In the recently-released, eight-episode, mystery thriller series, Dahaad, Vijay Varma plays Anand Swarnakar, a kind-hearted married college professor with a kid who teaches underprivileged children on weekends and also doubles up as a conniving and venomous killer. Varma makes Swarnakar a character that trembles on the brink of becoming likable. This doubly ensures when he unleashes his violence sending chills down the spine. From being a repugnant molester in Pink to a sleazy narcotics dealer in She and an alcoholic wife beater in Darlings, Vijay Varma’s career, post his breakthrough act in Zoya Akhtar’s Gully Boy, can well be used as a shade card for toxic men.
“We are all capable of great evil. It is all about choosing what to tap into. Most of these feelings are present in all human beings. Emotions like jealousy, rage and the tendency to be violent are hidden inside us. It’s just a matter of tapping into it. It was a scary discovery,” says the soft-spoken and affable 37-year-old, who, smitten by the magic of cinema, left his home in Hyderabad to become an actor 14 years ago. “I don’t get angry in real life easily. It takes a lot to go down to get angry. And yet I play these reel characters, who are volatile and enraged. But it’s just acting and I really struggled with it,” says Varma, whose critically acclaimed turn as the abusive husband, Hamza, in Darlings has haunted him for a long time. And he admits hating each day of being Hamza. “I hated that. Every day, I used to be like ‘Oh, I have to go to set and have to be this nasty person for 12 hours and then come back home and sleep’,” he recollects. What makes these characters distinct is that he doesn’t allow these toxic men to become the hero. He plays them with the perfect balance, where they become relatable humans and not cardboard villains, yet the audience never empathises with these characters. His Hamza never becomes a Kabir Singh. “I wanted to humanise Hamza, but I didn’t want people to feel for him,” he says. The clarity with which he approaches these characters reflects in his portrayal of them. Indeed, it is also in the writing and credit goes to the makers, but Varma plays them with casual ease, imbuing them with an understated charm that makes these characters come across as even more evil and repulsive.
Perhaps these dark and repulsive characters purge him of negative emotions and keep him buoyant. His off-screen avatar is anything but grey. Known for being a true-blue fashionista, he more than compensates for this on-screen darkness with flamboyant wardrobe choices at public events. So, one is stumped when he says that he doesn’t know much about fashion. “I figured that if you have to make so many appearances in front of the camera, it is better to make it fun. Also, because I do such heavy characters, I feel like people will assume that I’m that person. So I try to show the other side of me,” he chortles. But his fashion is very much a part of his artistic expression. Admittedly not an outgoing person, his fashion and his on-screen personas are the garb he puts on to keep the real Vijay Varma out of bounds. “My work is the only medium that I want to express myself in. And I don’t want people to know how I am or what I do outside movies, or how I spend my day.” We sit down with the actor to decode the art of being ‘good at being bad’ on screen and delve into the origin story of an actor, who wanted to be a superhero. Excerpts:
We need to talk about Hamza Shaikh of Darlings. He is the epitome of a toxic, abusive man. Why did you say yes to that part?
That’s the million-dollar question. I found great connect with the story. That was the first thing. The director wanted to show that there are these men who are incredibly normal, seemingly having a very happy marriage and stuff, but they can be extremely toxic and abusive. It was something I thought we need to talk about. So, that was the most interesting part for me. Even if you’re playing a horrible person, you have to somewhere humanise that character. You can’t play him like a villain; as an actor you have to make him relatable. But you can’t let the audience think of him as a hero either.
Hamza became a much-hated character and that was the intention, but strangely, we’re living in a time where people are smart enough to identify the art from the artist. So, I got away with it.
You have played a lot of dark characters. Are you a method actor and if not, while doing such intense characters, how do you switch off? Of course, it’s part of your job as an actor. But does it never leave a residue?
It does leave a residue. I like to immerse myself in the work that I’m doing for the time that I am doing that work. And sometimes I take a little bit of time to get there. And once there, I like to be there for a bit so that it becomes second nature. But then, that habit takes a bit of time to get out of. It took me some time to get into the character I am playing in Dahaad and it took me a while to come out of it. This happened with She as well. With experience I’m able to do the coming-out-of-the-character bit quicker. By the time I started doing Darlings, I was able to switch on and switch off much more easily. But I hated the experience of being Hamza. Each day I would leave for the set thinking that I have to be this nasty person for 12 hours and then come back home and sleep.
