Exclusive: Abhimanyu Dassani Earns International Acclaim Before Making His Bollywood Debut

Priyanka Parmar , 28 Jan 2019

Bollywood is one industry that has a wave of new talent coming in every year. We’ve seen many new actors take the spotlight in Bollywood with their debut last year as well. However, there are very few actors who manage to take a different route and Abhimanyu Dassani has done just that. He has won an International Award, earned critical acclaim from Oscar-winning celebrities and has a massive hit on his hands. All this, even before making his Bollywood debut. He has certainly set the bar of expectations high for the audiences.

Abhimanyu has been a ‘serial entrepreneur’ since the age of 16. It was until 7 years ago that he landed into film-making and worked as an AD before finally signing his first film. The star kid, who was kept away from the limelight, was finally bitten by the bug called ‘cinema’. Yes, he is the son of the gorgeous actress, Bhagyashree but he is glad people weren’t aware of his existence until they watched and appreciated the trailer of, Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota. I recently met him at his stunning abode and we spoke about his career choices, his glorious journey so far and a lot more.

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Here are the excerpts of our conversation:

So, Abhimanyu, you’re making your debut relatively later than most of your contemporaries. Was this a conscious decision?

Absolutely. I didn’t decide to become an actor, as in, it wasn’t my childhood dream. Of course, it lingered somewhere subconsciously. But I focused on my education, finished my degree, majored in finance. What kind of inspired me to get into films was the thought of creating something.

Talking about your background in finance, I hear you’ve created multiple businesses since you were a teenager.

I have been a serial entrepreneur since the age of 16. I would create a business, make it profitable and move on to something else. But my vision was too short sighted. What I realised while doing 8-10 of them is that creating it excited me. Where else do you create something, move on and keep doing that? Bollywood, right? It’s the hub of creation in India. That’s definitely one of the major aspects that kind of made me think about film-making. Another one of them was that I was doing one of my stints as an AD in Rohit Sippy’s film (Dum Maaro Dum). The whole energy and vibe on the set was so contagious, I guess the Bollywood bug bit me over there. I just wanted to be there on-set. Spending time with AB (Abhishek Bachchan), he’s fascinating and he’s such a cool guy. A couple of conversations with him cleared my mind and my thought process of what I wanted to do ahead.

So, is that the first time you ever felt like you could be an actor?

I need to give due credit to my 7th grade Hindi teacher, Mrs. Kalpana, may she rest in peace. I wish she could have seen my first movie because she incepted this idea. I was a really fat kid, I am not saying healthy and chubby because I was really fat. I was good at my studies and she picked me out of class and said. “Listen you have to join the school dramatics”. I said, “Ma’am I don’t know how to act, yeh sab mujhe nahi aata hai. Please ya. I’m good, I am having fun”. To which she replied, “Ek toh beta your mom’s an actress so you’re an actor”.  But I wasn’t having any of it, I told her, “Yeh toh mujhe samaj me nahi aata hai.

But the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, does it?

It’s a skill that you develop. I can’t understand how you just get acting. But she believed in me and said, “Nahi beta but you get to bunk classes.” Then I finally signed up for it. Initially, I was ragged a lot by my seniors and I was given the smallest roles of the extras coming in, putting the tray on the table and walking out. But it grew and we started winning competition after competition. Roles got bigger, then I got the lead roles and we made a small group of us actors and for the next 3-4 years we won 1st and 2nd in every competition that we participated in. Props to Mrs. Kalpana for putting that idea in my head ki yeh bhi ho sakta hai.

We have never heard you talk about your personal struggles. Why is that so?

Every human being goes through a set of struggles that they might or might not want to talk about. For me there might be a time and space I want to speak about but first I want to achieve something. No one wants to hear about your pain, everyone has their own. Tell me about your happiness or what makes you happy and what you like. That kind of thing always inspires me. I would rather speak about the good things happening around me. There will be a time where I’ve to speak about it and I will.

Coming back to acting, why didn’t you think of becoming an actor before? Was it because you were always protected from the media exposure as a kid?  

