20 years ago, when Abhishek Bachchan made his debut in Refugee, everyone was intrigued, and it wasn’t the most commercial debut, or the most commercially successful debut either. But the audience had to sit up and take notice of him as the aggressive goon, Lallan Singh, in Yuva, and when he moved on so smoothly to be the whyso-serious cop of Sanjay Gadhvi’s Dhoom. He arrived, albeit slowly, but as you look at the kind of characters he’s portrayed over the last 20 years, you realise that Junior Bachchan, as he is fondly called, brings a certain je ne sais quoi to his screen presence. He’s a versatile actor, convincing enough to be Guru Desai, charming enough to be Roshan the NRI in Dilli 6, and appealing enough to be the comfortable choice in Manmarziyaan. AB can do what it takes, but truthfully, has a lot more to offer, which he might finally be able to, given that he’s making his entry into the space that doesn’t care about your celebrity-hood, or your lineage, as long as you know how to tell a story.

Any actor worth his salt knows that at present, the digital access to cinematic geniuses from all around the world gives their audience a plethora of choices, and in turn, gives an actor an opportunity to reach people who couldn’t always make it to the silver screen to watch them do their best, in feature films. Abhishek Bachchan proudly points out the same, as you’ll read in his words, in this story. Three years ago, when Amazon Prime Video launched in India, little did we know that we’ll witness some hard-hitting stories, newer faces, more focus on writing characters than just writing a story that binds them together, and of course, narratives that might have never made it to the big screen. The reality of pre-decriminalisation of Section 377 with no stereotypicality was our big gift with Made in Heaven, we got the deep, dark secrets of the world of cricket from Inside Edge, our own SATC with Four More Shots Please!. The gripping plot of Paatal Lok was a treat to the eyes, The Family Man was one of the most engaging thrillers out there, and let’s not even forget what Mirzapur has done for us. It’s the success of these, and many more, that has widened the canvas for every aspect of film-making, to paint some mind-boggling pictures together.

The theatre won’t go anywhere, we know, but it is a digital time to live. Even if we discount the pandemic (not that we can) that’s set life on rewind, OTT platforms will still stand out for the way they have made pushing boundaries a possibility for actors — even those as mainstreamly A-listed, in fact, especially for those mainstreamly A-listed, and deserve to get meatier, more intensive roles, given the potential they carry. Today, AB’s digital debut is proof that actors are hungry for stories that unleash grilling challenges, they’re hungry to show the world what they’re capable of. Breathe: Into The Shadows, an intense mystery and crime thriller, which is spread over 12 episodes, brings a new light on what the ultimate A-lister can do, when given a platform that lets him be who he is — an actor of conviction.

Abhishek, what made you choose Breathe: Into the Shadows as your digital debut?

I just really liked the subject. Mayank (Sharma) and Vikram (Malhotra), the creators of the show, narrated to me the plot-line and the basic concept of what they were trying to achieve nearly two years ago, and I really liked it. I thought it was well-written, and it was a great role, to top it all.

Can you give us some details about the character you’re portraying?

Well, the character’s name is Avinash Sabharwal. He is a psychiatrist who lives with his wife — a chef — and his daughter, Siya, in New Delhi. It’s a happy, content, nuclear family. Siya, Avinash’s six-year-old daughter, is kidnapped and for ransom, the kidnapper makes Avinash do things that, for obvious reasons, he’s not very happy doing. His dilemma is — how far would you go to save your family? Would you take another life in order to save a life that matters to you? That dilemma, and the upheaval that the family goes through after the kidnapping, it’s quite the rollercoaster.

How is Avinash, the father, different from Dr. Avinash, the psychiatrist?

Oh, very different. What you’re like at work, is completely different to what you’re like at home. He’s a very doting father and has a great relationship with his daughter and as a psychiatrist, he’s a very dedicated professional.

What was the most appealing part about the storyline?

For me, I think the plot twists and turns that the character is put through, and also the emotional graph of Avinash Sabharwal is what really excited me. From the first episode to where he finally ends up, there’s a lot of meat there as an actor for me, and I enjoyed that. But it surely was challenging too.

What was the biggest challenge in being Dr. Avinash?

Everything. It’s one of the most challenging roles I’ve ever done, and the emotional arch is very exciting and very challenging. Also, the challenge is to do it over 12 episodes, because there is so much more information, and so much more you can build into the character. It was an exhaustive process for me as an actor.

Do you think OTT platforms, especially Amazon, have created a fresh avenue for actors to be able to experiment with more roles and different narratives?

Absolutely. I think this entire medium does it. I think the requirements for mediums are different. I’ll explain. In cinema, your acting as well as your stardom contribute to luring the audience to come into the cinema hall. That is not necessary for a streaming platform, because the platform is available on your phone or on your laptop, and is accessible to you all the time. Going to certain cinemas, with your family, might cost at least Rs. 2,000. At about a fifth of that cost, you can buy a yearly subscription to Amazon Prime Video, and you have access to hundreds of hours of quality, world-class content. The factors involved in the two are very different so, yes, the medium of streaming is heavily dependent on the writer, and because the material is so solid, the requirement is more than just being an actor. So there’s a whole different bracket of talent that’s going to open up for you. And that’s wonderful.

