- Varun Dhawan has given nine successful films so far
- He debuted in 2012 with Student Of The Year
- Badrinath Ki Dulhania and Judwaa 2 released last year
"The problem with Varun Dhawan is that even when he's an Assistant Director standing with the clapperboard for a film," laughs Karan Johar, "he poses like he's the lead of the film. He was assisting me on My Name Is Khan, and he was a young, talented boy with so much young energy. And he was holding the clapperboard and turning to the camera, announcing the shot and the take, and sounding like it was his scene."
As of this year, Hindi cinema itself looks very much like Dhawan's scene. At the age of 30, the young actor has kicked off his career with a string of nine successful films. It's the kind of line-up distributors don't dare to dream about: Student Of The Year, Main Tera Hero, Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania, Badlapur, ABCD 2, Dilwale, Dishoom, Badrinath Ki Dulhania and Judwaa 2.
The films are themselves of varying quality, but it takes even legendary A-listers time to build up enough goodwill in order to inflict hideous cinema on the masses and get away with it. In Dhawan's case, audiences come away asking for more. Even when he's remaking a Salman Khan film poorly. Keep in mind that Dhawan continued this purple patch in 2017 - a year which saw Salman Khan, Shah Rukh Khan and Ranbir Kapoor all deliver massive, megabudget flops and Ajay Devgn show up in a film nobody knows existed. Even in this turbulence, a Varun Dhawan release is bolstered by its own loyal young audience who squeal with delight and actually show up in theatres.
Johar, who gave Varun Dhawan his on-screen break with Student Of The Year, thinks Dhawan was always cut out to be a big and very commercial hero. "Varun was introduced to me by his parents at the Taj Village in Goa. He had long hair and was just out of university, where he'd done some kind of a business course. He had a completely toned body, and his body language just looked set for the movies. I remember him strutting his stuff in the pool. He proudly positions himself the way he wants to. If he's in your face, he's unapologetic about it."
This lack of inhibition is what director Shashank Khaitan, who directed Dhawan in Humpty Sharmaand Badrinath, cites as the actor's greatest asset. "He does not mind looking like a fool on screen," says Khaitan. "Basically he is what we call a naked actor, emotionally, and literally - considering he loves stripping on screen."
This may have something to do with growing up in a house where his father David Dhawan, among the most successful directors of the nineties, forever made innuendo-laden films where heroes would often have their clothes torn off. Varun, however, doesn't idolise his father's muse Govinda quite as much as he does The Rock, Dwayne Johnson. The Rock is among the world's highest paid leading men, and is an old-school superstar loved so universally that there is serious significance to the rumours that he wants to run for President. Dhawan is a kid who knows what he wants, and what he seems to want most is that everyone has a good time.
"Varun caters to family audiences, kids, teenage boys and girls," says Johar. "He's the heartbeat of a party. He has a really charming and boyish quality, because he is a kid! Out of nowhere he'll suddenly imitate The Rock, but then again, he'll watch a dark or dreary film and call me up and say I want to do something like this. With dark films like Badlapur or [Shoojit Sircar's upcoming film] October, he's out to prove his mettle."
"He loves movies and is thinking of the film he is shooting 24/7," says Khaitan. "The amount of time he dedicates to each film is his biggest strength. And he never abandons a film. He goes all out promoting it with the belief that 'it's my film and it has to be watched by the maximum people possible.' " Johar agrees: "He knows how to play an audience. He and Alia went all out promoting Badrinath, and I told him that everyone knows about the film now, doing any more promotion won't move the needle, but he kept doing the reality TV shows and interviews, pushing the film. The biggest movie stars connect off-screen as well, and he has a solid ambition to emerge as an actor now. He has his movie mojo right."
