John Abrahan is a stickler for detail, which is as apparent in his approach to fitness as his idea of work.
John Abraham is not in the habit of mincing his words. All while being very polite. He kind of works in his own domain, balancing his profession with his interests, keeping to his—more or less—reclusive ways and yet managing to catch the attention of every moviegoer almost every time he makes a movie.
When we first floated the idea of having him on the cover to Maxim’s predominantly female team, there were hoots, yelps and at least one, “Oh God, please!” Suffice it to say the decision was instant because we’re more than happy that the women of Maxim call the shots. Creative Director Sunanda Vaid had the enviable task of putting the team together, especially the models who’d accompany him in these gorgeous frames. There, too, John insisted that we ensure the models be comfortable with the idea behind the shoot—this is, after all, our first style special of the year.
Maxim has had only women on the cover over the last 10 years, except for one time—our style special last year. Yet, every time we’ve undertaken a soft survey about who we should have on the cover, John’s name surprisingly keeps popping up. Which leads one to believe his popularity isn’t just restricted to the women. “I think Maxim should take these surveys very seriously and have me on the cover every year,” he jokes, but we know there wouldn’t be too much dissent there... at least from Team Maxim.
Throughout the shoot, John was keen to include every member of the crew in the proceedings, taking time to sign stuff and pose for those damn selfies and also going through each shot and look in detail. He’s a stickler for detail, which is as apparent in his approach to fitness as his idea of work. We proposed a formal interview, but John wanted more of a chat, “something where I can talk about everything and anything,” he said. So, that’s what we did.
Thanks for a great shoot, John. How was your first Maxim experience?
It was fantastic. I’ve always wanted to be projected in a way that was classy, international and Maxim did exactly that.
Well, you’re only the second man we’ve had on the cover. Pretty special, right?
But I wanted to be the first. No, seriously, it’s an honour and Maxim has a very high brand value and unique brand salience. Now that I understand that you have only women on the cover, it becomes all the more special. I love that Maxim is all about women and about boldness and sexiness, so being a part of that is amazing.
The women in our team voted unanimously for you, and the many surveys we do ask for you for the cover. Does it bother you that you’re perceived as “hot” by girls—and maybe some men?
Not at all. It’s nice to be appreciated. I’m not apologetic about being projected in a certain way because I realise that sex appeal is something we all have.
Most men definitely want to ape your fitness regime. Is it stressful to always have to be fit and buff?
No, there’s no pressure for me. The life that I lead is because that’s what you have to do if you want to be—or if you are—a role model. I try to lead by example. But, to be honest, it’s beyond six-packs and looks. I rate discipline very high. And I think being intelligent is sexier than how you look.
A lot of dudes will be very happy to hear that, I’m sure. You’ve definitely displayed that with your career trajectory. What made you choose this varied path?
Interesting question, so I’ll go back a bit in my career. I’ve done the commercial movies, but then I’ve done movies like Water. A famous producer said, “Your most important choices are the ones that failed.” This was pre-Madras Café. He said I’d made it a point to tell people that I’m not going down the easy route. I choose to do something different. The first thing I did when I became a producer was make a Vicky Donor. It wasn’t a conventional film, and it took a long time to get it out. But I believe you need to make choices you can stand by, choices you can live by. Yet, you need to have the guts to fail. And have the guts to say, “I’m ready to fail.”
Sounds very tiring. Why would you want to do that, when you could just ride the easy celebrity express?
But that’s what I’ve done all my life. I could have been a regular commercial hero but that would have been so boring. I like to take on challenges, and I put my money where my mouth is. I always say: why would you nibble on mediocrity when you can choke on greatness?
Well said, but still... Does it have to be so difficult? Why not choose a middle path?
Also, I wouldn’t want to blame anyone for my decisions. Because I’m the one who’s taken them. It’s easiest that way. It’s much more difficult if you work without conviction, I think.
Doesn’t your appearance hold you back in some ways? I mean, you’re super buff.
I like to think of myself as a thinking actor, and that’s how I navigate my roles as well. Sure, I’m not denying that there was a time when it was all about physicality. All the roles I did had an aspect of brute strength and force. But over time people understood that this man can think. And a lot of people respect that.
So, things are much easier now? As a brand, one gets the impression that you must hold a lot of clout.
Every time I think that the brand “John Abraham” is larger than life, the studios bring me back down to earth. I don’t know how they think, or where they think from. The pun is intended. I feel they should put themselves behind ideas, behind the process of ideation, but they seem to be interested more in proposals.
