(To the audience at the Jagran Cinema Summit as the session starts: Aapka dhyan kidhar hai? Humara hero idhar hai!). By the way, who calls himself only a hero (albeit in a song)?
When you’re a hero in a David Dhawan film, you do!
Two reasons you’re the perfect choice to talk about ‘future of stardom’. One, you are the top star among millennials. Second, you’ve literally grown up around Bollywood stars. What did they — say, Salman Khan — tell you about stardom that you’ve always borne in mind?
Firstly, what’s stardom? It’s simply a person’s ability to connect with fans. An actor can’t become a star if people don’t make him one. I remember how as a kid, people would talk about my father’s (director David Dhawan’s) insane box-office record. At home, he’d only talk about how he made movies for the love of people. Many of them would come up to tell me about being unwell, and how they saw my dad’s film, they felt better: Unki tabiyat theek ho gayi! This power to heal people, or make them smile, is stardom. Salman Khan, for instance, was a star 20 years ago. He’s a bigger star now. And that’s because he’s constantly connecting with fans — through Internet, social-media, cinemas, radio… There are far more avenues to connect now. You can’t take stardom for granted. After my first film, Salman Bhai just told me, “Yeh toh chal gayi. Par ab kya karega? (This one worked. What’ll you do now?)” Which is true. The first film chooses you. After that, if the choices you make don’t tally with what the audience wants, they’ll just throw you out.
The other actor you’ve spent a lot of time with is Govinda. Anyone who’s met him knows he’s a pop-philosopher. What gyan did he give you?
When I was a kid, Chi Chi bhaiyya would joke a lot about how he thinks I’d grow up to become an Ajay Devgn type of actor! He found me to be rather intense. I’ve loved them all — Chi Chi bhaiyya, Akshay Kumar — watching Baba’s (Sanjay Dutt) films in Gaiety-Galaxy, which is an unbelievable experience, it’s a film of its own. I remember stepping out of the first-day, first-show of Kaho Na Pyar Hai (Hrithik Roshan’s debut) in Chandan (theatre), and hearing a person say, “Yeh ladka toh heera hai. Heera!” These are moments when you realise that this actor is on his way to stardom.
And then some of them fade. So there’s someone like Salman, who’s right on top still, and Govinda, about the same age, isn’t. If you’re to play film critic for a moment, how would you explain this?
I wouldn’t want to do that. I can’t. It’s too difficult.
Varun Dhawan with the audience at the Jagran Cinema Summit. Pic/Satej Shinde
Or for that matter the three Khans, who are still right up there.
As much as people like to put some people up (on a pedestal), they also like to see their heroes fall. That’s just life. As an actor, I just have to choose the right kind of films, as times change. You have to move with the times. Today I shot for an ad, for instance, which was being directed by a 26-year-old, and she knew exactly what she wanted, and how — much better than many seasoned directors I’ve worked with. If this is the future, then it’s great. I’m 30, there’s a four-year gap between us. Five years ago, when I came into the industry, I knew what kids wanted. I haven’t updated myself since, because I don’t consume as much entertainment as I did then. I can’t see trends as well as I could, during school and college. I had to learn from the 26-year-old girl. I was happy that she could tell me where I was going wrong.
You were also very concerned about making it in time for this interview, given your ad-shoot. That’s also the refreshing future of Bolllywood stardom. We know your dad has waited for hours for Govinda to show up!
Well, he’s waited for a lot of people. That is just part and parcel of how things worked back then. Eventually, you have to respect each person’s time. Also, stardom is a result of many people working behind the scenes, day-in and day-out, so you look great on screen, and are loved by people. Stardom cannot be achieved without the film fraternity backing you. You can’t fight the whole system, and become a star. You have to get love from your family first, and then the others.
The other instance of how stardom has changed is that even Salman Khan, who just had to show up on screen and play his image once upon a time, has to work hard on portraying characters.
He just wants you to think otherwise, but Salman Khan is a very hard-working actor, and he’s always been. He just makes it look easy. But yes, since we are talking about the future, today, content is the star. If you look at 2017, films aren’t opening to the sort of numbers they used to. That’s scary. People are waiting. They want to check on a Friday what the reviews (of a film) are like. Thousands of people are giving reviews — good or bad. Some of them haven’t even seen the film. They tell you what they feel it will be like! You have to battle that. But I feel if there is love between audiences, and an actor, they will show up on the first three days. If the film is no good, of course, it won’t work.