Ya, ya. I believe and if I am not wrong, the journalists didn’t know I existed till my trailer came out. I am glad that my work speaks more than me. People who have seen the trailer, they know Surya but they don’t know Abhimanyu. I am happy that Surya is bigger than Abhimanyu. In a way my parents kept me protected from that life and I had a very simple upbringing because I was really ragged in school for a lot of things and it never came to mind. I started getting into sports also very late in life but I got really good at it really quickly.

I sense a pattern here.

I guess I have a thing for learning, you know? (Smiles) Challenges really excite me. So yeah, I’ve been away from the limelight since my childhood and only came in the eyes of everyone once my trailer came out early last year. Ever since, everything has been evergreen, butterflies and rainbows (laughs).

I am sure a lot of hard work has gone into making that happen.

I’ve been at it for 7 years; going to workshops after workshops, training on different skills. I’ve assisted on different films and commentaries. I’ve fully assisted from writing to direction to editing to music. I think it is a conscious decision to get in front of the camera when I thought. And of course, Vasan sir (Vasan Bala) – no matter how many times I thank him, it’s not going to be enough because he’s kind of a life saviour. That spark of him believing in me made me believe in myself. That’s the simplest way to put it.

Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota earned a standing ovation at the Toronto Film Festival and also the People’s Choice Award: Midnight Madness. You also won the Best Debut award at the Macau Film Festival. How does it feel?

The jury there has Oscar winning directors from all over the world. Just the fact that some of these guys and women saw my film is surreal. I look up to them. Danis Tanović, who won the Oscar for No Man’s Land, took me out for dinner and I was like ‘wow! I’ve seen your movie twice and I love that and you’re taking me out for dinner’. He’s asked if I only want to do Bollywood and I couldn’t believe it. Mabel Chung, who is a renowned director in China, had such amazing things to say about me and the whole introduction. She actually put Jackie Chan and me in one sentence. The hero I’ve looked up to all my life. I was stunned when she took my name, I skipped a heartbeat. I thought she’s messing with me. All those years of hard work makes sense when people who you respect and admire appreciate your work. Of course, that being there and then you’re representing India at such a huge level. Being the first Indian debutante to win this award. I think that’s awesome and I hope more people realise that.

Do you think such recognition helps in taking the kind of content Indian audiences consume a step forward?

Absolutely. Our film was the first to get into midnight madness, the first one to win people’s choice award. People from all over the world are recognising that Indian cinema is changing its face and game. Every festival that we went to, the majority of the audience was an international audience. It was surreal that I was sitting in restaurants and they were calling out ‘Surya‘. A Canadian is walking across the street and he’s like, “Hey, Surya!” I’m like drink some water stay hydrated (this is his dialogue in the trailer). I hugged that guy because it’s amazing that now they are recognising the character.

 Unlike most Bollywood films, your debut began with film festivals. Whose decision was it to go that route?

Definitely again, Vasan sir. Initially when I signed onto the film, we sat down and said this is what we are going to do and hopefully get into one of the festivals. Halfway through the film, we set our sight on Toronto Film Festival because it’s huge. I’m not kidding, we manifested it. We submitted on the last day and we were supposed to get an answer in 2 weeks but we didn’t. Vasan sir said ‘I don’t think it’s happening’. But I still had a good feeling about it. I was like, ‘Sir, I want you to get hopeful’. And it did. It was a miracle, we got it next week. One festival led to another and whole festival circuit was crazy because we were sold out everywhere. It was reviewed by Hollywood reporters and magazines. We got calls from international studios. I was called to LA for meetings. It was amazing. The journey was amazing.

 MKDNH has received some amazing response internationally. Has that taken the pressure off you when it comes to the Indian audiences, who will watch it soon?

Not at all. There’s no pressure. I think what everyone on the team was passionate, every single member of the crew. They gave in their everything. I hope all of them receive the recognition and some of them already have since we’ve finished the film festival circuit. I’ve been in touch with a couple of the core team members and they are working on such great projects and they are really happy. All their accomplishments have been so good, right after the film. I am so happy and proud of them. It has already helped all of them in their careers. I hope, when this film releases, it gives them more love because they deserve it. I hope I get some of that love as well.

 I hope so too but there are so many films that receive International acclaim. However, some of them don’t receive the equal amount of appreciation back home. Why do you think that is?

See, ours is an action comedy film which is a very rare genre to get into film festivals. But action comedy is a huge genre in Bollywood. I think we’re treading on thin ice but we’re ticking the right boxes on both ends. I think that’s what is different about this film.

