I Haven’t Pretended For One Scene In October: Varun Dhawan

The actor talks about stepping out of his comfort zone for Shoojit Sircar's acclaimed film and why you can't fake integrity
I Haven’t Pretended For One Scene In October: Varun Dhawan

Varun, congratulations on October; it's such a beautiful film and I'm so happy it's doing well. It's just such an unusual, meditative movie, as opposed to a film that's plotted heavily. You know, I was listening to Guillermo del Toro talk on a podcast about The Shape of Water, and he said he was never supposed to do that film. He was actually going to do a sequel – a big studio movie. He said, "But there's a difference between doing a film you want to do and a film that you need to do." So is October a film you wanted to do or is it one that you needed to do?

It's a film I wanted to do; clearly it was a film I wanted to do. It's a film Shoojitda always wanted to do. He had this idea since 2004, before he became a director. Then Shoebite happened, other constraints happened, he made different stuff. This film takes birth from a very personal space of the writer and the director, and that's why I did this film. When I met them — I chased Shoojitda, I said, 'I wanna work with you, I wanna work with you'. A few directors I really want to work with, I chase them.

And you have no ego about this?

(shakes head) I am only going to gain! I mean, there are 11 National Award-winners working on this film, that has to account for something! They're all brilliant technicians. So when he spoke to me about this film, when I just heard the rough story about it, I said, "OK, this is something which is not my comfort zone, why would you want to take me for this?" He told me, "Varun, I want to cast a newcomer, I don't know if you'll do this." Little did I know that it was so close to his personal life, the film. But when I got that inkling, I told him I'll become a newcomer. Because a film is always born from the hunger of a filmmaker, I feel. You know, that hunger has to be there from one person; and if it's from the director, it's the best thing ever.

And I could see that, how passionate he was about saying this story without compromising on his integrity, on his honesty. And he was just sure. And then we were just shooting the film; we were not thinking how will an audience react — yeh funny lagega, yeh funny naheen lagega, yeh aisa lagega, yeh vaisa lagega. He gave me so much freedom as a director for me to keep my silences, to let my silences talk, to let my eyes talk… He almost made me stop thinking from the brain, and I was thinking from the heart. And he was filming that. It was very deep– it's some of the most fun I've had on a film set ever, as an actor.

When an actor is disinterested in the film, that's the first thing that shows. And straight away that same actor, when he's doing a film which he cares about — even if it's a small moment — if he cares about this issue, you see him light up

But Varun, this film is all about textures and moments, and there's no plot. It's a very thin line. So on paper, what jumped out at you? Or was it Shoojit's passion that said, do it?

See, this character Dan was so fascinating. He doesn't like the world, he doesn't like the way people function, he doesn't like his job, he doesn't like anything. He doesn't have a purpose in life, chida hua hai humesha. (claps) This loud noise which happens which shakes up his entire workplace, you know. And when you're mature, when you're intelligent, you feel the right thing to do is, let's get back in our routine, let's start doing this. But hey, that girl is not there anymore, who was part of your daily life, she's not part of your group anymore, where did she go? He almost starts looking for her.

I always say this, that in the film they say, "Where is Dan?" But actually in the film, he's like, "Where is Shiuli?" 'Cause Shiuli's not there! While she said, "Where is Dan?" that day; after she's gone, I'm like, "Where is Shiuli?" Every time me, Jeet and Ishani are chilling, I'm like, "But where is Shiuli? Aaj picture kay liye ja rahe hain, but Shiuli naheen hai, aaj kaam kar rahe hain, but Shiuli naheen hai, aaj yeh kar rahe hain, but Shiuli naheen hai, and how can you forget her so soon? How can you not care?"

There's such a deep empathy coming from him. Shoojit said in some interview that he hadn't even seen a single film of yours before he cast you, but he said that you have integrity in your eyes. How does an actor get integrity in his eyes?

I think you have to have integrity as a human being. You can't fake it, you can't act integrity. I don't believe you can act honesty also, honestly. When an actor is disinterested in the film, that's the first thing that shows. And straight away that same actor, when he's doing a film which he cares about — even if it's a small moment — if he cares about this issue, you see him light up. So it comes from a very personal space. I do films where I care about something. I didn't do this film just because of Shoojit Sircar and Juhi (Chaturvedi, writer), I'll tell you honestly — that subject did mean a lot to me. There are a lot of parts — where they spoke about pulling the plug on her — these are proper discussions people have in families.

