You look all settled and happy.
I’m generally a happy person. Put it down to my middle class upbringing.
Aren’t middle class values usually a great problem for an artist?
Not for me, not so far. I work hard and achieve my goals because of the values I’ve learnt from my parents. My father is ... he is a rock. I am a family man. During the shooting of Madras Cafe down south, I had my family, including my aunts and cousins, flown in. I was the happiest while watching them all eat at the same table.
Do you feel you have arrived as an action hero?
Madras Cafe is a winner. People see me as an action hero. Action Abraham as they call me now. But they see me not just as this hunk. They see signs of intelligence, which in any case for me is the real stuff of an attractive personality. I was always objectified as this best body in the industry, you know, this beefcake, whose looks precede everything else.
And I kept battling that, and to answer your question, I feel good today that I’m being accepted as an actor, as a producer rather than just a sex symbol. I’m not apologetic of having a great body.
Cinema is a visual medium; you need to have a great body. But I believe it’s high time that people took me seriously, too. And thank God for Madras Cafe, thank God for Vicky Donor (which Abraham produced). The other day someone said, “We loved this new genre of films.” So I said, genre of films? “Yeah, ‘Johnre’ of films”.
So, you know, I like that space. I like to be a trendsetter in this industry and at the same time be promoting young talent, and saying, “Listen, get out there and I’ll launch you”. The way I’ve pushed Ayushman (hero of Vicky Donor), is a case in point. In fact, he told me, ‘Bro, why are you pushing me? Nobody pushes anybody like this in the industry.’ And I said ‘Listen, you are my product, you are my hero, Vicky Donor is my film. I have to push you.’
Once upon a time in an interview, Sylvester Stallone said that very often in this trade you’d feel silly, because all you were emoting is against props and placards. The last shot that I gave just before we met was very similar to what Stallone has experienced. I’m the face of Nat-Geo and the whole campaign is called ‘Unlock’. So I’ve to actually open up this big yellow window, and, hey, I’m doing it against a green screen. So I guess faking is part of my profession.
Faking and crumbling. You must’ve had lots of ups and downs in your life. Did you crumble when the chips were down?
Yes, and the only thing that’s got me through at the end of the day is strength of character.
Do you cry?
I cry, and I cry a lot. I had to fight my own battles. I didn’t have anybody to turn to. And I knew, like in 2010, when my three films failed, my relationship was over, and my father was diagnosed with cancer, I had hit an all time low.
The media had written me off completely. And I took eight months off, and asked myself what was I doing with my life? How do I need to reposition myself? And I worked on myself, physically, mentally and even calculating in terms of the kind of films that I need to, the kind of movies I’m now positioned in. And that’s where Force was born, because I wanted to.
Was that the reason you moved from the so called romantic roles?
More intense roles, yes. The ‘Action Abraham’ image that I first explored fully in Force. And I worked on myself for eight months before I did that film. Force actually became, you know, a trendsetter; the audience started accepting me in a singular space. Then my films started working all over again: Desi Boyz, Housefull, Race 2, Shootout at Wadala and now Madras Cafe.
You are past 40. Are you liking yourself? Are you occasionally disgusted with yourself at your failings?
At 40, this is the fittest, strongest and the fastest I’ve been. I enjoy defying age, I enjoy defying gravity, I enjoy defying anything that you consider customary. And I think with Madras Cafe also, I enjoyed defying conventional Indian cinema. In its own way, Cafe is a progressive movie. If you ask me about progressive cinema, I’ll tell you Malayalam cinema is progressive.
Iranian cinema is progressive. Korean cinema is progressive. Bollywood is fun. But does it allow us to make alternative cinema that can be commercial? I don’t think so, I think there’s a massive audience today, that’s so far ahead in their head that they want to see different films.
At 60 what would you be doing?
For one, I know I’ll be still working out, that’s for sure. I’ll be playing football and I’ll be riding a motorcycle. At 60 I would also want to own the media space. I mean, I’ve been a media planner and I understand the implications and the power of media.
Actually, I’d probably like to have the biggest media house in the country. I’d probably like to have the biggest production studio in the country.
Are you working at it?
I’m trying my best. Right now I’m the smallest fry available. What I have in abundance is ideas, thanks perhaps to my ‘Mallu’ genes.
Do you still go to Kerala?
Oh yes! I go there, I eat, I meet my relatives. My Leelakocham, she’s my favourite aunt...
Where do you meet them, in Cochin?
Yes. I had tears, because I love her, I love her…oh my God. She’s 83, but she’s younger than any other woman I know. She’s lovely. I miss her, I miss her. I think about her all the time. I love the fact that I can get my family together. I feel that I’m in a position today to arrange for everyone to come together, to see that everyone’s having a meal together. These things move me.
Are you more a ‘Mallu’ or a more an Iranian (on his mother’s side)?
I’m a proud combination of both. My mom was very sporty. She played basketball for India. I grew up with my maternal family which was based in Bombay. My father’s family is strewn all across from the USA to Malaysia to Kerala. I speak Gujarati fluently and that is my maternal family’s influence at work.
Can you speak Malayalam as well?
Korachu korachu. Very little.
There was this controversy between you and Salman Khan at one time. Have you got over all that?
Salman is someone I deeply respect as an actor and a superstar. And, yes, there was a controversy. I was affected by it initially, when it happened in 2006, because I was three years into the industry, and I didn’t know what hit me. I was too much of a small fry.
People were walking all over me. But not once did I say anything that was untoward. I always respected the space Salman came from. I never understood why there was negativity. But that’s over.
I’m still a self-confessed fan of his.
You are into charity a lot.
My dream has always been to open an animal hospital, to open a home for the aged. A lot of old people die alone. I want to start something for the aged and children suffering from cancer; children with terminally ill diseases. Thanks to my parents, I’ve been frequenting ‘The Home for the Aged’ as a child, during Christmas when we’d go and sing Christmas carols.
I must tell you something interesting: my mom works for ‘Make a Wish’. And when an actor doesn’t turn up, I go in as a substitute. I’m always the fill-in actor. So, say, if there is no Hrithik, Salman, Aamir, Shah Rukh around, John Abraham goes and fills in.
Do you have a dark streak in you, the one that the middle class upbringing has left alone?
Yes. That’s one I get to meet in my movies.
Can I tell you something?
Bring him on.