Post Dahaad, you have two more releases coming up. What can you tell us about those? Are we looking at 50 shades of twisted?
I have just wrapped up Homi Adajania’s Murder Mubarak. It is a proper whodunit. It’s a bunch of really cool actors coming together. I always loved Homi’s work and wanted to work with him. Then I have Sujoy Ghosh’s The Devotion of Suspect X, it’s based on Keigo Higashino’s 2005 novel by same name. It is again a thriller with Kareena Kapoor Khan and Jaideep Ahlawat, who is one of my dearest friends and a very capable actor. We were classmates at FTII and we go back about 17 years. It is great fun working with him. Apart from these, I also have Lust Stories 2 coming up.
And you are also shooting for Mirzapur. How is it to go back to playing the Tyagi twins?
We are shooting some promotional stuff right now. It’s a well oiled machine, everybody knows their job. The cast is brilliant. The makers are very sorted, and I am very happy to go back to play the Tyagi brother, or brothers.
Does your fascination for these dark characters have anything to do with your being a comic book fan while growing up? Tell us about that part of your life and how it impacted your idea of storytelling?
Yes, I got introduced to the world of comic books much before I was allowed to watch movies. So, it was, in a way, my introduction to visual storytelling. Like movies, comic books also tell stories mostly through visual frames. But in a strange way, along with the visuals, it also creates a space for imagination. As a little boy, I was totally immersed in my comic books; it gave me an alternate, fantasy world to live in. And it also educated me a lot at the time — I don’t remember what I learned in the school from those textbooks, but I remember, in great detail, what I read in those comic books and how those characters spoke and where they lived, and what land they belonged to, and what powers they had. Not only that, I actually also learned a lot about science, physics, languages, etc. I think comic books were the starting point for my fascination with stories and storytelling. My getting lost in a story and becoming a part of that fictional world started from there. I started to find refuge in stories. But little did I know that becoming a part of a story and its world would one day become my profession (chuckles).
So, the dream was to be a superhero before you became a movie hero?
Yeah, I think so (laughs). The dream was to be lost in some kind of a story… some kind of a ‘la la land’. Comic books go hand in hand with superheroes, fantasy and adventures. So, that became my favourite genre. Even in movies, I used to wait for the big-ticket comic-book stories, such as the Spider-Man, or the Lord of the Rings, or any of these adventure or sci-fi fantasies and supernatural superheroes. I had a special fascination for Super Commando Dhruva. He wasn’t a superhero with too many superpowers. He was not like Superman, who could go and travel into space. He was just somebody who trained himself to be a great fighter.
How did your love for comics start?
I think I was around seven or eight when I had stumbled upon the Tinkles and the Amar Chitra Kathas. Then, I went through a Diamond Comics phase. I also read a lot of Chacha Chaudhary during this time. But then, I found my true love. It was Raj Comics. What also made Raj Comics such a prized possession was that we couldn’t get these comics in Hyderabad, where I grew up. It was only when we used to travel to Rajasthan to my naani’s place during summer vacation that I would be able to get a hold of these gems. But it was not possible to splurge on comics. So, I would read and re-read everything that I could find at libraries. I would rent four or five comic books each day and get immersed in those worlds. Then, while coming back to Hyderabad, I would buy the ones I loved and lived with the most. But I would crave for more and wait impatiently for the next summer vacation. Eventually, my love for Raj Comics would lead me to embark on missions of finding back editions at scrap shops. And that was quite a treasure hunt! I had a collection of almost 500 comics, and it included some real rare ones. But when I ran away from home to become an actor, my father took out his anger on those comics and sold the entire collection to a kabadiwala for two rupees per kilo. It just broke my heart. I cried so much upon hearing this.
Well, he must have been really angry given the fact, which you have mentioned in previous interviews that he was against children watching movies while growing up…
My father was against wasting time watching a three-hour-long movie on the television. He would give us permission to watch some serial or show that would finish in 30 minutes. He’s like, ‘Don’t waste three hours watching a film; just waste half-an-hour watching one episode of something’. But occasionally, he would take us to the theatres to watch movies.
