COVER STORY: Varun Dhawan on exploring his wild side
There’s something about Varun Dhawan that’s different. I can’t place my finger on it, at first. Yes, he’s looking rested, looking dapper, looking good. But then he’s a movie star. You expect that of him. There’s therav, for sure. But there’s more. There’s more to Varun Dhawan than his quintessential movie star looks. Talk to him for a few minutes and you know, there are layers to the happy-go-lucky persona that we’ve all come to expect of him.
So we’re sitting in his living room, comfortably ensconced on the sofa.
He sits on his favourite rocking chair, enjoying his omelet. While his newly-acquired beagle, Joey is happily exploring my ears. A friendly dog if I ever saw one. Just like the master. Varun Dhawan, who has Bhediya coming up, is in a reflective mood. Yes, he’s excited about his movie. After all, he’s given his all and more to the film. We do the regular movie talk and then the mood shifts. He talks about the need to back off from social media, to be less of a people pleaser, to give himself more credit for the things he’s done. He talks about how he’s looking within these days. Says Covid has changed everything and everyone. And then he stumps me by saying that he’s taking recourse into religion. He’s reading The Mahabharata and The Bhagvad Gita… Yes that’s what has changed about Varun… He’s thinking deeply… asking questions. He isn’t dazzled anymore by decadent lifestyles or movie star appearances… There has to be more to life than that, he says. I agree. This is how the conversation flows then:
To begin with, what attracted you to Bhediya?
It was the wildest script that I’ve ever heard. I actually said yes to the film just based on the one line that Dinu (Dinesh Vijayan) told me on the phone. I just knew that Amar (Kaushik) was going to make it about a man getting bitten by a wolf.
And becoming a werewolf?
I’m not going to say werewolf. Bhediya ban jaata hai. So that was exciting. And then the script developed and came to me after a year. I showed interest throughout the development process. I met Amar three to four times. I heard him out and got to know his thought process, things he likes and dislikes. And then the lockdown happened. And then the second lockdown happened. Just before the second lockdown, Amar was like, “Let’s just start.” Then I had COVID, so Jug Jug Jeeyo stopped. I had a lot of time on hand. So I just got into this one.
You’re entering this world of horror, the supernatural… What was the experience like for you?
It was insane. It was everything that I wanted it to be. And as an actor, I just surrendered to the director. He knew the world very well because he’d done Stree. So he knew the beats of the world. He knew the kind of reactions he needed. He knew the kind of things he wanted as far as the VFX of the film is concerned, prosthetics and stuff. We were all learning together. But Amar was too hands on during the process.
VFX and prosthetics can make or break a film like this.
Yes, and that was one of my concerns too. Luckily, Dinu got MPC on board; they did the VFX for Jungle Book and they’ve done loads of films that deal with animals. So then I knew we were in safe hands. But until you don’t see, you don’t know exactly. We also had one great supervisor, James, who’d come from London. He was working with us. I had a lot of trust and belief in him too. And so did Amar. Darrell Mclean, who was doing our action, had flown down from South Africa. These guys really worked hard to bring to the screen what Amar wanted.
You think the Indian audience will connect with the concept? Werewolves, after all, aren’t part of our mythology.
No, but it is. We don’t think it is because we don’t know much about our culture. We are sitting in our ivory towers. That’s why you are reacting like this. But there’s a full mythology, folklore in Ziro, in Arunachal Pradesh, about Yapum. So if you go there, they’ll tell you about Yapum and what happens when you go into the forest. The forest is sacred to them. I don’t want to tell the story, but yeah, it is born out of the mythology of our land. There are so many places in our country and so many things that we don’t know. We are ignoring the village audience. Why are we not making village stories anymore? How many mythologies do they have? Amar always says, “Why should we keep talking about the West?” We are inspired by Junoon and Naagin. Why give credit to the West for everything?
You shot in Arunachal for this. What was the experience like?
Unbelievable. It was my first time there. There’s no direct flight to Arunachal. You go to Guwahati or Dibrugarh, and then from there, you drive down to Ziro. It’s a fourteen-hour drive. Once you get there, it’s just amazing. The air you breathe is so clean. There’s greenery all around. It’s beautiful. We were there for two months. I liked it more than the city. All my life, I’ve been in the city. It was such a nice change. Anyway, it was lockdown, and there were no cases there. It was great to be there.
What kind of preparation did you do for the film?
I worked with Devrath Vijay (Ninja Dev). He trained me completely for this. And then, towards the later half, of course, Prashant came on again. But Ninja Dev was there throughout. We did a lot of animal flow. I cut down on a lot of weight because Amar didn’t want pronounced muscles on me. I had to be flexible in terms of movements, especially during the transformation scenes. So that was tiring. There was one scene where
I did like 42 takes. That was the most tiring day of my life. My vocal cords were strained after screaming so much. Then I also worked a lot on my speech, on how Amar wanted the lines to be delivered. Since it was the lockdown, we had ample time. So every day I was just preparing, reading the script with him, and spending a lot of time with Abhishek Banerjee also. I bonded a lot with him. Interestingly, Amar doesn’t say “action,” he says “Khelo.” and he always plays music before you start acting.So when he says Khelo, does he let you play with your character or give strict instructions? No, he doesn’t let you play. Everything is within the framework of the film and the character.
