It’s never struck me before, but John Abraham seems to have done damned well for himself. It hits me only as I sink into an enormous couch in the spare, glass-enclosed patio outside his plush Mumbai office. Pictures of his sea-facing penthouse (easily available on the internet) are sigh-inducing. His collection of cars and motorcycles is a petrolhead’s wet dream and may/may not collectively cost more than that swanky address. His family’s successful architectural firm (Abraham John Architects) is run from the same office that houses the actor’s promising-but-still-teething production house (JA Entertainment). Meetings concerning his Indian Super League team, the North East United Football Club (NEUFC), also take place here. He’s also among the fittest guys in the industry, owns a face that melts the hearts of women to mush and is married to an investment banker whom he says is in better shape than him.
John doesn’t have Bollywood lineage; he’s not even acclaimed for his acting chops. He’s the MBA-armed middle-class chap who became a model by chance and organically earned his fame. “I’m a marketing guy; I don’t need to be told how to position myself. I only do what my heart tells me,” he says. “Think about it. All the things that have made me popular today are things that I’ve enjoyed doing all this while — riding motorcycles, playing football, being fit.” He clearly paid attention in class, because two decades of baby steps later, it all makes sense.
Given your love for football, you were made the Indian ambassador for the FIFA World Cup 2014. Was it just a one-time thing?
Yes, it was only for the World Cup. Now, of course, I have my own ISL team. When they first approached me, it was to be the brand ambassador of the league. When I saw the teams, I said there’s something missing. There’s no team from the North East. Thanks to Nita and Mukesh Ambani, who are lovely people, they decided to have a team from the region. And instead of being the brand ambassador for the league, I chose to be the owner of that team.
I think that when you have a car, you need an engine. In terms of football, if India is the car, the North East is its engine. I thought it was important for me to be at the heart of football. The people there don’t watch cricket or follow Bollywood and Hindi music — they watch football and prefer rock music. The North East has been alienated by governments historically. We, as Indians, call them Chinese. So NEUFC was my way of making a statement and telling the rest of India about this beautiful region. Now, NEUFC is the one reason that the Seven Sisters — and now one little brother, Sikkim — come together. We are the only pan-region club. The other teams are state or city specific. That means a lot of responsibility on our heads — not as much to win the league as to represent the region credibly.
What’s happening next season?
I’m a hands-on owner. To set the record straight, because there has been some ambiguity, I own my entire team. We’ve ensured that 90 per cent of our domestic squad is from the North East. Unfortunately, a lot of our boys also have to play outside the region, because they get bigger monies from other clubs. But we are trying to strengthen our grassroots. We’re taking boys who are 16-18 years old and pitting them against international players. Maybe they’ll get thrown around a bit, but it’s the best experience they can get. I’m trying to build a team for the future. My dream is to have a team with all players from the North East. NEUFC fans have also been patient with us; they’ve seen the club come from the bottom to mid-table. Hopefully, we’ll make it to the playoffs this time.
Who are your favourites on the world football stage?
I’d like to answer this question with regard to the North East. I think we follow the philosophy of Southampton FC in terms of the academies. Another club I really appreciate for their academy is Ajax. The third one is FC Porto. For instance, half of Liverpool’s players are from the Southampton academy. Because we don’t have a history of football in India, outside of Mohun Bagan and East Bengal, I really follow the way these academies are set up.
I want NEUFC to be the hub for the rest of the country. I want a Mumbai guy to feel that if he wants to train in a great grassroots program, NEUFC is the place to go. I want to set up the most complex, progressive program there. Not just from India, but budding players from Nepal, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Singapore, Japan etc would all come there. It’s not a bad plan, eh?
There are reams of newsprint dedicated to the ISL-I-League conflict and how ISL is taking away from the I-League. After all, I-League is the premier Indian football league. What do you make of it?