Even if unintentionally, it seems your father introduced you to the world of cinema, and put you on this path. He kept you from watching movies on the television and took you to the theatres instead, and that’s where the magic really happens…
I think he did! I was spending some time with him during the lockdown, and one day he gave me a piece of paper with the names of five English films written in Hindi. He told me if you want to spend time watching movies, these are the ones you must watch. The list included movies like The Guns of Navarone (1961), The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), Ben-Hur (1959), and The Godfather (1972). So, he knew his English films. He knew his Hollywood.
He used to take me for action films — he was a big action film fan. So, we watched a lot of early Jackie Chan and Jet Li films. And then eventually, we saw Indiana Jones. And then, we had a festival of Bruce Lee in Hyderabad. My father used to always speak about Bruce Lee, and when I saw his film on the big screen, I was blown away. So, action was the genre that I used to go to watch in Hyderabad. I think I must have been in class 11 or 12 when I started going to movie theatres with friends, and that’s when I started watching Hindi films.
So, maybe you actually got your love for cinema from him. Yet, you had to run away from him to find that love…
You can’t really crack parents. They work in a very mysterious fashion.
Do you remember any movie that really impacted you?
Vaastav was one of my favourite films and it impacted me a lot. At that time, we mostly had romantic movies. And then came Vaastav… a story of a boy from the chawl, who has become a big gangster. And he’s come back, he’s talking to his mother, mother disowning him… it was very relatable. I felt like there are real people on screen for the first time. Otherwise, it just looked like some dreamland, where people have beautiful skin and great hair and wear great clothes. They would roam in places I had never seen and in cars that don’t roam our streets. The world of Karan Johar’s cinema and the like, that were contemporary of that time, looked too distant, too far away, too detached from the world I knew. But suddenly, there’s this Mahesh Manjrekar film with Sanjay Dutt where everything was so real.
So, your fascination with stories began with the larger-than- life superhero comics, but then you got fascinated with a movie like Vaastav, which was as real as it gets in Bollywood…
I never was a romance film fan. I was a big fan of films like Mr. India, Haatim Tai and Ajooba. Amitabh Bachchan was larger-than-life. I was fascinated by him. I loved his movies such as Toofan, Akayla, etc.
How was it watching yourself on the big screen forthe first time?
The first release was Chittagong, the first film that I did, which came out in 2012. It was the first time I saw myself on screen. And it was the first time that anybody else around me, my friends, my family were watching me on the screen. So, I was probably palpitating and red, and almost on the verge of throwing up because I just didn’t know how to hide that guy at that moment. I was so visible with all my flaws and everything.
Did you feel that this is some other person on the screen?
I feel that a lot. I keep feeling that because I psych myself up to play these parts. And when I see them, I’m like ‘Oh god, I don’t know how I did that. Why would I be so bad?’
Now that you’re part of the industry, cinema has become content, and you are also working on web series and OTT shows. How, according to you, is OTT viewing impacting the magic of cinema? Can the theatre experience be recreated in home viewing?
For years, I was somebody who was working on the big screen. So, I don’t consider myself only coming on the OTT. Yes, I dabble in all kinds of stuff. I’ve done my bit of theatre. I’ve done my bit of audiobooks. I’ve done my bit of movies. And I’ve done my bit of TV shows and web series. I did a cameo in Super 30 and I did a supporting part in Baaghi 3… those were among the last lot of films that were released in the cinemas before the lockdown happened. And a few of my films got released on the OTT. Darlings was meant to be a theatrical. I personally enjoy watching movies on the big screen.
But when I was a film student, I remember that my most prized possession was a small DVD player with a 7-inch screen on it. That had become a very personal mini theatre for me. That’s where I gained a lot of knowledge of cinema in those two-three years at film school. So, I understand the value of personal viewing and that is where the streamers and OTT platforms come in. It gives you an opportunity to engage with the stories in a personal way. On the other hand, watching a movie at a theatre is a collective experience. As an audience, I have enjoyed both.
