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Sukanya Verma

Ajay Devgan has changed beyond recognition.

Those who remember him as the gawky action Jackson in Phool Aur Kaante, Jigar, Divya Shakti and Bedardi can't believe how far Ajay has come without media support and hype.

A born fighter, Devgan says he would rather let his work do all the talking for him instead of giving a thousand interviews on various channels. "I have never believed in talking about myself or blowing my own trumpet. If I do all that where would I find time to do quality work?" he reasons softly.

Gentle, sensible, assertive and completely no-nonsense, Ajay Devgan strikes one as being a misfit in the film industry. He has his own terms and conditions for survival.

But his has been a magnificent makeover. In 1992 Ajay Devgan made his debut in Kuku Kohli's Phool Aur Kaante. Raw and raring to go, Ajay made everyone sit up and notice his persuasive screen presence. Phool Aur Kaante was released on the same day as Yash Chopra's ambitious love story Lamhe.

While the critically appreciated Lamhe fell like a house of cards, Devgan hit bull's eye with his film, walking away with Best Debutant Filmfare Award.

Action has always been considered Devgan's forte. But while Akshay Kumar and Sunil Shetty have experimented with and accepted roles which challenge their emoting, not fighting, skills only recently, Devgan started his experiments early in his career. After a series of monotonous action films, he played a lovelorn guy who loses his mental equilibrium when his ladylove deserts him in the superhit Dilwale.

Every director from Ram Gopal Varma to J P Dutta describes Devgan as one of the most reliable star-actors in the film industry. Devgan takes the compliments graciously but shyly. Not known to be media savvy, he lets his more extroverted wife, actress Kajol happily take the frontseat in their public appearances. Says Devgan, "It is true that Kajol has a larger circle of friends than me. Basically, she also likes to be away from social gatherings. We share the same temperament, essentially."

Initially, Devgan was often referred to as 'poor man's Sunil Dutt' for his slight resemblance to the veteran actor's looks. Devgan then came up with a winner in Mahesh Bhatt's Naajayaz. Pitted against the versatile talent Naseeruddin Shah, Devgan held his own as the wronged illegitimate son of an underworld don.

Those haunting eyes were effective once again in Bhatt's semi-autobiographical Zakhm. Zakhm was about Devgan going through a series of flashbacks about his difficult childhood and his unique bond with his mother (played by Pooja Bhatt). 'No other Hindi actor brings that shadow of sadness the way Ajay does to his roles,' says Bhatt.

Ajay Devgan won the National Award for his performance in Zakhm. The actor shared the honours with Malayalam superstar Mammootty, for his portrayal in and as Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar.

Laughing dismissively at the suggestion that his role in Ram Gopal Varma's Company --- releasing Friday, April 12 --- of a silently moody underworld don could get him another National Award after Zakhm, Devgan says, "Would you believe it? I haven't seen Company yet. I have been shooting in Mahableshwar for Raj Kumar Santoshi's Bhagat Singh, and wanted to bring a print of Company to Mahableshwar. But there are are no theatres here!"

Saying he liked what he had seen of himself during the dubbing, Devgan adds, "It is very strange, but Ram Gopal Varma had come to me with another offer. But the next day, he said he wanted me in Company instead. I heard the script and immediately said yes."

Director Harry Baweja, who directed Devgan in Dilwale, Diljale and Deewane, says, 'He is a very rare combination of versatile actor and extremely nice human being. Not only is he warm, he also conveys that warmth across to the audience. This helps the audience develop empathy towards him. He has expressive eyes, which he can emote very well with. He can express more than words. That is why I am working on my fourth project with him."

During the making of Thakshak, director Govind Nihalani told, "There is a certain sincerity, a certain honesty about his [Devgan's} performance --- the way he looks, the expression in his eyes --- that comes through. I discovered him as I went along. You realise that he is a man without guile."

Devgan's Thakshak costar Nethra Raghuraman adds, "Devgan and I have two scenes, and he is an amazing person. He was really helpful."

Those much talked about eyes successfully translated his dilemma in love in Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam. As the big-hearted and sacrificing husband Vanraj, Ajay Devgan was the ideal man.