There’s going to be — and this is my own assumption — a time in the future where the I-League and ISL will have to merge and the ISL will be the premier league in the country. It’s bound to happen, because unlike cricket — where we play the IPL and then the Indian team resumes its international games — football needs a more purist approach. It needs a longer league that is popular. Football is already getting more popular than cricket among the younger audience. So if we have a strategy to increase the duration that we play football in, we’ll get a fan base, brand loyalty etc. Unfortunately, the I-League has not been able to harbour those leagues of youngsters. More than competing, I think the I-League and ISL will complement each other in the near future, and they’ll look for a way to unify. My guess is that the larger clubs will get absorbed into the ISL in some capacity, and the smaller clubs could form the Championship — or the second league.
Who are you supporting at the Euro 2016 tournament?
Some of my favourite players are German — Thomas Müller, Philipp Lahm, Manuel Neuer. So they are a very exciting team to watch. I like watching Holland too. One of my biggest heroes — Johan Cryuff — passed away recently. That hurt me deeply.
Another exciting team is Belgium. For me, they are like NEUFC. They never had a great team, and then they slowly built a team for the future – from Eden Hazard to Romelu Lukaku and Marouane Fellaini, all the top stars just came out of nowhere.
Do you include a lot of sports in your fitness routine?
I like to. I play football now and then. Even bike rides consume calories. Outside of sports, I like CrossFit, TRX and my dietary habits are fantastic. I don’t need to be told what not to eat or how many calories I need to burn. I haven’t had a cheat meal in 15 years now. I don’t crave anything in particular either. I have very little salt in my food. I stopped eating refined sugar 15 years ago and bread about 9 years ago. I have brown rice maybe once a year, but no white rice. I don’t have aerated drinks; it’s been 31 years. No sweets or mithai either. My most favourite thing is kaju katli. When I was in school, my mom would get me a 200 gram box to eat after I played football. Now, I haven’t had it in 23 years. I tried making it once, with Stevia and low-fat milk, but I didn’t enjoy it. Fortunately for me, I don’t enjoy alcohol. You’ll probably see me with half a glass of champagne per year. I don’t do drugs. I smoke only for characters in films.
What happens when you need to quickly put on or lose weight for a role?
I had to lose weight for Aashayein in 2010. I played a patient suffering from stage 4 lung cancer. Luckily, I’m an ectomorph. If I don’t work out for a month, I’ll drop 5 kg. There’s a section of the audience that thinks I look nice when I’m leaner, but another section likes the Force body. There’s another that likes the Dostana beach body. As an actor, you have to tailor-make your body for the role you are playing. So if I have to lose weight, I do it gradually, in a way that won’t hurt me or my vital organs. For example, I had to put on weight for Madras Café — I remember Shoojit Sircar telling me I couldn’t look muscular. Even if I had a bit of a dad bod or a paunch, and my arms didn’t look so ripped, it was okay. I went on a very normal diet during that phase and tried to look regular. You might not see that much of a difference, but I did. It was killing me. I need 97 Octane to run. If you give me leaded petrol, I’ll grind to a halt. I’m very selective about what I eat. I work out for an hour or so every day. I take one day’s break, and do cardio that day, or some physical activity that makes me sweat and burn what I need to.
I find my lower legs really hard to work on. I had three knee surgeries on my right leg five months ago. The rebuilding is a one- to two-year process — not just the visual aspect, but also the shape and energy. I sustained the injury while shooting for Force 2 in Budapest, when I slammed my knee into the ground. It was very painful. I was immediately taken to a local hospital, and I haven’t mentioned this to anyone before, but they had told me nothing could be done and that the leg would need to be amputated. I called my doctors in Mumbai and they immediately asked me to take the first flight back to see them. So I flew back with a drainpipe sticking out of my leg, and I had my third surgery in Mumbai. Thankfully, I’m 70 per cent okay now.
What do you do on a day off?
Today is like a day off for me. I’m talking to you now, then I’m going to sit with the director of football at NEUFC, discussing players, coaches etc. Then I’ll check out some of the scripts that come to our production house. I’ll have a four-hour narration later in the day. So on my off days from acting, I’m still actually working. If you ask me about off days from absolutely everything, I don’t have any, and I’m not complaining. Working is therapy for me.
What about travelling with your wife or to see her, since she is constantly in the USA?