Yeah. And that ending is sort of like a dagger in the heart.

I didn't know about it, can you imagine?


Yeah, he purposely didn't tell me. I knew something's going to give, something's gonna happen. But I didn't know where. Because of the kind of accident she has, it's not humanly possible to survive. I mean, I started hoping. Because for me, this film stopped being a movie at a point. Everyday, I was like..I'm buying her a toothbrush — there are scenes which are not there in the film. I bought her a toothbrush, which was for babies to brush with, because yeh soft hote hai, daant ke liye soft hote hai, and her gums are healing, to yeh karlo tum. I was getting her pillows, I was sticking my pictures by her bedside, I was getting the food organised, I was doing so much — I was sleeping sometimes near the dhaba. A lot of these things have not made it to the film, but I did all that. So somewhere I started hoping, ki yaar, I'll pull her out. And when she does wake up — I'm hoping. Like how the audience is hoping. And hope is in the eyes, it doesn't have to be said, and it was there. And when he crushed the hope, I was very angry with Shoojit and Juhi.


Yeah, I was very angry with them for two-three days. I was like, "Why would you do that? Why would you make me care so much about a person, why would you make this experience so real, and then just pull it away from me?" And I remember getting very emotional on-set. Like, literally crying in a scene, which was not required. And he said, "What are you doing?' I said, "It's affecting me now, because you put me on this ride, and now, you're like, 'It's done.'"

There was hope. It said something to me about human connection, about empathy, about caring about somebody. I didn't walk away with despair; I walked away sad, but not like, the world has ended, it's all over, you know?

No, it's not over. See, Dan's life is what, from twenty-one to twenty-two. Maybe at twenty-seven, twenty-eight, thirty, he would have moved on, something would've happened. But the fact of the matter is that human beings always move on. Post a demise of a family member, we do always move on. And we're supposed to do that. But we've stopped caring, you know. I just feel like in general– But when the person is alive, the love that we're supposed to show, vo kyun naheen dikha rahe hain? We have to wait till a person passes away to show. We've stopped caring when the person is alive. That is what is amazing about the film.

Tell me, how hard was this?

What a weird film! What a weird film.

In a good way.

In a great way! In an amazing way.

But how hard was this surrendering to this kind of ecosystem, which is not your comfort zone, and then being told, "Don't act"? I mean, how do you act without acting?

You live, then. The director's not giving you anything. He's saying you can't act. So what do I do? You live. You live every scene. You feel– you're in the ICU, you feel what the ICU brings, you feel what a senior sick person feels, hearing his coughs, seeing someone being taken on a deathbed away, seeing a baby being born. You live those moments, then that slowly, slowly starts accumulating, and it becomes… It's not a performance, I've not acted in this film, I'm being very honest with you. I've got mentally very emotional, I've enjoyed a lot, but there was no acting. I'm not pretending in this film, I haven't pretended for one scene in this film. In the beginning, yeah, when I'm doing the hotel stuff and all, because I was getting used to serving people and all. But at the soul level of it, the minute I acted, he cut the shot, so I knew. And then after a while, it just became like, jo hai yahi hai.

Was there a moment in this journey where you really felt like, "OK, I'm just out of my depth"? I read that he was making you watch Satyajit Ray films and not be on social media, and completely, inherently change who you are. Was there any moment when you were like, what am I doing?

Yeah… and no, because, I live for experiences like that. See, you're always looking for a teacher. You're always looking for someone to guide you. And I found this man who told me, "Chal, now, you catch this train. Tu yeh kar. Result main doonga tujhe." So I said, "OK, sir." I didn't know anything, I didn't know what I was doing; I didn't know whether I'm doing good or I'm doing bad. The only feedback I would get is from this gimbal operator who was from Australia. And I would go into the steam, because we were shooting during the smog time in Delhi, and I would go just to clear out.