You’re in fact one of the few Bollywood stars who’s been around since the advent of social media. Do you think it’s turned the perception game on its head — no film’s as terrible, or terrific, as it’s made out to be?
Totally. And there are social media stars as well. They are stars in their own right. They’re hugely entertaining on the web. But can they open a film, or guarantee numbers? No. Our country is very big. This year, ‘heartland’ films have done better in Delhi-UP, because those audiences could connect with the films. Maharashtra, on the other hand, which would bring in the maximum revenues before, hasn’t posted the best numbers. Here again, the Mumbai audience is different from Delhi’s. So yes, I called myself a ‘hero’ in my own film. But I didn’t call myself a star. I feel the media anoints stars too soon. Of course, personally, I feel good about that. But, frankly, becoming a star is something else. A hundred people trying to touch you, is not stardom. You’re liked as an actor, sure. But a star generates mass hysteria —Rajesh Khanna, Shah Rukh, Khan, Salman Khan, Amitabh Bachchan — these are stars. We mustn’t tag too soon, or so easily. Do you agree?
Sure, as in the difference between a celebrity and a star. And while the former will still get mobbed in a mall…
Exactly. Because that’s free. It has happened with me as well — because an actor is coming for an event, it is packed with people. You go to Amity University, you’d want to simply stand outside! They’re screaming, hooting… Par theatre mein toh aate hee nahin hai (But they’re not coming to theatres)! Then what’s the point? On YouTube, you get 10, 20, 100 million views. Theatre pe koi aaya? These are just tools to manage perception, and create stardom. But only the box-office is the answer to stardom. Let me ask you, who were the actual stars of this year — Rajkummar Rao, Ayushmann Khurrana, Kriti Sanon, Bhumi Pednekar. Bhumi has delivered three hits in a row — Dum Laga Ke Haisha, Toilet, and now Shubh Mangal Saavdhan. In a year when nothing’s working, Ayushmann and Bhumi have clearly done something right. Rajkummar has done some of the best work in his generation. The amount of love they receive is not enough. Soon, if it hasn’t happened already, these actors will become the next set of bankable stars.
How about a star like Akshay Kumar, who consistently comes in with four films in a year, which used to be the norm back in the day. None of the new crop attempt that.
Actors spend about 60 days during shoot, and 20 days tops, to promote a film. I believe we can still do at least two more films a year. The problem is everyone’s got psyched. We’re all worried. We second-guess ourselves too much — not as actors — but as a society. The world is second-guessing itself. You’re worried about what’s happening between America and North Korea — it seems like a WWF match is going on.
What does that have to do with box-office?
No, I’m saying, we’re just worried as a people, always second-guessing ourselves. You can’t do more films. Anything you do, you first wonder — will it go fine, or not; will it work, or not? Akshay Kumar, in that sense, is a legend — he’s the leading example of someone with a strong head. He doesn’t get bothered by criticism. He gets praised, he smiles, and moves on. I’ll tell you what’s up with the millennial generation. We don’t know how to deal with criticism —hum hil jaate hain! And the big cause is social media — it causes depression, anxiety. Younger actors aren’t immune to it.
You’re still, according to Twitter, the most engaged young star on the platform. You’re tuned into social media, unlike many others, like Kangana for instance, who simply stays away for sanity’s sake.
Well, once I start work with Shoojit Sir (on the film October), I’ve been asked to go off social media. He doesn’t want me to think about a lot of (extraneous) things. But even on social media, one has to realise that you’ve put out whatever you had to, and then you just have to move on.
Another thing you’ve made very clear is that you don’t want to be an actor/star whose audience is only in the few big cities. By which you mean going for a pan-India audience?
Yes, that’s right. It’s really sad that our films don’t work in the South. And I don’t even know why we say South. I know it’s in the southern part. But it’s our country, it’s India. I pray that my film does well in Kashmir, the Northeast, Andhra, and why not? They are my brothers and sisters. A film like Baahubali showed us (that it’s possible). Is Prabhas a star or not?
