Batla House: How John Abraham carved a niche for himself as a dependable star, producer of content-driven films
John Abraham has slowly and steadily built a unique portfolio of films as producer over the last eight years — with stories many wouldn’t bet their money on.
John Abraham plays a real life police officer in the Independence Day release, Batla House. Identified with terms like hottie, beefcake and a handsome action star for almost two decades of his career, Abraham has evolved into a filmmaker’s go-to actor for a certain kind of cinema - the gritty patriotic or realistic story based on modern Indian history or a recent experience of our nation. To build this position of a dependable star and actor, John has had to make a strategic pivot by turning film producer and choosing a niche right from the start.
In some ways, a parallel can be drawn between Abraham’s current strategy and the ones chosen by Robert Redford and Brad Pitt. Redford acted in films that won awards and applause but never quite got recognised as an actor. Be it Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Three Days at the Condor, Out of Africa or All the President’s Men, Redford remained the good-looking star in a coveted production. When the state of Utah proposed to collaborate with him as president of a film festival focused on American films and independent cinema, he took it up with gusto. Now, Sundance Film Festival is the world’s go-to destination to watch the world's best indies. Redford, who has been co-producing and directing content driven films since the '80s, helped in turning this festival around with his visibility and global star status, leading from the front in encouraging quality cinema and a confluence of global talent.
Similarly, in the past decade, Brad Pitt has become the handsome star of award-winning films for nearly 20 years. And he took upon himself to co-produce and nurture independent cinema. Plan B is diversified across a range of stories that are tied by one factor - good quality and relevance. Choosing to act in some co-productions like Ad Astra and War Machine, Pitt’s company co-produces cutting edge content across film and streaming platforms. Among their recent films are Okja, 12 Years A Slave, Selma and Vice.
John Abraham doesn’t operate on that scale. But he has slowly and steadily built a unique portfolio of films as producer over eight years, stories many wouldn’t bet their money on. He collaborates with like-minded producers, diluting risk but still going ahead to produce a film that won’t necessarily be a money spinner. Vicky Donor, Madras Café or Parmanu: The Story of Pokhran would befuddle the conventional Bollywood producer. They might come across as unsuitable for cinematic representation. In Hindi cinema, over simplification has been fairly common, assuming that audiences don’t have the capacity or will to think about a film’s story. Abraham has been part of such over-simplified commercial fluff cinema for most of his career. Desi Boyz, Dostana, Welcome Back, Race 2, or the Housefull franchise are examples of masala films that made him a star, but rarely gave him anything innovative to work upon as an actor.
The stories that he has really wanted to tell are the ones that he currently produces. Having made a dent with unconventional entertainers as producer, now, he has become a draw among writers and filmmakers for a certain niche in Hindi cinema. With a resurgent India-positive mood evident in public discourse, and with the need to tell stories that connect with the viewer, films from real life incidents from India’s lived experiences are catching on.
John seems to be the go-to star for such films. Be it Parmanu: The Story of Pokhran or Romeo Akbar Walter, these stories draw from modern Indian history. A section of India’s film-going audience is beginning to warm up to such stories, further building room for them to be told. Batla House is one such story about a very recent incident that highlights polarisation and inherent prejudice marking our society. John plays a police officer that was in the eye of a storm, and continues to work with Delhi Police. The challenge of playing him convincingly and in a story drawn from an incident widely covered by Indian news media indicates his commitment to work on such films, and deliver a good performance.
John has not minced words in recent media interactions on his experiences of turning producer. He finds the film industry disunited and fraught with short-sighted, selfish behavior. He has also stated that he will continue to make the kind of films that he does. He also continues to act in masala films, like the upcoming Pagalpanti directed by Anees Bazmee, because it brings in equity as a star and the money. But the big battle that he has always had to fight — that of being taken seriously as an actor — has definitely been won. Now, with films that merge thriller and drama to create interesting contemporary stories written for him, John is a star with a space carved for himself. And with his choice to back content driven films that show a slice of India’s reality, he has added room for these stories in mainstream Hindi cinema.
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