How Ajay Devgn evolved his dramatic side — birthday special

The Shivaay actor turns 48 today (2 April). We take a look how the action star emerged as one of Hindi cinema’s sensitive but intense actors, ready to tackle any role or genre.

Sonal Pandya

Before becoming a hero with Phool Aur Kaante (1991), Ajay Devgn acted opposite Mithun Chakraborty and Padmini Kohlapure as a child artiste with the film Pyari Behna (1985). Credited as Master Chotu, he played the younger version of Chakraborty’s character Kalicharan. Six years later, he won the Filmfare Award for Male Debut, emerging as part of the new generation of actors including Shah Rukh Khan and Akshay Kumar who have continued to rule the box office more than two decades after their first film.

Ajay Devgn often accompanied his father, action director Veeru Devgan, to the film sets as a child. By age 16, he was aware of most of the technical aspects of filmmaking — qualities which would help when he turned director himself with U Me Aur Hum (2008). Devgn also assisted Shekhar Kapur for two years before acting in films.

Ajay Devgn in Phool Aur Kaante

When he debuted in Phool Aur Kaante (1991) opposite Madhoo, he was only 22 years old. From the start, Ajay Devgn was dubbed as an unconventional leading man and looked likely to step into the ‘Angry Young Man’ persona first made famous by Amitabh Bachchan. Early on, he was cast in the mould of the action hero, often enacting difficult stunts, in films like Platform (1993) and Ek Hi Raasta (1993)

However, most of these films were not big hits. In 1997, he took on Indra Kumar’s Ishq alongside Aamir Khan, Juhi Chawla and Kajol, experimenting with comedy for the first time. But it was 1998’s Zakhm, directed by Mahesh Bhatt, that brought out the sensitive, dramatic side of Ajay Devgn. In Bhatt’s semi-autobiographical feature, Ajay Devgn played the son of a Muslim woman (Pooja Bhatt) and a Hindu man (Nagarjuna) who comes to terms with his own identity and relationship with his mother before the birth of his own child.

With Sonali Bendre in Zakhm

He won his first National Award for Best Actor for the role. Zakhm also marked a shift in Ajay Devgn’s career where he began taking on roles in direct contrast to his action image.

Media critic Sudheesh Pachauri said of Devgn in an Outlook magazine article, “We now have a face in Bollywood that can express seriousness and gravity.”

In Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (1999), he played Vanraj, the unlikely third wheel in the onscreen Salman Khan-Aishwarya Rai romance who walks away with the kudos and the girl at the end of the film.

For Ram Gopal Varma’s Company (2002), he channelled Dawood with his gangster character Malik. The Rediff review of the film stated, “Ajay Devgan speaks volumes with his lanky body language and brooding eyes.”

That same year, he picked his second National Award for Best Actor (lest anyone think the first one was a fluke) for The Legend of Bhagat Singh in which he played the title character. In Deewangee, a remake of 1996’s Primal Fear, he turned negative with a role that made Edward Norton famous. In effect, Ajay Devgn, the actor, had finally arrived.

Ajay Devgn in The Legend of Bhagat Singh

But despite the critical acclaim, Ajay Devgn did not abandon his action persona that won him fans. He balanced working with directors like Mani Ratnam in Yuva (2004) and Rituparno Ghosh in Raincoat (2004), with films like Prakash Jha’s Gangaajal (2003) and Rajkumar Santoshi’s Khakee (2004). With good friend Rohit Shetty, he even launched the first comedy action franchise with the Golmaal series.  

Ajay Devgn in Golmaal 3

In recent years, he’s been more willing to take more different genres from period drama (Once Upon A Time in Mumbaai) to comedy (Son of Sardaar) to thriller (Drishyam). All of these films show how far Ajay Devgn has come from the strictly action image that was attached to him in the 1990s.

Since then he’s branched out as producer on diverse projects like Bol Bachchan (2012) and Parched (2016) and with last year’s Shivaay, Devgn got behind the director’s chair after eight years for the action drama. Though unsuccessful against competitor Karan Johar’s Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, which opened on the same day, the film did not hinder his popularity. He will be seen this year in two films, Milan Luthria’s Baadshaho and Golmaal Again, the fourth feature in the Golmaal series.