By Subhash K. Jha, IANS
Mumbai, Dec 29 (IANS) In "Raincoat", he plays a man from Bihar who during a visit to Kolkata decides to look up his old sweetheart.
It's the kind of role not too many actors would think of taking up, let alone plunging into for less than half their normal fee. But that's Ajay Devgan for you.
Quietly accomplished...and quite accomplished! He first made his screen appearance astride two motorcycles in Kuku Kohli's "Phool Aur Kaante". Since then he has learnt to effortlessly stride different kinds of cinema without making a song and dance of his versatility.
If on one hand he plays the smirking villain to vamp Aishwarya Rai in "Khakee", on the other hand he's equally at home playing her shy lover from the past in "Raincoat".
His directorial roster includes everyone from Prakash Jha to Kuku Kohli. True, he doesn't have the support of the Chopra-Johar group of powerful filmmakers in Bollywood. But Ajay has managed to make his place without depending on the brand-name directors.
"I don't put labels on films and directors. To me every film I do is important. And whether it's Prakash Jha, Mani Ratnam, Ram Gopal Varma or Kuku Kohli, I value every assignment. But let me clarify. My life and career don't depend on any one project."
The easygoing attitude is seen as a part of Ajay's don't-care-a-damn career strategy. But that he doesn't care about his profession is a fallacy. He cares. But he doesn't believe in playing games of one-upmanhip.
"What's mine will be mine. What isn't was never meant to be," he mumbles.
Unlike other media savvy stars, he isn't comfortable giving interviews. To pin him down is almost an impossibility, and it isn't only because of his innate diffidence. It's also to do with his constantly changing cell phone number.
Let me add here that there are some stars like Aishwarya Rai, Akshay Kumar and Kareena Kapoor whose phone number remains unchanged forever. On the other, some stars like Preity Zinta and Priyanka Chopra change their number so often you probably need a radar to keep track of them.
Ajay belongs to latter category. When asked why, he says: "I hate talking on the phone. In fact I don't like to speak unless necessary."
And yet this strong and silent brooder is capable of tremendous fun. Ask Rituparno Ghosh who was at the receiving end of innumerable pranks from Ajay right through the making of "Raincoat".
The actor's collaborative spirit, his ability to connect with his favourite filmmakers (Raj Santoshi, Prakash Jha and now Rituparno Ghosh) as more than just an actor reaching out to filmmakers is astonishing.
Sanjay Leela Bhansali, who extracted one of Ajay's most finely-tuned performances in "Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam", has warm thoughts on the actor's ability to connect with his role and with the larger picture in general.
"After playing the brooding intense all-giving husband in 'Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam', he could've been my Devdas easily. But I didn't want to repeat myself as a director and neither did he want to do an encore as an actor," says Bhansali.
Ajay's next level as an actor came in Ram Gopal Varma's "Company". The director harnessed the actor's languorous personality to play the pondering underworld don to great effect.
It's a pity that neither "Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam" nor "Company" got Ajay any awards. Those came with Santoshi's "The Legend Of Bhagat Singh".
Very frankly, Ajay was totally miscast as the historical figure. Lacking both the fire and the aching youthfulness of Bhagat Singh, he however, projected an incongruous indignation into the historical character. "Bhagat Singh" proved that he needed to stop making languor a fashion statement in his performances.
He is certainly a lazy actor. But one capable of arising from his slumber with startling moments of insight into human nature. We saw this quality in his performance in "Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam", "Company" and "GangaaJal".
We see the same quality in "Raincoat". He's gentle and quiet, almost a passive observer in the drama. He's submissive on the surface and yet assertive underneath...just as he's in real life.
Married to firebrand Kajol, Ajay has little to do with her close friends Karan Johar, Aditya Chopra, Shah Rukh Khan and Manish Malhotra. It's erroneous to think Ajay "hates" his wife's friends. He just doesn't connect with them. He doesn't even try.
I remember Ajay's debut film "Phool Aur Kante" was released on the same day as Yash Chopra "Lamhe" 13 years ago. Everyone made disparaging comments about the former, and its lean and gawky hero. No one except the astute Jaya Bachchan had seen star quality in Ajay.
Today, as he goes to another level of his career with "Raincoat", Ajay can look back with considerable pride at the oeuvre he has created as an actor and producer.
So what if he lost millions on his hi-tech children's film "Raju Chacha" which Ajay's cousin directed? And so what if his dad - action director Veeru Devgan - directed another fiasco, "Hindustan Ki Kasam", for Ajay the producer? At least he made films from the heart.
"That's what's gone missing in our cinema today...heart," Ajay mumbles.