Debutant actor Abhimanyu Dassani’s eyes are glued to his phone. The room in his bungalow is quiet as he and his team wait with bated breath for a teaser of his upcoming Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota (MKDNH) to drop. I imagine this has been the scene throughout the day since Dassani has been sharing posters for the Vasan Bala film every couple of hours on his social media handles. The intense anticipation is palpable since, after a three-year-long wait, the actor (yesteryear Bhagyashree’s son) will finally see his action-comedy get a commercial unveiling. But MKDNH has already travelled to several film festivals and garnered love from around the world.
It opened last year’s Mumbai Film Festival, won the Grolsch People’s Choice Award in the Midnight Madness section at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), and bagged the Best New Young Actor Award for Dassani at the International Film Festival and Awards Macao (IFFAM). When we discuss the award, the actor is eager to share credit with the rest of the crew. “They’re the ones who [made] Surya,” he says about his character. Is he dealing with nerves before the release? “Not at all”, he responds jovially.
MKDNH’s success in festival circuits gives Dassani confidence. Describing an energetic midnight TIFF crowd that stayed on till 3 a.m. to meet the cast and crew (“I would’ve gone home,” he laughs), the actor nonchalantly adds, “No one recognises me [otherwise].” Dassani’s debut is about a man who suffers from congenital insensitivity to pain – or an inability to experience physical pain – and in this zany homage to the ’80s genre, the condition is a superpower of sorts. “Surya is that child in you that has not grown up,” Dassani shares, “He’s black and white, not jaded. It’s a great, new way to see the world.” The actor says he didn’t turn weary during the wait, relishing the journey instead.
The 29-year-old says the most surreal moment so far was when filmmaker Mabel Cheung introduced him for his IFFAM award. “I don’t know what she said, but she put my name in the same sentence as Jackie Chan,” says the actor. After being ragged in his student days for playing the blink-and miss role of a waiter in a school play, the comparison undoubtedly thrilled him.
The film seems like an unlikely choice for a star kid’s entrance into the industry. Bala’s last film Peddlers (2012), another festival favourite, never got its commercial release, and MKDNH stands in sharp contrast to the romantic films that conventionally launch industry kids – from the Sara Ali Khan-starrer Kedarnath (2018) to the Ranbir Kapoor and Sonam Kapoor launch vehicle, Saawariya (2007). “Art is supposed to be unconventional!” says Dassani. He admits he wasn’t familiar with Bala’s work while auditioning for the role though, and even had a long conversation with the director as a sweaty mess in torn shorts, without realising it was Bala. He still wonders what the director saw in him that day.
It wasn’t a breezy selection from there. In the three years of sticking by the film, Dassani auditioned for around a month-and-a-half, trained in mixed martial arts for nearly nine months, and kept himself busier by auditioning for other roles between shooting days. At times he was overzealous. “Tigmanshu [Dhulia] sir shouted at me after seeing my audition,” shares the actor sheepishly, revealing that among the 50-odd auditions he undertook, this one was for a character who was about a decade older than him. But Dassani says he can’t help himself. He enjoys auditioning, “In those minutes [between] ‘action’ and when they say ‘cut’ I feel like Superman, [or] Popeye when he has some spinach.”
Before discovering this passion though, Dassani had been focused on being an entrepreneur from the age of 16. From organising New Year’s Eve parties to opening football turfs, he made the leap to try his hand at filmmaking, and turned assistant director for Rohan Sippy’s Dum Maro Dum (2011). It was on those sets that Dassani chatted with actor Abhishek Bachchan, “He told me about the mindset of the actor, and I found that extremely challenging.” His interest piqued, the finance graduate took acting courses in New York.
While working on his debut, Bollywood had its moment of reckoning with the conversation around its deeply rooted nepotism. Though Dassani’s story is speckled with names from the industry, he emphasises on his independent path since he was a teenager – even snagging this role without the filmmakers knowing his legacy. “There is a privilege,” he admits, “[but] why should you be ashamed of where you come from?” Dassani then adds simply, “I don’t deserve the credit of being Bhagyashree the actress’ son. I haven’t achieved anything. Let me prove myself.”
But he seems to already be following in his mother’s footsteps. Decades after her debut as Suman in Maine Pyar Kiya (1989), opposite a then relatively unknown Salman Khan, Dassani says their family trips abroad meant bumping into fans who knew her as Suman. “That means her character’s living on forever,” he says, “I want to scratch the surface of that.” At least among the crowds he has encountered at festivals, this is the case for him too. “People don’t know who I am, [but they] know who Surya is. Surya is much bigger than Abhimanyu. It’ll be great if my characters speak more than I do,” he asserts.