(L to R ) Arjun Mathur, Zoya Akhtar and Vijay Varma
How difficult is it to break into the Hindi film industry? Sometimes, individual stories give you an idea. There was a time when it was called a struggle. Now, actors prefer to call it a process. But it is painful and heartbreaking, nonetheless. So much is beyond one’s control. Just consider these two talented men who’ve made it, but over a circuitous and not always scenic route.
Arjun Mathur: The International Emmy-nominated actor’s life could have easily gone the way of the embittered struggler in Zoya Akhtar’s Luck by Chance (2009), a movie he gets a lot of praise for from youngsters who say it inspired them. But he decided one way to break through the wall of the Bollywood elite would be to play what other actors wouldn’t. He played a closeted gay man in Onir’s I Am (2011), and then more prominently and more successfully in Amazon Prime Video’s Made in Heaven (2019-). It is a model Ayushmann Khurrana has adopted as well, making the movie a message, whether it is about IVF, erectile dysfunction, baldness or transgenders. Quite early on, Mathur realised his audience is not restricted to India, and unlike a lot of more established male stars, he sees the international market as a way out for those who are treated badly by the big-budget Bollywood machine. “Indian mainstream is not the only world out there,” he says. He was in Channel 4’s Indian Summers and has a manager in Los Angeles who is waiting for him to become available so he can start pitching him. Ali Fazal is a great example of an actor who has been saved by streaming services as well as international casting agents. So, while he can be Guddu Bhaiya in Amazon Prime Video’s Mirzapur (2018-), he can also swagger alongside a brilliant global cast in Kenneth Branagh’s upcoming Death on the Nile. Mathur is playing a journalist in a new series for Lionsgate Play, directed by Akarsh Khurana, and is in the second season of The Gone Game.
Vijay Varma: One way it is possible for good actors to survive is to have an ecosystem that sustains them. Both Mathur and Varma have that in common. Mathur has found friends in Tiger Baby Films, which is led by Zoya Akhtar, a filmmaker deep in the inside in Bollywood but still able to look at it objectively and see its bizarre behaviour. It is evident not merely in the way she casts actors, giving breaks to Mathur and Varma, but also in the way she and partner Reema Kagti are able to mix the directorial talent. In the second season of Made in Heaven, for instance, the three directors from season one, Alankrita Shrivastava, Nitya Mehra and she have been repeated. The fourth is Neeraj Ghaywan who made the brilliant Masaan (2015) and ‘Geeli Pucchi’, the short in the Netflix anthology, Ajeeb Daastaans (2021). Varma finds solace in Excel Entertainment, which he calls a “bubble of likeminded people, creatively challenging, looking into the future, not the past.” Varma, a batchmate of Jaideep Ahlawat, Rajkummar Rao and Sunny Hinduja from the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), is again an underrated actor finally getting his due. They all have each other’s backs—he says he didn’t need to make friends in the industry because of his deep bonding with some of his classmates. With stirring turns in Gully Boy (2019), She (2020), A Suitable Boy (2020) and OK Computer (2021), he now has Tiger Baby’s series Fallen, Alia Bhatt’s production Darlings, and Hurdang. Often, for actors such as Varma it is also a battle against family expectations. He had to run away from home to study at FTII. His Hyderabad-based father, a great lover of Bruce Lee movies, was never in favour of his son becoming an actor, and was only reconciled to it after he read a review of his performance in Rangrezz (2013) and saw a photo of his son with Amitabh Bachchan on the sets of Pink (2016) in a local newspaper. Varma, who has increasingly become Bollywood’s go-to guy for brooding evil, has also expanded his range, sinking his teeth into the satirical aspects of OK Computer, both for the pleasure of working with Anand Gandhi, one of the industry’s finest minds, as well as performing with lighter material.
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“I am pav bhaji,” says Vijay Varma, “because we don’t know where it came from.” When IPL started, he says, he cheered for multiple teams: he was born in Hyderabad, educated in Pune, owes his ethnicity to Jaipur, and lives and works in Mumbai. That’s truly pan-Indian.