While you want to appeal to a pan-India audience, you’ve pretty much lived in a Juhu-Bandra world. Does that not cause a disconnect between the intended audience profile, and you?
It definitely does. How are you going to understand what they’re thinking? I’m very fortunate that I’m an actor, so I get opportunities (to connect). Like, when I was doing Badrinath Ki Dulhaniya, I went to Kota and stayed there for about 35 to 40 days. I met a lot of people, learnt a lot of things. Luckily, if I have to play a character from Mumbai and say things like, “Aye bhai, ek number,” it would come naturally to me. Because I am from Mumbai. But even when I have to play a Delhi-ite, there is a lot of research that has to go into it. But I do that in my own time, in my own way. So what I can do as an actor is choose those kinds of films. Like, my future lineup: I’m doing a Shoojit Sircar film, and one with Sharat Katariya called Sui Dhaga, which is also somewhat a ‘heartland movie’. So I’ll learn from Sharat, and use that in my performance.
In a recent interview, you said you wished you had more “lived experiences”. What did you mean by that?
That I wish I could have seen more life. How do you do a scene about losing a loved one, unless you’ve lost a loved one? The director will of course tell you. But what about the actual emotion? That ‘dard’ jab koi guzar jata hai! God forbid, it happens to someone. But it’s life. It will. How do you show that? You have to live life for it.
It can happen at a young age as well — as you go through break-ups, make-ups, or probably when you get married. Today, if I have to play a father, I will never know the true essence of that part, until I have a child of my own. I always tell my mother, “I don’t understand why you feel so much love, what’s this instinct?” She says, “When you have a child, you’ll know.” So you have to live life. I’ve seen my father ageing. He had a massive health scare. The emotions I went through in that one minute were the scariest ever. Coming back to acting, one of my coaches told me, a sad thing about actors is that even while something bad is happening to them, and they’re actually going through it, they also observe it (as a third person). It’s not an easy job!
You were apparently really happy when someone first broke your heart once, because you wanted to feel that pain as an actor!
(Laughs) I was a little kid then.
There’s the other popular assumption about your upbringing — that if someone comes from a film-family, as it were, they’re necessarily privileged.
It’s not an assumption. It’s true. You have a better entry into films, people you can talk to, and discuss (films and filmmaking with). The assumption, though, is that each person (from a film-family) is from the same background. Now Vicky Kaushal, a fine actor, is action-director Shyam Kaushal’s son. I’m sure he would’ve found some help. But not so much help. He may have actually struggled his way in. I can say how much ever I have to about my own struggles, but it will be cutting a sorry figure. That’s not the human being I am.
Well, you did audition for Life Of Pi and Dhobi Ghat. Any others?
There were a couple of TV shows I auditioned for. My friend Kavish and I would go together. I would put down fake names on the register. The dilemma I was going through was if I was good enough to be here. Truth is, I did fail a lot of auditions. And I’ve been on both sides. As an assistant director, I’ve taken a lot of auditions. And I would feel bad for the way aspiring actors would get treated. I used to be like, “Yeh log acting ki kadar hi nahi karte hain. Pani aur chai toh poochna chahiye. Bhai saab, aap theek ho?” The other assistant director on the team, Karan Malhotra (in My Name Is Khan) thought I was mad. He’d say, “Tu Oprah Winfrey kyun ban raha hai. Tu audition le, aur ghar jaa.” But yes, there’s a lot of competition. I had a friend called Rajat at Barry John’s acting school, who had come down from Jammu. He’d cycle for auditions, cycle back, spend the whole day, eat there, and his money would dry up. But he’s doing well now.
At what point did you start referring to yourself as an actor?
At 16. I saw American Psycho at a theatre, thrice, back-to-back. I didn’t leave my room for three days after and started enacting scenes. Because there were no people around me, I’d talk to milk cartons, or the door. I would shoot my own video, and show it to friends. And they’d go, “Dude, what’s wrong with you?” I’d say, “I’m an actor. I’m feeling like I’m an actor!” If you’re truly an actor, your self-confidence has to be super-high. You’re gonna get knocked on the chin so many times, especially in 2017 — social-media, critics, or people pretending to be critics. Everyone has an opinion. So your self-belief has to be rock solid.
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