on OTT have done very well in recent times and have become a talking point but that happens with films as well. In three or four years something exciting comes and people talk about it. It can’t happen every Friday though.


Box office numbers are indicators of success or failure for films, but what is the barometer for OTT?

You can’t check because OTT has this policy of not giving out the numbers, not even to us the makers. They would say that they had a very high target and they have met their target. When we released The Big Bull they had a good target and eventually when I asked what the situation was, they said we can’t disclose numbers but we have met our target and that they were very happy. They buy films at a good price and they need to meet their target. They really work hard at meeting targets so when they say we met our target you really believe in them otherwise at least four people would lose their jobs and that you would come to know. So the barometer is we have met the target but we don’t know what the target is. Their target depends upon the price. The Big Bull was bought at X price and now with Bhuj it could be 10 times higher than X but if they don’t meet their target it has not worked for them.

Talking about box office numbers, with films releasing on OTT there is no stress about Friday collection, weekend collection, right?

We were just discussing this with the Hotstar team and they were saying we don’t look at the first day, we look at the first three weeks because that is how OTT works. So we were told that don’t ask us how it was on the first day because it doesn’t work like that. You can watch the film at any time, so it doesn’t happen that the film is released at 5.30 pm and you calculate how many people watched it at that time. That is not the barometer on OTT, the barometer is the first three weeks.

Has any character you have played so far stayed with you, or are you a switch on-switch off actor?

I am a switch on, switch off actor but the character that stayed with me at that point in time was Bhagat Singh. But I don’t let any character affect my life otherwise you will go mad because every second day you are playing a different character. I don’t take my character home.

You have reunited with Sanjay Leela Bhansali after over two decades for Gangubai Kathiawadi, what was your experience like? Has anything changed? He is known for his demanding work style.

Oh is it? I have never seen that side of him. But yes, it was great working with him again; it was like starting from where we stopped. We share a great rapport and now once again from day one we shared a great rapport. His process, his work style hasn’t changed a bit. He is the same, as passionate as he was over 20 years back. I really enjoy working with him.

We are looking forward to your sports film Maidaan, what is the status of that? And have you completed your directorial Mayday?

We still need to complete Maidaan, it is a brilliant film, it has shaped really beautifully. Director (Amit Sharma) is fabulous. It would be one of my best films and I can say that with a lot of confidence. I have almost completed Mayday. I just have five-day work left. When the lockdown was relaxed last October I began working on it again and I was able to complete the film in February this year. Hence I say I was working non-stop even during the pandemic (smiles).

Ajay Bhuj

Some time back the army officials had said that whenever there is a film on army officers they would want to watch it..

Yes, we did show Bhuj to them and they loved it. Somewhere they are very conscious about how they are portrayed which is fair enough. That is a good thing. But these days even before you start making a film on the army or air force, you have to submit the script to get clearances. So it is not that after you have made the film that you go to them to show what you have made.

But doesn't that hamper your creativity?

There has to be a balance. But that is the problem in our country anyway, forget the army and air force. Any person gets up from this sect or that sect (to raise objections). In a sequence in Rudra, one of the guys discovers who is the murderer and the dialogue goes: ‘Woh taxiwallah hai’. So someone in the team said don’t say taxiwallah because the taxi drivers might object to it. We had to change the line, it is all so complicated.

Going forward, will you be planning your projects keeping in mind different platforms by virtue of their theme, content, scale...?

I am already doing that; we are planning a lot of projects for both, OTT as well as cinema experience. I feel during the pandemic there is a section of people who have got habituated to OTT. But there are certain kinds of films like for instance Bhuj which is a cinema experience. When these small, drama, niche films are happening in Hollywood, people say that we will watch it later on OTT. When there is a big comedy, big action, large screen experience that is where people will go to theatres. Now you have to start thinking about whether this is OTT material, or this is theatre material.

Lastly, do you think people will throng to theatres when restrictions are lifted and theatres open up?

Yes, of course, all over the world they are coming back to theatres. Yesterday I came to know that some Punjabi film of Ammy Virk is releasing and the advance booking is extraordinary which indicates people are ready to come to theatres.