With movies like Pushpa, RRR and now Pathaan making big money at the box office, do you think mass entertainers and the larger-than-life heroes are making a comeback? Also, with content becoming the star in the last few years, we have had conversations that the ‘days of the stars’ are over. What’s your take on that?
Mass cinema has always existed, right from our childhood, and it continues to exist. Cinema has its own cycle going on, and there are certain things that come and go, but we have always been making entertainers. This country has been churning out great entertainers in every language. It is important because people really need to get out from the drudgery of their lives and experience something that is fun. I’m glad that some of these films are clicking so well with the audience. I want people to go back to theatres in as many numbers as possible. I want the mid-budget films also to work. I think that was a glorious time, when we had all kinds of films running in the theatre and all kinds of films could find success, which is something that as an industry we are struggling with — the mid-range, the not so big hits — that bracket is still the most adversely affected.
When you decided to get into movies, what was it that you wanted to be — a hero, an actor or a star?
I just wanted to do a good role. That was the first thing. In fact, the whole pursuit of leaving home, studying acting, coming and looking for work — there was only one goal that drove me for the first few years and that was to get a film; a film with a good role, where you get to do something. It just looked like a very far-fetched dream to get that one role. In fact, when I finally bagged one, the film got shelved. It was with John Abraham, and they had even given me the signing amount. I had thought I’ll do just one film and go back home. My family really wanted me to come back. But once I finally got my first film, Chittagong, I realised that now, I need more of these.
You make the characters you play so believable and impactful that they become memorable. There would always be people who would remember you as Moeen or Hamza or Bharat and Shatrughan Tyagi rather than Vijay Varma. Do you sometimes wish that you would be known as the star/actor Vijay Varma instead of being known by your onscreen characters?
I know what you mean. And there are people who are able to do this much better. But I feel like this happens with two things. It happens with intention, and with luck. In my case I really don’t have the intention to do so. I feel most excited between action and cut. Everything else is being recognised on street, having followers getting likes, and getting the opinion of people about how I dress up… these don’t change anything. I’m not attached to any of it. If you tell me, just delete your Instagram account, for fun, I will do it. It doesn’t excite me.
Also, I’m not that outgoing as a person. I don’t want to be a role model, or a leader or a hero. I disengage with that thought, because it doesn’t work for me as a person. Therefore, my work is the only medium that I want to express myself in. And I don’t want people to know how I am or what I do outside movies, or how I spend my day. I’m most active when I’m in front of the camera; I enjoy doing the work. And I know that this kind of participation is helping me create the work that I want to do; create a character that I want to. The rest are frills for me.
Describe your style in three words
Laid back, androgynous, and vintage
Three essentials you don’t step out without?
Sunglasses, perfume, and a bag to carry things
A gadget you aspire to own?
The PSVR 2
What is the one thing we’ll always find on your nightstand?
Chocolate, books, and a bottle of water
If you had to pick only one designer to wear for movie premieres for the rest of your life, who would it be?
I’ll let the designer pick me. Whoever wins my swayamvar!
If you were to style yourself for an event, what would you wear?
A well-cut asymmetric kurta and veshti
Pick one: formals or streetwear?
Streetwear all the way
What was the first car you ever purchased?
A Jeep Compass. Still drive it, its a keeper
What’s your dream car?
The Porsche 911
If you were to pick one perfume to wear for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Encre Noire by Lalique. It’s been my signature scent for over a decade now
Pick one style: prints or head-to-toe black?
I oscillate between them depending on my mood
Photographer: Vansh Virmani (https://www.instagram.com/vanshvirmani/)
Art Director: Tanvi Shah @tanvi_joel
Brand Director: Manoj Sharma ( https://www.instagram.com/manojsharma._/ )
Art Assistant: Siddhi Chavan @randomwonton
Styled by Styled by Vrinda Narang https://instagram.com/vrindaanarang?igshid=MzRlODBiNWFlZA==
Make-up by Sama Husain Ranjan ( https://instagram.com/sama.rajan?igshid=MzRlODBiNWFlZA== )
Hair by Prasad Bhandary ( https://instagram.com/hairbyprasadbhandary?igshid=MzRlODBiNWFlZA== )
Location Courtesy: All Saints, Mumbai ( https://www.instagram.com/allsaintsofficial_/ )