Did you surprise yourself while playing the character, or that doesn’t happen anymore?
I prepared a lot for this film. Sometimes when you don’t prepare and go into a film, then there are more chances to be surprised. Here, there was so much hard work before the film started. We knew exactly what we wanted to do. I don’t think I’ve acted in this film like I’ve acted in other films. I couldn’t pitch the lines like I normally do. There are some scenes that have a realness to them, and some that are hyper. Amar didn’t want me to be where I am. It was sur upar ya sur neeche pakadna hai. Here, he had told me beforehand, “Aisa hai, aisa karna hai.”
You’ve completed ten years in the industry. Can we call you a bonafide veteran now?
No, I’m not. I think birthdays and these years that we keep counting are the worst things we do. We should stop doing it. We should stop reminding people. Why are you reminding people? Enjoy, party… Ab tum itne saal ke ho gaye ho. Tumko kya hai? Let’s enjoy every day.
But what has been these ten years like for you, when you look back?
I still feel like a newcomer. Especially with Bhediya and Bawaal coming up. In the post-pandemic period, I feel we are starting all over again. Winning back the audience, making films which are relevant to now…The question now is how do we engage the audience again?
The world has changed and we are not able to grapple with the change. Right?
But that’s true of every business. The problem is that humara report card sabko dikh jaata hai, baakiyon ka report card sabko nahi dikhta hai. Bas that’s the difference.
Are you worried about the people not coming to the theatres?
I spend too much time worrying. Now I don’t want to. When Jug Jug Jeeyo happened, it gave me a glimmer of hope. If the masses hadn’t taken to it then maybe I would have been a different person. But thank God the film did well. We made the film with good intentions. When your intent is good, sometimes things work out. It was good that people came to watch the film. When I was promoting the film, I felt they wanted to come into the theatre. But now you’ve to give them a little more than you gave them before. Yeah… So Bhediya is a lot more in terms of the story, the VFX, the action. It’s exciting. You don’t know what you’re going to expect. And there’s a lot of humour too. It’s new.
But are you worried because nothing is working.…
Obviously everyone is worried. But no one has the answer.
It seems people don’t want to come into the theatres.…
But they are watching. Don’t say they’re not watching content. Sab kuch dekh rahe hain streaming pe. See, technology has hit the industry. Now it’s about finding the balance, that which film is meant for which medium. So it’s just the medium that is evolving. Theatrical releases will work eventually. Obviously, we need to introspect. I think everyone is doing it. You will see that change soon. There’s going to be a lot of quality control coming up.
Would you say you are at a happy place in your career now?
I’m trying to be. The problem with us is that we don’t want to always be happy. We need to start being a little grateful for where we are. And I’ve never been. I’m always like yeh achcha nahi hai, woh achcha nahi hai. I actually want to start giving myself a pat on the back.
What’s stopping you?
I don’t know. But I don’t do it enough. That is what I’ve been telling myself these days… I’ve really worked hard and I’ve actually done good work. And I must give myself credit for it. But I don’t. It was probably the way I was brought up. Or probably the people who were closest to me didn’t let me…
Sit on your laurels?
Maybe they overdid it. Whether it’s my dad or whether it’s Karan (Johar), since day one they’ve been like, “Don’t do it.” But I’ve done cool things. Whether it’s things they wanted me to do or things they didn’t… I have to be more grateful for everything.
There was a time when you had a 100 percent record at the box-office. Did that ever put any pressure on you?
Ya, it did. And I find it stupid that I allowed the pressure get to me. I guess I’m not stupid. It would have put pressure on anyone, for that matter. So it put pressure on me and I couldn’t cope with it. I think I let people get to me at that point. I was too naive, I had not lived enough life. I still haven’t, actually; I’m still young. This experience has made me grow up a lot. So I need to work on other things, not my career.
What are the other things you need to work on?
Yeah. We are all competing. We are running in an imaginary rat race, where there’s none. The world has changed, right. Koi first aa gaya toh theek hai, very good. Second aaya woh bhi achcha hai, third aaya woh bhi achcha hai, jo fifth, sixth, and jo tenth aaya wohi bhi achcha hai. We have to stop thinking too much about who’s on top and who’s not. I just feel that social media has added to it all. It’s all imaginary. We need to get over it. We are falling into that bubble. It’s happening to everyone. I’ve not taken very constructive steps. But I do try to stay away from technology as much as I can.
How do you keep sane with so much happening around you?