As a critic, I first took note of Dhawan in Main Tera Hero, an execrable comedy directed by his father, a moronic film that had no business being a success, and yet it is in the trashiest of films that true stars manage to sparkle. It usually takes them a long while to develop a superstar persona so shiny that awful films can't mess them up, but this kid seems to have been born with commercial movie teflon. Even in that early bit of loud nonsense, Dhawan seemed to have a nearly masochistic bounce to his actions, as if he could play the fool and fall down and willingly come back for more, and this irrepressibility is infectious.
Next came Humpty Sharma, where he was actually good and extremely, immediately likeable, and right on its heels came Badlapur, a Sriram Raghavan noir that not only demanded Dhawan to play an old man but pitted him opposite Nawazuddin Siddiqui, one of the best regarded actors we have. Dhawan acquitted himself very impressively indeed. It is also immensely laudable for a young actor getting his pick of super-commercial cinema to take a gamble on a decidedly niche film like Badlapur. It is one thing to do something offbeat when the hits aren't coming, but for a star-kid who is delivering hit after hit, this kind of a move towards credibility shows a true desire to be an actor. It is the kind of thing Alia Bhatt did, and she is now one of our top performers.
"Our movie stars don't age," explains Johar. "As an audience base, we get protective about the mainstream stars, and actors of a certain age don't act their age. It becomes all about a childlike quality. It isn't always a good thing. But it is who Varun is; Varun will never stop being this kid." This perception of Varun Dhawan as a buff and polished star kid ever ready to break into a jig started with Johar's Student Of The Year, where he debuted alongside Bhatt and Sidharth Malhotra. "That was all about positioning these kids as film heroes. Tight jeans, coming out of the pool in slow motion, all very High School Musical. But it was subsequently that all of them grew in their own way."
"I haven't directed Varun since then, in five years," says Johar. "I see the growth as an actor, the ability to restrict himself. He's an actor who wants to go all out and do five things when he has to do one. A lot of his growth has come from Shashank Khaitan, with whom he has a beautiful synergy. Now I see his work and he has a really controlled body language. There's been an evolution."
Khaitan's dynamic with Dhawan is a visibly affectionate one. He feels the actor's connection with the audience is due to his earnestness - "I feel, personally, that it's his simplicity and sincerity which connects with the audience" - and because Dhawan's effort is a noticeable one. "I have not liked a few of the films he has acted in," reveals Khaitan, "but somehow while leaving the theatre I connect to the amount of hard work he puts even into the simplest of roles." Khaitan goes on to reveal how genuinely Dhawan connects with his fans, not merely signing autographs but actually having a conversation with people who approach him. It sounds an awful lot like what The Rock would do.
Children love Varun Dhawan, families love him, college-girls shriek shrilly when he takes his shirt off, which, as Khaitan mentioned, is frequent. There's a wickedness to his persona but the edge is usually taken off by an ever-present harmlessness, as if he always means well. His work reminds me of the young Will Smith, cool and wisecracking and charming but basically a nice guy, come what may. The parallel works also because Smith is the only actor in history to have eleven consecutive releases make over $150 million worldwide.
Varun Dhawan's feat - of starting his career with nine hits in a row - is an unprecedented one in the history of Hindi movies, setting a new benchmark for leading men. Nobody, from Salman Khan to Amitabh Bachchan to Dilip Kumar, has had this kind of monstrous opening streak, and Dhawan's rise is unbridled and thrilling. He could really disrupt the status quo, worrying the big boys and shaking up convention. In 2018, Dhawan stars in Shoojit Sircar's October and Karan Johar's Shiddat, and both could provide a good canvas for an increasingly solid performer. He has the opportunity, and, at his age, he has the potential to be a true superstar. Long may he surprise us and make us laugh, and may he do it with good films.
Dear Varun Dhawan - to use words The Rock would use - India likes the smell of what you're cooking. I raise an appreciative eyebrow to you.
(Raja Sen is a film critic, columnist and screenwriter. His first book, The Best Baker In The World, is a book for children that happens to be an adaptation of The Godfather, and is in stores now.)
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