The opening episode of Imtiaz Ali’s Netflix debut She culminates in a frenetic, violent scuffle between an undercover police officer moonlighting as a sex-worker and a low-level goon who has hired her for the night.
An unplanned detour lands them in his seedy neon-lit hotel room, away from the safety of police officers lying in wait to arrest him and rescue her. The threat of violence is imminent: Her phone is switched off and their location is unknown to anyone. With every passing minute, the man, dressed in a flashy jacket and slicked hair, gets more and more impatient. Soon, he brandishes a gun, and pulls her by the hair; she retaliates by trying to snatch the weapon. As it falls out of both their reach, they fall onto the floor, their bodies stacked next to each other. What ensues next makes for uncomfortable albeit engrossing viewing – he grabs her, overpowering her until it becomes clear that she is at his mercy. Yet just then, the tension in the air shifts. There’s a momentary reversal of power: the hunted becomes the hunter. She wields a weapon far more dangerous than a firearm, its impact emboldened by the look on her victim’s face.
“For me, this was the most challenging scene to shoot,” Vijay Varma, the Hyderabad-born actor who plays Sasya, the menacing drug lord infatuated with the undercover cop (Aaditi Pohankar) in She, tells me over a phone call. The message that they were imparting in this sequence was Varma’s biggest concern as well, “I’m not someone who believes in inflicting violence on anyone. Especially on women, because then you don’t like yourself.”
Sasya though relishes the upper-hand he enjoys over women. Look closely and this hypnotic, overbearing exchange is underlined by a quiet restraint in Varma’s body language, even as Sasya bounds Bhumi to him and grabs her hand forcibly. If this sequence, despite a stereotypical male gaze, doesn’t come across as overtly exploitative on screen as it might have on paper, that’s to do with the conscience that the actor brings to the table as the show’s deeply amoral protagonist.
Varma doesn’t quite see it in the same vein, instead, he charts it down to being thoroughly in sync with a co-actor. “Any scene, no matter how difficult, is a collaborative experience. Especially one like this, that requires two actors to be in such close proximity. I think what ultimately transpired on screen wouldn’t have held up if Aaditi and I were not feeding off each other’s energy in equal measure.” Yet it wouldn’t be inaccurate to note that Varma’s Sasya accounts for much of the emotional intrigue of the series, the silver lining in its otherwise doomed execution.
This isn’t the first time Varma, an FTII graduate, and a spectacularly gifted actor, has transformed scenes by just being in them. In Zoya Akhtar’s Gully Boy last year, the 34-year-old actor played Moeen, a smart mouth slum-dweller whose life quickly descends into a disclaimer for the misfortune that becomes routine for people who try to reach beyond their means. But there was a quiet swagger to him. He is the first person seen on screen when Gully Boy opens, walking on a deserted street with a determination that could double up as bravado and his ghost looms over the closing musical montage of the film.
But what made Gully Boy his breakout role and catapulted him into becoming a household name – legitimising his five-year-long struggle to gain a foothold in the industry – was an emotionally stirring sequence where he shares the frame with Ranveer Singh. When Singh’s Murad visits him in jail, Moeen is a ghost of his former shelf, his face sullied by bruises and his spirits not crushed, but dampened.
Although he had worked out the outline of the exchange with Akhtar and Singh, Varma didn’t rehearse the scene before shooting it, opening the room up to improvisation. “It was a special scene and an even special film. I had a few releases before but none of them managed to change anything for me. It still feels surreal to be to have every move you make in a film be this lovingly dissected,” he admits. The turn in question earned the actor his first Filmfare nomination for Best Supporting Actor eight years after he debuted with Bedabrata Pain’s Chittagong. Varma eventually lost out to co-actor Siddharth Chaturvedi who won the award for playing the much flashier MC Sher.
