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"Every release of mine is a test for me"

Completing a dozen films in the industry with Kalank, the actor with an enviable box office record, Varun Dhawan, chats with three musketeers of Box Office IndiaBhakti Mehta, Bhavi Gathani and Titas Chowdhury – about the upcoming magnum opus, the effort he put into it and the love of his fans

Titas Chowdhury (TC): Kalank is finally on the big screen after 15 years in the making.

Varun Dhawan (VD): That is true. Since you guys are tuned into the industry, you will know what the buzz is. You will know that he (Karan Johar) wanted to make it for a long time.

TC: And you were one of the few people who knew about it.

VD: Yes. When I was an assistant director on Karan’s directorial, My Name Is Khan, I had heard him speak about it. He was talking about what he wanted to do, how he wanted to do it, this and that. I heard about his vision. Abhishek (Varman), who has directed Kalank, was also an AD at the time. Then Abhishek picked up the story and blended it with his own vision. Now, as the film is about to release, we have our fingers crossed and are waiting with bated breath to see what the result of this whole experience will be.

Bhakti Mehta (BM): Did the fact that this film is a pet project of Karan Johar add more than the usual amount of pressure before its release?

VD: It was not really like that because Karan did not make us feel pressured in any way. The pressure that is there is of the budget, which is huge. That factor does cross your mind.  

BM: And the larger-than-life scale, is that a factor?

VD: It is a huge film and it is probably one of the biggest films we will be seeing for some time.

Bhavi Gathani (BG): It’s your first ensemble film. What was it like to be a part of something like that?

VD: Working with people like Aditya (Roy Kapur), Sonakshi (Sinha), Alia (Bhatt), Sanjay Dutt, Madhuri (Dixit-Nene) ma’am and Kunal Kemmu is great. We even have Kiara (Advani) and Kriti (Sanon) making special appearances in songs for the film. It was such a great experience because everyone was on the same page. We wanted to do this film, we wanted to put in our best effort and be associated with it. It makes for a grand visual experience, and the kind of response we have received is amazing. Whether it was from the first teaser or songs like Ghar more pardesiya and First class, it gives the audience the feel of a grand film. 

TC: So, years after you first heard about it, what were your initial thoughts when it was offered to you?

VD: I was blown away, yaar. I was honestly amazed by this story because it is just so incredible. It is such a cool story. It has so many layers and so many twists and turns. The love stories are so beautifully portrayed in this film. I am very excited that it will finally be seen by the audience. I can say that it has got an edge.

BG: From what we saw in the trailer, your character has an edge too. You are playing the ‘bad boy’ after all the hero-like avatars you have essayed.

VD: I think it will be interesting that I play a little bit of a bad boy in this film. And it will be interesting to see what will happen with this bad boy when the audience sees him.

BM: The film is set in the 1940s, an era that people of our generation are not aware of. How did you internalize that world and the character?

VD: A lot of conversations about this with the director helped. We did a lot of imagery and saw lot of YouTube videos. We also read and understood the stuff that Abhishek wanted us to. For me, it was mainly going through a lot of things that my character, Zafar, went through in his childhood and then talking and discussing it with Abhishek. These are the things that were of much help to me.

TC: You had to shoot for this film for more than 100 days. Does it take a physical and mental toll on you to stay with a character for so long?

VD: Yes, it was taxing because the action sequences took longer than we initially expected them to. Along with that, there were two big songs that I shot for. One of them will come out on April 13. All that was physically challenging but I have to say that the other bit, the performance bit, was tougher than that.

With Abhishek, once you are on his set, he starts to put you in the world he has created. It is very gradual and you don’t realize when you actually got into character. He doesn’t want anything immediate and he doesn’t want a performance which looks ‘performed’. That is what happened with the character of Zafar because I didn’t realize when I started behaving like Zafar and then just became Zafar.

BM: You said in an interview that you want to play roles that bring you closer to your audience. How does Zafar do that?

VD: Kalank is a very massy film and the role of Zafar is also a very massy one. The character is of a boy from the streets in a place called Heera Mandi. So people who have grown up on the mean streets, people who have not had an okay childhood, they might… I don’t know but something about this character will connect with them and the rest of the audience. Just like this, there are many other factors that make him relatable to the youth. Anyone who has suffered any kind of loss or pain will connect with Zafar.

BM: Do you feel responsible for a film’s performance because you have had no flops at the box office?

VD: (Laughs). I think it is a test every time a film of mine releases on a Friday. And the test gets harder with every film I do. This time, April 17 is a very big test. It will be the biggest test I will go through. As I said before, a lot is at stake, not only for the actors but also in terms of the budget.

BG: What is the benchmark of success for an actor who has only hits in his filmography?

VD: The benchmark of success is the amount of love you get for the film and how much the people who have seen the film can remember it after they have stepped out of the theatre. It is about how much they remember you and your character after you have played it.

Fans bring up the names of characters I have played, even now, characters like Badri, Humpty, Raja and Seenu. And that line from October, ‘Where is Dan?’ has become a thing now. It is so weird that in many places, even at the airport, people just randomly say, ‘Where is Dan?’ A lot of people saw the film eventually on digital platforms, so they keep screaming that line to me. And it is similar with Zafar. The film is not even out but people keep calling me ‘Zafar’. It’s great!

BG: In fact, most actors are known by their name rather than that of a character they have played.

VD: I feel happy. There is a win in it, some success when they have seen the film, remembered it, remembered my character way after they watched the film. It’s nice that they are watching your film, watching your work, and it sticks with them.

TC: Coming to your co-stars, it must have been great to work with such experienced actors in Kalank.

VD: (Cuts In). Like Alia?

(Everyone Laughs)

TC: Well, specifically, Madhuri Dixit-Nene and Sanjay Dutt.

VD: It was very cool. They are pretty cool people. They don’t take their stardom very seriously. They are just regular people. But the best part about them is that they love films and that is why they are still a part of the movies. And Madhuri ma’am’s song, which has just come out, is just amazing. It has everyone mesmerized and excited. When you see her dancing like that, performing like that, you realise how inferior you are. It is quite brilliant.

TC: She told us you have many emotionally heavy scenes with her.

VD: Yes, we do have many of those together. And now I have to see whether I swim or sink in these scenes with a talent like her. I mean, it is Madhuri Dixit yaar! I am sure there will be an entire section among the young generation who will say ‘Varun kar lega’, while the older generation that has seen Madhuri ma’am’s journey will say ‘Ki yeh kya karega?’. (Laughs) It’s going to be interesting to see what they think and what the result will be.

BM: Your filmography already has many unique films. Is there any plan you follow while choosing scripts?

VD: My selection of films happens very organically. Last year, I was in a different zone, mood-wise, and I was in a position to choose whatever I wanted to. Also, Kalank took a year in the making. And if I had not done films like October, which took 37 days in totality, and Sui Dhaaga: Made In India which took 55 days, I would not have had a release last year. This one took like 120-130 days to shoot and everything else. It all comes together very differently.

BM: So your mood dictates the choices of your films?

VD: Yes, sometimes. (Smiles)

BG: What kind of mood are you in now?

VD: Right now, I am in the mood to dance. But Street Dancer is a film which I had already chosen. I was in that mood at the time and now I will be, like, dance bahut kar liya, sabka bojh utha leta hoon ab

BG: We get the hint. Finally, what do you want people to take away from Kalank?

VD: What I want them to take away is the initial feeling when the film ends and the whole experience. I want them to feel that love story. I cannot say anything else because then you will guess what happens.

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