Vijay Varma is clearly having a moment. The exceptionally gifted actor, with some very cool and charming swag to match, has made bad look good on screen. From the vile husband physically and emotionally abusing his wife in last year’s Darlings to the cold-blooded psychopathic serial killer in his latest web series Dahaad, the 37-year-old actor pulls off the most repugnant characters with trademark ease, but also with his signature intensity. In Dahaad — now streaming on Prime Video, and with a host of other superlative actors for company — it is Vijay, inarguably, who has walked away with the maximum accolades.
It all started with Pink, in which his repulsive molester act had negligible screen time, but made a huge impact. Since then, Vijay has played some memorable characters — Gully Boy’s Moeen was his clear breakout performance — but the actor has clearly made a place for himself with his negative acts, from She to Mirzapur.
For Vijay, who was born and raised in Hyderabad and studied at the Film & Television Institute of India (FTII), the ‘devil’ in playing evil lies in the details. A spine-chilling smirk to a wicked wink... poker-faced nastiness to death-eye stare... the actor has perfected the art of playing the villain, but just not any villain. And even though his name is as filmy as it gets, the man has ensured that none of his turns on screen, till date, have been stereotypically filmi.
A little less than a week after the release of Dahaad and the morning after his return from his sophomore outing at the Cannes Film Festival, t2oS engaged in a freewheeling chat with the man of the moment.
This was your second time at Cannes, after Monsoon Shootout exactly a decade ago. What was the experience like this time?
Yes, this was my second time. Cannes is a global stage for both cinema and fashion. This time, it was special for me for two reasons. First, it was my second time there and, second, because I was part of the Indian delegation. And it felt like a clear milestone, a decade for me, and it was fairly significant in many ways.
You are, of course, revelling in the success of Dahaad. The response to the show, and to your performance, has been huge and keeps growing. What have the last 10-12 days been like?
You said it... it’s been huge. The reactions, I would say, have been positive mostly. We see movies and series release and audiences like them or they don’t, but with Dahaad, it has been a unanimously positive roar that has reached the ears of all of us associated with the show. It has been very overwhelming and, for me, a great sense of relief at the same time. Also, a lot of joy for the entire team because we have been patiently waiting for this one to come out. We had put in the hard work, we kept the show under wraps for a long time. To bring out something which we knew was special and for it to receive so much love has been very heartwarming.
One of the strongest reactions that I have heard about Dahaad is that it is difficult to stop once you start watching it. And the second feedback that I received from a lot of people, especially from the fraternity, is how they regret watching it in one go (Laughs). Things like why they should have spaced it out nicely so they could have enjoyed it a little more.
Which means that people are watching it a second time. I have had friends as well as other people in the audience who have been sending me messages that they are watching the show again to cherish it a little more.
Personally, for me, Dahaad has been a scary one. I didn’t know how this character would be received. When you play a character which brings on such a sense of dread among the audience when they are watching him, one tends to wonder what can happen to the actor after that (smiles). I had questions in my mind whether there would be anything said or done that could end up being very uncomfortable or hurtful. But, thankfully, people have appreciated my performance.
You have told me in the past how you have needed “a lot of convincing” to do certain parts, especially some of the negative ones that you have played. What was your headspace like when you were approached with the character of Anand Swarnakar, a man so dark and who has no redeeming features whatsoever? Did you take your time or plunge right into the project?
There was a slight timeline gap that people aren’t aware of... I signed and started shooting Dahaad before Darlings. I didn’t know that I would eventually be doing Darlings, and playing another evil character.
So I was doing these parts but I didn’t know how they would be received. It is only after the release when you find out. So that bit of being indecisive or contemplating whether to take the part or not was happening in isolation. It wasn’t happening because I had a sense of what the response could be like from the audience.
