For millennial fans of Bollywood, it was impossible to ignore the star power and clout wielded by model-turned-actor-turned-producer John Abraham in the mid to late noughties, and even up until a few years ago.
And while movies brought him global recognition, Abraham’s was already a familiar and wildly popular face among young Indian moviegoers long before he joined films. Prior to acting, he had an outstandingly successful run as a model, starring in a number of major advertisements and music videos. So much so, that Abraham was considered one of the few male supermodels in India in the 90s, having modelled in New York, London and Hong Kong.
Abraham's golden years were fruitful
This was the era when most popular models — both men and women — sooner or later found their way into Bollywood. With the likes of Aishwarya Rai, Sushmita Sen, Milind Soman, Arjun Rampal, Dino Morea, Bipasha Basu, and others leading the way, Abraham too jumped into the fray in 2003, starring opposite Basu in Jism, an erotic thriller. The move came as a surprise to no one.
For a while, things seemed to go swimmingly well for Abraham. Soon after they started filming for Jism, news about a budding romance between the lead pair started trickling into the media from the sets.
Basu and Abraham would go on to date for nine long years, and were considered among the most popular star couples of their time.
On the professional front, he was bagging plum assignments such as Dhoom, in which he played the lead antagonist and won a Filmfare Award for his efforts, in 2004; the Oscar-nominated Water in 2005, the commercially successful comedy Garam Masala, again in 2005; Zinda, Baabul and Kabul Express — all moderately successful in 2006; Dostana in 2008, New York in 2009.
His brawn served him when his acting talent (or lack thereof) couldn’t
But after a few years of early success, since 2010, Abraham has been seen almost entirely in a string of films that has him playing one of two characters — the hunk who served as convenient eye-candy in mindless comedies like Desi Boyz, Housefull 2, I, Me aur Main, Welcome Back, etc; or the macho, stunts-ready, inscrutable lead in action thrillers like Force, Race 2, Shootout At Wadala, Madras Cafe, Rocky Handsome, Dishoom, Force 2, Parmanu: The Story Of Pokhran, Satyameva Jayate, and the recently released Romeo Akbar Walter.
More importantly, there seems to be another distinctly recurring theme in Abraham’s films, regardless of the genre: they all seem to feature large, star-studded ensemble casts. While his appeal to the younger audience has been a definite draw for filmmakers since he entered the industry, most don’t seem to have enough faith in his acting chops to offer him films as the only male lead.
Abraham’s inability to emote convincingly has been pointed out by most film reviewers in his 16-year-long career.
He has collected sharp criticism as being a wooden, expressionless actor whose popularity rests solely on his ripped physique. His body has certainly served him when his acting talent (or lack thereof) couldn't. For a long time, he coasted along in Bollywood, his stature as a body-conscious youth icon cemented with every successive (if not successful) thriller that gave him the opportunity to put his body on display and show off his fitness while performing dangerous stunts.
His website too is littered with pictures of a shirtless Abraham posing, exercising, sitting atop bikes… basically doing all that he can to keep visitors visually riveted.
The brand endorsements too were pouring in through the door during this time. An old hand at modelling, even as an actor Abraham has endorsed a plethora of products — particularly men’s grooming products. From hair gels to shaving creams, face washes and creams for men, fitness drinks, shaving instruments, bikes, cars, car oil, Abraham has featured in advertisements peddling them all.
But his looks could only carry him so far
Things either took a downward turn, or Abraham suddenly decided to retreat from public eye around 2014, the year he got married to Priya Runchal, an NRI banker. Where once one couldn’t watch Indian television for more than a few minutes without coming across an advertisement starring Abraham, these days he is scarcely seen or heard. The films, too, have been few and far in-between. In the last five years, he’s only starred in eight films, three of which were produced by his own production company.
No one knows whether the dwindling endorsement deals are a conscious choice to focus on his other endeavours — he owns the Indian Super League football team NorthEast United FC and he turned film producer in 2012. Most of his productions have Abraham in the lead role.
After five years of lying relatively low, Abraham seems to be keen to shake things up in 2019. Romeo Akbar Walter is his first big release of the year. It's been a while since Abraham has been the only lead in a film not produced under his own banner. It is the hat-trick Abraham desperately needs after the successes of Parmanu: The Story Of Pokhran and Satyameva Jayate in 2018 to revive a middling career.
At 46, Abraham has to know that he doesn't have too many chances, or time, left to make a comeback and establish himself as a bankable actor. And as great as his run might have been with brands vying to get themselves a piece of his body, as he pushes 50, the youth icon image seems to be fading fast. With two major releases — Batla House and Pagalpanti — lined up for release later in the year, 2019 could well be the year John Abraham reclaims his place in Bollywood, or starts preparing for his farewell.