Ajay Devgn: Flying high

Ajay Devgn acts in, produces and directs India’s first aviation thriller Runway 34. Photo: Universal Communications

He’s flying high.

Ajay Devgn is the sole common point between 2020’s biggest hit, Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior (which he also co-produced), 2021’s highest grosser, Sooryvanshi and (so far) 2022’s hugest bonanza, RRR. Born on April 2, he is now set to release his third directorial, Runway 34, which he also produces and acts in, in his birth month.

Ajay is in a warmly affable mood as we meet at Mumbai’s Hotel Sun’N’Sand for a chat. Excerpts from an interview follow.

You have produced so many films in which you have not even acted, so what makes you decide that you will direct one of them?

In Runway 34, it is in the way the drama and mystery unfold. If I really like a script, and get involved in it to the extent that I can start seeing the film in my head and feel that no one else can narrate it the way I will, that is when I decide to direct.

Also, an added point is when such a script offers terrific challenges and has some things that are technically very difficult to execute. In Shivaay, for example, there were some camera movements that were very challenging in the action sequences. In Runway 34, there is a lot of drama within the cockpit, a seven by seven space! I had to create drama within, without making the cockpit fake and bigger to enable the placement of more cameras! So I did place more cameras within it as I had to feel the claustrophobic atmosphere.

In Shivaay, other than inside the caves, most of the action was over landscapes.

Yes, but still there were shots never done before. I like to create new things.

How is your mood on sets as a director, because you are known to be a big prankster otherwise?

I did become serious as there was no time for pranks! There were too many things to look into as a director. I need people to get involved too, and be on time. Dedication is a must.

Raj Kapoor, Manoj Kumar and many more: There are so many actor-directors in the past. But since their times, technology has changed, like there are monitors today. How was your experience in this aspect?

I too have worked without monitors. But it is much easier now. In those days, they could not see what shots had been taken and they had to trust their cameramen!

At the same time, how does the actor in you fare when you are also directing the film?

That too is easier! As I am looking at the script, the director in me is mentally grooming all the characters and planning things for them, and since I am included, I as an actor gets groomed too.

Ajay Devgn directs Amitabh Bachchan for the first time in Runway 34. Photo: Universal Communications

Though this is your third directorial after U Me Aur Hum and Shivaay, and you have co-starred with Amitabh Bachchan in multiple films, this is the first time you also direct him. How was the experience?

Amit-ji is an institution! We can only learn from him. My father (stunt coordinator Veeru Devgan) worked with him in so many films, so I have known him since I was a kid! The kind of dedication and love he has for his work is exemplary. When he is on sets, he remains there and never dashes off to his van like many lesser actors do, so that 10 minutes will be wasted in waiting after you send for him!

Amit-ji is also totally into the film, and we will never get an inkling on sets of any problems he may be facing, including with his health! He obeys you without question and performs better than what you expect. So he actually inspires you as a director, and I am sure all his directors will agree on this.

What does Amitabh Bachchan think of your film?

(Smiles) He has already commented on his social media!

Coming back to the film itself, can you tell us why the original title May-Day was changed?

May-Day is a very common term for an emergency, but in India, very few educated people know its meaning! A very accomplished gentleman asked me the meaning of my title, and in Maharashtra in particular, May 1 is Maharashtra Day or Labor Day. He asked me if my film had anything to do with laborers! So I thought it prudent to change the name. The only other suitable title was Runway 34, as the whole story, inspired by a 2015 Kochi incident, starts when the pilot chooses the wrong runway to land!

And by the way, 34 is not pronounced as thirty-four but as three-four, which is something to do with angles or degrees between two paths on a runway.

The publicity material speaks of internal turbulence within a person as much as turbulence in the air.

Yes, that’s what creates the drama. But the Kochi incident that triggered our story had nothing to do with the personal angle. We have taken the happening as the base, and have dramatized and created all the characters and their issues.

How much detailing and research went into this film, as it is India’s first aviation thriller?

We ensured proper details and statistics. We had people from the Air Traffic Control (ATC) on sets to check things. Like the cockpit working equipment was real, just as it is in a simulator, and before every shot, we would feed in details into the counters. For example, we would feed 35,000 feet and see what the machinery would show.

Then I have also been flying charters over the years, and have chatted with their captains. So I knew the basics, like I know how they talk, how they lay their fingers on buttons and how they maneuver a plane. But I learnt a lot more this time.

A lot of your fans did not like you in tiny cameos. You have done a hat-trick recently with Sooryavanshi, Gangubai Kathiawadi and RRR.

Well, I am Bajirao Singham! And the latter two also had well-written as cameos. I also have a great rapport with Sanjay Leela Bhansali as well as S.S. Rajamouli. I had dubbed for his Makkhi in Hindi. So I don’t think I was wasted.

How do you choose between an OTT release, like your Chhalang, Big Bull and Tribhanga, or a theatrical one?

The pandemic has changed things. Now a larger-than-life big-scale movie will be the viewer’s choice for watching in theatres, because he will feel that this film’s scale does not fit into his phone! The smaller film can be safely watched on OTT.

We saw Akshay Kumar, Ranveer Singh and you together in Sooryavanshi in the last 30 minutes and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. When will we get to see two or three big stars together in Hindi cinema as leads, as we recently saw with NTR Jr. and Ram Charan in RRR?

I think that will happen very soon. I would love the multi-star era to come back.








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