In Deewar (1975), Amitabh Bachchan played Vijay Verma, the character that established the Angry Young Man. Vijay Varma – actor, and bearer of one of Hindi cinema's most famous screen names, with the difference being in just one letter – walks the streets of Mumbai with some of Bachchan's swagger in Gully Boy. He plays Moeen, the elder brother figure to Ranveer Singh's Murad. He is a garage mechanic by day and a car-jacker by night, whose descent into a life of crime runs parallel to Murad's escape from it through poetry. Supplier of 'maal' for his friends and customers, when Moeen is condemned by Murad for employing children in peddling, he shuts up his righteousness. Growing up an orphan, he knows better about lost childhoods than Murad – compared to Moeen, Murad is privileged.
The last we see of Moeen is when Murad visits him in jail, the prison bars a distinct divide between the two men, and it hits you – and perhaps Murad too – that how easily he could've been on the other side. Hip hop saved him. Moeen's parting line to Murad, about feeding the children, left me with a lump in my throat.
The character's classic tragedy haunts you long after you've seen the film – and Varma gives a performance that's a cocktail of nods to movie characters and perceptive insights into human condition. His idealistic cop with an existential crisis in Monsoon Shootout (2017) evokes Ardh Satya's (1983) Om Puri. And indeed, Varma, I find out, is a film buff, when I meet him in his Versova apartment, where he lives alone. There are framed pictures of The Godfather, Charlie Chaplin and John Lennon. Despite their denial, he suspects his parents, fans of Hindi cinema of an older era, gave their children – his brother Manoj, and sister Shobha – filmy names. He tries to watch one film a day, avoids bing-watching TV series. "I have figured that TV is a great medium for writers, for actors cinema is more gaining. Because then you have fifteen minutes of screen time and you have to kill it," says the 34-year-old Hyderabad-born actor who studied in Film and Television Institute of India.
In his drawing room, awash with lovely 4 o clock sunlight, over black coffee, cookies, and rolled cigarettes, Varma talked about his approach toward his character in Gully Boy, his biggest release till date; how a 'moment with Ranveer Singh' transformed the jail scene, one that nearly got edited out; and being selective even when he had no work.
The jail scene was one of the most touching scenes in the film. Can you talk about it?
It was a special scene. I said it's the great redemption for both the parts. A closure for Moeen – holding him accountable for whatever he has done in the film, at the same time it shows his selfless nature. And for Murad, coming and apologising and wanting to help him.
But when we shot it became even more powerful because Ranveer was giving me so much in that scene that Moeen – being such a tough guy who will not show his vulnerability – kind of opens up a little bit of window and lets that human side of his best friend affect him. That happened organically.
What was the scene on paper?
On paper it was something like Moeen will try to deflect it. He will say, Haan you want to help no? You win the competition and come and give me. But he'd still be the dude that he thinks he is. The softening happened on the set. When I looked into Ranveer's eyes he was genuinely breaking down. I think when he saw me sitting in that lock up, beaten up and broken down, he got affected – to see Moeen bhai, sitting in a corner, in a jail cell like that.
Of course, it was designed that Murad was going to be apologetic, helpful. And this guy being who he is will refuse any kind of help, knowing Murad is about to break big. There was a Krishna-Sudama angle there. But a momentary letting-the-emotions-take-over me happened in the shot. These kind of moments are what actors actually wait for in life.
What else was improvised?
That line Kaam bhaari karneka, Moeen bhai ka bill bharne ka, rap ho gaya chhote. Moeen has been mocking Murad's rap here and there. So I thought it'll be interesting if this guy ends up saying something and he finds a rhyme in it. Make his friend laugh. That was the improvised bit, which I of course, discussed with Ranveer and Zoya (Akhtar).
We didn't rehearse the scene. We had a small workshop before going to the floors. I am a peddler doing my shit – these guys are hanging around, college kids, educated lot. But Moeen is like You guys may be talking in English but I have the maal that you need. He thinks he has a higher status with these guys, at the same time he wants to hang out with them.
The scene was edited out at one stage, and brought back. When Zoya first informed me that it is being taken out I didn't remember the dialogues, because I hadn't seen it after we'd shot it. But I remembered that Ranveer and I had a moment. A month later when we texted each other to wish on new year, she informed me that the scene is back. She said, 'Are you happy now? It's not just you, Javed Akhtar saheb said put it back.' Javed saheb and the Executive Producer Stuti Ramachandra – these two people were like this scene needs to go back in.
Child labour is a problem for a lot of people but in his ecosystem it is very different. I looked at it within the realm of the world he belongs in. He is doing the best – even if he breaking the law. You have to, kind of, root for your character when you are shooting it. You have to be your biggest lawyer for your character.
There is something honest about how Moeen tells Murad to mind his own business when he probes him about employing children in peddling weed.
In the kind of demographic that Moeen belongs in, a child working is not a problem, as long as the child is alive. Child labour is a problem for a lot of people but in his ecosystem it is very different. I looked at it within the realm of the world he belongs in. He is doing the best – even if he is breaking the law. You have to, kind of, root for your character when you are shooting it. You have to be your biggest lawyer for your character.
What was Zoya Akhtar's brief for Moeen?