Actually, Priya is now in Mumbai and she’s helping me with the structuring of NEUFC. She’s also starting a company where she’s going to look at approaching brands for CSR activities. Being an ex-employee of Goldman Sachs and the World Bank, and an ex-student of UCLA and the London School of Business, she has a wealth of knowledge and experience. She’s looking to start off a lot of ventures — the biggest of them will be putting Fitness With John Abraham on a platform.
Does this entail setting up gyms, selling fitness products and so on?
It could be anything — merchandising, gyms, apps, anything to do with fitness. If you look at our industry and we talk about fitness, my name is synonymous with it and sports, in a credible manner. I want to put that on a platform and give whatever I’ve learnt to people, saying that if I could do it, they can too. It’s only a thought process at the moment, but I intend to do it soon. I’m not worried that someone else could come and set up something similar in the time being, because I own this space and don’t want to do it in a rushed manner.
You’re quite the Moto GP racing fanatic.
Moto GP is something I stop my life for. I have something called a video pass, which is a special app on my laptop. I’m always travelling, so for times when I don’t have access to a TV and want to watch the whole race, I just open my laptop in a Wi-Fi area and make sure I stay there, even if I have to lie down in some corner for better connectivity. I also get platinum passes for Moto GP races from Dorna – the company that organizes these races — and can literally walk on to the grid before a race, anywhere in the world.
How does an average Joe get hold of this pass?
When they wanted to come to India, someone told them that if they wanted to meet someone who understands bikes and races, it’s John Abraham. So they met me and realized my passion for the sport, and gave me the pass. I’ve used it to go on tracks like Brno and Sepang, and I’ve ridden a Yamaha bike on the circuit too. I managed a speed of 305 kph, which is not too bad. I have a problem — I love speed.
Which riders’ careers do you follow?
Valentino Rossi is someone I know personally. We met at an event in Delhi, because we both endorse Yamaha. He was surprised at my knowledge of motorcycles. The one thing he was enamoured by was the ‘sari guard’ you see on the back of Indian motorcycles. So here was this 9-time world champion, who knows about every nut and bolt of a motorbike, looking at me and asking what that was. I literally sat sideways and showed him how women sit and get their long dresses stuck in the wheel.
What was your first brush with motorcycles?
I rode my first motorbike at the age of 10, something called a Bobby, which is an old 175cc Rajdoot. Twenty years ago, I sold it for Rs 2,500. Then I rode a Bajaj Chetak scooter. By the age of 12 or 13, I was doing wheelies on scooters — my parents didn’t know. Only once, I remember when I was in college and my mom was getting home at night, she saw me from the back, riding my Yamaha RD350 past her car, and she burst out crying, thinking her son was going to die because she’d never seen anyone go that fast. In those days, I was pretty crazy. Now, when I see some youngsters riding, I can’t help smiling and thinking about how I was way worse.
Like ‘lucky-to-be-alive’ worse?
Well, I’ve lost four friends to biking accidents. It’s painful to think of it, but I was really crazy. I don’t think I’m safe even now. I take precautions, but when it comes to speed, I don’t understand when to stop. So the only way I satiate my desire to go fast is on a racetrack. For me, cars and bikes are way beyond just a means to get from Point A to Point B. I use them to go fast.
Are you as obsessed with cars as bikes?
I love cars. I’m getting a new Nissan GT-R. It has a fantastic feature called Launch Control. I drove the car at the Yas Marina F1 circuit in Abu Dhabi, and when I used it, it literally went from 0 to 100 kph in three seconds. The GT-R is called names like Godzilla, The Legend and Super Car Killer, and it’s what legends are made of. The car I’m getting is a special edition — the Black Edition. She’s customized and will be the only one in the country.
Does ‘she’ have a name yet?
Oh no, I don’t name my cars. I called her ‘she’ because women are beautiful creations, and the only thing that can combat that beauty is a motorcycle or a car. Also, I don’t think highly of men.
What would the cars in your dream garage be?
Definitely a Nissan GT-R. I like the Lamborghini Aventador, and I would want to have a Porsche 911 Carrera, if I had a Jay Leno kind of garage. But my own garage would have a mix of motorcycles and cars, because I live to ride.