But the dynamics have changed, and studios are also answerable now, right?
And there’s nothing wrong with that. While I still have to tell people that certain projects make sense, I don’t look at it negatively if they are turned down. But there should be a rationale. It’s constructive when people question you. It gives you time to introspect and rework.
Do you enjoy the process? Because I know that it can be upsetting if people question your sensibility or judgement if you’re convinced about something.
Forget anyone else questioning me, I question myself. How can I win the next move? It’s not about the person, but about how you approach it. A lot of people will think football, racing or contact sports are my favourite, but my favourite sport is chess. In my life and no matter who you are, there are people who think two moves ahead or five moves ahead. I think 10 moves ahead.
That’s a great way to run your life and career, but does it really work in the movie business, because things and tastes are so fluid all the time?
I’m very, very happy and grateful to be a part of the industry. But I’m also happy to be a change that the industry did not expect. I want to bring in a lot of changes and I hope the younger lot take a page out of my book. As actors, it is up to us to see that our craft is respected. Be it awards or events, we need to focus on our craft. No disrespect to anyone, but I think we shouldn’t dilute our craft. And everyone can agree to disagree.
Does the idea of being famous ever get to you? All those fans, being a pop icon...
My value systems have been so strong that there’s never been a time in my life when I’ve gotten swayed. I take a lot of pride in that. I’ve never let fame get to me and I have a very nonaddictive personality.
Still, being famous must be great.
Don’t get me wrong: I love being famous. I really enjoy it. But I don’t let it come in the way of my being.
Having a personal life as a celebrity is tough. Does it affect you?
I don’t get affected as much as you’d think. And I keep my cool. I’m not a hot-tempered person. If someone taunts me, my reaction would be, “Are you done? Can we move on?” If someone pushes me, my reaction is, “Are you happy? Can I leave now?” I’ve never been comfortable with the idea of celebrity. You can put me in front of 15,000 people and I will be just fine. But if you put me in a small celebrity party, I’ll probably cringe. I’m a bit of a recluse, but that’s because I enjoy my space.
Right, like someone would try to push you. I “pity the fool,” to quote Mr. T.
It’s so funny that now no one wants to come in my way. It’s like waking up a sleeping lion. I’ve never hurt anyone—it’s not a reaction that comes from me. I’m peaceful and I love saying this. I’m a very soft person. The exterior may be tough, but I like to give people the benefit of doubt.
What about relationships? Is it difficult to manoeuvre them in the face of constant media attention?
Honestly, and I have to say this, the media in India is still a little human—also, I’m a private person and I like simplicity. I think the basis of a relationship is respect but it also helps if couples have similar habits. Like Priya is amazing—she is fitter and stronger than me. Believe it or not, her food habits are even stricter than mine. She has a very strong sense of self and is not somebody who wants to be labelled. She’s very honest too, and the two of us are very similar because we are disciplined and we just like to do our work.
Your work takes a lot of discipline, as we all know. But you also like to take chances, right? Like your new movie, Rocky Handsome, has some slick action. What made you contemplate making it?
There’s this Korean film called The Man from Nowhere, very emotional yet action-heavy. We’ve actually acquired the rights for it. I saw it and I knew I wanted to make it. So I approached Nishikant Kamat. He loved it too, but didn’t want to make it that dark. Of course, then the realisation set in: how will I ever come close to this? But I had to do it so I jumped right in.
There’s a surreal rapidness to the fighting that’s pretty wild.
The focus for the film was to push the envelope on action. People have never seen action like this in an Indian film. Also, like most of my other projects, the idea was not to do something conventional. The intent was to bring a new dimension to action. That’s also why Nishikant—who is prominent in theatre—wanted to showcase an antagonist who could think. It always works together. And, like most of my other films, it will gain momentum over time. I have no doubt that we have set a new benchmark of action in Indian films.
Yet, there is a softness to the film as well.
The backstory of the protagonist needed that treatment. It is about highlighting the love between him and his wife. The film required this and we shot in a location that offered that romantic setting.
Is that why you chose Seychelles?
The requirement for the backstory was a beautiful location that was romantic and unspoilt, so we could fully highlight the protagonist’s background. And we shot in Seychelles because it gave us a chance to capture that romance. Plus, it has not been seen on screen for a while so there was a freshness to the locations as well.