He is hard, he is a rat, he can survive anywhere. He has seen a tough life, he doesn't have anybody to go to. But he is in a position that people need him. People would come to him for maal. And he will be like Main tere se paisa nahi lega, chal. But he has a very hard exterior.' He finds Murad's problems like, Meri maa mere baap se baat nahi karti hai very futile. When Murad comes and says it, he says in his head, 'Do you even know what you have? You have a family.'
Zoya said Moeen will never be vulnerable in the film. I broke the rule for once (laughs). I don't know if it worked. I remember this one moment in LA Confidential, when Kevin Spacey, who plays a hard motherfucker throughout the movie, lets open the window to his heart for a little.
Did you have any reference for this character?
It has a bit of Vijay in it. There is a large heartedness that I took from Jackie Shroff. I was very happy to see it mentioned in one of the reviews. Because anybody who has been in the gully has got affected by his 'bhidu' at one point or the other.
Ranveer gave me a very good reference. When we were reading, he said 'I get Moeen.' I asked him what he means by this. He said 'Forget the strata of the society I belong to – leaving everything aside, but just being somebody wants to be in some place but not invited there. You know, the feeling of not being part of the gang. There is something he had found and I was looking at him when he was talking. Then he said City of God – that's the film he gave me. He said City of God dekha hai? 'Usme woh Lil Zé ka character hai na?' I said I am going to watch it again because I have a faint memory of it. I watched it that night itself, and next day messaged him saying 'Boss, bang on, haan.' That guy who is also a big shot but not cool enough to be with cool people – that feeling.
And then I forgot all of it. Once you go on the set you belong to this land, these people, this language, what you are wearing, eating, smelling around. I let it all affect, forget everything you have thought of. When you are given time to prepare – which I was here – you do that. Whatever seeds need to grow would grow, whatever seeds have to die down would die down.
There is something retro about the style of the character.
When they gave me the costumes I figured. They said 'Let's give Moeen a little street swag' and got him prints and colours to wear – buttons open, banyan inside, shirts rolled up, tight jeans. When you are given a certain kind of outfit it carries a certain kind of an energy with it. Then you try to use the outfit. But nothing is there for no reason. They gave me the jacket in the beginning of the film, because he needs to keep a couple of instruments he needs to break in to cars; if one doesn't work, he can use the other one.
What kind of preparation did you take for the part?
Although this guy was supposed to look stronger, bigger and harder than Ranveer, I felt, from what I saw in Juhu Versova Link Road – all these guys working as peddlers and mechanics – they don't have great bodies, but you can't take panga with any of them. So it's not about the size. I realised I don't have to gain weight or muscles. It is going to be a very wrong routing for this character. The whole idea is to be so invisible with your presence that you belong to the area completely. I said none of these is needed, I don't need to gain 100 grams or lose for it. I walked around trying to figure out what is the kind of business that they do. And hang around with Dharavi kids. The only massive prep I did was learn driving because I don't have a car.
I have always felt I am in the wings, waiting for my entry from the backstage. But it has been fairly tough, especially 2017. Because I was being very selective even when I didn't have much work when.
You don't sound like a big fan of physical transformations.
I get very blown when somebody does it right. It started with De Niro because he was the pioneer. Pacino is a lazy actor when it comes to transformation. But these are two schools of acting. De Niro works on gestures etc but at same time he is not performing. He is not going to perform for the scene, he is just going to be. Alternate to him is Pacino who doesn't believe in changing physical aspects of his being for any role, but at the same time wants to be performative. He wants his voice to be used properly; in that sense he is a bit like Nasseer (Naseeruddin Shah), who uses the voice when he wants to, and there is a sense of performance in it. Philip Seymour Hoffman doesn't want to perform, he wants to hide. Physical transformation is a delight to watch because it's like a magic trick. I think Ali Fazal's transformation worked like wonders in Mirzapur, in Trapped Rajkummar's (Rao) worked. But not everything.
Also because I am extremely lazy. I have a different relationship with food. I can't eat a lot more to gain weight, or stop eating. I eat only for survival, and in that kind of habit I don't think I can change my lifestyle for 2-3 months. But I am getting thrown opportunities for which I will have to change.
What are your upcoming work?
After Gully Boy, I am playing the lead in an indie film called Mara. Then there is Bambfaad presented by Anurag Kashyap, and I have started shooting a web show written and produced by Imtiaz Ali. It's probably the most complicated role I have taken in my life. There are other projects which I can't talk about yet.
Your first film was Chittagong (2012), Gully Boy is your widest release. How has the journey been?
I have always felt I am in the wings, waiting for my entry from the backstage. But it has been fairly tough, especially 2017. Because I was being very selective even when I didn't have much work. The whole saying that beggars can't be choosers – I detest it. After Pink, everybody wanted to put me in a car with a girl as a molester. Right now I am getting calls for car stealing, car business. After Monsoon Shootout, everybody wanted to give me a gun, and uniform. I say everybody can be a chooser. I wanted to wait for good films to happen to me.
How important is it for you to act in lead roles?
It'll be great to get a story of your own. But I understand there are certain external dynamics at play when a film is riding on your shoulders. I will wait for right opportunity to come. More than the role, I am a sucker for good directors. Shoojit da (Sircar), Tishu sir (Tigmanshu Dhulia) – I did Yaara, which hasn't released yet, and Raag Desh released in 2017. I did a cameo in Manto. I will say yes to a project if not for anything else but getting a chance to be in a good director's film. I don't think a good director makes bad films. And leads – why not? Because I think I have enough to tell for people to listen.