Soon after the release of Karan Johar’s Student of the Year, in which Varun Dhawan played a rich spoilt brat in a film peopled with rich spoilt brats, he began scouting for work in Bollywood. Although his debut had been a box office success, the only thing noticeable about him then was that he had an admirable torso (although the same must be said of Sidharth Malhotra in the film). He would regularly meet directors and producers hoping to get a film to cut his teeth in. On one such day, he happened to visit the office of producer Dinesh Vijan unaware that filmmaker Sriram Raghavan was also there for a meeting. Varun and Sriram were introduced to each other, and while Sriram narrated the script of Badlapur to Vijan, Varun decided to sit through the narration.
“After the narration,” recalls Varun Dhawan, “I was so taken aback that I couldn’t get the story out of my head.” Sriram saw his enthusiasm for the story, and asked him on an impulse if he would like to be part of the film. Varun agreed without a second’s thought and went home excited.
At the Dhawan residence, Varun broke the news of having landed a role in Badlapur, a dark, edgy film, to his family. It was in sharp contrast to the comedies and masala entertainers that his father David Dhawan’s brand of cinema was known for. “I narrated the script to my father and he was shocked at hearing it,” says the son, “He asked me if I seriously wanted to do a film like this as my second film. My mother too was scared that my career would be harmed after this film. Only [my brother] Rohit told me that I shouldn’t get influenced by the family’s reactions and should take it up because Sriram was a very good director.”
That his parents’ apprehensions were misplaced was not a thought that occurred to him. He was simply keen to do the movie. As it turned out, Badlapur took longer than expected to get made, and was not his second film after all. He had two other releases before it, Main Tera Hero and Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania, both of which turned out to be box-office hits last year, establishing him as a viably commercial actor with an instinctive touch for comedy and romance.
By the time he began work on Badlapur, he had to undo a lot of his learnings as an actor and start all over again. “It is like I am debuting again in Bollywood,” says Varun Dhawan at Mehboob Studios in Bandra, Mumbai, a few days before the film’s release. Whether the audience will accept him in a gritty role is a worry, he admits. He appears restless, constantly adjusting the temperature of the vanity van’s AC, sipping water every few minutes and pacing about the length of the vehicle. The only time he stands still is when he stops to speak of how thrilled he was when the Badlapur trailer got a good response from those who’d seen it. “I don't think many people thought I could pull off something as edgy as Badlapur,” he says, “People have come up to me and told me that they were pleasantly surprised at what they saw.”
Says Sriram, the film’s director, “My biggest worry was how I would make a 27-year-old look like a 40-year-old in the film, an age which you cannot even define by prosthetics. But Varun has pulled it off in his body language and mannerisms. In a way, Badlapur is a blend of my writing and Varun’s reaction as a young boy to it.”
After the release of the film, high praise has been pouring in. Critics have noticed how well Varun Dhawan plays the foil to seasoned actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui. His hardwork has paid off. “I have literally lived this film.” During the course of the shooting schedule, Varun was staying in the same house in which the film was shot, and this had its own effect. “When I was shooting for it, I started feeling depressed,” says the actor, “I had to see a doctor and that is when I realised that losing a loved one is the worst thing in life and through the film I was living it every day. Finally, it was my mother who really helped me out of it.”
Is that what explains his extremely lean look, then? He flashes his trademark smile and replies, “No, no. Don’t worry. I am not starving or still depressed. I had to lose this weight for ABCD 2, for which I need to look leaner and fitter. Also the dance moves are pretty killer.” It is his next film in the making, helmed by Remo D'Souza, whose ABCD (‘Any Body Can Dance’) was a big hit. The sequel has Shraddha Kapoor and Varun Dhawan in the lead. Dance is something that comes naturally to him. “The first time I heard music in my life, I started dancing,” he says, “It is sort of a reflex action I have to music. I love beats and rhythm.” He is not a trained dancer, but all it takes is the love of music for his body to get moving.
Varun Dhawan has played the quintessential romantic hero, a goofball, a tormented character and is now ready to play a dancer. He says he learnt very early on in his career that it was more profitable in the acting profession to be a Jack-of-all-trades than a master-of-one. “When I signed on Main Tera Hero, a prominent filmmaker had come up to me and told me that if the movie did well and the audience liked me in it, I would get stuck in a rut and I would only be doing that kind of film. I wanted to prove him wrong.” After the release of Main Tera Hero, in which his comic skills were abundantly evident, he was anointed ‘the Govinda’ of our times by fans and critics alike. In less than a year, the actor has shown there are more shades to him than the obvious.
The space for male actors in Hindi cinema has rarely been as full of flux as it is today. An actor like Varun Dhawan is constantly in competition with the likes of Ranveer Singh, Arjun Kapoor, Sidharth Malhotra, Aditya Roy Kapur, Sushant Singh Rajput and others. Apart from his energetic and likeable screen presence, what has held Varun Dhawan in good stead so far is his ability to experiment with varied roles.
Though he has a film lineage, like many of Bollywood’s GenNext actors, he is frank, level-headed and adept at moving with the changing times. His vanity van is free of the usual frenzy most star vans are filled with. He has no entourage and is pretty much by himself, with only a boy occasionally stepping in to ask if anything needs attending to. The actor himself steps out every once in a while between interviews to catch some fresh air and chat with people around.
During his growing up years, his father David Dhawan was one of India’s most successful filmmakers, with his comic capers of the 90s starring Govinda and Salman Khan still remembered fondly as mass entertainers. Along with his brother Rohit, Varun was a keen watcher of his father’s films and they would often hang out on the sets. While films were a part of his DNA, his dream of becoming an actor took hold rather early. “I don’t know what I would be if not an actor,” he says, “There was no backup plan.”
It was not his father who launched his career, though. He started by assisting Karan Johar on My Name is Khan. Later, when Johar was putting together a cast for Student of the Year, he was picked as one of the three main leads—along with Alia Bhatt and Sidharth Malhotra. The film turned out to be one of 2012’s biggest blockbusters, turning all three into stars. “I was fortunate to have got a launch that big,” Varun says. “But what was more important is we got accepted. It made the journey in Bollywood that much easier for the three of us.”
Deep within, he is a product of 90s Bollywood. Though he was introduced to noir sort of cinema during his college days in Nottingham, his first love will always be larger-than-life Hindi films. He says his idea of stardom is defined by songs like Govinda dancing to What is Your Mobile Number? and Salman Khan grooving to Tu Mere Dil Main Bas Ja. It is this kind of stardom he eventually wants to achieve.
“Varun is still very young,” says David Dhawan of his son, “But when I worked with him in Main Tera Hero, I realised that I could push him to do more. He has an inherent knack for comedy, which will help him sustain in the long run.” Varun is aware that comedy is a tough genre, but he also believes there is always space for it— even if not many want to take it on because of its over-the-top nature.
It may be early days in cinema for Varun Dhawan, but he is enjoying the grind as well as the adulation. “I have almost become like a factory, churning one film out after another,” he says. But he seems to be enjoying it. “I have believed, no matter what you do in life, do it with all your heart. And if you don’t enjoy something, don’t do it, because you will not do it well.”
While he may be a new generation’s massy hero, he still has a long way to go before he makes it to Bollywood’s top bracket. “I am an underdog and I would like to stay that way,” he says. “Every time I sign a film, people look at me wondering why I am doing this film, but fortunately they have all ended up doing well.” In the same breath, just in case he sounds a touch immodest, he adds, “I also believe that we all have our individual journeys, and with the kind of cinema Bollywood is making today, there is place for all actors.”