“Gully Boy rewarded me with an interesting luxury. For the first time in a long time, I could choose what I wanted to be a part of and even then, have work come out one after the other,” he says. Since February last year, Varma’s film choices have flitted between the experimental and inexplicable. There was a blink and miss cameo in Vikas Bahl’s Super 30 as the older version of a kid that Hrithik Roshan’s Anand Kumar once taught. It was followed early this year by a welcome turn in Zoya Akhtar’s segment in the disappointing Ghost Stories, although his role of an absent lover was nothing to write home about despite his efficiency.
Then came a comic role in Ahmed Khan’s Baaghi 3, a film that can be best described as a three-hour-long physical and mental Olympics headlined by Tiger Shroff that laughed its way to earning over Rs 100 crores. It’s a film universe far removed from the actor’s sensibilities and does little justice to his craft and yet it doesn’t entirely come across as a shock. No actor, especially one without a famous surname and instant lead hero appeal, can sustain themselves on their craft alone. “Some films, like Super 30 and Manto, you do because you want the chance to work with prolific directors, like a sort of a connection building exercise. Some films you do because you’re fascinated by the character’s arc, like in the case of Ghost Stories. And then there are some films, like Baaghi 3, that you do because of the opportunities it opens up for you,” the actor calmly explains. According to Varma, Baaghi 3 introduced him to a completely new audience base and allowed him to practice his comic timing. “I guess, there are some roles you take up only to see if you have it in you to pull them off.”
His decision to essay Sasya in She, which in his words was his most “challenging role” till date, ticked all these three boxes. “I would have done anything to work with Imtiaz Ali,” Varma reasons, adding that he was particularly taken by the convoluted romance of the storyline. “To play someone like Sasya, a downright diabolical character who is driven by his sexuality and thrives on being a provocation, required a thorough understanding of human behaviour on my part,” Shot over a period of six months, it is certainly an outing that demanded transparency from its actors. And Varma treated his role in She with the precision that one usually reserves for a school assignment, “We workshopped for two months and I knew from the beginning that Sasya might be unpalatable to some people. The dynamic that he shares with Aaditi in the show isn’t easily understandable but I had a feeling that the layers might be alluring too.” Although She forgets him in the latter half of the proceedings, Varma is a consistent scene-stealer in every frame he occupies.
In a way, the leap to the digital universe of filmmaking might pay dividends for Varma. For one, it can amount in roles with increased runtime – She is proof. Second, having a presence on global streaming platforms can undoubtedly multiply his reach. But even then, Varma stares at a familiar obstacle of being typecast in similar kinds of roles. Sasya in She is after all, cut from the same cloth as Moeen from Gully Boy. How long can an actor then afford to play mirror versions of the same person?
Varma hints that the answer lies in the versatility in three of his upcoming roles. The actor will next be seen in a sci-fi comedy helmed by Anand Gandhi and has just wrapped up shooting Reema Kagti’s Fallen, a crime thriller series, where he is most likely playing a cop stationed in interior Rajasthan. A year later, Varma comes full circle with his reunion with Kagti – the co-writer of Gully Boy – on the heels of his Ghost Stories reunion, an experience that he termed “returning to the mothership.”
But the icing on the cake in his filmography is undoubtedly joining the cast of Mira Nair’s A Suitable Boy, the six-part BBC adaptation of Vikram Seth’s eponymous 1993 novel. The series that also stars Tabu, Ishaan Khatter, and Rasika Dugal was originally intended for a June release, although it’s probable that the release date might get pushed in the wake of COVID19. Varma is excited about being cast in the show, partly because Nair is one of his “favourite Indian directors.” “I play Rashid, a college student who also doubles up as an Urdu teacher. It’s not a big role but it has an arc: The show really tries to make sense of the time he is in, capturing the exact moment when one’s ideologies are awakened,” Varma adds.
Apart from being an undeniable sign of advancement through the loops of the Hindi film industry, A Suitable Boy also marks the first time Varma will star in a period outing. There is another first he’d like to cross off his list. The actor is itching to headline a passionate romance. For someone who rose to fame by playing a man of the streets, that’s an unanticipated choice. Then again, Varma has done his time waiting. Now might as well be time for him to spread his wings.