You’ve got to stop being a people pleaser. I’ve realised that what I love most is actually just acting. I enjoy acting, taking that shot. I don’t know if I’m enjoying the rest of this nonsense that comes with it. So I’m pulling back. I should enjoy that too because I did at one point. I went to Thumkeshwari’s launch recently. I went to Gaiety. I had a great time. Seeing people dance on chairs. I enjoyed it. But then going to a TV show for promotion is so blah… Maybe it works. It used to work at one point. I don’t know if it’s still working. And even if it’s working, if you’re not comfortable doing it, then maybe you shouldn’t do it. You should do what you feel comfortable with. It’s getting a little monotonous. We’ve all been doing the same thing for a while. I feel the problem with films is also this: everything is the same. You want a little, “abhi kya naya kar sakte hain.” That’s why I’m excited about Bhediya. I’m not just saying it’s 3D. It has all those aspects. It can promise a good time. And who doesn’t want to have a good time?
True. What are you grateful for right now?
When I was shooting the song Thumkeshwari for Bhediya, I was going through an illness known as vestibular hypofunction, where you lose your balance. Everything was dizzy and shaky. That continued for a long time. And it took a while to figure out what the problem was. There’s no cure for it. There’s no tablet for it. There’s nothing. So what do you do? It was very difficult. But when I did the song, I realised that I could work, and that gave me so much happiness that I could ignore everything. Again and again, it is good to be reminded of why you love working. It’s like a love story. And you have to keep falling back in love with yourself and your work.
What are the steps you’re taking to just chill now?
Cutting off a little bit from social media. Not getting so obsessed with it. Yoga has been very helpful. Just taking time off, on and off. When you can take time off, you should take time off. Being not so involved is a good thing. .
And how’s marriage been treating you?
Very good and really fun. It doesn’t feel like I’m married. It still feels like we are dating. It’s very new, so it’s exciting.
Has life changed for you since marriage?
I have my own house; I live with my wife and my dog, so that’s a big change. My parents live above my flat. But yeah, I’m made to feel a lot more responsible.
You’ve bought yourself a puppy? How did that come about?
Yes. I got Joey after the film. Because there were so many dogs in Arunachal. There weren’t Beagles but there were indies. I’d keep playing with them. I don’t know why, after doing this film something happened to me. I fell in love with dogs. So I got him. He’s very loving. I feared dogs initially but now I’m okay.
Do you see a change in your behaviour since you got him?
A lot. Especially towards them. Big change. Change towards humans also.
You started loving humans more?
How has Natasha changed you?
All these things about realising not to be hard on myself are all hers. I feel everyone should keep working on themselves so they can be most peaceful, satisfied, and happy.
What would the real Varun Dhawan like to do now?
The real Varun Dhawan would like to think less and just be present in the moment. Yes, we are all overthinking. We are all wasting our time thinking about what others are thinking. Woh kya soch raha hai seems to be on top of our minds. We don’t enjoy our present. This is what social media has done. I’m trying to invest more time in learning about God and spirituality.
More than spirituality, learning about my own religion. Because we don’t know about Hinduism. I’m a born Hindu, but how much do I know about my religion? I have taken steps this year to read the entire Bhagavad Gita, to read the Mahabharata, to practise certain things. And just to learn more and understand more. I genuinely believe Hinduism is such an amazing religion. such a peaceful religion. We have so much knowledge in our own country and in our own culture that is untapped. And we are most of the time only getting influenced by the West, when we have far more power in our roots than any other country.
You are going back to your roots?
Hmmm. I have this calling… So whenever a film or a trailer of mine releases I go to Hare Rama, Hare Krishna Iskcon. It’s my thing I do.Recently, one of my closest friends Ankit came home and asked me to go with him to the temple. For some reason, I couldn’t go. I remember it was Karva Chauth. Natasha had taken Joey for a walk in the morning. And some monks approached her and gave her a card. She came home and gave me the card, it had Hare Rama Hare Krishna written on it. I was like this is a calling. In the afternoon, I had a script narration and I’m not lying, I’m hearing this script and usmein koi bacha kidnap hota hai, and the monks are returning the child, and they’re saying Hare Rama, Hare Krishna, Hare Rama, Hare Krishna. Just imagine. I realised it was telling me something. The only reason I am saying this story is because it was so amazing. I went to the temple then. I had to go. Then it started raining so heavily that I couldn’t leave for one and a half hour. Eventually you have to return to who you are… We talk about everything but we wont talk about our religious side. Why? There are so many actors who are into the art of living or do meditation. But no one talks about it. I don’t know why? This is also important.
Maybe because religion is private?
Why is it private? If you’re gaining strength from Ishwar, Prabhu, from whatever you call him, why is it private? I will not put videos of me praying, that is my private thing. But if you ask me what gives me joy, I don’t think I should hide that. It really gives me a sense of peace and belonging.