And he's like, "Bhai, maine Judwaa 2 dekhi hai, usse bohot alag ho aap." So I said, "Haan, bohot alag to kara rahe Dada." He said, "Kya kar rahe ho aap?" I said, "Kya kar raha hoon?" He's like, "Bohot achchha kar rahe ho!"' So I said, "Achchha kar raha hoon?" He's like, "Haan, aapko pata naheen aap kya kar rahe ho, aap kidhar aur hee chale ja rahe ho, aap aap ho hee naheen"' And I'm like (breathes heavily), "Haan?" And he's like, "Log discuss kar rahe hain!" I said, "Kaunsay log"' He said, "Sub spotboy, kya badal gaye ho! Aap vaisay ho hee naheen. Vo to bunda bol raha tha ki usne aapko Badri mein dekha tha, aap aisay the naheen! Aapka behaviour change ho gaya, aapka mental kho gaya!' I was just doing deep breathing and thinking, I'm getting psyched also, because I'm like, "Yeah, maybe this is what it means, you know, this is what the right thing is." Then, after ten days, that guy went away. And I realised maybe he came to know that he's telling me and Shoojitda told him that–

Say nothing.

And again I was left alone.

Has this 'ab aap aap ho hee naheen'– is this something that will inform your other films, other performances? Will you carry anything from here there?

This is the most fun I've had on a film set. Thirty-seven days, I was flying, it was something else. It was like a nasha, I'm telling you. See, that is also a nasha, but yeh bhi nasha tha, yeh alag nasha tha, this was like– as an actor, I was like, "Wow!" My personal life was getting very affected, people were thinking, "He's gone very weird, this guy." I was like, "Dude, I'm not even thinking about the line, it's just coming out! I've no control, I can't even speak loudly anymore, what is happening over here?" And this Shoojit Sircar was there with his curly hair, and he's like, "Haan, bhalo, bhalo", Avikda is there–

And then you got home, and they're like, "What's going on?"

I didn't go home, I was in Delhi for thirty-three days, thirty-five days I was non-stop in Delhi.

So when you did after that go home, did your family feel you were a little different?

I came back very quiet. So they were fine. "At least he's not snapping, or getting angry, he's chilled, he's quiet." I came back very quiet. And then when we went to Manali, I was like, "I wanna go, wanna go, wanna go", I was dying to go back on-set and be with that crew and be in that life. And Manali was that shooting where I'm all alone. Again I'm just serving people. I enjoyed being a hotel manager. I don't know why. I just thrived on the fact of serving people, "This is your room, what can I get you? This is the air-conditioner, you can put it soft, this is the bath we've prepared, the off-road train for you, I'll set it up for you." I was really enjoying being a manager. I've never had more fun than being a manager.

But you don't know how much of it you can take to the next role?

I'm trying, they're thinking I'm stupid now. Like right now with my director I'm discussing, like you know, "I'm this, I'm this." He's like, "Just shut up, yaar! You're Varun Dhawan, dance, no!"

(laughs) You're ruined forever!

I'm like, "No, I'm this guy, I'm this guy!" He's like, "Varun, you are this guy, but this film is very expensive, I need you to be that guy as well."

So now you have this kind of duality in you, and you're going to try and do both.

I mean, when I did Badlapur, I think I was trying to say that. You do Badlapur, and if it works, you're like, "OK, fine, I can have the guts to do this." When this released, October, the first day was not good. And obviously my father is David Dhawan, so it's all about the box office and about the love. And he believes that the audience — if they like a film, they go in. So that day was a bit scary, weird. I mean, I've never faced it. But the second day, when it jumped sixty per cent, then I was like, "OK, now what're you talking about?"

You had told me the funniest story about your dad, that with Badlapur, he met Huma Qureshi on a flight, and she kept saying to him, "Badi dark picture hai, bohot dark picture hai," and then he came home and said, "Agar Huma ko dark lag rahi hai, to kitnee dark hogi, what are you doing!" So did he have a moment of panic with October?

Yeah, he asked me, "October naam kyun hai? Yeh English film to naheen hai?" Akshay Kumar was with my brother recently, and he told my brother, "Yaar, Varun ne English film ki hai?" And then Akshay called me up and said, "Yaar, ek aur film karle tu, November — iska sequel karle, sequel bade chal rahe hain." He was fooling with me, but he congratulated me on the film.

So there's general happiness, with your choices.

