Actor Vijay Varma is not a despicable man in real life. Yet on screen — as Moeen the carjacker, Guddu the manipulative lover, Sasya the sleazy gangster, Hamza the violent husband — being Hindi cinema's misogynist-in-chief seems to be second nature for Varma. Since he announced his talents to mainstream Bollywood audiences by abducting and molesting a woman (Taapsee Pannu) in the backseat of a car in Pink (2016), Varma has become a go-to for morally repugnant characters. Whether it's Moeen in Zoya Akhtar's Gully Boy (2019) or Guddu in Akhtar's segment of Ghost Stories (2020), or Sasya in Imtiaz Ali's She (2020), there's something compelling about the way he brings out the dark, repulsive shades of the roles he plays.
That's why the 36-year-old actor faced a tough choice with Jasmeet K Reen's Darlings (2022). Varma remembers being completely put off by the brutality in the script when he read the character of Hamza, the wife-beating husband. "I wasn't keen on it at first. I didn't know the consequences of taking up such a role," Varma said during a phone interview. Unlike Pink, which came at a point when Varma was desperate for work, he had the option of passing on Reen's film. "I think the hungry actor in me fell for the part. My career and the rest of the things I kept on hold, to listen to the actor inside me," he said.
Meet Hamza, the wife-beater
In Darlings, Varma uses his lean, bony physique and straight face to inspire dread. Each time there's a ray of sunshine in Badrunnisa's (Alia Bhatt) life, Hamza hovers over her like a dark cloud. A ticket-collector, who is bullied by his own colleagues (his boss makes him clean the office toilet everyday), Hamza resorts to alcohol and flexes his 'power' over his wife by beating her up for the slightest 'mistake'. On paper, Hamza is the latest in a line of anti-heroes like those played by Nana Patekar in Agni Sakshi and Arbaaz Khan in Daraar (both films released in 1996, three months apart), but because of Varma's skilful performance, Hamza stands apart.
The actor convinced Reen to let him do an exercise where he would perform Hamza's three scenes of coming home in the evening in three different ways: Stone-cold sober, a little tipsy, and flat-out drunk. Reen was amused by his fully drunk performance. "Turns out I was a 'happy high' guy, so I had a smile on my face through some of the film's most intense scenes," said Varma, citing Thomas Vinterberg's Another Round (2020) as one of his inspirations for playing drunk scenes as straight as possible.
While abusive husbands in Hindi cinema have usually been (undiagnosed) psychopaths – remember Arbaaz Khan slathering his own blood on bread? – Varma plays Hamza as someone who is so ordinary, it's creepy. He's a less-than-average Mumbaikar, living a less-than-average life until suddenly, without warning, he morphs into a supervillain once he's home. As terrifying as the physical violence is Hamza in the morning-after, when he woos Badru, mixing menace with sensuality as he whispers apologies in her ears. As though what happened the night before was a simple, regular domestic spat.
There's a looseness with which Varma reacts to Bhatt's Badru, as if even Hamza doesn't know what will set him off, adding layers of discomfort and unpredictability to most of their scenes. Somehow as Hamza, Varma is sincere and disingenuous simultaneously. While preparing for the role, one of the films that Varma and Reen discussed as a reference for the dynamic between Hamza and Badru was the twisted masochistic love story of Phantom Thread (2017). Varma described his takeaway from the Paul Thomas Anderson film as "one where partners become parents, whether under the pretext of love or ownership". Varma believes that under the abuse, there is some sort of love between Hamza and Badru. "This is exactly a version of love many of us grew up with. If you replace husband/wife with father/son, it's pretty much the same. Just because they love someone, they believe they can exert control over them," he said.
'Ek lamba sadness'
Originally from Hyderabad, Varma graduated from the Film And Television Institute of India (FTII) in 2008. His contemporaries in FTII include Jaideep Ahlawat, Rajkummar Rao, Sunny Hinduja, Divyendu Sharma and Rasika Dugal, making Varma part of one of the most successful FTII batches in the institution's recent history.
However, his first couple of months in Mumbai were, in his own words, tragic. "I was ill through most of it, I didn't know my way around the city, I didn't like local trains, I didn't like the moisture in the air. And the auditions were a painful process," said Varma. He realised he wouldn't survive rejections for too long, so he joined (the late) Tom Alter's theatre group. The year and a half he spent touring with their plays meant very little money, but the experience helped push his personal boundaries as an actor and he learned to act in English. The skill would later come in handy on the sets of Mira Nair's A Suitable Boy (2020).