There was the gregarious and good-looking Salman Khan, but it was the underdog Devgan that walked away with all the sympathy and audience support. According to Bhansali, Ajay's soulful eyes which project pain, pathos and grief did the trick: 'I like the scene in HDDCS where Ajay keeps asking his wife for permission to express his love.'

Trade expert Indu Mirani says, "Devgan chooses roles that suit his image. As seen in Dil Kya Kare, romance doesn't suit him. The kind of intense, dramatic roles he did in Kachche Dhaage and Zakhm make best use of his image. There is tremendous intensity in his eyes. He has the look of an underdog. Just like Shah Rukh Khan is portrayed as someone who can never lose, Ajay projects himself as someone who strives to win. Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam is a shining example of the same."

Ajay isn't exactly pinup material. That is a boon, insists Mirani: "The fact he isn't drop-dead good-looking actually helps; otherwise one wouldn't concentrate on his acting. So his looks or the lack of it don't really matter."

Whether his films become blockbuster bonanzas or not, they are considered a sound proposition in the distribution circles. In fact, after Sunny Deol, Ajay Devgan is regarded as a distributor's delight. Observes Mirani, "As far his trade position is concerned, when Devgan does action or intense, dramatic roles, his position is very strong. Intensity is Devgan's forte, be it romance or action."

In Raj Kumar Santoshi's Lajja, he played the part of a village messiah to the hilt. Impressed by Devgan's sincerity and histrionic skills, Santoshi cast him in and as Bhagat Singh, still under production.

Incidentally, there is another film being made on the life and times of freedom fighter Bhagat Singh by Dharmendra, the man responsible for giving Santoshi a break with Ghayal. Titled Shaheed, it has Bobby Deol playing the stellar role and Sunny Deol playing Chandra Shekhar Azad. It is directed by cousin brother Guddu Dhanoa.

Devgan for his part is deeply excited about his role as Bhagat Singh. "There is a lot of homework going into the project. Santoshi's team has been doing research on Bhagat Singh for three years." Devgan had to change his look, body language and attitude towards history while playing the role. The film is being shot in a start-to-finish schedule to preserve authenticity and continuity.

When reminded that Sunny Deol is also producing a biopic on the life of Bhagat Singh, Devgan shrugs nonchalantly. "That is between Sunny Deol and Raj Kumar Santoshi. It doesn't concern me in any way. As long as we can make our version of Bhagat Singh's life the way we want to, they can do whatever they like. I am quite sure of one thing: the quality of our work won't suffer just to get to the theatres first. Our Bhagat Singh is very different from Sunny Deol and his director Guddu Dhanoa's film. I believe theirs is a remake of the 1965 film Shaheed with Manoj Kumar."

In another one of Devgan's forthcoming films Hum Kisise Kum Nahin (inspired from Analyze This) Ajay Devgan attempts comedy. Earlier, he had worked in Indra Kumar's Aamir Khan-Juhi Chawla-Kajol starrer Ishq. But the film belonged to Aamir Khan and Juhi Chawla.

With HKSKN, Ajay will be working with David Dhawan for the second time. The first was Dhanwaan, costarring Karisma Kapoor and Manisha Koirala. "Hum Kisise Kum Nahin has Amitabh Bachchan and Aishwarya Rai, with Sanjay Dutt in a guest appearance. So again, it is bound to create a buzz, " points out Mirani.

She adds, "His upcoming films Company, Chori Chori and Hum Kisise Kum Nahin look promising and carry positive reports. All the films have been made with passion, and it shows. Company looks the hottest while Chori Chori looks like a fun film."

Chori Chori is a love story, in which Devgan is paired opposite Rani Mukherji. The film is on the lines of Pyaar Toh Houna Hi Tha (Kajol), and is directed by Milan Luthria, who made an impressive debut with Kachche Dhaage (Ajay Devgan, Saif Ali Khan).

As a producer, Devgan may have suffered huge losses with damp squibs like Hindustan Ki Kasam, Dil Kya Kare and Raju Chacha.

As an actor, Devgan may not have had a hit since Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, but one cannot deny that his performance has been consistent film after film.

In one of his early television interviews, Ajay Devgan jokingly recalled how was considered an outstanding student in class --- he was always [punished] stood outside the classroom.

Today, Ajay Devgan stands out as an actor.

With inputs by Subhash K Jha

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