From the fraternity, this is the most united praise I've ever got. From everyone, you know. Right from Shashank (Khaitan) to Karan (Johar) to someone like Sriram (Raghavan) to Javed Akhtar, Shabana Azmi. I think all quarters have– Ali Abbas Zafar. I've had people writing notes, letters. I'm receiving letters about what the connection of the film is, about how the film has touched them, because they've been through similar things as well. This film is impacting on a new level. I've had school friends who've not spoken to me for ten years message me after this film. Because they don't watch Hindi films, unfortunately. But this film, they thought, "Chalo, dekh lete hain," and they've called me.

Varun, you're the most successful actor of your generation. The choices you make make a larger impact, because you're so successful. Does that ever weigh in when you're deciding, "I'm going to do this next," or is it purely by gut?

It's mainly by gut only, it's ninety-five per cent by gut. Obviously you try and balance it, ki main yeh kar raha hoon, to doosri vaali aur bhi left na ho. Because this one, we've gone pretty much–

This is. You went out on a limb, you really did.

I mean, I don't think Shoojit Sircar has made a film like this. He's never made a film like this. Kudos to him also. It's his risk also, he's one of the most successful directors we have. He's put his whole legacy on the line as well, no?

As an actor, I believe that I'm at my best when I'm really doing stuff that I don't know about. When I'm struggling. So I really need to go the other way

But when you choose the next one, are you going to say, "OK, I did this, ab main thoda…"

I've chosen my line-up, it's already there.

And? What is it?

So there's Sui Dhaaga: Made in India; there's a big film, which will get announced soon (Kalank).

That's the one where you need to dance.

Yeah, I'm beginning to dance now, again, after a year. Then there is the one with Remo D'Souza, which is India's biggest dance film, which will be in 4DX, with Katrina Kaif and Prabhudeva. And then hopefully my dad will want to work with me again, and Ranbhoomi, in 2020 Divali, with Shashank and Karan.

And then you can go quiet again, in a movie; meaning, a little left again.

Now we'll have to go left and right and left. See, my whole idea is that from so many years we know ki yeh film hoti hai, aisi banni chaahiye film, there's a format. I don't believe that: films can have any format. They have one purpose: to entertain, to keep you engaged, to make you feel. Now, how should we do that? We can do it in many ways. And today we have the digital medium with us, yaar! Amazon has partnered with us — in such an amazing, amazing way they're helping us. So we are brave! This film is out there with the world, it's gonna be out there on Amazon, it's gonna be out there for the world after that, you know.

You know, Varun, stardom, specially Bollywood stardom, specially in the age of social media, is a very intoxicating thing. It's also very corrupting. So how do you preserve that integrity that Shoojit saw?

Break your phones! Everyone, break your phones. I endorse a phone, so they might remove me from the brand. It is, it's very intoxicating, it's very consuming. It's something which is taking a lot away from us as human beings. And I was feeling this before I signed October; I needed, I needed– I wanted to do October, I needed to do October, yaar. It saved me almost, the film. See, stardom makes you arrogant, egoistic, or it makes you safe. I didn't get arrogant, I know that for a fact. I didn't get egoistic. Maybe a little bit, sometimes. But I definitely got safe.

In your choices?

I started enjoying that — opening, this, wow, no flop, wow, social media plastered, most successful guy, this-that, most successful actor of our generation, wax statue, big directors are coming, money is going up — that's another trip of life. But that's not life, those are all materialistic things. As an actor — actor-actor — I believe that I'm at my best when I'm really doing stuff that I don't know about. When I'm struggling. So I really need to go the other way. I'm not saying this is easy, this is so difficult! Now if I have to do another Judwaa, it's gonna be so difficult for me to reinvent myself in that space, to do something which will entertain the audience in an unfamiliar way. You know — how do I come up with surprises now, what can I do?

I have to keep upping it over there! It's not like I can do the same thing. But I feel really, something new will come out of me if I go the other way. And you've got to try things, you know. There are different forms of cinema. I'm not scaring anyone, but there's silent cinema, there's different languages I can do films in. Animation is something I love, voiceover is something I love. Why limit ourselves? That's all I'm saying. As creative people, let's not limit ourselves, that's all. For me, my career is long; this is my tenth film. So let's wait, before anyone judges me, I just want people to wait, a little bit, that's all.

Thank you Varun. And congratulations again, and thank you for October.

Thank you so much.

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