In 2009, Varma signed a film opposite John Abraham, which meant being paid a signing amount. "I partied a lot that night," remembered Varma, adding that the film eventually did not get made. The same year, he met Amit Kumar for Monsoon Shootout, which would have Varma in one of the few non-negative roles of his career, but the film's finances only came together in 2011. Varma's first film acting credit came in Bedabrata Pain's Chittagong (2012). A year later, Monsoon Shootout premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and Varma thought he had arrived. He'd seen himself in renowned French magazines and German media portals. "I came back to Mumbai thinking the press might be interested in covering me – but they flatly refused. That came as a rude shock," he said. That reality check, coupled with Monsoon Shootout's theatrical release being stuck in limbo for four years (it eventually released in 2017), was Varma's darkest period as an actor. "I kept waiting for the film to come out, instead of putting my head down and doing whatever the hell was being offered to me at the time," said Varma.
In 2016, Varma managed something rare with this role in Pink. He plays the loyal friend to a scion of a politician's family, accused of molesting a group of girls. His character has just one scene with dialogue, but it was enough for Varma to make an impression. He'd still have to wait another three years for his breakout role — Moeen in Gully Boy. "We'd been struggling for almost a decade, where my manager would bring my name up during discussions, and the response would be – 'Who Vijay Varma?' At least, Gully Boy took care of that," said Varma. The film's success also sorted out his family's apprehensions about Varma's chosen career. Thanks to Moeen, Varma felt both seen and heard.
The streaming boom came on the heels of Gully Boy's monster success and Varma has since emerged as one of the most reliable actors in the industry. Though he has frequently played seedy men, he has also attempted different roles. Like in the second season of Mirzapur S02 (2020), which saw Varma playing a double role as twin brothers from a crime family in Bihar. He plays both parts without a hint of anything sinister.
Varma's biggest creative swing came in Pooja Shetty and Neil Pagedar's Ok Computer (2021), where he plays law enforcement official Saajan Kundu, who is suspicious of AI machines and an acute germaphobe. "An angry, jolted and powerless nerd is a great place to begin," Varma said with a laugh, while talking about Saajan. He spent six months preparing for the character before shooting and it's one of the most committed performances you'll find. Even as the show wanders through some bizarre twists and turns, Varma as Saajan keeps a straight face through it all. The six-part series, produced by Anand Gandhi, is one of the most original and challenging shows from India, but it didn't get an enthusiastic response from audiences. When asked how he responded to the show's failure, Varma replied, "ek lamba sadness…" (sadness for a long time).
Varma hopes Ok Computer will be able to find its audience down the line. "We shot the show before a pandemic, and here was a protagonist who lives alone because of the fear of a pandemic. PPE suits, a stand-up comic being sent to jail, there are so many real-life references to what was happening in the show," Varma said, adding that the show's crew are among his closest friends today. "If you go to my Instagram, you'll see them more than anyone else," he said.
In search of a character
Varma is always anxious about how his performances will be perceived. "I remember being petrified on the day She released, I think I was running a high fever. Strangely, people seemed to take it well," he said. His Sasya is arguably the best thing in the show even though his character gets sidelined after a few episodes. One of the details that make Sasya work is the way Hyderabadi effortlessly rolls off Varma's tongue. This is not surprising since Hyderabad is his hometown, but Varma makes an effort to bring nuances, like the tone one uses while speaking, into his characters. Even though Moeen, Sasya and Hamza might share characteristics, they're distinct and different to Varma. "I remember thinking I didn't want any trace of Dharavi's Moeen or Sasya in Byculla's Hamza. The Byculla dialect has bits of Urdu in it. So, I spent an entire day in the area talking to the boys, observing how they celebrate birthdays, and how they're absolutely obsessed with Tiktok." said Varma.
In the near future, Varma will be seen in Reema Kagti's Dahaad, where he shares screen space with Sonakshi Sinha, Gulshan Devaiah and Sohum Shah. He's also in Sujoy Ghosh's Netflix adaptation of Devotion of Suspect X, where his co-stars are Jaideep Ahlawat and Kareena Kapoor Khan. "I'm glad Sujoy saw in me something no one else has. It's unlike anything I've ever done," said Varma. He wouldn't reveal more about the role, but one can't help but wonder if it will be yet another version of the menacing creep that he's aced so many times already. Then again, as we've seen from his career, if there's anyone who can bring a whole new flavour to a familiar role, it's Vijay Varma.