But just the fact that Reema (Kagti, co-creator and co-director) and Zoya (Akhtar, co-creator) were making this (Vijay has worked with Zoya on Gully Boy and with producers Excel Entertainment on Mirzapur 2 and Ghost Stories) were enough, and so also was the script, which was reason enough for actors to pick up the job. They are solid filmmakers, they have proved themselves over and over again. I have had great associations with both Reema and Zoya in the past. I remember telling Reema: ‘I can’t stop reading your script! This character is very delicious and there’s a lot to chew on for an actor. But please, for God’s sake, give me a positive character after this... as soon as I am done playing this serial killer!’ (Laughs)
Like a lover boy?
Not particularly. That wasn’t the word that I used, but I just wanted to play a nice person... for a change! (Laughs)
The good thing is that the audience of today is able to separate the actor from the character. But it’s also true that while Hamza, the man you played in Darlings, was terrible, the treatment was tempered with humour. That’s something that Anand in Dahaad just doesn’t have... his core is completely dark...
In the bubble that I live in, I would like to think that the audience is segregating me from the men that I play. But if I go to a random family in say a place like Indore, I wouldn’t be shocked to see kids running away... and mothers too! (Laughs) So, in my bubble, I feel like I am safe, but I don’t know the larger picture, to be honest.
Has this character left its imprint on you in any way? Have you been able to shake this person off and what was it like when you were playing him?
I have learnt to switch off and switch on more efficiently than I could earlier. At the beginning of my career, I needed more help. I needed more concentration. I needed to use my focus a lot more. With Anand, I knew that I needed a lot of respite, a lot of breathing space. I needed to come back to myself a lot. I don’t particularly enjoy playing these parts (Smiles).Playing these evil characters is like going to a job and doing something terrible to people on camera all the time. With Anand, there may have been scenes where he is extending a kind gesture to someone, but I knew what was happening in his head all the time and that’s what I focused on... like what are the thoughts that are governing this character, how he feeds on darkness.... Those are essential ingredients if you are trying to say it, without saying it out loud. So, I tried to work on the inside, and that can be a little taxing.And so a lot of breathing space, a lot of laughter, a lot of bonding, real bonding with the crew members happened on the sets of Dahaad. I had a personal equation with every person on the set. But even then, when I would do a certain scene and then go to check it out at the monitor, I felt the people on set having a strange energy and they would just sometimes stay away from me. And I would be like: ‘What is going on?!’ (Laughs) They would tell me that it would take them some time, and it would take me some time to fade off from what was happening on camera. That was something that Reema and the other cast members brought to my attention. But as soon as I heard ‘cut’, I tried to go back to who I was.
Vijay at Cannes 2023
Most often, actors talk about having empathy with their characters in order to understand and play them better. But how does one establish any kind of empathy with a cold-blooded serial killer like Anand?
I did try to find something to relate to him. And it struck me so hard with this one... that I really couldn’t. (Laughs) I could relate to the external of this person. He enjoys reading poetry, he has a good family life... the externals were all fine and I could play them all. But I realised that it wouldn’t work because I had to get into the head of this man. And what was actually going on inside him was completely unrelatable to me.I have no idea how a person like him could hide in plain sight and how everything that happened around him fed him in a dark way. I had no way to understand it, but I found some answers here and there. Speaking to a psychologist helped because I wanted to understand how a psychopath, especially in this particular case, would operate. I wanted to get a very clinical understanding of what goes on inside the brain... and what is lacking.
To be very honest, that opened the door for me. I found out that their ability to mimic correct emotions is very strong. They don’t feel it, but they know how to mimic a normal person. They don’t have certain chemicals that help create empathy... there is genuinely no conscience, a voice that tells you if you are doing right or wrong, they don’t have it. They are also driven by a certain strong thought of justice, and a very twisted sense of it. These were some ingredients that I started playing with and since Reema was so far deep into the story and the character, she was able to guide me a lot. It was easy to play the front, but it was difficult to understand what was going on inside the head. And sometimes what was going on inside the head was so scary that I was afraid to commit to it, but I had to.
