Back with a bang: Bobby Deol talks about his OTT debut in Netflix’s Class of ’83
This October, Bobby Deol completes 25 years in the Hindi film industry. It’s been a journey of staggering highs and crushing lows. His debut film, Barsaat, introduced a curly-haired colt who became the rage of the decade. A streak of iconic thrillers followed: Gupt, Soldier, Ajnabee and Humraaz. The roles petered out in the late-2000s, his stardom dulled by changing trends.
Worse was to come. In 2013, after a series of unsightly duds, Bobby took a break from the movies. His career faded away. He grappled with alcoholism and self-doubt. Producers would heed but not call back. It wasn’t until Poster Boys (2017) that we saw him again, a minor comedy that led to franchise roles in Race 3 and Housefull 4.
That was then. Now, on August 21, Bobby made his Netflix debut with Class of ’83. Directed by Atul Sabharwal, the film follows an upright dean who trains a squad of assassin cops. Adapted from Hussain Zaidi’s book, the film traces the crackdown on criminal gangs by the Mumbai Police in the 1980s.
In this interview, Bobby reflects on his 25-year career, the glorification of encounter killings in Hindi movies, his struggles with depression and the zeal to adapt to changing times. Excerpts:
Several actors who started out in the ’90s have made their digital debuts recently. Besides Class of ’83, You will also be seen in Prakash Jha’s Aashram. What does this shift mean for you?
An actor is always looking for projects that will excite him and characters that will challenge him. Working with Netflix is something I hoped I would do one day. At the same time, I also collaborated with Shah Rukh and Gauri Khan’s Red Chillies Entertainment. But for me, the most important thing was the script. I was trying to do something totally different from my image as an actor, something that was challenging and out of my comfort zone. Finally, when I heard the idea (of Class of ’83), I was excited.
This is quite different from the roles that you’ve done before.
It is definitely a new chapter in my life. I have been trying to do such roles for a few years. I love commercial cinema. However, sometimes as an actor, you stay unsatisfied. This was a role I knew would bring me that satisfaction. It would also be a step towards being offered these kinds of parts. I worked really hard for this project. I did a lot of workshops with my co-actors. I practised a bit of voice-modulation. Also, working with these nice young talents was special. They are a new generation of actors. They are theatre actors — they’ve learnt a different craft and taught themselves well.
The film delves into Mumbai of the ’80s, when crime was at its peak, and during the infrastructure boom.
It was really fascinating for me to play a cop from the 1980s. I remember when I started my career, we were shooting in Mukesh Mills (in South Bombay). These were mills that operated once upon a time. But then, in the ’80s, the Union issues happened and a lot of workers had no jobs. So they moved towards joining gangsters and the underworld. It was a period that was out of control.
My character, Dean Vijay Singh, is a normal person who has pushed aside his family to safeguard the city. But everything goes against him because the system is such. The film gives you a fictionalised feel of the true events that occurred.
Bollywood is often blamed for glamourising extrajudicial killings. Class of ’83 also shows cops taking the law into their hands.
I think the film is just trying to make people aware of what happened. It’s trying to entertain and at the same time give information about what existed in that period. It’s not promoting or glorifying anything. It shows you the journey of an individual and the personal lives of the characters. It’s not just about encounter killings. It’s about the way everybody has to move forward in life when they want to do the right thing.
You were a trendsetter in the ’90s. Today, Gupt and Soldier are regarded as pop culture milestones.
Actually, I never tried to find out what was going on around me. I was always a shy person and believed that these things can drive you a little crazy. Definitely, it was an exciting phase but I wish I had understood the importance of it. Because if I did, then maybe I would have worked harder to keep maintaining it. I didn’t realise the competition around me and believed that everybody should get the chance to work. But it was never like that. Slowly but steadily people started getting roles that I would have otherwise got. Gradually things slowed down a bit. Stardom is not something that lasts forever but as long as work lasts, then there’s nothing like that.
It really makes me feel nice that the young generation is looking back into the industry’s older work. They haven’t seen much of my recent work because I haven’t done much. So it’s nice when they look at my old films and appreciate it.
Actors today are known for their choice of scripts. Someone like Ayushmann Khurrana, say, is loved for his slice-of-life comedies. You, however, have never committed to a particular style or sensibility.
I always try to look for something different. My aim was to never have a fixed image because then it becomes very difficult to get roles. But even then, I got this image of an angry young man or a tough guy. Most of my films were blockbusters or action movies or thrillers. Very few love stories did well. So somewhere the balance shifts that way. The producers and financiers only want to produce a movie that works for an actor. With OTT, I’ve finally got the opportunity to do something totally different. I enjoy watching Ayushmann’s films and always wish I could get roles like that.
You had spoken about your struggles with depression a couple of years ago. In recent months, the Sushant Singh Rajput tragedy has started discussions on mental health.
I believe that every individual has a story of their own which we don’t know. The difficulties, the ups-and-downs.... we will never understand that. When I spoke about myself, there were people who made fun of me. It’s easy for others to make fun or laugh at someone. But will they understand the pain and frustration you are going through? For me, I am just someone who decided one day that I am never going to give up in life. I’ve become more ambitious now after seeing the bad phase in my life. To give up is very easy but to try hard is always difficult.
You also had the support of your wife and family.
I feel no one can solve your problems but yourself, no matter how strong a family you have or don’t. Once you realise it, you need to build and dwell on it. That will give you the positive energy to do the right thing. That’s how my career has got a kick-start again. I am never going to fall into that trap of self-pity again.