When do you actually get to ride motorcycles?
Really late at night. But I tend to sleep early, so this is actually almost like going out on a date. I take that one night where I can stay up and take her out on a weekday. On weekends, there are nakabandis, although even when cops spot me, they know that I carry my license, all my papers, wear my helmet and most importantly, they know I don’t drink.
How are things as a producer? Is it a role you enjoy?
I’m still very new to it. I’m going to make mistakes and learn from them. Creatively, I’m trying to put stuff together that’s different and challenging. There’s something good that will come out of every film I produce. I enjoy the process. I listen to people, but I don’t take anyone’s advice but my own. I love hearing what people have to say. I have no issues with being criticized, and I take it constructively. That’s something you learn from sport — accepting defeat and mistakes graciously. So if someone comes and says I was really bad in a film, I’ll say that I will try to be better. Of course, there are critics that are idiots too. I must say this on record — one sad thing that social media has done is that it’s made men less of men. Today, when you are faceless and nameless, you become brave.
True, but on the flip side, most celebrities aren’t themselves on social media. They are politically correct and just want to promote their movies.
Absolutely; it’s really sad. I was recently speaking to a fellow actor, and I said, “Why do you get so consumed by your social media platforms? Your fans are engaging you, you are engaging them, and it’s great. But (it shouldn’t get) to a stage where every little thing starts hurting you. It’s come to the point where that is your real world, and us standing together and talking is your virtual world.” And he said, “Man, that’s right. I can’t believe it.” Sure, even I’ll post things like ‘4 days or 5 days to go for my latest film’, but I won’t aggressively post only about its release. Instead, you’ll see me tweet about motorcycle parts or football, which I genuinely love.
You have to listen to what your heart tells you. I love and respect my audience; they are my godfather — but that’s not the only thing you should do, because it isn’t the only thing they do. If you think they love only you, you’re wrong by a light year. Vanity is a very central aspect of every celebrity’s life. All actors are all held together by one thread — insecurity. Tell them they are not that good, and they will hold on to someone who makes them feel more secure.
I tell myself that the one thing that’s got me till here is my self-conviction. Tomorrow, if my film succeeds or fails, I’m responsible both ways. I don’t need five people to tell me why. I’ve made up my mind not to go for awards events, and I don’t go, but I don’t talk much about it either, because I don’t need to. Now the organizers know that I’m not going to show up, so how do they reciprocate to that? They’ll nominate a supporting actor from your film instead of you. I don’t want to be a part of that circus. I’m not a monkey. I don’t want to dance everywhere.
If I’m not going to a particular event, I’m probably riding or polishing my bike. That’s what I’ve grown up doing. All the things that have made me popular today are things that I’ve enjoyed doing all this while — riding motorcycles, playing football, being fit. I’m a marketing guy; I don’t need to be told how to position myself in the market. I will do what my heart tells me. I’ll make a film about a sperm donor (Vicky Donor) or the assassination of my ex-Prime Minister (Madras Café). I’ll even make No Smoking 2. So what if only five people watched it?
So what’s coming up next for you?
My next film is very commercial — Force 2, with Sonakshi Sinha. Then there’s Dhishoom, and there might be Aankhen 2, which is an interesting story. I would like to do some crazy stuff that will make people wonder whether I’ve gone mad, like Brad Pitt in Burn After Reading. I don’t have a problem doing something small.
Do you feel you have evolved as an actor?
I do. I think I have understood the medium much better. The media or critics haven’t moved as fast as I have — I think I’ve moved way ahead. What they still consider as under-acting is today considered a good performance, and what they consider a great performance is considered overacting, such as was done in the ’80s and ’90s. I always feel I have been ahead of the curve, ahead of my time and the audience understands that. I just think a section of the media needs to reinvent themselves — there’s a part of them that have their biases. Most of these critics are failed authors, and many of them have approached my production house as writers too, so I know they might be knocking on my door soon. I don’t have a problem with them. I just make a note of their names, so that I don’t entertain failed writers. Outside of that, nothing troubles me.