The success of Class of ‘83 and Aashram cannot be gauged by the same parameters that were once used to measure the success, or failure, of a star.
However, by today’s yardsticks, both have not only connected well with the viewers, and have also garnered generous praise from critics for the leading man, Bobby Deol.
With two back-to-back talked about projects on OTT platforms, Deol is once again back to being one of the most talked-about actors but in an entirely different manner.
Back in the late 1990s, Bobby Deol was synonymous with the visuals and sounds that defined popular Hindi films. Beyond being one of the most sought-after leading men, for an entire generation of women, Bobby Deol was it – he was a rare one who could walk onto the screen with the background score going ‘Gupt, gupt’ or ‘Soldier… soldier’ – and yet be seen as a style icon.
He was perhaps single-handedly responsible for making long tresses on men not only acceptable but also a much-coveted fashion accessory.
Despite being someone who had just three or four major hits across a decade and a half before he slipped off the radar, Bobby Deol was a bona fide star, who for a limited time had the rare ability to appeal to both men and women across different social strata and in both urban as well as rural sectors.
Without any great box office failures or failures of another kind, Deol suddenly found himself out of the race. The popular perception was that Deol was not as immediately mouldable into the template of the new kind of the leading man that had emerged on the scene in the early 2000s.
While many of his contemporaries such as Akshay Kumar, Ajay Devgn, and Shah Rukh Khan continued their upward rise, Deol junior became a pale shadow of himself. There was little doubt that his brand had taken a beating thanks to some of the films that he did in the recent past not doing well but there was another responsible thing, which was not in his control.
The wrong choices in terms of films also happened to be the kind of films whose failure put an end to the kind of cinema that best suited Bobby Deol, at least back then.
While Bollywood was undergoing a transition post-Dil Chahta Hai (2002), Bobby featured in films like Kismat (2004), Bardaasht (2004), Dosti: Friends Forever (2005), Tango Charlie (2005) and these were simply not the kind of films that the multiplex audiences lapped up.
In some way, Deol was probably one of the last amongst the generation of actors who had one foot in the standard Hindi films, the masala variety and the new chic Bollywood that was looked local but was global when it came to packaging. It is not like other actors have not made wrong choices.
Two of Deol’s closest contemporaries, Akshay Kumar and Ajay Devgn, were in a similar situation at the turn of the millennium. They, too, were the kind of actors who were, for the want of a better expression, more suited to the old Hindi cinema where the hero was larger than life and the most things were beyond shades of grey.
But the perception that Deol Junior was not interested in his career after a point and his elder brother, Sunny, vetting as well as vetoing the scripts that came his way together sounded the death knell.
It’s not like Bobby Deol did not attempt to reinvent himself. The actor might have gotten a second lease of life had Jhoom Barabar Jhoom succeeded.
After John Abraham walked out of the film, Deol joined the cast that also included Abhishek Bachchan, and while technically he was playing the second-lead, this decision showed how Deol’s instinct was correct.
The film allowed Deol to break away the shackles of the traditional leading man where he could truly get a role where he could venture beyond the song-and-dance routine.
The film’s narrative intriguingly jumped between two scenarios where all the primary characters – Bachchan, Deol, Preity Zinta and Lara Dutta – had two distinctive personalities and saw Bobby pack in an assured performance.
The failure of Jhoom Barabar Jhoom hurt Deol’s chances but around the same time he lost two projects that he helped develop — Imtiaz Ali’s Jab We Met (2007) and Highway (2014). Ali seemingly dropped Bobby for a better deal even though the filmmaker made his first film for the Deols’ home banner, Socha Na Tha (2005), which was also the debut of Bobby’s cousin Abhay.
In an interview to Huffington Post Deol shared his anguish about the Jab We Met letdown as well as Highway beside the loss of direction that he experienced.
Today, there are very few leading men who could slip into playing Dean Vijay Singh in Class of ‘83 or a cult baba in Aashram with the finesse that a Baby Deol has displayed.
At 50, Deol is no longer the Soldier or Gupt kind of leading-man and more importantly, he isn’t trying to hang on to that kind of fame. While Devgn and Akshay Kumar might be busy and still ruling the box office, there is little doubt that it seems like they are driven by the desire to maintain their ‘hero’ image more than biting into a role.
It’s interesting to see how Deol played a grandfather in Class of ‘83, something that anyone else from his age-group would think twice over before invariably refusing it.
What sets Deol apart from the rest is that he brings the classic leading man urgency to such roles without the baggage.
In a recent interview, Deol stated that such parts were offered to him earlier and he was surprised that the filmmakers that came to him with Class of ‘83 and Aashram told him that they hadn’t realised he wanted such roles.
In many ways, Bobby Deol perfectly fits Andy Warhol’s definition of an artist. Warhol once described an artist to be somebody who produces things that people don't need to have but want to possess. Anyone who was around in the mid-1990s knows what an artist Deol Junior was.
Add being an inspiration for the kind of comeback that he has made where he is merrily willing to play characters that are not in his comfort zone and what you get is a ‘hero’ in every sense of the word.