So, your film finally releases in March for the Indian audiences. What are you doing next?

I’m taking it slow but I want to reinvent myself I in every film. The second film will be very different from the first film. Again, I hope you remember my character more than you remember Abhimanyu. I want to break that image every time you form it.

The last time we spoke, you mentioned you want to bring back the kind of action films that used to be. Will you be favouring such roles perhaps?

Not really. I want to clearly reinvent myself. Also, I think commercial films are really tough to do, in terms of acting. I would like to take that challenge. Try something in that space. Then do a different genre with every film I select. Hopefully, you won’t recognise me in every film.

You’re just starting off but you think of the Box-Office numbers when you read a script?

It’s always great that a film does well at the box-office because producers believe and offer you another film or another opportunity. My selection of a film is based on the script, the director and whether the role challenges me or not. Of course, at the end of the day I hope everyone gets paid for believing in me.

So moving on from the films, would you be interested in doing web series and web shows because it’s a big thing right now?

Absolutely. Why not? If an incredible opportunity comes along then any platform is great. I think it’s growing whether it’s internet or the movies. The opportunities are endless now.

Do you think web series and OTT platforms get you the attention of an audience with a different mindset?

I don’t really know if that helps or not. But I wouldn’t mind if a great opportunity comes along — whether it’s a film or a web series. Web series is a longer format and I think it’s great to be part of it. You get to present content in a way that you can’t in 3 hours. The story can extend. If the concept is great, I’d love to. Now the budgets are great they can really put in the effort.

Such good content is coming from Indian web series’ that the bigger stars are doing it too. Do you think gradually the big screen will lose its charm?

It’s not going to lose its charm. In the next 3 to 5 years, films are going to get bigger. Also, you can’t enjoy certain films sitting on your phone or laptop screen. Some things you got to have the experience of going and getting that popcorn, sitting there. I love that. It’s expensive, so I go on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.

That’s quite candid. Which celebrity talks like this?

Listen, I am a self-made man. (Smiles) I am being honest and candid. It’s wonderful going there, sitting and watching it with your popcorn. Some films are supposed to be watched in the theatre. The sound, the magnitude; I think that’s going to remain. And some films which you can’t extend will get made into web series. But we’re still on the curve so we’ve got 3-5 years.

D you have a wishlist of directors right now?

Absolutely. I would definitely want to work with Vasan sir again. He will always be my top 3 directors no matter how many movies I do with him. Besides that, Ayan Mukerji. He’s given me a lot of sound advice getting in the industry. His films are amazing and find the right balance between content-driven and commercial notes. I love it. Then, Neeraj Pandey sir. I was obsessed with A Wednesday when it came out in 2008. I’ve been a fan ever since. And these filmmakers make films that aren’t time bound. You can watch them now, 5 years later, 10 years later and you’ll still enjoy them.

Moving on from films and talking about the film industry at large, last year, the #MeToo movement stirred up a much-needed storm in Bollywood. What do you have to say about that?

I hope the momentum continues. Maintaining a decorum at your workplace is a bare minimum. I think it’s essential to respect a human being whether it’s a male or female, senior or subordinate. First, respect the human being and then the choices they are making. If you’re not comfortable with working with some, don’t work with them. It’s sad but I think it’s kinda ingrained in everyone’s head that this is how we move forward. Some practices, if they have been happening for x amount of time, people think it’s a norm. It’s always the right time to do the right thing. And it’s never wrong to do the right thing. I am hoping moving forward everyone uses truth and chooses to do what’s right.

There is a debate on whether a woman should equip herself to fight such situations or if a collective effort should be directed towards changing the mindsets of the wrongdoers. What is your take on this?

There has to be a balance. If someone does something wrong we have systems to put them in their place. We should follow those systems and people who are being wronged should be more aware of what’s happening and do the right thing. As I’ve said earlier, just follow the truth.  The truth is always going to prevail.

We talk some more about the industry and the way he speaks shows his astute business sense. Abhimanyu certainly has many surprises up his sleeve and I can’t wait to see what he has in store for the Indian audiences. Here’s wishing him and the entire team of Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota good luck for the film.

You can watch the trailer here:

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