Now that people have watched the show, were there any particular parts that were more challenging to pull off?
Some of the sequences with the father (played by Sanjeeva Vats) were tough, but they were important for me to understand where Anand’s twisted-ness comes from. As they say, nature and nurture both have to be in tandem for the making of a psychopath. If it’s in your nature, and if you didn’t get the right kind of nurture, then it escalates.We established that there is this kind of a mind. Then the nurture part was important to show his relationship with his family, especially his father and brother (played by Manyuu Doshi). He was hiding his father’s crime that he had seen as a child, and that played a big, big role in how he didn’t see himself as a good person.
Is there anything that Vijay Varma will not do on screen?
A few years ago, I would have said I would not be able to do what I did in the last couple of releases. (Laughs) I don’t have a hard ‘no’ or ‘yes’, but I know a compelling story is a compelling story and a compelling character is a compelling character.
Something terrible happening to kids is something I would definitely stay away from. I am very attached to all my seven nephews and nieces, and I would hate to portray somebody who has done something terrible to a child.
How do your parents and the rest of your family react to the kind of roles that you have been playing of late?
The standing instruction to my family of late, especially to my parents, is not to watch some of my stuff (smiles). But they anyway find a way to do it.
My family is fairly simple, they are old-fashioned people... they don’t have much access to streaming platforms and stuff. But the kids in the family — my nieces are in their 20s — have access and they are the first people to start talking to other family members.That little cushioning from my nieces and nephews is very helpful for me right now. And they are also able to see what the critics are saying and how good the reviews are. And so the overall sense of it being doing good for me is there.But my mom has been particularly worried. She asked me, ‘What is wrong with you?! You have so much inside you, we didn’t know!’ (Laughs) And I am like, ‘No, no, this is all acting. Please can you stop watching my stuff?’ (Laughs)
Finally, what’s with the strong bromance between you and Gulshan Devaiah? That deserves a film of its own!
Please make it happen! (Laughs) I would really like to do something with him. He’s such an exceptionally gifted actor and also a terrific human being to be around. He’s a ball of energy and I really love him to bits and I would do anything to share screen space with him again. I also love how vocal he is about the love that he has for me!
Playing a repugnant molester — that scene in the car in which Taapsee Pannu’s Minal was molested still gives us goosebumps — Vijay Varma’s Ankit was a man with no scruples and the poster-boy of toxic masculinity. It was a role which may not have had much screen time, but established the actor’s ability to stand out even in a crowd.
MIRZAPUR SEASON 2
An already compelling series was given a meaty upgrade by the entry of Vijay in Season 2, who played not one but two roles. Playing the parts of twins Bharat and Shatrughan Tyagi, Vijay’s cold yet electric presence — both of which were necessary for the portrayal of the parts — made the second season of the Prime Video show a delish watch. The intrigue at the end of the season came courtesy the actor, with the post-credits showing that contrary to what was shown earlier, it was Shatrughan who is alive and is seen posing as Bharat.
Vijay’s ability to play slippery characters with effortless ease was best illustrated by his Hamza in this film, in which he played a wife beater. Hamza was a brute of a man, a master manipulator, a gaslighter-in-chief, who blamed his violent streak on alcohol. The slimy nature of his character, who pretends to normalise abuse, is perhaps best established by these chilling lines that Hamza utters somewhere in the middle of the film: “Main pyaar nahin karta toh maarta kyun? Tum pyaar nahin karti toh sehti kyun?”
Dahaad, of course, crowns Vijay’s streak of negative roles, but with a difference. The actor plays a classic psychopath in the muchacclaimed web series, a loving family man and principled school teacher with seemingly no vices, but one with such a cold-hearted, dark core who kills with abandon and doesn’t bat an eyelid. It’s a chilling portrayal made all the more memorable by an actor who is currently in top form