FAIRLY EARLY on in last week’s theatrical release, Jugjugg Jeeyo, Varun Dhawan raises his T-shirt, displays his six pack, and shows what is written on his abs: “Will You Marry Me?” with two boxes for ticks saying, ‘Yes’ and ‘No’. Equally, later on in the movie, he is quite successful in convincing the audience that his character Kukoo is trying to change from a male chauvinist blinded by his own ego, to a different kind of man who is happy to celebrate his wife’s professional success. The role has him playing laugh-out-loud scenes as well as the more intense parts, especially one in which he and his onscreen wife (Kiara Advani) say things to each other that usually render marriages unworkable. The movie’s songs are already being shortlisted for the next Punjabi wedding sangeet. The movie itself has sparked an Amul hoarding, the ultimate pop culture honour.
That in essence is Dhawan, who cut his teeth on the arthouse cinema he and his brother Rohit were made to watch as children by their father, David Dhawan, a gold medallist in editing from the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune, and also one of the most successful directors of broad, basic comedies in the ’90s. “We saw everything from Vittorio de Sica’s Bicycle Thief to Satyajit Ray’s cinema, from Kaagaz ke Phool to Dev Anand’s films,” recalls Dhawan. Movie discussions at the dinner table involved everything from how a particular scene was lit to how a film did at the box office.
It’s a fine balance his son, now one of Bollywood’s leading lights, ten years into his career, is trying to maintain. His career is testimony to the invincible power of wanting to do memorable movies meeting the unshakeable faith of the movie trade. A handful of movies designed to be crowd-pleasers are usually followed by one that hopes to expand the boundaries of good cinema. So Main Tera Hero (2014) and Humpty Sharma ki Dulhania (2014) will be followed by Badlapur (2015); Judwaa 2 (2017) will have October (2018) as an antidote; and Jugjugg Jeeyo is going to be followed by Amar Kaushik’s Bhediya, shot entirely in the forests of Arunachal Pradesh among hospitable creatures such as leeches and wolves.
“It’s not easy to listen to your instinct and want to do something offbeat,” says Shridhar Raghavan who cast him in Badlapur when he was just a film old. “He wasn’t the star he has become now. When he said yes to the role, I told him he would have to completely break away from the likeable boy he was till then onscreen. His father even called me up and asked me if I was sure about what I was doing,” says Raghavan about Dhawan’s character of Raghav who vows to avenge the murder of his wife and young son, becoming a ruthless and hardened man over 15 years.
“I want to play all formats of the game, from Test Cricket to T-20. But I have to do it smartly because you can just get butchered by the trade”
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Dhawan’s desire to be an actor and a star, the dream of almost every artist, is not an easy one to achieve. Juhi Chaturvedi, who wrote October, where Dhawan plays an aimless man who becomes a caregiver for a young woman in coma, says when you’re an artist, you exist in an interesting space. “Self-doubt, lack of confidence, a constant desire to re-evaluate your self-worth, all these seemingly negative words are actually your strength. I say so because to be able to act convincingly, you have to leave your established identity at home. All that you are full of, you can’t carry that to the sets if you’ve to play the character meaningfully. When you’re on the sets you start from scratch. You become the person the story demands,” she says.
Especially if it’s far from who the actor is. Dhawan, 35, is a Juhu boy, who has always lived a privileged life, studying at Maneckji Cooper. Isn’t that the school most star children attend? No, says Dhawan, that’s Jamnabai Narsee School. He also cautions me on the notion of what a star son is. “Remember in the ’90s when I was growing up, directors were not famous or even known. My father was always a star in my eyes, but he had to make 40 films before coming to this point,” he says. “It’s not been an easy rise for my family, but entitlement is an easy story to tell. Every human being has had his share of struggle. My journey has been easier, yes. My surname opened a lot more doors.” Including Karan Johar’s, producer and director, who first hired him as an assistant director for My Name is Khan, before casting him as the rich brat Rohan ‘Ro’ Nanda in his 2012 teen drama, Student of the Year.
That must not have been much of a stretch for young Dhawan who studied business management at Nottingham Trent University, England, but his filmography has had roles which have seen him expand his acting muscles. For instance, playing Badri, a young man from Jhansi, who learns that love equals respect, in Badrinath ki Dulhania (2017) or Mauji, a small-town man who discovers the tailor-entrepreneur within him in 2018’s Sui Dhaaga. Sure, both are various kinds of man-child, a type very much in fashion in post-millennial Bollywood, but these are unexpected semi-urban characters for an actor who could coast along on remakes of Salman Khan and Govinda films. Admittedly, his career has seen these two as well, with his father directing both spiritual successors of Khan’s 1997 film, Judwaa (Judwaa 2) and Govinda’s Coolie No. 1 (1995), in the embarrassingly bad 2020 version.
