Through most of Tuesday afternoon, from a nest located near the roof, a pigeon and its squabs have watched Vijay Varma pace the length of his top-floor balcony; doing phone interviews, heading inside his apartment to sit in front of a TV camera, then coming out again to pose for photographs. He politely asks for a cigarette break, a brief respite from answering slam book kind of questions (“one word to describe yourself”; “who were you closest to on the set”). “What’s that? I don’t know these things, I was in a Hindi-medium school,” says Varma, a little apologetically. Just as an embarrassed silence begins to form between us, he says, “I moved to English-medium in Class V. Slam book is those quick takes, right?” It’s a neat trick, disarming the interviewer by doling out information in halves and sussing out their reaction to have an upper hand in the conversation. “That’s not me, that’s Moeen,” he says, laughing.
On Valentine’s Day, when Gully Boy, Zoya Akhtar’s highly-anticipated film, based on the lives of Dharavi rappers, released to positive reviews, critics were quick to note the standout performances of two members of the cast: Siddhant Chaturvedi and Varma. While the former plays a rapper who mentors the film’s lead, Ranveer Singh, Varma is Moeen, a wiry, weathered and wise auto mechanic-cum-car booster-cum-drug peddler, who plays Singh’s friend from the hood. He might appear “bohot hard (very hard)” but as Varma says, Moeen is actually “naram pav (soft bread)”, a crook who knows that he must do the time since he’s done the crime. “The sequence that seems to have struck a chord with everyone is when Murad visits Moeen in the lockup. It’s a Krishna-Sudama kind of scene,” he says. Or an Amitabh Bachchan-Shashi Kapoor moment? “Yes, that reference also works.”
His wardrobe in Gully Boy is a tip of the hat to Big B’s working-class hero with bomber jackets, retro-printed shirts, tight-waisted pants, and that classic soiled undershirt. But it is as Adi in Monsoon Shootout (2017) that Varma truly channels Bachchan and his anti-establishment cop in Zanjeer, with a bit of Om Puri’s idealistic rookie officer in Ardh Satya thrown in the mix. “For the first time in my career, somebody cast me as a leading man,” he says.
In 2008, after graduating from the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Varma began doing the rounds of producers’ offices, clutching physical copies of his headshots at auditions and casting calls. At one of these calls, he met Amit Kumar, who signed him on to play one of the leads in his neo-noir film, that traces the consequences of the events of a single night in three parts. But a revolving door of producers coming and leaving delayed Monsoon Shootout significantly. “I had to audition every time a new producer came in, because they had to be convinced that I was right for the role. Between 2009 and 2011, I slogged, doing advertisements, working in theatre with the late Tom Alter; I shot for Chittagong in 2010,” says Varma. Monsoon Shootout was an official entry at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival in the Midnight Screenings section, and was well received by critics. “I thought this was it, I have a film that shows that I’ve got what it takes. But it didn’t release for four years! That broke my confidence. I returned to doing the rounds,” says Varma, who signed up for a bunch of films which featured an ensemble cast.
After Rangrezz (2013), and Gang of Ghosts (2014), came Pink (2016), where he plays a friend of the main antagonist Rajveer Singh (Angad Bedi). Varma’s portrayal of his character’s thirst for revenge and natural maleficence sends chills down your spine. “I love myself in that role. It was small, but I worked very hard. I’d never been to Delhi, but I learned my lines in Punjabi, and watched hours and hours of Roadies. I do this for all my characters, I chart out their backstory, starting with who they are, what they like, what they eat, an entire timeline,” says Varma, who says he is drawn to morally ambiguous characters. “I like to watch them, and growing up, I found refuge in the works of many great writers. I understood the value of childhood through Premchand; the darkness of human existence when I read Saadat Hasan Manto; to take everything with a pinch of salt with Harishankar Parsai,” he says.
Born and raised in a Marwari family in Hyderabad, Varma is the youngest of three children. His father runs a handicrafts business and allowed his children to watch television serials; Sundays were allotted for movies, and every other hour was spent on the 500-strong comic book collection he owned. Varma didn’t think of becoming an actor till he watched a friend mimic characters from Vaastav (1999). “He was very good and I copied him; copy ka copy ban gaya, like diet Sabyasachi (a reference to an Instagram account that spots fake designerwear),” he says and laughs. “Later, I applied to FTII and when I got through, I had to run off to Pune while my father was away on one of his tours. He wouldn’t have allowed it because leaving the family is not done. The world I come from didn’t know of the world outside and I had to be a part of that,” says Varma.
Congratulatory phone calls and messages have been pouring in. After a decade of staying in the background, Varma is finally feeling seen. He is excited about the upcoming release of Bamfaad, which is “as explosive as the title sounds”, and a web series directed by Imtiaz Ali, which is “unlike him, it isn’t a love story,” he says. Our interview is coming to an end, but one can’t leave without knowing the word Varma uses to describe himself. “Hard.” Not “bohot hard”? “No. Hard is tough, something that can’t be pushed around, cannot bend for anything. That’s who I am.”
This article appeared in print with the headline ‘His Time Has Come’