From being dismissed as a non-looker who was adept only in action, Ajay Devgn has proved that he is one of the finest actors in Hindi cinema today with two National Awards for Best Actor under his belt. An intense performer, he is best suited for roles which require a high level of intensity, of characters simmering beneath the surface and waiting to explode.
Devgn was born Vishal Devgan on April 2nd, 1969, the son of Action Director Veeru Devgan. He did his schooling and college, both in Mumbai graduating from Mithibai College before deciding to enter films.
Devgn made a mark with his very first film, Phool aur Kaante (1991). The film is still remembered for his introduction, standing with a foot each on two motorcycles being driven parallel to each other! The film gave Devgn enough scope to prove his prowess in action with a brilliantly orchestrated fight sequence in the showers standing out. And to be fair to him, Devgn showed he could be a fine performer showing a vulnerable, human side to his character as he tries to trace out his infant son who is kidnapped. Aided by Nadeem-Sharavan’s popular music – Maine Pyaar Tuhin se Kiya Hai and Dil Yeh Kehta Hai among others, the film was a super hit winning Ajay the Filmfare Award for Best Male Debut.
His subsequent films by and large concentrated on presenting him as an action hero and trained by father Veeru Devgan, action was often the highlight and only saving grace of these films. The films, needless to say, sank at the box-office. Unfortunately for Devgn, even the odd film he tried without action in this period like K Vishwanath’s Dhanwaan (1993) failed.
1994 proved to be a better year for Devgn as Dilwale (1994) was a huge success at the box-office and he made a major impact that year with Vijaypath and Suhaag as well. Dilwale also garnered some extremely good reviews for Devgn playing a mentally unstable character and he was proving to be a fine performer in the strong, silent mode as films like Naajayaz (1995) and Haqeeqat (1995) proved. He was nominated by Filmfare for Best Actor for Naajayaz, where he matched an actor of Naseerudin Shah’s calibre, scene for scene.
Diljale (1996) showed Devgn could now rise above the script and deliver strong performances. In fact, though a standard film, Diljale is lifted several notches solely by Devgn’s fiery act. He plays the son of a Nationalist who is branded a terrorist and tortured to death. Enraged with the system that destroyed his family, he joins a terrorist outfit becoming a dreaded terrorist himself. Critics rated his performance his best one yet.
It was in Indra Kumar’s Ishq (1997) that Devgn showed there was more to him than strong, smoldering intensity. The entire first half of the film is quite light before getting heavy and emotional in the second half and Devgn proved more than adept in the comic sequences even if admittedly, Aamir Khan was even better. On the whole, Ishq with a powerhouse cast of Aamir Khan, Juhi Chawla and Kajol besides Devgn, proved to be a highly successful entertainer. Ishq was also Devgn’s third film with Kajol, following Hulchul (1995) and Gundaraj (1995) and the two had fallen in love by then. They teamed up successfully again for Pyaar to Hona Hi Tha (1998), a take off from the Kevin Kline-Meg Ryan starrer French Kiss (1995). Both the actors were in fine form and for the first time showed some great on-screen chemistry together, making the romantic comedy a huge success at the box-office. Though the film is an out and out Kajol vehicle, Ajay more than holds his own as the kind-hearted thief who keeps dropping his catch phrase of Aisa Hi Hoon Main!
Devgn won his first National Award for Zakhm (1998). The film, Mahesh Bhatt’s directorial swan song, is an ode to Bhatt’s mother and a fine, sensitive film even if not Bhatt’s best. Devgn is the life of the film as the son who wants to fulfill his Muslim mother’s last wish of being buried after she is attacked and burnt during communal riots. He lets his eyes do the talking and brings out the anguish his character goes through beautifully. It is a top notch performance and deservedly award worthy.
