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Vijay Varma: ‘I had choices, but I chose Hamza and Anand’

Vijay Varma on why he doesn’t feel he’s been typecast and how playing an antagonist can be scary

Vijay Varma in 'Dahaad'
Vijay Varma in 'Dahaad'

Actor Vijay Varma has recently returned from France, attending the Cannes Film Festival a decade after his film Monsoon Shootout had a Midnight Screening there. It took four years for the noir film, in which Varma played a rookie cop, to release in cinemas, in 2013.

Varma is currently soaking up praise for his negative turn in Dahaad (Amazon Prime), in which he plays a school teacher with a very dark secret. It’s been quite a journey for the former Hyderabad resident, known for his Bharat Tyagi/ Shatrughan Tyagi in Mirzapur, Ankit in Pink and Moeen in Gully Boy. The Vijay Varma juggernaut is only gaining momentum, with parts such as Sasya in She, Saajan Kundu in OK Computer, Hamza in Darlings and Anand the serial killer in Dahaad. Edited excerpts from an interview:

After a bumpy start, you are building quite a body of work. How do you look back on your journey?

I guess the lack of success early on might have helped me find myself more as a person, a performer and to experience patience. Also, it may have deepened my self-conviction and detached me a little from the idea of overnight success, while assessing what success means to me. It was a slow start, but I picked up pace. If you use the metaphor of the hare and the tortoise, then I am probably on the journey of the tortoise.

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Star-driven content is no longer a sure-shot guarantee of box office success. You’ve been a part of some very interesting and successful ensemble pieces. Do you think changing modes of creating and consuming entertainment have landed you in the right place at the right time?

Yes, I think so. I did not find the mark with some initial work. That hurt me a lot. Soon enough I figured out I had to be a part of compelling stories that the audience is willing to watch. So, if they’re not coming to theatres to watch my films, I’m bringing it to their homes. I’m not attached to the format or the size of screen. I’m attached to the audience, and that’s the driving force.

I choose subjects which I know will leave a lasting impression. Reaching a large audience with Gully Boy after years of not having an audience, was a different and enjoyable feeling. I enjoyed the participation of the audience. Now I am padding up my work with characters which are supposed to evoke a unique response. I’m excited, because you never know if all these characters can and will really evoke different feelings. Sometimes deep hatred can also erupt in the hearts and the minds of the audience, but I’m willing to take this chance because I feel like we need to tell these stories.

Are you gravitating towards provocative roles consciously, where you know that the audience is going to feel something?

When I saw Sacha Baron Cohen’s mockumentary Borat, I didn’t know what was happening. I did not know what I was feeling, why I did not like myself laughing at certain places. It was such a shocking piece of cinema that probably opened several doors and windows in my head. There is some kind of interest I have found in characters that don’t do things they’re supposed to. Often, he is someone who tells you important things that make you uncomfortable. I found that interesting.

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There are enough terrible situations, events, people and relationships in life. If we can find a way to tell stories, for people to have access to them, it will be interesting. And these characters were written by the creators. Imtiaz Ali wrote Sasya in She, Reema Kagti and Zoya Akhtar wrote Anand, Jasmeet K. Reen wrote Hamza. I was just lucky to stumble across these characters who had the scope of making people uncomfortable, but also to entertain them. I am attracted to livewire energy. That these characters have some kind of electricity that can be dangerous is interesting to me.

Sasya, Hamza, Anand—when a character is controversial and you don’t necessarily have references to measure such a character against, how do you know when you’ve hit the mark?

When you’re acting, you’re reacting to situations emotionally. In the case of Anand, he was so disconnected from real emotions that I didn’t have a barometer. In such a case, what helps is when the director says, they got what they wanted. Then there are certain places where you feel you’ve caused enough effect with what you just did in front of the camera. These could be physical effects, like how people react to you after ”cut” is called. Sometimes, you could feel really bad at what you just did to somebody (in front of the camera). And that’s also a good barometer to understand your effectiveness.

As loving and as fun as the Dahaad team was, I would often dread being in front of the camera because I knew that certain scenes would invoke a lot of fear. I would see the effect of it. As soon as I heard “cut” and walked to the monitor, I noticed some female assistants fluttering away. That’s slightly disturbing, yet it gives you a sense that you are getting it right. At the same time, you think: I wish I didn’t have to go through this.

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Do you worry about being typecast?

I signed Dahaad first, and then I shot the sci-fi comedy Ok Computer. There was a lot of laughter and joy in making that. I had wanted to do comedy badly. After that I returned to the second schedule of Dahaad, and then I shot Darlings. So, I was able to do different things. It didn’t weigh me down too much. But I realized that with Dahaad and Darlings I have two monsters, and I needed to do something to put them back in and balance it out.

I’m not worried about typecasting because I have already done enough work that might help in changing perception. Going forward I have Lust Stories 2, Devotion of Suspect X, Mirzapur season 3 (my favourite), a series called Kaalkut in which I play the nicest police officer and the film Murder Mubarak. A varied platter. At the same time, it’s not often you come across a character that is delicious, wild and so many things. I don’t want to lose an opportunity like that. I had choices, but I chose Hamza and Anand.

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