Still, you must have trained like a beast given the sheer physical magnitude.
I actually went to Thailand for training for a few months, and I trained for 14 to 16 hours a day in different forms of martial arts including tai chi. Among them was silat, the Indonesian-Malay discipline where they use a curved knife called the karambit. To replicate the moves, I trained with blunt knives. It was brutal. Every time I showered, I would practically scream because I had been cut in so many places. I have a very broad back and my skin is thin because I have low body fat, so it was extremely painful. But, it paid off because when Nishikant saw me, he said he thought I’d been doing martial arts since I was a child. My movements had become fluid and almost poetic. But you won’t see all that effort on-screen.
Training must come naturally to you.
I like to say that I am a student of fitness. Like everyone else who wants to be fit, I am learning all the time.
What does a typical training day entail?
A lot of my training techniques have evolved over time. Sure, I still do a lot of strength training, but most of it is bodyweight-centric now. Because my bodyweight is all I need to lift—I’m 94 kg! Now, I centre around my core and focus on functional training. Cardio and yoga are also a big part of my training.
I know all our readers would love some fitness advice.
I have to tell everyone out there that fitness is all about consistency. You have to have a strong mind. You can’t have a cheat day. Because, by definition, it is meant for people who want to “cheat.” Go at it hard, eat right and stay strong.
Does a fitness fanatic like you ever say, “Okay, I’m done!” because I’m sure there are times when you’re exhausted.
Sure, there are times when I say, “I can’t do anymore.” But I just tell myself that I will fail. The fear of failure pushes me to succeed. Nobody is there to see the struggle, they are there to see the result.
No wonder you’re a fitness icon.
And I like that I don’t need to scream that I’m fit. You know, I have to share this: just two weeks ago, I met Premchand Degra, the former Mr. Universe. I told him I was a huge fan. He touched my hands and my chest and said, “You’re all natural.” He validated all my hard work. When people asked him to rate my physique, he said, “It’s perfectly symmetrical. It takes a long time to get these proportions. John has set his own benchmark.” I was very happy that he felt I was an inspiration to the younger generation. He is a legend, an icon.
Speaking of inspirations, what inspires your sense of style?
It’s amazing how my style is so well reflected in this shoot with Maxim. I like things cool, well-fitted and summery, no matter what the weather. I believe in just being comfortable and enjoying what I wear. That will define your personality in the clothes. You have to be confident, and really wear the look. I’m really big on earthy colours. Then again, I am a huge fan of black. I keep my dressing simple and if you see my clothes or the architecture of my house, it’s all about clean lines and no clutter. It’s very plain.
Maxim has initiated a social campaign called #MakeHerSmile. The idea is that change begins with respect for the women in your life. Maybe do small things that make her life easier. Things that make her smile. Agree?
I think it’s very smart to make her smile if you’re concerned about your own well-being. But, on a serious note, it’s a beautiful thought and a great idea. It’s essential to respect women.
Yes, respect is the first and most important thing. And we’re hoping people will take the baton from the campaign...
In a society that’s male-driven and chauvinistic, it’s up to the men to smell the coffee and wake up, because your next boss is going to be a woman. Respect them in every way. Believe that they are the “fairer” sex because they really are. They’re fair. There’s going to be a quantum leap. Ask any nuclear family and they would much rather have a daughter now. We screened Rocky Handsome for young boys and girls, and the boys came out saying they loved the emotional connect to the action. But the girls, we heard them say the action was “hot.” Today’s girls are not afraid to speak their minds and you’d better learn to respect them, or they will whip your ass.
What is the one thing you want to do?
I would love to just ride. The one thing I really want to do is take six months off and just ride around the world and document my adventures. But there’s so much happening in the world that it may not be possible. But I would love to do it. I like flirting with danger. In fact, after Kabul Express, I wanted to head to Basra to shoot but couldn’t. I really want to ride, and sit in secluded places and introspect.
PHOTOGRAPHS: JATIN KAMPANI
STYLING: SHALEENA NATHANI
HAIR & MAKE-UP (JOHN): SAPNA BHAVNANI
MAKE-UP (MODELS): REBECCA DONEY AT TFM (INDIA)
HAIR (MODELS): MARCELO PEDROZO AT TOABH
MODELS: KATI AND NADYA AT TOABH DORIS AT TFM (INDIA)
SHOT ON LOCATION: JW MARRIOTT, MUMBAI