Inside The Slow-Burn Success of Vikrant Massey

The actor's steady rise from the age of 16 is proof that talent, perseverance and merit can pay off too
Inside The Slow-Burn Success of Vikrant Massey

Vikrant Massey is having a bit of a moment. In just over a month, he's had three releases on streaming – Cargo, Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare and Ginny Weds Sunny. He's literally taken over our Netflix homepage, and we're not complaining. But let's rewind to how he got here. In 2013, Massey had his first Hindi film release with Vikramaditya Motwane's Lootera. His character Devdas was so charming and sweet-faced that you didn't care that he was also a thief. When he is accidentally shot dead by his best friend, you miss him. Massey beat 40 other actors after many, many rounds of auditions to land the part. He was a TV actor working with "the intellectual gang of filmmakers" like Motwane and Anurag Kashyap for the first time. Once, while shooting in Purulia, a district in West Bengal, he was performing a scene in which he and his co-actor Ranveer Singh are meant to be arguing. Take after take, Massey kept messing up. An irate Motwane eventually lost his cool and sent him off on a long walk. There was an uneasiness on set as the entire crew, including Singh, waited till he returned. 

Filmmaker Hardik Mehta, who was an assistant director then, says this is his favourite memory of Massey. He can never forget the spirit with which he handled the humiliation. "He walked back on to set, eager to get it right. It's not easy. Vikram is a difficult guy to work with and a film set is not a regular office where the boss quietly gives you a dressing down in his cabin," says Mehta. The scene eventually didn't make it to the film. 

Seven years later, in January 2020, Massey appeared in Meghna Gulzar's Chhapaak. This time he was the male protagonist starring opposite Deepika Padukone. Gulzar's memory of directing him was vaguely similar to Mehta's. She could tell he was slightly intimidated by the bigness of the film. Before filming officially started, she shot a few test scenes with him and Deepika. She later called Massey to her office and pointed out that he looked confused about how to use his hands in them, which she concluded was a byproduct of his nervous energy. "I said 'just breathe and forget that Deepika Padukone is in this film'. I'm so glad that he didn't get offended by that. But that's Vikrant. His humility and hunger to learn are his biggest strengths," she says.

When Massey starred in Lootera, he was already a widely popular face on television with shows like Balika Vadhu and Dharam Veer. But one can't say if any of that bolstered his film career as most of his directors haven't actually seen his TV work. Lootera got him great notices but not a lot of work. At least not immediately. When Zoya Akhtar was casting for her expansive family drama Dil Dhadakne Do (2015), which had openings for several smaller parts, her casting director Nandini Shrikent reminded her how much she had loved Massey in Lootera. After meeting him, Akhtar decided to flesh out his scenes a little more. 

Typically, actors start with smaller parts, work their way up to lead roles, and then don't settle for anything less. Massey's choices in the last few years have been unusual in that sense. He keeps switching between lead parts, smaller parts in ensemble films and parts with less than five scenes. Let's take his releases in 2019. He appeared in three web shows – a small appearance in Made in Heaven and the lead in Hotstar's Criminal Justice and ALT Balaji's Broken but Beautiful. His sci-fi indie film Cargo (now on Netflix) premiered at the Mumbai Film Festival and he also did a lovely short for Pocket Films called Detour. "He's been very smart. I love that he doesn't differentiate between parts. That's the mark of a bonafide actor. And if you ask me, that's how it should be. But you need the confidence to do that because people always guide you in a different way," says Akhtar. 

Massey is great at doing more with less. Some of his most magical moments on screen are in projects where he has limited screen time, which is a trait common to several gifted actors. In Amazon Prime Video's Made in Heaven (written by Akhtar and Reema Kagti) he appears only in the latter half of the penultimate episode. He plays Nawab, wedding planner Karan's (Arjun Mathur) childhood crush. We initially see Nawab only in flashbacks as a sensitive young boy who is literally bullied out of school because of his sexuality. When we see him as an adult for the first time, Massey's face so beautifully carries the hurt of the past as well as the longing to see the boy he once loved, that it fills in the blanks for the years we didn't know him. In a few minutes, you're already rooting for this couple. After spending a night together, when they part again, your heart breaks. Filmmaker Alankrita Shrivastava, who directed the episode, says Massey imbued Nawab with the "warmth and nostalgia" she was looking for.

Massey stars in her latest film Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare, which recently released on Netflix, too. As the title of the film suggests, the film is centred on the lives of Dolly and Kitty, and Massey's character is one of the men they meet along the way. In most of his scenes, Massey is alone in a room, sprawled on an arm chair, indulging in phone sex that he's paid for. Your gut tells you there's something shady about this guy but Massey brings such nobility to his flirting that you hope you're wrong. Watch him in the scene where Kitty (Bhumi Pednekar) publicly slaps him after she discovers he's a married man with a child. "He was so good. He was sensitive, chaalaak and charming all at the same time," says Akhtar.

There's a certain quality in Massey that's hard to define. You can put him in 1950s Bengal, Bhopal, UP badlands, an NGO in Delhi, a Meditteranean cruise with wealthy businessmen or even in space, and he dissolves into his surroundings. Actress and filmmaker Konkona Sensharma, who gave Massey his first lead role as Shutu in A Death in the Gunj, says he can be whatever you need him to be without drawing too much attention to himself. "The poet John Keats had coined this phrase called negative capability. It means having a hollowness and emptiness that gives you the ability to take on and absorb what you're supposed to be. I think Vikrant has that," she explains. 

A Death in the Gunj was the shake-up Massey's career needed. He went from being the cute guy who played Ranveer Singh's best friend to the guy to watch out for. Gulzar says she had been looking for excuses to cast him after she saw him in the film. They came close to working together in Raazi, but his character was written out of the final script. When she called him in for Chhapaak, she had second thoughts because he was "too tiny and lean". She feared he'd look much younger than Padukone. "It was an imbalanced visual," she says. But Massey put on some weight, wore a T-shirt under his kurta to look fuller, changed the parting of his hair, and made it work.  

Casting director Atul Mongia, who auditioned Massey for Lootera, and has conducted acting workshops for him on several films since, feels Gunj may have been particularly hard on him. "He's a very positive, glass half full kind of guy. We had to design excercises for him where he'd slowly go into a very dark space. Sometimes he'd go home and wouldn't get sleep," he recalls. Shutu was everything a male protagonist is usually not. He's a disheveled 23-year-old boy who is quiet, vulnerable and lonely. He is the happiest when he's writing on trees or talking about butterflies with his 8-year-old niece Taani. She's kind to him unlike his friends and family who treat him poorly. But this is not a one-note melancholic performance. Massey registers Shutu's rage, tenderness and grief. 

In a few of his older interviews, Massey mentions that unlike his friends who were die-hard Sachin fans, he always rooted for Dravid. This explains a lot. There's no pomp and show in Massey's journey. He's a sincere, dependable, and steady player who has plodded his way up. In fact, his journey has been longer than most people realise – he's been hustling since he was 16. He's proof that talent, perseverance and merit can pay off too – an important takeaway in the vitriolic discourse on nepotism. 

In the past few weeks, Massey has had back to back releases on Netflix. He made it to the cover of men's fashion magazine GQ which declared 'Vikrant Massey is on fire'. And his film Ginny Weds Sunny has him do regular Bollywood hero things like dance to a customary Badshah and Mika remix in shiny clothes. This may be Bollywood's way of showing acceptance, and Massey's chance to show us that he can be the filmy hero too. "He can do many things. Now it's up to filmmakers to cast him imaginatively," says Sensharma.

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