Dhawan says he wants to keep making movies for the market and for himself. “I want to play all formats of the game,” he says, “from Test cricket to T-20. But I have to do it smartly because you can just get butchered by the trade.” Why? “Oh, they’ll tell you what is the need to do offbeat cinema when you can do something commercially viable?” But as Raghavan points out, movies are changing, and actors like Dhawan know they have to be the characters now. Which is why Dhawan spared nothing when it came to promoting Jugjugg Jeeyo. “We went to Chandigarh, Delhi, Pune, Ahmedabad, Kolkata and of course we promoted the movie in Mumbai, and still, it didn’t seem enough,” he says. What was important was that he was re-connecting with the audience after the pandemic. “Once you make a connect with the people you have to keep re-establishing it.”
It takes as much work connecting with the movie-going public offscreen as it does onscreen. Chaturvedi describes the process for an actor: “Usually the character is far from who you are. You don’t know that person, personally. So, you just have to trust the written material and your director. Are you doing well in becoming that unknown, or not, only the director knows. Nothing that you’ve done in the past comes to your rescue other than your director’s confidence in you. And that’s what happened during October.”
Only the director, Shoojit Sircar, could see the character Danish Walia in Dhawan, she says. “Dan’s lack of awareness, his goofy mood, purposeless existence, I’m certain that Varun wouldn’t have been able to play Dan so convincingly if he had come with an attitude of ‘Oh, I know this guy… I know what he’ll do in this situation.” He would’ve just over-acted. A huge credit goes to Varun for that self-doubt, for absolute trust in the director,” she adds. This meant not checking his phone first thing in the morning as instructed, or talking to the plants as told, so as to develop the depth and ‘thehraav’ (gravitas), which Dan had to eventually evolve into. “It’s not easy to let go of your star status to playing a non-hero, a semi-loser, who won’t even get the girl in the end, but Varun had the voice inside that helped him push his boundaries. And he heard it. He has no idea how many hurting hearts thanked him for being the caregiver, for being the face of adversity and faith at the same time, for redefining selfless love. Soulfully. Without knowing,” adds Chaturvedi.
That is what actors live for. That is what drives Dhawan, who credits his mother with raising him right. Most of his friends date back to his school days, he says, and are far removed from Bollywood. “They keep pulling my leg. My wife, Natasha, is a fashion designer, and has nothing to do with films.” he says. In the industry, he has developed quite the reputation for someone who is willing to lend his brand name to make better cinema. Someone who thinks beyond his own stardom. Says Raghavan, “We were supposed to do Ekkees together, where he was supposed to play a 21-year-old soldier. He told me he could no longer pass off as someone so young.” Dhawan was also, famously, Raghavan’s first choice to play the blind musician of his 2018 smash thriller Andhadhun. “Actors have their own charts, they have to balance art and commerce. He was my first choice even for the movie I’ve just done, Merry Christmas,” says Raghavan, of the role that finally went to Vijay Sethupathi.
Dhawan always wanted to be an entertainer, if not specifically an actor. He remembers loving the spotlight even when he would dance with the Shiamak Davar troupe. His star is very much on ascendant, despite the occasional blips with the unfortunate trifecta of Kalank (2019), Street Dancer 3D (2020) and Coolie No. 1 (2020). With Bhediya done and dusted, he is now starring in Nitesh Tiwari’s Bawaal. “The shoot in Lucknow is proving to be such an enriching experience,” adds the actor who endorses 16 brands, and occasionally hosts shows and appears as a celebrity guest, even if only to put his foot in his mouth, as in when he ridiculed Kangana Ranaut for her stand on nepotism by declaring, rather foolishly, nepotism rocks at an award show or when he said Dilwale (2015) was like Inception (2010), one of Christopher Nolan’s most celebrated mind-bending movies.
“It’s not been an easy rise for my family, but entitlement is an easy story to tell. Every human being has had his share of struggle. My journey has been easier, yes. My surname opened a lot more doors”
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“I just don’t want to be put in a box,” he says. “I feel there is an audience for masala movies as much for dark and supersensitive cinema. I don’t look down on either. I want to do it all.” The only thing stopping him would be the fear of failure. And he’s too nice a guy for anyone to want that for him. Filmmaker Vivek Agnihotri speaks of his innate kindness at length. “My film The Tashkent Files (TTF) was stuck for a long time as nobody had faith in it. Finally, when the studio decided to come in as P&A (prints and advertising) partner they somehow decided to release it along with Kalank (2019). The studio released it only in a couple of hundred screens which is perhaps the lowest release ever. But Kalank bombed and TTF started growing but PVR wasn’t releasing any screens for us as Dharma is a giant with muscle and they blocked all screens. Without increasing screens TTF would have died despite very strong word of mouth. This is when a friend who knew Varun called him and asked him to help,” says Agnihotri. “Varun graciously said if TTF is a good film it must get screens and he called top bosses at PVR and we found screens,” adds Agnihotri. The rest is history. TTF ran for 100- plus days. Not only that, Dhawan was the first star who called Agnihotri at midnight after seeing The Kashmir Files and spoke for a long time discussing the nuances of the film. That’s when Agnihotri understood that Dhawan is not only a genuinely kind person but also understands cinema very well. “I also love him because he is trying to make a difference. Once he finds his song, nobody can stop him,” he adds, in a fitting testimonial for Dhawan of whom Shoojit Sircar once said. “He has integrity in his eyes.”