Ajay Devgn on Runway 34: ‘Directing and acting simultaneously requires a lot of hard work’

Ajay Devgn on Runway 34: ‘Directing and acting simultaneously requires a lot of hard work’

Ajay Devgn on Runway 34: ‘Directing and acting simultaneously requires a lot of hard work’

Ajay Devgn’s last three films- SooryavanshiGangubai Kathiawadi and RRRhave all been box-office hits. Now, he’s directing, producing and starring in the upcoming Runway 34, a thriller inspired by the true event of the Jet Airways Doha-Kochi flight that had a narrow escape after facing difficulties due to bad weather and unclear visibility, sometime in August 2015. Set to release on 29 April, the film, co-starring Amitabh Bachchan and Rakul Preet Singh, revolves around Captain Vikrant Khanna (played by Devgn), a flying prodigy, whose flight takes a mysterious course after take-off from an international destination. Devgn and Rakul play the aircraft’s pilots while Bachchan is the officer investigating the incident and later has a face-off with Devgn, who is put to trial for his erratic actions as the pilot.

Directing and acting simultaneously requires a lot of hard work, says Devgn. “I mentally plan everything but I improvise a lot on the set. On the set it becomes a lot of hard work, as you are setting up the cameras yourself, working out the performances, working out the scenes and then you have to perform the scene as an actor, go back as a director, watch all the shots, sit for edits…But I enjoy the process. And when I make films there has to be a challenge like in Shivaay (2016) where it was difficult to shoot on those mountains and move with cameras. Similarly, creating drama inside a cockpit was not easy but I like the challenge. There were technical challenges. I have done multiple camera shoots before but this one was tough because we were shooting in a cockpit where there was limited space to move. And even as a lot of drama had to be created, I didn’t want the cockpit to be bigger. The cockpit size is real. I wanted that feeling of claustrophobia, I didn’t want the cameras to go out and cheat, so I worked out a lot of things to make sure that cameras could move inside that space only. We also took training in terms of how to operate a plane, psychologically what you are thinking, we had a captain on board for that. Also, all our equipment was real. We have tried to be very authentic. But to create drama obviously we had to take certain creative liberties. Though you know this is a true incident you don’t know the details of the incident. You have to enhance the drama but the basic storyline is the same,” he says.

The story was conceptualised about three years ago when the writers approached Devgn who found the script quite intriguing. “But I told the writers that I would like to see some changes in the script. At that time, I wasn’t thinking of directing. I told them to incorporate these changes and then we will meet. But then I forgot about it. One year passed by and then the pandemic happened. I was sitting at home and suddenly remembered this script and I asked the writers if they had made the changes. They had made those changes and they were waiting for my call. After working for two to three months on the script I became so involved that I wanted to direct it. I found the story really compelling,” says the actor-director. “Obviously I suited the role so I came on board (laughs). My character is brilliant, he is a genius but he is a rule breaker, there is this arrogance…he is a little grey and that is what I loved about him. I am very happy that I cast Rakul, because when you see the film… I mean she has gone beyond my expectations. It’s a performance driven role. I had worked with her in De De Pyar De, so I knew that she would pull it off. Because it’s a conflict drama, it’s about conflict between two people and the kind of presence I needed, the kind of performance I needed, I didn’t have an alternative for Mr Bachchan,” he adds.

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The last time Devgn and Bachchan shared screen space was about a decade ago, in Prakash Jha’s 2013 release Satyagraha. “But it didn’t feel that long probably because we are always in touch and we keep meeting. With him, there is this comfort zone because I have known him as a kid. He may be very intimidating but for me it’s easy because I have that kind of rapport so it was not difficult directing him. The kind of dedication he has, and the kind of actor he is, he only inspires you. He doesn’t rest between shots. He tells you he will come at 11am but he lands at 9am. He walks on the set with that kind of energy and the whole set gets energised,” says Devgn.

In his career spanning over three decades, the actor largely known as an action hero, has experimented literally with all genres, and in the current scenario when larger-than-life hero films from South like KGF: Chapter 2, Pushpa: The Rise, and RRR are breaking box office records and outperforming Bollywood releases, the actor points out the heroism that he depicted through his super hit films like Singham and most recently Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior. “I have been doing films on heroism though I have not done a big action film for a long time. But my Tanhaji can be called a historical action film. Tanhaji was also about heroism. Heroism... larger-than-life films often work. Singham connected with children and women as well. We do it here also but you have to get it right. These films from the South have got it right. But I have always tried to balance both kinds of cinema. In the 90’s I did films like Zakhm, Takshak, Dil Kya Kare…so I have always maintained that balance but even larger-than-life films require creativity,” he says.

Is there a new found pressure on him and is he also planning subjects with Pan - India appeal? “No, there is no pressure. It all depends on what kind of film you want to make. If you want to make Runway, a thriller, or a Maidaan, which is a sports and emotional drama, then you are not thinking that I am making a Pan India film. Then, when you are doing an action film you think that now you can go completely Pan India and have budgets of that sort but first get the script right. Also, you can’t plan a Pan India film. It just happens like Baahubali, again KGF was not a planned Pan India film, it was released there, and part one worked so now part two is made with Pan India in mind,” says Devgn, who also feels that Bollywood has over a period of time distanced itself from good masala entertainers. “Yes, we can say we just have Rohit Shetty who makes masala entertainers. People should concentrate on masala entertainers as well. I don’t know why it is not happening...maybe because we are aping the west. People are getting westernised and we are forgetting those earthy characters. People connect more with earthy characters,” he says.

While Devgn may be thinking of making a big, larger-than-life film on the lines of Pan India, he says he isn’t in a hurry pursuing scripts for the same. “Look, I am not chasing anything. I listen to a script and if it is something you feel is different, nice and refreshing I go for it. Or if it is something that you have not done before and the audience will like it I decide to go for it. But I am not thinking that now I will do an action film. I am working on different genres and I like it that way. We should focus on Pan India films definitely but we should get the right script for it,” he concludes.

Seema Sinha is a Mumbai-based mainstream entertainment journalist who has been covering Bollywood and television industry for over two decades. Her forte is candid tell-all interviews, news reporting and newsbreaks, investigative journalism and more. She believes in dismissing what is gossipy, casual, frivolous and fluff.

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