About an hour into our shoot with Varun Dhawan, the ravenous crew decides to make a pizza run. The actor’s manager immediately orders him a more ab-friendly portion of grilled chicken from the neighbourhood fine-dine. “But if he’s in the mood, he might join you guys, so order some for him too,” she tells us. Sure enough, just before we head into the final change, Varun spots a huddle around the food and jumps in for a slice (or three). “Man, this is so good,” he says, refreshingly unbothered about the carbs, or the sloppy chunks of barbeque chicken that hover dangerously over his patterned Paul Smith shirt. Moments later, he’s facing the camera again. Photographer Rohan Shrestha — well within the comfort zone of a long-time collaborator — encourages all the filmy shenanigans.
Varun’s pointing an air gun at him, sticking roses between his teeth, spreading him arms wide a la Shah Rukh Khan and performing air kicks in quick succession. We’ve decided that this one’s for the fans — the largely teenybopper following that might be responsible to a great extent for his latest film, ABCD 2’s dream run at the box office. “Rohan, Varun and I have shot together so much that we just had to have some fun and do something different this time,” says our stylist, Antara Motiwala. Meanwhile, this latest success has ensured that Varun stays firmly in a league he’s perhaps the only member of. He’s five films old, and has yet to taste failure. Starting with his glitzy 2012 debut, Student Of The Year, Varun’s now five for five, and looks all set to extend that streak to six (his next is Rohit Shetty’s flick with Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol — who would bet against it?). It’s an impressive statistic, especially when you study it in context with his nearest rivals and their hits and misses.
Sidharth Malhotra, Ranveer Singh, Arjun Kapoor… they’ve all starred in films that have failed to charm viewers. Last year alone, Hasee Toh Phasee, Kill Dil and Aurangzeb respectively (Arjun went on to add the disastrous Tevar to his filmography this year) didn’t set the box office ablaze. And while one may say Varun’s choices have been relatively safe, with romance, comedy and killer dance moves to boot, there’s also been the gritty Badlapur. It’s a side of Varun we hope to see more often, and he, too, agrees that it’s his best work among his limited filmography.
A Karan Johar launch vehicle, followed up with his comedy czar and father David Dhawan’s Main Tera Hero almost two years later, were promising signs of things to come. But Varun’s grip over his young fan base really became evident a few months later with the release of Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania, which no one expected to work as well as it did. While these films drew in the yuppie crowd, the critics were yet to be wowed. The change in track that followed — with Badlapur — was eagerly anticipated, and the young actor didn’t disappoint. A Rediff.com review of the film by Raja Sen heaped praise on him. Sen wrote that Varun “sheds his easy-breezy charm — but, crucially, not his slightly hapless natural likeability — and bubbles up volcanically, his eyes frequently doing the talking”.
Meanwhile, the actor’s dance moves and his breezy chemistry with childhood friend Shraddha Kapoor have done what few would have expected. No one felt that ABCD 2 wouldn’t work, but no one anticipated that it would have 2015’s highest opening-day collections either. This, despite the ongoing Ramzan period, and a lash of rains that confined many to stay home on the day of ABCD 2’s release.
“Shraddha, Remo (D’Souza; director) and I went to some theatres to check out the response to the film, and it was insanity; quite unlike anything I have ever seen,” Varun tells us between changes. We’ve got him some fan letters from giddy teenage girls (and even a guy who addresses him as ‘Bud’), and the actor is pleased as punch. For one of the pictures, he drapes himself in a banner that reads #varuniacs (it’s a legit Twitter hashtag; we checked), written in bright pink on a collage of his pictures. “They didn’t use anything I’ve clicked,” chuckles Shrestha.
Not surprisingly, Varun wants to take all the letters home. And post wrap-up, as he poses for pictures with our two young interns who compiled them, I immediately think back to 2012, when I worked at a daily tabloid, and he paid our team a visit to promote his debut film. Any big fan moments yet, a colleague had asked him? “Hahaha, what fans will I have,” he had grinned.
You’ve got a sizeable fan following by now. At what point did it strike you that there are some ardent admirers, and even some who would do crazy things to prove their love for you?