If Zakhm brought Devgn the National Award, he got further accolades for Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (1999). Devgn easily steals the film from Salman Khan and Aishwarya Rai as the latter’s husband who takes her to Rome to find her true love, Salman, whom she loved before being forced into a marriage with him. Be it the scene where he sings Chingari Koi Bhadke totally tunelessly or his drunken outburst in front of Aishwarya, Devgan is absolutely spot on with a subtle underplayed performance. Quoting a foreign critic, “His quiet resolve and heartbreak are palpable. You’d think his lack of musical experience would be a hindrance, but he becomes the most real character in the whole story. No small feat when you have no songs to support you.”
Devgn expanded his horizon to work with a wider range of directors like Govind Nihalani (Thakshak (1999)), Prakash Jha (Dil Kya Kare (1999)) and Raj Santoshi (Lajja (2001)). In fact, his partnership with Jha and Santoshi has proved particularly rewarding for Devgan. With Jha he has subsequently done films like Gangaajal (2003) and Apaharan (2005) making a strong showing in both while with Santoshi he has played a variety of roles from playing the martyr Bhagat Singh in The Legend of Bhagat Singh (2002) to playing the negative role in Khakee (2004) to Halla Bol (2008) where he played a small town street theatre actor, who becomes a superstar in Bollywood getting corrupted by the Industry. Needless to say, Devgn delivered in them all and The Legend of Bhagat Singh got him his second National Award as well as the Filmfare Critics’ Award For Best Actor.
Other important directors Devgn has worked with include Mani Ratnam (Yuva (2004)), Rituparno Ghosh (Raincoat (2004)), Ram Gopal Varma (Company (2002), Bhoot (2003)) and Vishal Bhardwaj in his ambitious adaptation of Othello, Omkara (2006). Of these, special mention must be made of Omkara. The film was highly rated the world over and Devgan got his share of applause even if his one dimensional role was overshadowed by Saif Ali Khan’s more colorful Langda Tyagi act. Quoting Variety, “Transposition of Shakespeare’s schemers from Venice to an Indian gangster milieu works seamlessly, with the half-caste Omkara as much a social outsider as the Moor Othello. In a role exactly tailored to his brooding screen persona (Company), Devgn is just right as the laconic Omkara, even though he doesn’t plumb the same depths of self-deception and grief as the Bard’s character.”
There have been the odd misfires as well – Harry Baweja’s Main Aisa Hi Hoon (2005), a re-working of the Sean Penn-Michelle Pfeiffer starrer I am Sam (2001) that sees Devgn overplay the role of a man with a child’s brain, who fathers a child and fights for her custody and especially Ram Gopal Varma’s disastrous remake of Sholay (1975), Ram Gopal ki Aag (2007). The latter film has possibly his worst ever performance in the Dharmendra role of the original. He is totally flat, listless and lost in the film.
With U Me aur Hum (2008), Devgn has turned to direction as well. The film looks at Ajay (Devgn) and Piya (Kajol), who meet at a cruise where he is a passenger and she, a waitress. He charms her and woos her using her book of possibilities in which she writes about her favorite things in life. They get married but their marital bliss is cut short when it is revealed that Piya is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. U Me aur Hum gets its act right in its choice of story, the characters that inhabit the film and their relationships with each other. But as the story is fleshed out into a screenplay, the problems begin. In spite of two fine central performances from Devgn and Kajol, the film suffers from a badly written script and a lack of cinematic language. Still, Devgan saw box-office success that year with Golmaal Returns (2008), the sequel to Golmaal: Fun Unlimited (2006).
2009 was again a mixed year for Devgn as the awful, awful London Dreams (2009) was balanced with the above average box office performance of All The Best (2009). However, 2010 saw Devgn making a strong impact with Atithi Tum Kab Jaoge?, Raajneeti (re-uniting him with Prakshs Jha), and especially Once Upon a Time in Mumbaai, where he scored heavily as a character based on Haji Mastan.
Thereafter, Devgn’s successful films have largely been those he has done with director, Rohit Shetty. These include the highly popular Golmaal franchise, Bol Bachchan and the Singham series. His other foray into the masala film genre, however, has been disastrous with Himmatwala (2013) and Action Jackson (2014) being two of his worst films ever.
On the personal front, Devgan married co-star Kajol in 1999. The couple have a daughter, Nysa, and a son, Yug.