He walks into the room like a ray of sunshine, spreading cheer and warmth. It’s hard not to be taken in by Varun Dhawan’s charm and easy manners. He is your boy-next-door. He is your sexy superstar. He is also the serious actor with the rare combination of critical and mass appeal. And he is your fun buddy you would enjoy partying with. Varun’s biggest asset is his affability and his fantastic connect with whoever he meets – journalists, fans or society hotshots. Unlike other super diplomatic (read, boring) PR-driven and image conscious actors, his sincerity shines through in his conversations. Just as it does in his rock-solid performances. Indeed, in all these years we have known and interacted with him, we haven’t met a single soul who doesn’t love him. Mr Congeniality? Yes, that’s him! The two words of advice one would like to give the actor? ‘Never change!’
At the spacious ICONIC office in Dubai where team Masala! meets him, the atmosphere is relaxed and fun. Varun has had a busy day that hasn’t dented his energy levels. He talks about the brand he endorses (ICONIC) sincerely, he expounds on his cinematic choices passionately and he tackles the tricky questions intelligently. An interviewer’s dream? You can say that again! Excerpts from a wonderful star interaction…
You are the ambassador of a fashion brand. How much of your personality is reflected in the choices you make off screen?
A lot! My personality is masaledar and there is a lot of masala in ICONIC as well. The clothes are quite out there, they are super commercial and they are something that people will buy. I am myself a consumer of these things. I believe that if you are doing something, it should reach out to maximum people. It’s like the movies. There is no point in doing a fab film that people say is very good but don’t want to watch, right? If you are creating something and putting it out there, you should want people to see it. You can’t be selfish about art.
Recently, we came across an article that featured you in a Pink T-shirt which said you were challenging ideas of masculinity and shattering stereotypes. Do such thoughts cross your mind when you wear an outfit?
No, not at all (laughs!). Pink is one of my favourite colours. I have always loved wearing pink! I don’t understand the association of colours with gender in the first place! Everyone knows I always wear colourful stuff. Sometimes I might dress a little dark and edgy but that’s just because of my mood. Sometimes when I am not in the right mood or feeling low, I might wear a pink Tee as it lifts my spirits. I do feel colours lift you up, they reflect what you feel.
Coming to your movies, congratulations on a fantastic 2017. Your films were among the few ‘commercial mainstream’ ones that succeeded. It is said to be the year of the Indies…
(Smiles). That’s what they said about 2016 too.
But is it unsettling that you can’t predict audience tastes these days? The movies you did were the only ones that fit the bracket of masala films (Judwaa 2, Badrinath Ki Dulhaniya).
Well, I am a cinema lover. I love good films, whether indie, commercial, regional or whatever. And I believe if a film is good and connects with the audience, it will do well. Movies like Lipstick Under my Burkha and Hindi Medium did immensely well. But at the same time, a Golmaal 4, Judwaa 2 and Tiger Zinda Hai did outstanding business too. Obviously, the ‘event film’ is going to be the biggest grosser as you get to see things that you don’t in real life. Post Bahubali, big, commercial masala films now have to be event films with a huge canvas. Today, with Netflix and Amazon, you get your regular, casual films easily, you don’t need to go to a theatre to watch it. The need of the hour is to merge technology into story-telling and make good films. Bahubali is a fine example, it has set the benchmark.
Do you see yourself doing a Netflix series?
I do! Hopefully I will be able to produce one someday, push the boundaries or do something I can’t on the big screen. Though right now my focus is entirely on movies, the way things are going and the audience base is growing, there is massive potential. I am a user (of Netflix and Amazon) myself.
But in most of your movies, you have appealed to… how do I put it… the Hindi heartland? How do you see yourself as this ‘mass hero’?
It is difficult, having been born and brought up in Mumbai! But I do feel organically attracted to these characters as I feel those are the stories that need to be told. Right from my childhood, while watching Amitabh Bachchan or Govinda or Salman Khan films, I would get attracted to them. One of my favourite films of my dad is Swarg where Govinda played a servant and goes on to become an actor. Who doesn’t love the hero-underdog story? I am glad to tell the common man stories because that is strength of India or any other country.
Aren’t you limiting yourself that way? As it is, the ‘universal hit’ of yore, or a pan Indian hero who appeals to one and all, doesn’t seem to exist.
