Varun Dhawan, the Wholesome Man-Child, Stands out in the Crowd
The ‘October’ star turns 31.
I fell in love with Malayalam films in 2015 because of a little gem of a film called Premam. A charming, coming of age film about a man who loves, loses and then finds love again through adolescence, college and manhood. And no, you haven’t read the headline wrong – this story is about Varun Dhawan, not Malayalam cinema.
This is the back story. Nivin Pauly, Premam’s lead is easily one of the most natural and unaffected actors I have seen – who made the transition that the film required from gawky to intense to restrained effortlessly. Long after Premam released, my friends and I spoke of the film and the chord it had struck with us. And as film buffs do, we often idly wondered who we would cast in its Hindi remake if ever.
Too caught up to read the whole story? Listen to it instead:
Ranbir Kapoor, the man who has made playing the man-child an art form was a natural choice – an almost obvious one. Not for me though. My heart was set on Varun Dhawan. If anyone could play a vulnerable, likable young man who recoups quite fast from repeated heartbreak without being generally painful – it would be him.
I had based my casting choice on two films that Varun Dhawan had done that year – the breezy Humpty Sharma ki Dulhania and the dark Badlapur. In both films, Varun impressed with roles which weren’t exactly ‘heroic’. As Humpty, Varun was memorable as the ‘hero’ who breaks down unabashedly as he finds out that the girl he loves has married someone else. There was no holding back, as Humpty sobs like a heartbroken child – a child unashamed of not being a man. Yet.
Badlapur – a far darker film was a brave choice for an actor who had debuted in the giddily silly Student of the Year. As a regular young man whose need for revenge turns him into a twisted, cold-blooded killer, Varun showed that even if stardom was his for the taking, he was still giving the actor in him a chance.
What struck me about Varun in both these roles was his ability to show the character’s graph and more importantly – a certain likability. In a profession which puts a premium on charisma, Varun has something slightly more elusive – you can’t help but like him. In reel life and real life.
Six months after I decided Varun Dhawan was the ideal casting choice for my purely imaginary Hindi remake of Premam, I ended up working on the social media campaign for Dishoom.
Varun was one of the easiest ‘talents’ that our team had worked with – he is digitally savvy, completely hands on with his social media presence and always open to new ideas. Not to mention, boundless energy on different ways to promote a film. The enthusiasm could be slightly tiring, but it was enervating too.
In all of this, now it can be told – I kept a DVD of Premam tucked away in my bag. But it was more of a standing joke for the team – as we never ended up giving it to him through the promotion of the film.
Dishoom went on to become a moderately successful money-spinner – Varun as usual, was eminently likable as the goofy cop, Junaid and that was that. We moved onto other films, he moved onto Judwaa 2 and Badrinath Ki Dulhania. In both these films he played to his strengths – his comic timing in Judwaa 2 and his semi-comical man-child turn in Badrinath Ki Dulhania. Both films were big hits, with Varun firmly placed in his comfort zone. And he could have well stayed there – but then came along October.
Casting Varun Dhawan in this year’s critically acclaimed October was a masterstroke. It could be blasphemous to say this at a time when it is being lauded as an out-of-the-box casting choice – but a lot of his filmography had already paved the way for Dan. Be it Badri or Humpty or even Junaid, Varun has effortlessly slipped into the man caught between childhood and adulthood many a time. It is a role we are comfortable seeing him in – but because we have seen Ranbir Kapoor do it all too often, it hasn’t quite struck us fully.
And the truth is Varun Dhawan’s man-child scores over Ranbir Kapoor’s in box office terms and here is why - he is just a lot more wholesome and yes that word again – likable.
His man-child rarely seems to come from a dark place – and therefore is more palatable to the audience. There is no angst, there is petulance. He is generally rudderless, but not self-destructive.
You are comforted by the fact that even if his rites of passage into adulthood don’t come through entirely, he will remain more or less amiable like the lead character in Badrinath Ki Dulhania. It is a brand of stardom and histrionics that is easy to relate to, and makes an art-house film like October accessible. And that is where October and Varun Dhawan have both helped each other – October gets mainstream visibility and at the end of the film, both Varun and Dan grow up irrevocably.
Varun has now grown into an actor and a star who is now comfortable doing a film which will not give him a monster opening at the box office or a remix track to dance to. To be fair, he had experimented with Badlapur too – but now as a huge movie star, the stakes are much higher. The bad news is that it also means that Varun Dhawan has now also outgrown my purely imaginary remake of Premam too. (There is apparently a real remake too starring Arjun Kapoor, but I choose to blank that out.)
The good news though is far more significant – as Varun Dhawan turns 31 (on 24 April), the man-child is finally all grown up and set to make a body of work which was always popular, but is now also meaningful. The star is thriving, the actor is too. Happy Birthday!
( Naomi Datta makes a lot of films in her head and tweets at nowme_datta)
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