After Student Of The Year, I never felt it. I guess that’s because there were three of us (Sidharth, Alia and me) going everywhere to promote the film with Karan Johar. But then, after Main Tera Hero released, there was a lot more love from the public. There were cards, letters and so many people wanting to meet me. I think all actors have had crazy moments. For me, one that stood out in a bad way was a fan who cut her hand to write me a letter using her blood. She wanted me to reply to her on Twitter. I don’t support that kind of stuff, and I made it very clear that it’s not okay to go such extremes to show your love.
It would be fair to say that most of your fans are from a younger age bracket. Is pleasing the more mature cinemagoer on your mind as well?
Yes, I realise that I mostly have a youth connect, and I’m very happy about it. Kids will also grow up someday, and if they like your work, they will continue following it. But the audience in general consists of every filmgoer. I did take up an unusual project in Badlapur. It was an A rated film, and it did well among mature viewers. I look forward to doing more such films too.
It was a physically, mentally and emotionally draining experience, but also the best experience. I would definitely do something like that again. To get a film like Badlapur is rare and not easy. Plus, getting to work with a director like SriramRaghavan was a fantastic opportunity.
Did you anticipate a record-breaking opening for ABCD 2? It’s ensured that three years and five films down, you’re yet to face failure.
To a certain level, we felt the film would do well, but we didn’t expect such a crazy turnout. It shows how much we as an audience love dance. Plus, not many films are made for family entertainment, with India at the core of their heart.
Everyone’s been pointing out my streak of hits, and in a way, it feels like too much pressure. I guess what has worked in my favour is that I just watch a lot of films, which may have given me a good understanding of what people want to see when they go to the movies.
Growing up as director David Dhawan’s son, did you spend a lot of time on the sets of his films? It would’ve been a great way to imbibe the qualities of top actors that he has directed.
Actually, I didn’t spend much time on the sets growing up. I would get very bored, because they would take way too much time in between takes. My brother Rohit enjoyed it more. But when dad would come home, I would hear a lot of stories from him or listen to him talking on the phone. I think that’s where I imbibed his ethic of working 24/7, relentlessly, to achieve perfection. For him, making films has only ever been about the joy of entertaining people.
What about your mother, who has consciously kept away from the media? Does she play a part in your professional life as well?
I ask everyone what they think about the scripts I get — even my driver — so yes, I do consult her about my films, and she always shares her honest opinion. My mother stayed away from the limelight and brought us up. So she’s responsible for giving us the values that ensure we are good people, on and off the sets.
You’re starting work on a film directed by your brother Rohit this month. Is it nerve-wracking?
Not at all. I’m very excited, because it’ll be a rollercoaster ride. I can’t say anything about the script, though. Rohit and I have both grown up, and are now a lot closer than ever. He’s a friend to me, apart from being my protector, advisor and conscience. If there’s anyone because of whom I’m an actor, it’s him.
It doesn’t seem like you have much free time, but what do you like to do with it when you get the chance?
I’d love to take a holiday if I could. I’m going to be shooting for Rohit Shetty’s next film in Bulgaria, so I hope it turns out to be like one. I also like going swimming in my free time. I watch a lot of football and UFC. Of late, I’ve started reading too, and I hope that habit stays. I’m currently reading Amish Tripathi’s new book, The Scion Of Ikshvaku.
Is there a genre of films that you can’t wait to explore?
I would love to do a sci-fi film. I don’t know when, how and with whom that can happen. We have the technology, and there are many Indian directors who I feel can pull it off.
Are you the kind to plan ahead, personally and professionally?
I’ve stopped thinking about my career graph. A lot of people dwell upon the past or keep thinking of the future. I like to live in the present. The same goes with getting married. In India, anyone and everyone wants to know when you will settle down. Sure, I want to, but I’m not thinking of it at the moment.
We hear Salman Khan recommended you as a replacement in the much-talked-about film, Shuddhi. Is that true?
A lot has been said about Shuddhi. It’s a film Karan really believes in it. I’d rather let my acting do the talking. We won’t be shooting right away. The decision to cast me was the director’s (Karan Malhotra), but maybe if they asked Salman for his thoughts, he might have said something.