The flop-less hero

Varun Dhawan

He is in a happy space: all of Varun Dhawan's films have been successful, though conditions apply. And why do we say that? Simply because the two films that did well in footfalls but did not get back their investment, Dilwale and Dishoom, had him as the junior hero, so the senior heroes (Shah Rukh Khan, John Abraham) should bear most of the brunt. His other films have all worked (his debut Student Of The Year, Main Tera Hero, Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania, Badlapur, ABCD 2) and his last two movies have been spectacularly successful (Badrinath Ki Dulhania, Judwaa 2).

And yet, the flop-less hero is a shade apprehensive about his new slice-of-life film, October. "I know the critics will give it high ratings," he says. "But that's not enough: the audience must like it too." He mentions that streaming partner Amazon is very proud of the film and it will be dubbed in Spanish as well. "We are looking at a global reception because we feel it has global quality," he says.

Made for the role

For Varun, who wanted to make a film with Shoojit Sircar, it was pure good luck that he was chosen, because Shoojit had never watched an entire film of his. Varun went to meet him casually without so much as having his bath one morning, in a T-shirt and shorts with uncombed hair, and Shoojit, who was thinking of casting a newcomer, saw in him the hero Dan he had visualised and written.

"So, I did not know what to expect from him," smiles the actor. "Like my heroine Banita Sandhu, I was also a newcomer in the unit, which worked like a family and included his partner Ronnie Lahiri and writer Juhi Chaturvedi. All I knew was that I would have to be different. And how different I had to be? That question was answered in the days to come."

For starters, Shoojit asked Varun to lower his energy and voice. "He would refuse to keep any shot in which I acted and said that in his film I would have to be a normal person, and not act. When I walked, he cut the shot, telling me that I was walking 'like a hero'. We reshot almost all my walks, with me keeping my legs closer than normal. After shooting for seven days, during which I also practised my walk in the hotel corridor, I admitted he was right. I was feeling different."

But more was in store! Shoojit forbade him from looking at his phone every morning. "Do you know that most of your anxiety and stress comes from such devices and your craving for WhatsApp and social media?" asks the actor. "Shoojit told me to go and stare at plants first thing in the morning. If there were no plants, I had to look at nature nearby and listen to music. I started listening to my college favourites and even discussed with our composer, Shantanu Moitra, about music, making my own compilation of what I called 'October soundtracks'."

The final result, Varun says, was that he became Dan. "Shoojit would ask me, 'Think what Dan would do or say here'. I would reply and he would tell me, 'Then do what Dan would.' Nothing about Dan in the film will remind you of me, that is, the Varun Dhawan of other films."

Varun adds that he has never felt so vulnerable on a set. One day, it all got to him and he strangely began to weep like a child for almost six minutes. Then, Shoojit placed a hand on his shoulder and said, "Okay, now let's take the shot!" The young actor felt that he was not shooting any film but was living a real life. "That's when the floodgates open, and there are no limits!"

How does he feel about the choice of this film vis--vis his normal commercial movies as an actor and star? "I began to question not my choices of films, but my day-to-day decisions," Varun lets on. "I asked myself questions about life and relationships. The ideals that I had lost gradually from my first film were regained. It was a kind of spiritual rehab in which I unlearnt everything. As we grow older, we slowly get corrupted. It was like getting a heartbreak and then mending things. Like when Shoojit had narrated the script to me, he told me he would keep a few things hidden from me until the last moment."

He goes on, "Everyone knew about that and was instructed not to reveal anything to me. When I reached Dwarka, I was told what I had to do, and I was devastated. He wanted the correct reaction from me, and he got it. That is Shoojit's genius trick!"

Giving it his all

Varun had surrendered completely to his director. He reveals, "At 11.30 pm one night, when I had finished a good dinner, he told me, 'Don't sleep tonight!' His favourite activity was to spoil my hair. One day, he would ask me not to wash my face, or to not eat a meal. Make-up was a no-no. My make-up dada had concealed a pimple, and he removed that concealer. Everything was a part of a particular objective."

The emotional trauma was, however, given scope for healing during the last schedule at Manali. "It was beautiful there," recollects Varun. "There was also Ronnie's dog for company. He is actually there in some shots. He would copy me, whether I walked or slumped in a chair. It was as if Shoojit was telling me, 'I have broken you. Now, here's your chance to mend yourself!'"

Then, how different was the October experience from his last different film, Badlapur? "Oh, Sriram Raghavan has his own style. He wanted me to suffer to play the character. Here, it was about being unaware of a lot of things and just surrendering. For example, it was extremely liberating for me to do all the things a hotel staff does. I was cleaning lifts even when the camera was not on. I can make coffee now on the machines. I did drop quite a lot of glasses, though, which are shots that Shoojit has kept in the film."

How true is the buzz that dad David Dhawan has loved him and the film so much that he now wants to do his first serious film with him? "Oh, he has been planning a serious film for ages now, and that too with his favourite actor Rajkummar Rao. They have even met for it. I have told him, 'Dad, just do it!'"

How was Banita as a co-star? "She's 10 years younger to me, and has this cute habit of telling a joke and laughing before anyone else," he laughs. "After seven such cases, I told her, 'At least, let me laugh before you do!' After that, we have become good friends, and we discuss all things good friends do, like music. She has, I think, looked up my father and me on Google, because she does know a few things now about us. But, like Shoojit, she hasn't watched any of my films. And you guys call me a star!"

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