When Varun Dhawan joined the industry as the “student of the year”, everybody groaned. “Here’s another product of nepotism being launched by the industry’s favourite uncle” they said. “He’s too short, his voice is too thin, his style too street, his vibe too commonplace,” they said. Five years down the line, Dhawan has flipped the bird to his critics and is the most successful actor among his contemporaries. Both Sidharth Malhotra and Tiger Shroff have had flops, Sushant Singh Rajput is struggling to stay afloat and Arjun Kapoor has all but disappeared; only Ranveer Singh shines bigger and brighter than him. Dhawan has not had a single flop in his career, and it’s not like he’s achieved “Quality Immunity” yet.

Quality Immunity (QI) – a term I am coining right now – is the ability of a star’s film to be a success, even if it is abysmal and has been panned by the critics. The Khans enjoy this, mainly Salman. Between you and me, it is Shah Rukh’s QI that made Dilwale a hit, preventing Varun’s report card from having its first red dot – but Varun does not enjoy the same as yet. If you study his filmography, you can clearly see an astute mind at play, intelligently building a brand and creating a niche that is increasingly becoming impenetrable.

Firstly, let’s try to understand what Brand Dhawan is. He’s never attempted to become the next romantic hero. He knows that a Ranveer Singh and a Ranbir Kapoor do a better job of that. Millennials buy into their heady concoction of robust sexuality and complex romance, and Dhawan does not have a complicated enough personality to pull that off. Sushant Singh Rajput and Sidharth Malhotra have the good-looking-rascal niche covered. Tiger Shroff is the muscled action man. What does Dhawan have to offer, then? He is the cute and goofy BFF you suddenly see in a whole new light, when he dresses up for the prom. He has the abs, the bubble butt, a funny enough sense of humour and a disregard for inhibitions that stems from both confidence and a need to not take himself too seriously. While a Ranveer will make you want to rip his shirt off, Dhawan will greet you at the door shirtless, aware of the fact that you will check him out, but dissipating any sexual tension. He does not try to be sexy – and that has been his masterstroke. He cashes in on a woman’s need to also find a best friend in her boyfriend, and with that de-sexualised approach, he’s made himself the audience’s darling.

Interestingly, this de-sexualised approach has made it easy to take the sexist edge off a lot of the misogynistic content of his films. He does not come across as a horny idiot, has cultivated an impeccably manicured off-screen life (has had zero link-ups with industry actresses and has maintained his undying love and loyalty for his girlfriend), does not talk about sex or endorse sexual wellness products (he is completely clothed in his deodorant ads, too) and comes across as a warm and loving family guy. It thus becomes easier for the audience to dissociate Varun Dhawan the person from the actor, and his on-screen antics are not seen as an extension of him. In their eyes, he is absolved of feminist criticism and the need to make things right. Is this justified? Absolutely not. Every actor is responsible for the content she or he is a part of. But, while we have come to accept Salman Khan’s boisterous movie persona but don’t necessarily believe that it is a good one, most people laugh off what Dhawan does on screen because “you know he is not like that”.

It makes sense to compare Dhawan to the Salman Khan of the nineties. Khan invested in a similar persona in that decade – the goofy, friendly homebody with protective biceps and a sugary smile. Shirtless Khan was never “hot” or “desirable”. His muscled body was projected as an emblem for strength and protection, rather than sexuality – just like how Sunny Deol and Suniel Shetty had projected theirs. If you are wondering, the Ranveer Singh of that generation was Akshay Kumar. Salman Khan did Barjatya films to invest in that image, so that his female audiences warmed up to him. While they fell in love with Shah Rukh and fantasized about Akshay the Khiladi, Salman became the brother. Also, Khan’s choice of characters in the nineties was very different from what they have been in the last decade. Earlier, it was a combination of comedy and action, with hints of Jackie Chan and the bawdiness of Govinda. He was never the stoic philosopher, or the angry young man. There was no politics to his character design. He was angered only when he or his familial circle was hurt. True to the nineties need for escapism, he was unaffected by society, governance or economics. Dhawan’s character design is exactly that. He is a fun combination of Salman Khan and Govinda, Bollywood’s best examples of money-minting fluff machines.

If you take a look at Dhawan’s filmography, he has not done the best of films. Student of the Year rode to success on marketing and glitter. Main Tera Hero was a tribute to quintessential Bhaigiri, and Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania (and the sequel, Badrinath Ki Dulhania) celebrated the chivalry of Shah Rukh. Dilwale was a forgettable blimp (that made money) and Dishoom was a bro movie on the lines of Baywatch. Judwaa 2 is Dhawan in Salman mode yet again – quite literally, because the film’s a remake. Only Badlapur and ABCD 2 stand out as exciting experiments. Badlapur proved that Dhawan has it in him to explore different avenues (but will not necessarily choose to do so, because, well, money) and work alongside powerhouses like Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Radhika Apte and still hold his ground. ABCD 2 was an offbeat, non-Bollywood dance film which was a surprising vehicle for him to pick. That does not mean that either of these films was exceptional cinema. With Judwaa 2 and the upcoming Sui Dhaaga, it doesn’t seem like Dhawan is experimenting anytime soon, either. His films are mostly based in the relatable middle-class milieu (the hot Bollywood trend of the last two years) and heavily depend on his brand of goofy comedy. They are enjoyable and entertaining – what more can one want? Also, if one checks carefully, none of his films have ever clashed with anybody else’s. So, till now, on easy-breezy Fridays, Varun Dhawan fares very well. It will be interesting to see when the audience has another film option on the same weekend – will they still pick him?

Dhawan is not a bad actor. While one might question his versatility, his comic timing is increasingly becoming his strongest feature. But is this the only kind of cinema he will keep doing? As long as the audience is not bored of it, I guess it is. As of now, though, there are no signs of stopping him.