Vijay Varma knows first-hand how a single project can transform an acting career. The 37-year-old actor has had a series of promising breaks that sometimes turned out to be false starts. That special role, with the potential to catapult a professional to the next level, has arrived yet again for Varma. This time, the impact is likely to be lasting.
In the futuristic Disney+ Hotstar series OK Computer, Varma plays a crabby government agent who investigates a murder allegedly committed by a self-driving car. Varma’s Sajaan Kundu is among the people attempting to preserve their humanity in an artificial intelligence-driven world.
Varma’s finely detailed performance stands out in an ensemble cast that includes Radhika Apte, Jackie Shroff, Kani Kusruti and Ratnabali Bhattacharjee. Directors Pooja Shetty and Neil Pagedar, who have co-written OK Computer with Anand Gandhi, have created in the utterly serious, deadly earnest Sajaan a welcome counterpoint to the show’s goofy tone and slapstick humour.
“When I read the script, I wasn’t sure this was something we could make even – it was such a fancy idea,” Varma told Scroll.in. “It was a new experience for me. I needed time to prepare with the other actors and cover a lot of ground before I felt ready to shoot.”
The only way to become Saajan, who is “surrounded by clowns and humour”, was to play the role absolutely straight. Sajaan barely smiles. He is allergic to dust and pollen as well as emotion, Varma said. “I felt the seriousness of Sajjan could be interesting, and the conviction for whatever he believes in could result in some kind of humour,” he observed. “I tried to humanise him as much as I could.”
Anand Gandhi, whom Varma has known for years, pushed the actor to sign up for the ambitious, imaginative project. “Anand has been a part of my life for over a decade,” Varma recalled. “When I asked him why he wanted me for the role, he said I had something in me that nobody else did. Anand isn’t easy to please, he dislikes a lot of stuff. But he told me, you have so much to offer, and this is the kind of role that you need to get to the next level.”
The recognition that has resulted from OK Computer might have come earlier to Varma. In Amit Kumar’s Monsoon Shootout, starring Varma as an inspector chasing a criminal, the actor shared screen space with Nawazuddin Siddiqui. The delay in Monsoon Shootout’s release – it was premiered at the Cannes festival in 2013, but emerged in cinemas only in 2017 – was deeply disheartening for the Film and Television Institute of India-trained actor.
“I waited for the film to come out for three-four years and for life to change,” Varma said. “I had to course-correct and start again from scratch. We didn’t have the luxury of streaming services at the time. I saw things change overnight for others who had come with me and after me even as I kept waiting in the wings, as they say in theatre”.
He was hardly idle. Among his assignments was Aniruddha Roychowdhury’s legal drama Pink (2016), about consent and sexual violence against women. Varma drew notice for his role as as a creepy member of the assault accused’s posse.
The role quickly got Varma typecast as a seedy layabout, he observed. “It was a desperate, kind of save-me moment,” he said. “I was surprised by the good notices. I did it in a fashion that was convincing.”
Shades of Varma’s character in Pink re-emerged in Imtiaz Ali’s Netflix web series She, which was streamed in March last year. In She, Varma plays Sasya, a drug dealer whose entanglement with a police constable leads to her sexual awakening.
The Dakkani-speaking Sasya allowed Varma to tap into his Hyderabadi heritage. Although Varma’s family is originally from Rajasthan and his mother tongue is Marwari, Hyderabad is home.
“I felt like it was a homage to my city, and I wanted to make it special, so I put in everything from my end into the character,” Varma said.
The series, which stars Aaditi Pohankar in the lead role, came out soon after a national lockdown was declared in India because of the outbreak of the coronavirus epidemic. “The show did a great deal for me, I realised how many people were sitting at home and watching stuff,” Varma said. “India, Turkey, Dubai, London, the US, I saw the reach of a big streaming platform.”
Varma was wary of how viewers, particularly women, would react to Sasya, who openly propositions Pohankar’s character Bhumika. “I remember watching it with a few friends and had my face covered with a pillow,” Varma said. “Sasya is so out there. But to my surprise, women seemed to have lapped up the part more than anybody else. I was very happy that Sasya wasn’t the kind you would put into the ‘I hate this guy’ folder.”
Before She or even OK Computer, Varma got a boost with Zoya Akhtar’s Gully Boy, starring Ranveer Singh as a rapper from Mumbai’s Dharavi slum. In fact, Varma’s Moeen is the first character we see in Gully Boy. The movie belongs to Ranveer Singh and co-star Alia Bhatt, but Moeen, like Varma’s Ankit from Pink, carved out his own space on the screen.
“Gully Boy healed a lot of wounds and scars for me,” Varma said. “I made peace with my family. They had been worried that I would wither away without anything. Those fears were put to rest, and doors opened for me. A lot of recognition came my way, and the media started to talk to me.”
Among the offers that followed Gully Boy were for Mirzapur’s second season, in which Varma had a double role. His upcoming projects include Mirzapur’s third chapter, Reema Kagti’s upcoming web series Fallen, the Alia Bhatt production Darlings, and the movie Hurdang.
The advantages of web series includes the intimate connection created between viewers and actors – the ability to pause to savour a performance or rewind a crucial moment. When Varma entered the Film and Television Institute in 2005, he bought a Philips DVD player with a small screen and watched films with acclaimed performances with his headphones on.
“Of course, we watched films on the big screen too, but I also enjoyed watching all alone,” he said. Peering at the faces of actors he grew to love, he realised just how personal the experience is on both sides of the screen. “I don’t know how people watch what I do, but I do know that people with a very keen eye are watching me very closely and my mistakes will be caught,” he said.
Varma had borrowed money to enroll in the acting course. He didn’t want to join his businessman father and instead dabbled in a range of jobs, from selling petro cards to working in marketing and event management companies. He even did a three-month training course for a position in a business process outsourcing centre, but quit a day into the job.
“One night at the call centre – that was me,” Varma said. “I failed at all my jobs miserably, and I finally mustered up the courage to face up to what I wanted to do.”
Meanwhile, he had been appearing in stage productions and acting workshops. “I felt home when I was on the stage,” he said. “I felt that some part of me was being fulfilled. Nobody like me or around me was getting into films or had an entry into this kind of a universe. So many people are good at something or the other, but they end up doing run-of-the-mill stuff and give up on their skills very easily.”
Thus he landed up at the film institute in Pune, made his way to Mumbai, and has now firmly arrived with OK Computer, a show about an unwieldy future that has worked out very well for Vijay Varma’s present.
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