I don’t think that’s true. The Khans have been there…
But they have been there for 30 years!
Then let me complete 30 years and see (laughs). See, things are evolving in a big way. You are not just watching a film on the big screen today. Judwaa 2 released in theatres and went on to make a huge amount of money. Then it released on satellite TV and got 1.5 million viewership in its first run and an equally high number in its second run. Overall, the film has been consumed at a huge level and we are not even talking of those who watched it pirated. It’s incredible. We are still reaching out to new audiences.
Let’s talk about the characters you play. From now on, will you also consider how your role is going to be interpreted by people? (Reference point: both in Judwaa 2 and Badrinath… his character was accused of being patriarchal and ill-treating women).
I totally will. But let’s admit that people have become way more touchy than before! If you are getting into how critics reacted to Judwaa 2 that was the Judwaa 1 they reacted to, as this was a remake. I understand what they say… being considered a youth icon, what you do, say or propagate does have an influence, I get it. But there was a big audience that was laughing at Will Ferrell’s comedy or Jack Black’s physical humour. Did they watch and laugh at it and find it cool because the West was making it in English?
The West also reacts differently these days to women’s concerns…
Maybe they do! But you still have a show like Family Guy which is running for so many years and has all different type of jokes. I am not saying that this is the way to be. But ultimately it’s a joke. Secondly, it’s a character that I am playing. If I play a tapori, I have to do an honest representation of a tapori! If I do a fake representation of a tapori, they will object to that too… People in real life are bad. If I play a villain, I have to do wrong things to make you believe I am bad. I can’t just keep on setting a (good) standard. If I do, I will become a very diplomatic actor. Or a politician! As an actor, I have to show all sides. Of course, what I say in my personal life as Varun Dhawan, is what really matters. I don’t propagate any of those ideas personally. I will condemn them, I may get trolled and get a backlash but I will condemn it till my last breath.
Do you think being a popular actor, the responsibility is more on you to project the right message?
Let me put it this way. I have a film October coming up. I was doing super commercial films and people asked why was I signing these serious films? When I do something else, they will question again. Bottomline: You are going to be judged whatever you do, you can’t please everyone all the time.
Actors are always judged. You are judged for your words, you are judged for your silence. Agree?
Yes, we are always judged. That’s fine, after all you have made the decision to be a public figure! But yes, at times it’s tough for me too, honestly. I go through really low days sometimes dealing with the negativity because my intention is never to hurt anyone. But you overcome it.
Varun, you are one of the few actors who is loved by women, men and kids. Ever thought of getting a bad boy image for a change?
(Laughs) I don’t know! There are people who really look out for me, my manager and my best friend. My conscience is always there with me. As you grow in life, your conscience pulls you back from doing the wrong things but that doesn’t mean I haven’t done anything wrong! I have hurt people, I have been hurt as well. And I am accountable for those actions but I am a human being too. I never meant it to be like that but things happen… I guess you should give yourself a break at times.
Student of the Year 2… is ready for release. Do you feel like revisiting the sets?
Ah, that film (Student of the Year, his debut movie) was made by Karan Johar and now Punit Malhotra is taking it forward. It is definitely very nostalgic but I think it’s great that the film is moving on. I did Judwaa 2 so I know what the pressure is all about.
What words of advice do you have for Tiger Shroff who is playing the lead?
I think he is a supremely talented boy, he doesn’t need any of my advice. I get inspired watching him do his stuff! I need not tell him anything.
After six years in the industry, how will you explain the difference between a celebrity, a star and an actor?
Today, a celebrity is of different kinds. There are social media celebrities, celebs who get famous doing good things and others who are famous for notoriety. A star is someone who is obviously very celebrated and loved. He must be loved by people if he is a star though that comes with its own riders. But – and I strongly believe this - if you want to be star, you have to be an actor. Any guy who is a superstar today is also a very good actor. Because acting is also the ability to connect with people. If you are not charismatic, if your eyes are not saying a story when you are mouthing your lines, if that honesty is not there, you won’t connect through a screen to the millions watching you.
And I believe you would want to be known as the actor?
Yes. I always try and be an actor first. Star is something that people make you, you can’t make yourself a star, right?