Breathe: Into the Shadows is a 12-episodes set. Is it going to feel like a three-hour long experience, the sense we get when we watch a film, or is it going to be a deeper look into the characters through 12 episodes?

Definitely a deeper look. In effect, I’ve made four films, and I’ve got four films of 12 episodes, to justify my character to deep-dive into the character and his complexities, nuances, and characteristics. That is only possible if the writing supports it. Like you say, it’s a writer’s medium. What we do for a web series of 12 episodes of Breathe: Into The Shadows, is very difficult to do in a feature film, which is only two-and-a-half to three hours. In order to cram in the information and the detail into those three hours, you’ll have to cut out nine hours of content and material. And when you do that, you’re going to compromise the end product. So, the only thing that is completely different between cinema and the web world, in my opinion, is the format of writing it.

If you had to pick any other Amazon Prime Video shows that you wish you could’ve been a part of, which ones would they be?

I’m a huge fan of Manoj Bajpayee, and I think The Family Man was such a huge accomplishment. I mean, pretty much anything that he’s going to do, is going to be great. He’s just one of the finest actors that we have. Raj and DK did such a wonderful job directing it. Would I want to be a part of it? I think that would be unfair of me to say, but I thoroughly enjoyed watching it.

How was your experience working with Nithya Menen and Amit Sadh?

It was great. Menen is one of the most accomplished actors I’ve ever worked with, in the last 20 years. She was just a revelation to me, and she’s brilliant. She’s so natural, so effortless, and she fits in perfectly in the style that’s required for this medium, as well. Sadh, coming from Breathe Season 1, obviously owned the character that he was. There’s an intensity and a physicality that he brings on screen, which is fantastic and also difficult to, you know, to act. That’s very inherent. Even Saiyami, for that matter, has done such a fine job. She has a very complicated character, she’s done it so effortlessly, and she’s only been around for like, three to four years? To have that kind of command over your craft so early on in your career, is fantastic. But I must say, my favourite track in the show, is of Sadh’s two assistants — one is Rishikesh Joshi, who plays Prakash from Season 1 and now he’s joined by another brilliant actor — Shrikant Verma — and they’re some of the finest actors I’ve come across. I look forward to their camaraderie. Their banter is legendary.

What was the prep to play the role? You’re playing a psychiatrist, which must’ve needed some homework…

There was severe prep. Partly, because there was 12 hours of content that you had to prep for, and partly because it was such a complicated character. Like I said, the emotional arch of the character is something that drew me. Sharma’s brother-in-law is a psychiatrist, and he was consulting with him when he was writing. We also interviewed a few psychiatrists during our prep. Although, the show isn’t about psychiatry. It’s Avinash’s job, but it’s not something that’s shown very regularly. We still wanted it to be as authentic as possible. It’s also something that this medium of storytelling dictates for you, because there is a heightened sense of reality and realism that you have to provide whereas in cinema, it’s more escapist, so we get away with the fantasy.

How was your experience working with Abundantia Entertainment, and with Amazon Prime Video?

Well, Vikram Malhotra, the head of Abundantia, is somebody I’ve worked with before. And Malhotra, ever since he began producing content, be it for cinema or the web, has really pushed the envelope in his storytelling. And what I love about Amazon Prime Video, is how hands on they are. They’re not like ‘oh, we’re just a platform and you guys do what you have to do’. They used to be on the sets, they’ll be available for discussion. They are very involved creatively in what’s happening, and I think that’s so refreshing and one of the reasons they’re putting out such great content from India. They’re not just there, signing the cheques. I thoroughly enjoyed working with them.

As a key player of the streaming revolution, how do you think Amazon has been able to change the way this country consumes content?

They’ve brought international quality content to the common man, and they’ve done a brilliant job of it. I think Amazon has penetrated deep into the country. I congratulate them for that.

Five years from now, where do you think digital platforms will be, and what is the future of streaming content?

I think it’s just going to grow. Digital streaming platforms are here to stay. That doesn’t mean that the others — be it stage, television or cinema — are going to be compromised. I see a future of even more exciting content coming out of India and a lot of new talent, not just in front of the camera, but also behind the camera. The one thing that the medium of web does very easily, for example, is reach people everywhere. Breathe: Into The Shadows is being rolled out eventually in over 200 nations worldwide, in several languages, so you’re taking Indian content to an audience that might not have seen our films. So, I think it’s a win-win situation.

As an artist, do you see yourself branching into directing and/or producing digital content?

I don’t know about direction, nor do I have the vision or the patience for it. I’m very happy to act. I’ve produced several films in the past and I’d love to produce digital content, provided I come across something that really piques my interest.

After completing two decades in the film industry, as an actor, what do you want to do differently in the new decade?

I just want to continue to work, and be the best actor there is. That’s my only wish.

If you had to give three reasons why established actors should explore digital content, what would they be?

You don’t need three reasons, there’s one reason — if you feel you’ve got a good role and you want to portray a good role, go for it. That’s the only reason.

 

ALL IMAGES BY AMAZON PRIME VIDEO