‘Bhagat Singh to Tanhaji’: How Ajay Devgn Became Superlative Actor

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By: Navneet Mundhra
Updated: 25 July, 2022 8:55 pm IST
Ajay Devgn

When the National Awards were announced this year, Ajay Devgn bagged the honor of Best Actor for his movie ‘Tanhaji – The Unsung Hero’ which was a gigantic commercial success. Interestingly, this is the third time Devgn has racked up the Best Actor award. Earlier, he had received Best Actor trophies for ‘Zakhm’ (1998) and ‘The Legend Of Bhagat Singh’ (2002).

Only Amitabh Bachchan has received the Best Actor award four times, while Devgn, Kamal Haasan, and Mammooty are the recipients of the National Award for Best Actor three times. Interestingly, three superstars of Bollywood – Salman Khan, Aamir Khan, and Shah Rukh Khan – haven’t won any Best Actor award so far.

‘Rise of Ajay, the actor’

Devgn became a star right after his first film ‘Phool Aur Kaante’ which hit the screens in 1991 and became a runaway hit. His second film, ‘Jigar (1992), also proved to be a success and bolstered his position as a saleable star. While the trade was exuberant about the new ‘action star’, the media was dripping with cynicism.

Though he was acknowledged as a star, aspersions were profusely cast on his acting talent, and – as it happens with most action heroes – he was labeled as a ‘non-actor’. Over the next few years, Ajay remained among the top 6 commercial stars of the decade along with names such as Salman, Govinda, Sunny, SRK, and Aamir as he reeled off many successful films.

Mahesh Bhatt’s ‘Zakhm’, which was released in 1998, was the turning point in his career as far as critical acclaim is concerned. Devgn pitched in a supremely sensitive and restrained performance and enthralled the media. Though the movie bombed at the turnstiles, it did a world of good to his credibility as an actor. Never before he had been accorded such effusive adulation for his acting finesse. All the naysayers who droned on for years that he can only excel in action roles were eating crow.

‘Zakhm’ helped him in shedding the tag of an ‘action-hero’ and heralded a phase where he evinced his versatility by portraying a range of characters with consummate ease. It was also the first time he fetched the National Award for Best Actor.

‘A paradoxical phase’

The period of 2000-2005 was a complete antithesis of Devgn’s career trajectory of the 1990s. In the 1990s, while he whipped out a clutch of hits, he rarely received critical acclaim till ‘Zakhm’ (1998). Between 2000 and 2005, he turned in an array of stellar performances in ‘Company’, ‘The Legend of Bhagat Singh’, ‘Khakee’, ‘Raincoat’, and ‘Apharan’ but none of his films became a blockbuster .

Yes, movies such as ‘Company’, ‘Bhoot’, ‘Khakee’, ‘Qayamat’, and ‘Masti’ did fair business but they were mostly average grossers. On the other hand, his cup of clunkers – too many to name – was overflowing.

This was his worst phase commercially but arguably the best one critically. In 2002, he received his second National Award for the Best Actor for ‘The Legend Of Bhagat Singh’, which was a crackerjack film but unfortunately sank without a trace at the ticket counters.

Despite a string of flops, his reputation as a star remained largely unaffected because of the exalted encomium he received for his acting chops. His knack for pulling off diametrically divergent roles – intense, comic or action – with astonishing ease marked him out from his contemporaries.

‘The roar of Singham’

Devgn fell on comedy films – which were the flavor of the season – from 2006 to 2010 and enhanced his commercial stature with the ‘Golmaal’ series helmed by his favorite director Rohit Shetty.

The winds of change had started blowing in the corridors of Bollywood by the end of the 2000s with the super success of action potboilers such as ‘Ghajini’, ‘Wanted’ and ‘Dabangg’. Devgn once again evinced that he’s a master of reinvention by harking back to his action image and turning in a memorable performance in ‘Singham’ in 2011.

In the decade, he cranked out other hits such as ‘Bol Bachchan’, ‘Son Of Sardar’, ‘Total Dhamaal’, and ‘Golmaal Again’, along with winsome performances in ‘Drishyam’ and ‘Raid’.

The new decade has started on a great note for Devgn as he received his third National Award for ‘Tanhaji’, which is also the biggest blockbuster of his career. It’s been 30 years since he has kept himself relevant both as a star as well as an actor. Looking at his zeal and felicity, at least one more decade of cinematic brilliance is in the offing.

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