Born in Mumbai, John Abraham was one of India's highest paid male models before kick-starting his acting career in 2003. Despite a creaky start with string of erotic thrillers like Paap (Sin) and Aetbaar (Trust), the half-Indian, half-Persian actor scored a home run in 2004 when the action-packed cops and robbers film, Dhoom, became one of the year's biggest box office hits. Since playing Kabir - a baddie obsessed with bikes, babes and bank heists - he has become one of Bollywood's brightest new stars and pin-ups. Currently gaining a reputation as a skilled actor, his latest film is the Changing Lanes-inspired Taxi No. 9211 about two men whose lives collide during a busy day in Mumbai.
When was the last time you took a ride in a Mumbai taxi?
My last ride was actually in an auto rickshaw, which are those sweet three wheeler taxis that roam around Mumbai city. I love riding in them.
What does the number 9211 refer to?
In India 9211 is slang for pulling a fast one on somebody and doing the disappearing act.
How does your character, Jai Mittal, differ from the dark, edgier roles you are used to playing?
The biggest challenge for me right now is being "normal" for a change. I've been an actor who's always done villainous roles, as I believe they are more exciting. Therefore, playing a so-called normal character like Jai was more difficult for me. Jai is a rich, spoilt son of a business tycoon who's on his way to court to stake his claim for his legacy. He has a very flamboyant playboy lifestyle - loves his wine, cars and women, but disrespects all of them at the end of the day.
What was it like working alongside Nana Patekar, who is considered one of India's finest character actors?
He's an amazing guy to work with because it's like watching cinema unfold in front of you. On the surface he seems very serious but actually he's a really funny guy, a little eccentric. On the whole he was great to work with but very impatient towards the evenings when he wanted to get home. He didn't want to stay beyond sunset and finish off scenes. The only day he stayed behind late was when we were shooting a song with some sexy British dancers. He stayed up till six in the morning dancing with the girls who were all egging him on!
Was it tough shooting on the streets of Mumbai opposed to a studio like most other Bollywood films?
Definitely. We shot for 45 days in very hard conditions. It was hot and noisy with crowds running into thousands, all watching, screaming and shouting. It was great fun but impossible to do synch sound, so we had to dub our dialogues afterwards. The film shows Mumbai city in an amazing light. There's a certain buzz about the city that you can't get anywhere else in India, from sitting at a chai stall chatting with taxi drivers, to walking along Juhu beach with your friends.
Director Milan Luthria admits Taxi No. 9211 has been inspired by Changing Lanes, which starred Ben Affleck and Samuel L Jackson. What do you feel about Bollywood films copying or remaking Hollywood films?
It's one thing to lift a plot and copy it scene for scene but it's another for filmmakers to be inspired by something. Taxi No. 9211 isn't a direct remake of Changing Lanes but the sum total of a lot of different things. Before this film Milan made Deewaar (The Wall), which was based on a true story of Indian POWs in Pakistan, but everyone thought he'd ripped off The Great Escape. Having said all this, a lot of people, especially in India, do model themselves on the west, whether it's the way they dress, the cars they drive or the films they see and make.
Having shed your bad guy image, what kinds of roles challenge you now as an actor?
This year it's interesting as the films I'm doing are all very different, as clichéd as it may sound. Taxi No. 9211 is a fast paced urban thriller, while Kabul Express is set against an Afghan backdrop and has a political message. Then there's Salaam-E-Ishq (Salute To Love), which is a romantic comedy, and the family drama, Babul (Father). The idea is not doing big budget, formatted movies but picking different kinds of scripts. Luckily I'm also getting offered different kinds of movies. For example, having just came back from Afghanistan I've been offered a movie in Baghdad! When I asked the director why me, he said you are the only guy who looks like you can go there.
You were a hit at the Toronto Film Festival where you were praised for your performance in Deepa Mehta's opening film, Water. Did that result in any international offers?
The point of going to Toronto wasn't to get film offers from the west but to meet interesting people. I met actors like Keanu Reeves, Gwyneth Paltrow, Eva Mendes and Anthony Hopkins, and the likes of Tim Burton, Atom Egoyan and Iranian director Siddiq Barmak who made Osama, the first film to be shot in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban. I've just been in New York with Fox Searchlight, who is releasing Water in the US in April, and also did some stuff for GQ magazine. It's been an interesting experience.
Does that mean are you open to "crossing over" to Hollywood?
If you ask me very honestly I would rather do Indian movies that go global than blow my trumpet and say I've done a Hollywood film. I am very happy to cater to the sensibilities of my people and take this a step further by taking my movies and showcasing them to the wider world. I'd like to show them what Indian films and I am about.
Taxi No. 9211 is released in UK cinemas on Friday 24th February 2006.